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Woodbine's New Tapeta Surface Nearing Debut

Woodbine Installs Tapeta SurfacesMother Nature was kind to Woodbine Entertainment Group at the start of the laying-in process for the new Tapeta course on the one-mile main track earlier this winter. But a recent onslaught of freezing rain, ice pellets, and snow has provided a taste of what Lake Ontario’s volatile weather patterns are capable of dishing out on an annual basis. If there’s a major racetrack in North America up to the task of providing a stern challenge to determine if an “all-weather” surface can truly handle “all” types of elements, the Toronto-area Woodbine is it.

The late-winter storms haven’t knocked Woodbine off schedule to open for training prior to the start of the Thoroughbred race meet on Apr. 9, though. That’s because the new waxed sand, rubber, and fiber surface is currently going through a scheduled settling-in phase before horses will be allowed on it in about three or four weeks.

“It’s not quite complete yet, but the hard stuff is done,” Steve Lym, the director of Woodbine’s Thoroughbred racing department, told TDN. “We had great weather this winter. We removed the old Polytrack surface the day after the races were finished [Nov. 29]. We were basically done with the install by the third week of December. The only thing we’re waiting for right now is for the weather to break so we can go out and measure it, make sure it’s level and that there’s a uniform amount all the way around; work it in a little bit. We’re shooting for Mar. 25 to start training over it. If the weather cooperates, we could possibly get it open by about Mar. 18.”

Lym said many factors went into Woodbine’s decision to replace its nine-year-old Polytrack with a different synthetic surface, and a return to dirt was also considered. But one key desire that management is hoping Tapeta will be able to fulfill is the track’s ability to open earlier for training in 2017.

“All things considered-safety, money, horsemen, handle, business-we thought this was the surface for us,” Lym said of Tapeta. “It’s a good move and a consistent move. Hopefully, once we get everything straightened out, we can start training over it earlier in the year. As opposed to March, maybe we can start training on it in February.”

This particular iteration of the trademarked all-weather surface invented by trainer Michael W. Dickinson is known as “Tapeta 10″ because it represents the 10th official version of the material’s makeup, although the composition has undergone continual behind-the-scenes tweaking over the past decade.

Tapeta 10 is advertised to be able to withstand Fahrenheit temperature ranges from -17 degrees to 110 degrees, and although moisture will crystallize, the Tapeta website underscores that “it will not freeze and become stiff or solid.”

In recent years Dickinson has turned over the bulk of the Tapeta Footings operations to his wife and business partner, Joan Wakefield, and he credits her with growing the Tapeta business internationally.

“I made the original Tapeta surface. Joan and Miguel [Piedra, Tapeta’s quality control and maintenance supervisor] have improved it in increments,” Dickinson said last week while Joan was in England supervising a Tapeta installation at Newcastle Racecourse.

“We’ve spent 10 years, a hell of a lot of money, and an awful lot of hard work on research and development,” Dickinson said. “Your car is better than it was ten years ago, and so is your computer. So you hope things are getting better all the time, and [in terms of synthetic-surface development] they are.”

Earlier versions of Tapeta (Latin for “carpet”) are still in use at Golden Gate Fields and Presque Isle Downs. Aside from Woodbine, Tapeta 10 exists in North America only on two training tracks at Dickinson’s own Tapeta Farm in Maryland.

Arlington Park and Turfway Park, both Polytrack, are the continent’s only other two racetracks with synthetic surfaces.

When Woodbine began the process of deciding what to do about its aging Polytrack oval in mid-2014, it did so against the backdrop of having been among the vanguard of North American tracks to adopt so-called all-weather surfaces. But after an initial early 21st Century embrace by the industry (most notably in California, where synthetics were for a time mandated), there has been a gradual phasing-out of artificial surfaces.

This retreat from synthetics seems contrary to data that support the theory that man-made tracks are superior safety-wise to traditional dirt surfaces. The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, which tracks fatalities based on the type of racing surface, shows that between 2009 and 2014, equine deaths per thousand starters are lower for synthetics (1.22) compared to dirt (2.07) and turf (1.65).

Not as well known or studied though, are theories that synthetic surfaces put horses at greater risk for “shear strength” injuries (based on how much resistance the hoof encounters when it pushes off). Excessive hardness of a dirt track can cause bone fractures and instant, graphic injuries. But too much shear strength, like that believed to be produced by some synthetic surfaces, can result in soft-tissue damage that takes its toll over time, silently causing wear and tear on tendons and ligaments.

“We all know that the synthetic tracks are safer in terms of catastrophic breakdowns,” Lym said. “But there are always concerns that there are other types of injuries [caused by synthetics]. Our track wasn’t worn out in the sense that it had no life left in it, but it wasn’t performing the way we and the horsemen thought it should be, so we were looking to change.”

Lym said that when Woodbine solicited input from horsemen, “there was no real direction. The HBPA took no stance. It was a fifty-fifty type of request from them [dirt or synthetic]. So that being the case, we wanted a synthetic track done, just for the weather up here.”

One factor that moved up Tapeta is its cost compared to Polytrack. While Lym did not want to disclose what Woodbine is paying for it, he characterized the price as “well south” of the $10 million the track paid for the Polytrack installation in 2006.

Lym also acknowledged that Woodbine suffered through “growing pains” with Polytrack. Some of them, he said, were attributable to that surface not being able to withstand up to 1,500 Thoroughbreds training over it on a daily basis, which he said was greater than the number of horses Polytrack had been deemed capable of handling at previous installs at Turfway and in Europe.

“We had problems right away with Poly,” Lym said. “We put it in, and as soon as the weather changed, it fell apart on us. It separated, and the fiber came to the top. It was just a challenge from that point on. This track that we have in now, Michael says that Tapeta [has evolved beyond] those issues, and that the material that we use now is superior than what [Polytrack] used back then.”

With its unique E.P. Taylor Turf Course, a 12-furlong gem that encircles both the mile main Thoroughbred track and a seven-furlong harness oval, Woodbine showcases plenty of grass racing during the summer and autumn months. So having a reliable all-weather course as a fallback when races get rained off the lawn was another major want for management.

“We’re trying to be turf-centric,” Lym said. “We’ve hopefully got plans in the future to maybe put another turf course in. That’s down the road. And if we’re going to be more of a turf venue, synthetic [on the main track] is the way to go. You get less horses scratching when it comes off. The field sizes are bigger for us. The betting is bigger. The finishes are closer.”

Irwin Driedger, Woodbine’s director of Thoroughbred surfaces, has been overseeing the Tapeta installation and said he has been pleased with how the settling-in period has gone so far.

“It seems to be handling the cold weather really well,” Driedger said. “We learned from the installation that our base was in really great shape. It drains well. Our track has always drained well, so no difference there. The Tapeta feels softer. It’s light-colored compared to the Poly. The Poly was completely black. It looks brand new. Just the visual from the grandstand, it looks the part.”

When you grab a handful of Tapeta, Driedger said, “you can make a ‘snowball,’ but when you throw it, it will come apart, which is what it’s supposed to do.”

Underfoot, Lym said, “if you walk over it, it feels different than the old track did. It feels not as tight, the compression. It doesn’t ball up like the old stuff did.”

Driedger, who is unique in the world of track superintendents in that he was a formerly a jockey, said that even though Thoroughbreds have been on the grounds since Feb. 17, he has been adamant in not letting even a single horse take a test spin over the new surface.

“I wouldn’t allow a horse on it until I’m 100 percent confident that it’s even everywhere,” Driedger said. “We put three bridges across it so the Standardbreds that are racing on the inner track can cross it every day that they race.”

Driegder’s tenure as Woodbine’s trackman extends back to the 2006 Polytrack installation, and he said the evolution of how synthetics are maintained is as important as the improvements to their composition.

“When they came out with synthetic tracks, they said there’d be very little maintenance, which has proven not to be true at all,” Driedger said. “It’s less than on a dirt track, but there’s definitely maintenance. We’ve incorporated a piece of equipment called the cultivator, which has really helped us. It basically de-compacts the track in a much quicker fashion than the time-consuming equipment called power harrows that we were originally given to maintain the Polytrack. With the cultivator, I can de-compact the track, open it up in a couple hours, then I can pack it back down again with a Gallop Master (a combination of smooth and flat bar crumbler rollers) down where it needs to be. We can do a lot more with the track in a shorter period of time.”

Lym said he is cognizant that some tracks that have removed synthetic surfaces because of a “stigma” that exists about not running important graded races, like Triple Crown preps, on any non-dirt main track surface. He also acknowledged that Woodbine’s desire to use a Tapeta main track might imperil a future shot at hosting the Breeders’ Cup, like Woodbine did when it had a dirt main track in 1996.

“I think that the Breeders’ Cup was always interested in coming back here. But I don’t think that we were ready to take them back,” Lym said. “We now have a slots room that takes up a lot of our first floor. We’ve changed the way that our facility is laid out, so we’ve lost seating. We’re at about 15,000 seats. The Breeders’ Cup would like about 50,000. We’d have to have temporary grandstands and so forth, and I’m not sure we have the room any more.”

Yet Lym would not close the door on another Breeders’ Cup bid entirely.

“I think we would consider bidding for it,” Lym said. “We have some future construction plans up here. Somewhat similar to Gulfstream, but it’s not a mall. We’re looking to put in entertainment areas, licensed bar areas. So I think if that ever came about where we had a full-fledged casino [located elsewhere on the property] and entertainment areas, a hotel; if we could offer them something where they could do everything on the property and never have to leave, at that point we might be interested in bidding for it.”

Having said that, Lym emphasized that Woodbine is satisfied with the niche it is currently trying to cultivate, which is that of a top-notch turf destination supported by a synthetic main track that plays fair and safe.

Driedger agreed: “We’re a little bit of an island, so to speak. I think there will be a lot of eyes on this track, and time will tell. We’re kind of on the cutting edge, I guess. The synthetic tracks have come a long way from nine years ago, and so have we.”

by T. D. Thorton/Thoroughbred Daily News

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