SARATOGA SPRINGS — Those enormous mountains of dirt are gone.
But not forgotten.
A smattering of horses went through easy gallops Wednesday morning on the main track at Saratoga Race Course, which was tested by overnight rain directed away from the track underground.
The only visible sign that months of work had taken place since the winter was the inside rail, fresh aluminum gleaming despite a lingering gray sky.
The New York Racing Association fulfilled a major capital investment at Saratoga recently that may not offer the grandeur of the 1863 Club or accommodate the picnic area like hundreds of new high-def TVs.
Then again, there’s a strong possibility that fans won’t be allowed on the grounds for the 2020 meet, anyway, but NYRA considers the latest improvement at Saratoga to be vital to safe, consistent racing there, which should be a benefit for everybody, especially the horses and riders.
Saratoga was the last of NYRA’s three tracks scheduled for installment of a so-called safety rail on the inside of the main track, which is much more forgiving than a conventional rail if a horse collides with it.
While NYRA was replacing its old inside rail, the opportunity presented itself to also improve the drainage on the inside and refurbish the track itself in an ongoing effort to maintain consistency and fairness to the surface.
It may not be a until racing begins on July 16 that horsemen will be in a position to offer opinions on the renovation, but in the meantime, NYRA is confident this project will pay dividends in the form of safer racing and better capacity to handle the elements.
“You saw 1.4 inches of rain last night, and to have the track in the shape that it was this morning, you would’ve been [designated] fast by race time,” said Glen Kozak, senior vice president, facilities and racing surfaces.
“This is not a sexy project,” track surface consultant Dr. Mick Peterson said with a laugh. “I dug swales and I took all the dirt out, put it in piles and put it back.
“But what it does show is we’ve got the data to support, year after year, that these types of projects are absolutely critical. So by moving the drainage back further and keeping the crow’s feet away from the racing lanes, if there’s any kind of speed-up of the water going down through those drains, those aren’t in the racing lanes. They’re now completely under the safety rail.”
Peterson is the executive director of the Racetrack Surface Testing Laboratory and the director of the Racetrack Safety Program at the University of Kentucky, where he is a professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering.
Kozak is also on the board of the Racetrack Surface Testing Laboratory.
Workouts on the Oklahoma Training Track at Saratoga began on June 4, having been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic from its scheduled April 15, and on Monday the main track opened for training, a week or so earlier than usual.
Another departure from past Saratoga seasons will be two renovation breaks on the main track instead of one, Kozak said, once the horse population fills out and the track gets into its normal morning training hours.
Anyone driving down Nelson Ave. past the track as far back as January would’ve noticed a giant pile of dirt in the seven-furlong chute, and another mountain next to the 1863 Club at the far end of the clubhouse.
That was material — “1,000 tons of silty clay,” Kozak said — from the cushion and base, much of which was re-applied to the track using formulations that Kozak and Peterson’s lab supplied to GRW, the Kentucky-based design company that did the work.
This week, one of Peterson’s engineers will collect measurements from the track — conveniently hit with some rain on Wednesday — that will be added to the database and help assess the condition of the track and the performance of the new drainage.
Besides ground-penetrating radar, the testing lab’s tools include a contraption called the Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester (OBST), a metal “leg” that attempts to duplicate the movement and impact of a racehorse’s forelimb.
“With that big pile, they knew what they were dealing with with that material, that’s what went back in as the cushion,” Peterson said. “Now, with the cushion down, what we do is we’ve got the machine that replicates the forelimb of the Thoroughbred at a gallop, where we measure the fact that once we’ve got it down, it gives the same properties.
“This’ll be fun, because with the way you’ve scheduled the rain up there, we’re doing a set of tests here tomorrow [Thursday] and Friday. These tests will show us that we were able to recover from the rain. When you put the material down, you set up a hard pan layer that the hoof penetrates down to, and we’ll verify that that’s been set up.”
“Basically the materials you saw over by the 1863 and the chute, that was the old cushion that was out there as well as the old base of the racetrack,” Kozak said. “Some of that was re-used as well to get to the design elevations that GRW came up with.”
One of the challenges Kozak faces each year is a smooth transition from racing at Belmont Park to the Saratoga meet, which lasts just under eight weeks.
Then Mother Nature can throw a monkey wrench into that objective, anyway, with the unpredictability of Saratoga summers.
In 2017, when there was a spate of equine deaths — which came in a variety of manner and weren’t all associated with track surfaces — NYRA stepped up efforts to monitor the track, Kozak said.
He and Peterson do this digitally through a Maintenance Quality System that examines the various data collected to determine that the surfaces aren’t compromised in any way. NYRA has been using this system for seven years.
“That’s the biggest thing we’ve used coming out of any of the meets,” Kozak said. “Whether it’s Aqueduct, Belmont or Saratoga, it’s having the racetrack consistent and similar as possible for the time of the year that’s used.
“We’re prepared for bigger storms. The track is prepped, and also with the drain tile that’s installed that is working, what happens is there’s a useful life on every kind of drainage that’s installed, whether it’s a golf course or a racetrack. It’s preparing for the future and having something that’s easier to maintain and create something that’s consistent that we can work with throughout the varying weather we get in Saratoga.”
“We’ve shown, with the OBST, that you can maintain the two surfaces and get essentially identical loads on the leg,” Peterson said. “That’s what we’re replicating. The real challenge is the usage and maintenance and weather.
“We could already show that, under the right conditions, the horse can see identical surfaces at those two places. The challenge is, what’s it like two days after a rain, what’s it like after 10 days without rain, and the maintenance on that.”
“Reducing musculoskeletal disease in the horse, extending their career and protecting the rider … That’s the take home on this.”