racing surfaces

How Woodbine maintains its racing surfaces

Preparing the turf track for the season is complex and time-consuming
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
By Jeff Porchak

For more than 130 days from April to December, thousand-pound athletes running at speeds approaching 80 kilometres per hour compete regularly at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack. These horses, worth six and seven figures, are prized by their breeders and trainers, so it’s paramount that Woodbine maintain optimal conditions on both of its racing surfaces: Tapeta and turf.

TIME FOR TAPETA

The majority of races conducted at Woodbine take place on the Tapeta track, which was installed in 2016. The composition of the surface, which should last more than a decade, allows for racing in any weather condition.

Tapeta is a trademarked synthetic material comprised of approximately 85 per cent silica sand and nine per cent fibre, with wax and elastic making up the remainder. The depth of the material on the track is maintained at seven inches, resting on a porous asphalt base that allows water to flow through to a vertical drainage system.

Due to its synthetic nature, the Tapeta racing surface can be readied for a season of racing much quicker than the turf track, which is more dependent on the elements.

The preparation of the Tapeta track starts once the frost comes out of the ground in spring. At this time, the Tapeta mixture is rototilled to achieve and ensure a uniform consistency. A special harrow, called a gallop master, then packs the Tapeta back down and smooths it out to the desired depth and consistency. This process takes approximately four hours to fully prepare the track for a race card.

Woodbine’s racing executives and track specialists regularly assess environmental and race day factors, and consult with its horsemen’s group and jockey’s guild to determine the suitability of scheduling races on any of its track surfaces, with paramount consideration given to the safety of riders, drivers and horses. A group of five or six track surface specialists walk the entire one-mile oval on a weekly basis, checking the track every ten feet to ensure it has the proper depth and presents a surface free of low and high spots.

While the surface can easily withstand the diverse climate of southwestern Ontario, extreme heat in the Tapeta can cause the wax to get hot and change the consistency. In this case, the track is cooled with a water spray to help the wax harden. A special heat gun can be aimed at the track to assess the need for cooling.

The track is also constantly monitored to ensure the quality of materials. More sand, wax or fibre can be added to the track, if required; the fibre can break down and wax evaporate.

HISTORY MADE ON HOME TURF

Woodbine’s turf track is a hardy Kentucky bluegrass that does well in cold weather climates. It’s grown over a sand and dirt-based growing medium. A sand base allows for better and quicker drainage after rain. The turf course, like the Tapeta, is installed over a vertical drainage system.

Preparing the turf course for the racing season is a much more complex and time-consuming process. Once the frost comes out of the ground, Woodbine can start readying its world-renowned E.P. Taylor turf course. At the start of the year, the turf requires thatching to remove dead grass at the surface. The clippings are removed by a giant vacuum pulled behind a tractor. The turf track is then entirely aerated and reseeded. This process takes multiple days for each step, if weather permits. For the seeds to germinate, both sun/heat and rain are required. Rain can be replaced by irrigation if the forecast looks dry. Germination of the seeds takes approximately seven to 10 days. Once the grass starts to grow, the turf is fertilized. Woodbine typically hosts racing on the turf from the middle of May to mid-November, but that varies due to weather.

Portions of the turf track with more wear might not drain as well. These areas receive a deeper aeration to allow for better drainage. It’s important to ensure the track isn’t too tight so that water can filter through. Track officials consult with growing medium specialists on grass seed, weed control and fertilizer to ensure the health of the turf. The grass is kept at a height of five inches, cut at least weekly and vacuumed to remove trimmings.

The E.P. Taylor turf course has five lanes to vary the main path used by the horses during a given race. A lane will last roughly one week before it requires maintenance. At this time, the lane will receive more seed and soil, and be given the appropriate amount of time before racing can resume over it – roughly four or five weeks so that the turf can grow back. The track has been surveyed and marked to allow for the moving of the rail and the respective mid-race markers. Moving the rail takes approximately one day.

On race day, track surface specialists use a device called a Going Stick. The tool gives a measure of compaction of the turf course and the turf strength, producing a number that’s an average of the whole course. This information is vital to the wagering public for handicapping and horse people for proper equipment.

After every race, a group of seven or eight people walk the track with a wooden mallet to replace divots made by the horse’s hooves. If a divot can’t be found, the spot is filled in with soil and seed. After the last race on a card, the track is generally left alone until the next morning. At that time, the track is examined and all divots from the day before are replaced, making sure there are no holes anywhere. If the turf is firm, the divots should not be very large. If the divots are large, that’s an indication of low turf root strength, which is not desirable for racing. The turns of a racetrack present a concern due to the corkscrew effect exerted on that section of the surface, so divots are always bigger on turns.

Generally, there are three or four turf races on a card. The wear depends on how big the fields are and the firmness of the turf. If the turf is firm, there won’t be as much damage. Turf that is good will see more damage. If the turf is yielding, there will be a lot of damage and the lane won’t last one week. Yielding turf could cause some races to move to the all-weather Tapeta surface in the event larger profile races require turf later in a card.

Woodbine’s new second inner turf course was ready in late June for the Queen’s Plate Racing Festival. The first official race was contested on June 28.

Jeff Porchak is a veteran horse racing industry writer, with more than 17 years’ experience in harness racing media. He’s the director of digital communications for Standardbred Canada, one of the industry’s leading websites for news and information.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 print issue of Facility Cleaning & Maintenance and has been updated since then.

 

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