Racing into the Synthetic Surface EraRobert N. Elliston - President & CEO, Turfway Park
The Turfway Park Experience
Robert N. Elliston: Thank you, Nick. Mr. Chairman, thank you very much for having us here. It is indeed an honor for me personally and for Turfway Park to share the stage with the speakers who have gone before us, the topics that have been covered and the standard you've set here for bringing these issues to the forefront in our sport.
I could talk about Polytrack for a very, very long time, but I'd keep you from the races and I'm not going to do that because Charlie Hayward would be mad at me. So let me get right to the point. Installing Polytrack is absolutely the best decision Turfway Park has ever made of any kind in terms of the conduct of our business and for the horsemen and riders who do their work at our track.
There is no disputing that Polytrack has made an enormous difference in the safety of the riders and horses at our track, and that is far and away the most compelling reason why other tracks should consider it.
To illustrate this, let me share some statistics with you that we've experienced.
We have experienced a nearly 90% decrease in catastrophic breakdowns since installing Polytrack. Previously, from September 2004 though April 2005, we had 24 unfortunate breakdowns. During the same timeframe the following year — September 2005 to April 2006 — we had three. Take into account that we had nearly 1,300 more starters on Polytrack during that time, and this statistic is even more persuasive.
In the winter/spring meet, our longest and most difficult meet in terms of weather, we had 14 fatal breakdowns in the last such meet before Polytrack. After Polytrack, in the 2006 winter/spring meet completed in April, we had no fatal breakdowns. Not one. That's nearly 80 days of racing with no catastrophic breakdowns.
In fact, the horse ambulance was parked for the entire last three months of the race meet. By comparison, 10 to 12 times a month we'd have to go out to get a horse that was pulled up. No horse ambulance runs the last three months of the race meet.
Suffice to say, the horses are safer on Polytrack. And when the horses are safer, the riders are safer.
Rather than rely on backside gossip and anecdotal information, we decided to commission an independent research firm to ask the horsemen and the riders how they felt about Polytrack. We hoped we would get positive feedback. I walked the barns and I heard a lot of jabber, quite frankly, about how good things were going but I guess I was a little reluctant to believe that we would have unanimity among all trainers and all riders. That's a shock, isn't it? But we persevered and we said, "Bring it on, let's see what we got." Well, I can tell you we absolutely exceeded our expectations in terms of what we heard.
Ninety-six percent of the jockeys and 95% of the trainers that we surveyed felt Polytrack was safer compared to conventional dirt surfaces. Let me say that again. Ninety-six percent of the riders and 95% of the trainers-39 trainers and 24 jockeys-said that they were absolutely convinced that Polytrack was safer than conventional surfaces.
We talked to the veterinarians. Dr. John Piehowicz, one of our practicing veterinarians, let me share with you what he's actually told us in terms of what's happened in his practice. This is a quote from him:
"From August 2005 to August 2006, I've yet to have a horse to buck shins at Turfway, even with the large number of two-year-olds that we have. I haven't seen any cracked cannons in the two-year-olds or older horses. I've seen a few condylar fractures — maybe four or five — since last August. I have not had a carpal slab fracture in any of the population I treat, and of the 700 horses at Turfway this summer, I take care of 350 to 400 of them — about half of which are two-year-olds."
Pretty compelling statistics.
Another of Polytrack's attributes, as Nick mentioned, is its remarkable consistency regardless of the weather. Trainers tell us they like that because they can count on a schedule. They don't have to worry about whether or not the surface is going to come up sloppy or frozen or somewhere in between. They don't have to sweat it the night before whether or not they're going to work that filly or that colt the next morning in anticipation of a race coming up possibly risking injury. I was talking to Shug (McGaughey) about this last night who said that with the weather you don't know and you want to keep these horses on these schedules.
In the year we've run on Polytrack, we've lost two days of training, both because it was snowing at the time. When it stopped falling, we simply cleared it off and we raced that night without incident. In the year before Polytrack, we lost all or part of 22 days of training, many of them on consecutive days.
Last winter, we canceled only one day of racing, and that was due to icy road conditions. We couldn't get the shippers there from Louisville and Lexington. Had they been able to get across the roads they would've found the surface in perfect condition. The previous winter, we lost all or part of 13 race cards, mostly due to an unsafe track.
Our fans have stepped up as well. They seem to believe in it as well. During our most recently completed meet, our handle was up over 62% over the same meet last year. We estimate about 40% of that is attributable to the fact we got to run more often. But the other 60% we think is a confidence in the fan base in their betting the Turfway card. When they get the Daily Racing Form or the Equibase program, they handicap our races and they feel confident those races are going to go on and that the fields are going to stay intact. We rarely see scratches because of weather so they handicap the races rather than the weather.
Speaking of weather, I've talked a lot about rain, cold, those kinds of things. We deal with some pretty intense temperatures in Kentucky as well. From mid-July to the end of August, it was mostly above 90 degrees, and the heat indexes were nearly 100 degrees. And the surface remained perfect.
As a matter of fact, it may be even a little better when it gets hot than it is when it's cold. This most recent winter, we found that the surface — sometimes when it got cold for an extended period of time — would lose its combining properties, and when it got dry it would tend to fly a little more.
Well, being first sometimes you have to learn the hard way but we have and we're making modifications. We actually are right now taking a couple of inches off the surface and replacing it with a new surface that has spandex and cabling material. Again, as we continue to go along with these installations — as Nick will tell you — we learn in every process and this is going to make our surface better, even more consistent and hopefully reduce that flying of the surface.
In closing, let me share a passage with you that I recently found in the Coolmore Stud Stallion Directory. Quote:
"Look at a perfectly honed juvenile, going to post for the first time. Consider all the effort, hopes and dreams that have gone in to getting him to this point. Then consider that all this strength, power, and grace, balanced on a delicate synthesis of bone, sinew and muscle, could simply break down in the next hundred yards. It would be no one's fault. It would just be the way it has always been. But that's not the way it has to be. If a better running surface could be devised by human ingenuity, that would be a BIG idea."
I can tell you that based on our personal experience at Turfway, I truly believe that BIG idea is a reality. We strongly encourage each of you to monitor our progress and the progress at Woodbine and at Keeneland — and if you want to come in for the races, we actually start a month before Nick, so please, come on in! But only through continued communication and public scrutiny like we're doing today at the highest levels of our industry will we collectively move this sport forward.
Thank you very much.
Ogden Mills Phipps: This whole industry should commend Nick and Bob for their actions and
their leadership in this area. I think we'll see big changes over the next few years.