Notice anything different when you started watching the races from Saratoga this season? 

No, no, no. Not the vacant stands, everyone expected that. What about the main track? The dirt, or more specific the color of the dirt. Surely that was noticed by those watching on TVs, laptops, tablets or phones. 

Al Stall Jr., who runs Tom’s d’Etat in Saturday’s Grade 1 Whitney and a Saratoga regular for about 25 years, noticed the moment he drove onto the grounds after arriving a few days before the meet from Louisville. 

“It’s lighter in color, I know that,” Stall said. “I assume that means the composition must be somewhat different than it was last year.”

The track does look different and for good reason, namely because of the material that makes up the main track. Most importantly what’s in it and under it are getting the attention of horsemen in town for the 2020 meet. 

NOTE: This was part of the Wednesday, July 29 edition of The Saratoga Special. Read it here.

“It’s the most significant thing to happen to horse racing in a long time,” said Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, a critic of the former main track who sent out Volatile to win last Saturday’s Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt. “That’s exactly what I said (after starting training on the main track before the meet). It is the most significant thing with all the safety committees and whip rules and meetings they’ve had, that’s the only thing that’s actually made a difference in the safety of the horses that I’ve noticed. And it shouldn’t go unheralded.”

The process of revamping Saratoga’s main track started last fall after the 2019 meeting, continued until the winter months and started again in late winter and early spring. Like everything, everywhere, the process stopped for about a month this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic but restarted in time to complete the work well ahead of Opening Day July 16.

Glen Kozak, who oversees the New York Racing Association’s track operations in his role as senior vice president of operations and capital projects, led the effort to rework the track with other NYRA staff and a small team from Horsemen’s Track and Equipment in Louisville. 

The first step toward renovating the track involved stripping the cushion off the track and piling it up in the 7-furlong chute near the Nelson Avenue gate of the main track. The old drainage system, which had run its course and often left sporadic wet spots on the track after rain, and inside and outside rails were then removed before winter hit. 

“When I first started there was that grass mound all the way around on the inside rail and a four-inch drainpipe that funneled everything to it,” Kozak said of the former drainage system. “So you had inconsistencies under the rail and we’d have to wait on races. We’d have to wait for everything to drain after a big rainfall.”

Because of an elevation difference from the frontside to the backside – almost 9 inches – the outside portions of the track on the clubhouse turn, backstretch and far turn needed to be elevated. The crown on those parts of the track was also graded down and removed. The crown remains on the homestretch, since it’s the widest part of the track.

Similar work was done on Aqueduct’s main track and Belmont Park’s training track in recent years.

“Going through it with the guys down there, we’re fortunate enough to have competent guys that we’re able to do probably 98 percent of the work in house. The same guys that did the rail installation at Belmont and Aqueduct worked with the crew up here from Kentucky to do the rail, where they were familiar with it.”

Once the new drainage was in place the process of adding limestone to the base started and continued into the spring. 

“Once the limestone was set and graded we rolled it for weeks,” Kozak said. “It would rain on it and you’d look at it and it was perfect. Everything drained the way we wanted.”

A clay pad was added on top of the limestone base before the cushion was replaced. Some of what racing fans and horsemen see today was used previously and additional materials were also added. 

“You saw some of the orange clay that we used at our other locations, some of the drainage sand, it’s a bunker sand or a top-dressing sand,” Kozak said. “We’ve been very, very happy with the way the thing has handled the weather so far. We’ve had 99-degree days now and also the rain. It’s been able to handle the extremes, which was something that with the complete clay base before you always had to really, really watch the weather and the rainfall. This is going to react a lot better for us to be able to keep it tighter and drain faster. It’s already proven to do that.”

Trainer David Donk saw the effects of the new track firsthand one afternoon just prior to the meet opening. 

About the time he arrived at his barn near the three-eighths pole to oversee the evening feeding of his string the skies opened up. It wasn’t exactly a biblical Saratoga rainstorm like the ones that seemed to pop up every other day last summer but strong enough to provide a good soaking.

“I was curious how it would handle it,” Donk said. “They had it sealed and everything, and the rain rolled right off.”

The next morning the track opened for training, not sealed but with harrows and a dry surface. 

Wet weather hasn’t been much of a factor through the first nine days of the 40-day meeting. Since Opening Day only one race has been run on the main track at a condition listed as anything but fast – the second race on Day 2, July 17. The track was listed as good early in the card after rain late July 16 and into July 17 but by the third race the condition was listed as fast. 

“It unbelievable, the drainage,” Asmussen said. “We’ve had a couple good, solid rains and how evenly it dried out and how nice it was. While raining it was wet but drained beautifully, dried out evenly and we were able to resume on it. 

“It reminds me of what they did at Keeneland. From the time before synthetic there to the drainage they put in for the synthetic to now. It’s similar and it’s all the grade, the drainage and being even. It is by far the most significant thing positive for horse racing that I can think of.”

Visually, at least from the ground level on the turns along the outside rail, the track is noticeably higher. The teletimer boxes, which shoot beams across the track to record fractional splits during races, are now below some of the rails where they used to be above the rails.

Kozak said in some areas that outside rail was raised as much as a foot. Along with the removal of the crowns on the turns and backstretch, the track also features more of a bank on the turns than it did in the past despite what it might look like from the turn. 

“There is a little bit more banking than what we had in the past where the track isn’t as flat,” Kozak said. “A lot of people say, ‘The track looks so flat now.’ The track looks flat because of the harrows that are being used and the way it’s being groomed now. It is tighter. The furrow marks are much smaller. Before with the old harrows you’d see a higher furrow mark so it looked like it was deeper. You walk across this track, with the rakes on the back of the harrows it’s just a much finer finish on what it’s grooming.”

Trainer Jim Bond keeps the majority of his stable in Saratoga in the spring, summer and fall and saw the transformation starting last fall. The winner of three races at the meet from 13 starters through Sunday, Bond uses the main track, Oklahoma Training Track and Clare Court for his horses and notices the difference. 

He likened it a bit to Gulfstream Park’s main track, which typically favors front-runners but also praised the safety of the surface. 

“Like at Gulfstream you can’t really close from downtown, but the horses are skipping over it and they’re coming back, knock on wood, good,” Bond said. “They’re working fast. When I’m working horses I have my radios on my guys and I’m telling them, ‘Guys, slow down, slow down.’ Then they come back and say, ‘Boss, we’re skipping over this thing.’

“They did a heck of a job on it. I was worried. About 10 days before the meet I texted Glen and said it was cuppy. Then they put some more clay on it, tightened it up some more. They did a heck of a job. The drainage is tremendous. It was muddy at the Oklahoma and here it was fast. That’s the opposite of the way it used to be.”

So . . . Track Notes

So where does NYRA get all the material? The limestone base for Saratoga’s main track comes from Pallette Stone Corp. out Washington Street on the west side of Saratoga Springs. A majority of the sand comes from Long Island and from Cranesville Block in Amsterdam, located about 26 miles west of Saratoga. Materials for the clay base come from areas near the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. 

So sand is just sand, right? “Up here there’s a lot more river sand or rounded sand where down on the island it’s more of an angular sand or a harder sand than they have up here,” said NYRA’s Glen Kozak. “We do durability tests on the sand as well. The constant foot traffic, the constant harrowing . . . we want to make sure the sand holds the particle size we’re looking for.”