Track fea­tures one of the safest rac­ing sur­faces in U.S.

The News-Times - - SPORTS -

NEW YORK — The home of the Bel­mont Stakes is laps ahead of other U.S. race­tracks when it comes to keep­ing horses safe.

Bel­mont Park and other tracks around the state of New York have had some of the fewest horse deaths in the sport. Amid the 26 horse deaths at Cal­i­for­nia’s Santa Anita Park since late De­cem­ber, the Bel­mont will be run Satur­day on a track that na­tional ob­servers say is among the safest and best main­tained in the coun­try.

A ma­jor rea­son for the high praise is the at­ten­tion given to Bel­mont Park’s dirt and turf track sur­faces by Glen Kozak, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of fa­cil­i­ties and rac­ing sur­faces at the New York Rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion.

“They’ve just turned the cor­ner and not all the race­tracks have kind of turned that cor­ner where they feel like this is how they man­age it,” said Mick Peter­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Rac­ing Sur­faces Test­ing Lab­o­ra­tory in Lex­ing­ton, Ky. “And that’s re­ally where they’re in the lead.”

Bel­mont Park’s 2018 fa­tal­ity rate of 0.98 per 1,000 starts is sig­nif­i­cantly un­der the na­tional av­er­age of 1.68, and there hasn’t been a fa­tal break­down in the Bel­mont, the third race of the Triple Crown, since 1993. Com­pare that with a 2.42 fa­tal­ity rate at Churchill Downs, the home of the Ken­tucky Derby, and 2.33 at Pim­lico Race Course, which hosts the Preak­ness.

Tyler Gaf­falione, who won the Preak­ness aboard War of Will, has rid­den at Bel­mont Park 66 times and raves about the sur­faces be­ing con­sis­tent. The right mix of clay, silt and mois­ture helps horses run evenly across the track.

“I love the track at Bel­mont,” Gaf­falione said. “Ev­ery time I’ve gone there it’s been very con­sis­tent. It feels like ev­ery horse gets over it well. It plays fairly. You can be in front. You can come from be­hind. I think they do a tremen­dous job.”

Kozak and his team use tech­nol­ogy and old-fash­ion grit to make the track sur­faces con­sis­tent.

They keep co­pi­ous amounts of data us­ing ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar and sensors that track the mois­ture con­tent in the tracks. They also have a weather sta­tion that tracks rain­fall and wind speed. In ad­di­tion to the ad­vanced in­for­ma­tion, Kozak puts the onus on his em­ploy­ees to pay at­ten­tion to de­tails when wa­ter­ing or rak­ing the 11⁄2-mile dirt oval and sep­a­rate train­ing track, or fill­ing div­ots on one of the two turf cour­ses.

“You are im­pact­ing ei­ther horses’ lives or hu­man lives,” Kozak said. “As far as re­duc­ing (in­juries and deaths), we’re just one of the pieces of that puzzle, for sure. The fo­cus is al­ways on the sur­face, but it’s the train­ing in the morn­ing, it’s the vet­eri­nar­i­ans that take care of the horses, it’s the black­smiths that shoe the horses, it’s the ex­er­cise rid­ers that pos­si­bly can feel a prob­lem be­fore it be­comes a cat­a­strophic prob­lem.”

Aqueduct, an­other New York City track that is owned and man­aged by the same peo­ple as Bel­mont Park, has not ex­pe­ri­enced a cat­a­strophic trend since a spate of break­downs in 2011-12. Be­cause of the changes made since, the Na­tional Thor­ough­bred Rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion has en­dorsed the work New York rac­ing is do­ing in con­junc­tion with the Rac­ing Sur­faces Test­ing Lab­o­ra­tory in Ken­tucky.

“The ev­i­dence is very clear that the in­vest­ment and the per­sis­tence and the in­sis­tence of putting forth the very, very best in­dus­try rac­ing sur­faces at Bel­mont Park,” said Steve Koch, the NTRA Safety & Integrity Al­liance ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor who has re­peat­edly said one horse death is one too many. “At Bel­mont Park, NYRA rac­ing, Glen Kozak and his team and the way they do things up there, that is go­ing to be our in­dus­try bench­mark.”

It’s not just about the Bel­mont Stakes, though that is when the spot­light shines bright­est on the mas­sive track in New York City.

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