They’re digging again.
Saratoga Springs residents who were wondering what that gigantic mountain of dirt was doing just inside the Nelson Avenue backstretch gate of Saratoga Race Course last winter might have another one to ponder this winter.
This time, it would be somewhere in the vicinity of the Oklahoma Training Track.
The New York Racing Association has already stripped some ground around the Oklahoma, which officially closed for training last Tuesday, as a first step toward examining whether any renovation to the surface needs to be done.
That type of work was performed on the main track in time for the 2020 racing meet and was met with universal approval from horsemen and jockeys.
The main track upgrade was such a hit that Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who has a history of mostly training his horses on the Oklahoma, actually sent his champion mare Midnight Bisou over to the main for two breezes in July leading up to the Personal Ensign.
If NYRA does a similar job on the Oklahoma, it should improve what is already considered one of the most forgiving dirt training surfaces in North America.
“NYRA is in the process of removing the cushion of the Oklahoma Training Track so that the base layer can be thoroughly examined for any inconsistencies or areas requiring attention,” NYRA director of communications Pat McKenna said in an email. “Once that process is complete we will be able to determine the full scope of any renovations to the Oklahoma as well as an overall project timeline.
“This assessment mirrors the process followed last spring on the Saratoga Race Course main track that paved the way for significant improvements and safety enhancements to that track, including modernized drainage and the addition of a new rider protection safety rail, that were completed in advance of the 2020 summer meet. These changes resulted in a more consistent track surface that recovers quickly from the severe weather events that are increasing in both frequency and severity with each passing year.”
Training on the Oklahoma typically runs from April to November, but this year it was seven weeks behind schedule and didn’t begin until June 4 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Any capital project to renovate the Oklahoma would be subject to the approval of the New York State Franchise Oversight Board.
This year, the renovation to the main track at Saratoga included general improvements to the base and surface of the track as well as a complete overhaul of the drainage system and installation of a new rider safety rail.”
It’s been decades since any significant work has been done on the Oklahoma.
Since 2013, NYRA has upgraded turf courses at Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct with modernized irrigation and drainage systems to improve the overall surface by increasing turf growth, recovery and consistency.
Turf courses at Belmont and Saratoga were widened to create additional running lanes and reduce wear. During the same period, NYRA has renovated and widened the Belmont Training Track and Oklahoma Training Track turf course at Saratoga to add running lanes, decrease congestion and improve overall safety.
In 2017, NYRA completely renovated the main track at Aqueduct while at the same time replacing the inner dirt track with a second turf course and adding a rider safety rail. The opening of the 2018 fall meet at Aqueduct featured the debut of a new surface on the inner turf course. As a result, all Aqueduct racing surfaces have been replaced or completely renovated since 2017.
NYRA conducts extensive and continuous testing of racing and training surfaces before, during and after each race meet. NYRA has pioneered the use of a system that utilizes both daily measurements and enhanced data collection to create and maintain safe and consistent track surfaces.
Before any meet, the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL) team performs comprehensive sampling and analysis of track material, inspection of the base and cushion using ground-penetrating radar and inspection of the overall performance and consistency of the surface using the Biomechanical Surface Tester, which replicates loads and speed of a thoroughbred’s leading forelimb at gallop.
The track surfaces are also inspected before and after each race day, and the data is shared with independent testing and engineering firms to provide additional levels of scrutiny and relevant expertise.
The reality of Thoroughbred racing is that, no matter how much care is put into the surfaces to make them safer, horses still suffer catastrophic breakdowns.
According to the New York State Gaming Commission Equine Breakdown, Death, Injury and Incident Database, five horses were euthanized as the result of injuries suffered during racing at the 2020 Saratoga meet. Only one of those five was euthanized on-track, and the others were vanned off first.
The database also lists 10 deaths from training-related incidents from June 18 to Oct. 21, two of which are listed as having “collapsed” and not from musculoskeletal injuries. Five of the 10 occurred on the Oklahoma, and one of those was on the turf training course.