SARATOGA SPRINGS — Those enormous mountains of dirt have died.
But not forgotten.
A smattering of horses went through easy gallops Wednesday morning on the primary track at Saratoga Race Course, that was tested by overnight rain directed from the track underground.
The only noticeable sign that months of work had taken place since the winter was the within rail, fresh aluminum gleaming despite a lingering gray sky.
THE BRAND NEW York Racing Association fulfilled a significant capital investment at Saratoga recently that may well not provide grandeur of the 1863 Club or accommodate the picnic area like a huge selection of new high-def TVs.
Then again, there’s a solid possibility that fans will not be allowed on the lands for the 2020 meet, anyway, but NYRA considers the most recent improvement at Saratoga to be vital to safe, consistent racing there, which should be considered a benefit for everyone, 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 a lot more forgiving when compared to a conventional rail if a horse collides with it.
While NYRA was replacing its old inside rail, the chance presented itself to also increase the drainage on the inside and refurbish the track itself within an ongoing effort to maintain consistency and fairness to the surface.
It may not be considered a until racing commences on July 16 that horsemen will maintain a position to offer opinions on the renovation, however in the meantime, NYRA is confident this project can pay dividends in the sort of safer racing and better capacity to handle the elements.
“You saw 1.4 inches of rain last night, and also to have the track in the condition that it had been today, 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 fun. “I dug swales and I took all of the dirt out, put it in piles and put it back.
“But what it does show is we’ve got the data to support, every year, that these kind 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 type of speed-up of the water heading down through those drains, those aren’t in the racing lanes. They’re now completely under the safety rail.”
Peterson may be 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 commenced on June 4, having been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic from its scheduled April 15, and on Monday the primary track opened for training, weekly or so sooner 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 enters its normal morning training hours.
Anyone driving down Nelson Ave. at night track dating back to January would’ve noticed a huge 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 that 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 task.
This week, among Peterson’s engineers will accumulate measurements from the track — conveniently hit with some rain on Wednesday — that will be put into the database and help assess the health of the track and the performance of the brand new drainage.
Besides ground-penetrating radar, the testing lab’s tools add 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 returned in as the cushion,” Peterson said. “Now, with the cushion down, what we do is we have the device that replicates the forelimb of the Thoroughbred at a gallop, where we gauge 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 performing a group of tests here tomorrow [Thursday] and Friday. These tests will show us that people were able to recover from the rain. When you put the material down, you create a difficult pan layer that the hoof penetrates right down to, and we’ll verify that that’s been set up.”
“Simply the materials you saw over by the 1863 and the chute, that was the old cushion that was out there and also the old foot of the racetrack,” Kozak said. “Some of that was re-used as well to get to the design elevations that GRW developed.”
Among the challenges Kozak faces every year is a smooth transition from racing at Belmont Park to the Saratoga meet, which lasts slightly below eight weeks.
Then OUR MOTHER EARTH 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 range of manner and weren’t all connected 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 many data collected to determine that the surfaces aren’t compromised in any way. NYRA has been using this technique for seven years.
“That’s the biggest thing we’ve used coming out of the meets,” Kozak said. “Be it Aqueduct, Belmont or Saratoga, it’s getting the racetrack regular and similar as easy for the time of the entire year that’s used.
“We’re prepared for bigger storms. The track is prepped, and in addition with the drain tile that’s installed that is working, what goes on is there’s a good life on every sort of drainage that’s installed, be it a course or a racetrack. It’s finding your way through the future and having something that’s better to maintain and create something that’s consistent that we could work with through the entire varying weather we enter Saratoga.”
“We’ve shown, with the OBST, that you may keep up with the two surfaces and get essentially identical loads on the leg,” Peterson said. “That’s what we’re replicating. The real challenge is the use and maintenance and weather.
“We’re able to already show that, under the right conditions, the horse can easily 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 is the take home on this.”