Monday, April 07, 2014

Shoeless in Lexington: Polytrack Podiatry at Keeneland's Last Artificial Surface Meet

An interesting experiment was available to bettors Sunday at Kentucky's Keeneland racecourse as trainer Wayne Rice prepared to send no less than six horses to the post in five races. None of them would be wearing shoes.

Rice's attempts to beat both other horses and the Keeneland Polytrack surface at its own game have been documented on The Hoof Blog in the past. He's had mixed results. He went out in grand shoeless style at the end of 2013 with a nice win by the veteran of all veterans, ten-year-old Tahoe Warrior.

As of Saturday night, Rice had entered six horses without shoes in Sunday's races.

In the third race, Rice's Clear Code was set to face a runner named Highlight, whose part-owner is Bryan Fraley, DVM of Fraley Equine Podiatry in Lexington.

Dr. Fraley prepares to glue on a shoe at a demonstration at a Southern New England Farriers Association conference at Tufts vet school in Massachusetts last year. Fraley has been involved in the development of two new glue-on products, a low-profile urethane shoe and a rocker-toe rail clog for chronic stable laminitic horses, which he described as "a heart-bar on steroids".

Dr. Fraley took the time to talk about his approach to preparing hooves for Polytrack racing before the race.

"Some of the best feet I see are on horses that train barefoot on Polytrack," he said, referring to his travels around the backstretch at Keeneland. He is normally there to work on quarter cracks and hoof injuries. "Or maybe it's that the horses with good feet train barefoot. The problem is getting them to the track; they have to walk on the pavement to get there."

Fraley said he prefers to keep his own runners barefoot if he possibly can.

"I have every shoe available to me on my truck and I leave them barefoot. I keep the edges well rounded up, and they need to be done every couple of weeks. I couple of mine stay barefoot," he concluded.

If a shoeless horse has trouble walking
from the barn to the track without
damaging its hooves, is it sound enough to
race? (JOgdenC photo via Flickr) 
Highlight, his runner on Sunday, stays in shoes because of long-term foot problems. He is currently in Sigafoos Series I wide-web Elite glue-ons with a rocker toe and "I round the edges aggressively" for Polytrack, Fraley added.

He stressed, "You have to allow for the slide. Kerckhaert's Synergy shoe is designed for Polytrack," referring to the nail-on beveled aluminum European raceplate. He said that people started to notice that shoes on horses tended to start slipping back when they switched to Polytrack; the toe clip on the Synergy (hind) shoe seemed to help that problem.

Today's races didn't yield a barefoot bonanza; three of Rice's starters were late scratches, including the senior hero, Tahoe Warrior. Of those who ran, the best finish was third; another finished fifth and one was last. Fraley's horse was headed to the vet for possible surgery after a disappointing performance; scoping showed an epiglottis problem after the race.

That's horseracing.

Wayne Rice has entered the shoeless runners Easter Service and Jump for Kitten on Wednesday, the next day for racing at Keeneland.

The 2014 Keeneland spring meet is only three weeks long. Wayne Rice and other trainers who choose to run without shoes or with interesting configurations of shoes in an attempt to make the most (or to make the least) of the Polytrack, found out last week that their days are numbered.

Last week, Keeneland announced that the main track will be dug up over the summer and the Polytrack will be removed. It will be replaced with a "state of the art" dirt surface.

Keeneland's shoe board wasn't updated for the Polytrack era of shoe experimentation.

Many had quizzical expressions on their faces when this news crossed their screens. The New York Times ran with this brilliant lead: "On Tuesday, the Jockey Club released statistics from its equine injury database showing that synthetic racetracks were far safer than dirt or turf, and that the one at Keeneland Race Course was one of the safest in the nation, with a fatality rate last year of 0.33 per 1,000 starts. So on Wednesday, what did the lords of the venerable racetrack do?"

Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason defended the decision in a press release. “This dirt track will be a ‘next-generation’ surface, the most extensively researched and most sophisticated in North America. We believe that with the new materials and research available to us today we can build a world-class dirt track that is as safe as our synthetic surface for horses and riders. Their safety absolutely remains our top priority.”

Several leading trainers and owners said that they endorsed Keeneland's decision to end the experiment with the artificial surface. Cynics suggest that Keeneland wants to host a Breeders Cup, and that boost for business isn't likely to happen without a dirt surface.

The horse's hoof interacts differently with the racing surface when dirt is replaced with synthetic footing like Polytrack. Shoeing and training adaptations are made when horses switch between tracks. Some trainers, however, choose to avoid artificial tracks like Keeneland, while others prefer them. (David Crim photo)

Keeneland's Polytrack surface was installed in time for the track's fall meet in 2006. The switch was part of a landmark era in track surface research as a pro-active response to breakdown studies that indicated that dirt racing played a factor in the high number of breakdowns.

Many predicted that the switch by Keeneland and some other tracks would eventually lead to all tracks converting to an artficial surface. That didn't happen, in spite of encouraging statistics indicating that catastrophic breakdowns were decreased on artificial tracks.

Keeneland’s five-eighths mile training track will remain a Polytrack surface and be open during the summer months.

So Polytrack was just an experiment, at Keeneland, at least. Over the past seven years, we've learned something about how horses run on both Polytrack and dirt by watching what has gone on there, and people have put their brains and hands to work to help the hooves function as safely and efficiently as possible.

They deserve a lot of credit, because until last week no one would have guessed that Polytrack wasn't here to stay, after all.

To learn more:

A Track's Shift to Dirt Adds to Horses' Risks by Joe Drape in the New York Times

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