by Heather Pettinger
Training has commenced in earnest at Aqueduct Racetrack as horsemen have settled into the New York Racing Association's Ozone Park facility following an extensive renovation of the main track and the installation of a second turf course over the summer.
In all, the project took approximately four months, beginning in May shortly after the conclusion of the Aqueduct spring meet with the removal of both the old clay-based main track, traditionally used during the fall and spring meets, and the limestone-based inner track, installed in 1975 to accommodate winter racing.
Completed in mid-September, the new main oval is comprised of more than 18,000 tons of additional limestone dust for the main track's base and new cushion material for a composition similar to that of the year-round training track at Belmont Park, which was renovated in the summer of 2016.
The main track also features an expanded drainage system and has been outfitted with a new safety rail, the first of its kind to be used for live racing at a NYRA racetrack.
The new outer turf course includes a new drainage sand base, 115 new sprinkler heads and 698,400 square feet of Kentucky Blue Grass sod. In order to meet the needs of two turf courses, a state-of-the-art irrigation system has been installed with computerized zone control for improved water efficiency along with an expanded infield pond for enhanced capacity.
"This is definitely the biggest project we've undertaken at NYRA and we're very happy with what our crew was able to accomplish in four months," said Kozak. "Working with 150,000-plus yards of material, moving it, storing it, and then scheduling everything that had to be done was probably the biggest challenge and we were able to do it with a staff that was predominantly NYRA. We were able to have our own quality control through every part of the process and the crew went above and beyond what was required to get this completed."
The mile chute on the main track, the final staging area for the new material, was the last area of that track to have cushion laid down and is still in the rolling process before its planned opening late next week, which will likely correlate with the beginning of gate works.
Kozak noted that there is minor work left to be done, specifically the installation of the inner turf rail and the reconnection of the tracks' teletimers. He added that turf works over the new surface will likely commence in mid-October, ahead of the opening of Aqueduct's fall meet on Friday, November 3.
"We're really pleased with where we are with the new course right now," he said. "Lately, we've mostly been fertilizing and cutting the grass. We've had a few warm weeks recently so our primary objective has been to make sure the surface is well-watered in order to keep it healthy and promote root growth, and we believe we're right where we want to be at this point."
Initial feedback from horsemen on the main track has been positive, Kozak said, as horses have trickled in from their summer training bases following the opening of the grounds on September 14. Top circuit trainers Linda Rice and Rudy Rodriguez, who have horses stabled at Aqueduct and Belmont Park, both expressed their satisfaction with the new surface.
"It looks good right now," said Rodriguez, a former jockey-turned-trainer who still gets aboard his own horses in the morning. "I think the more horses that train on it, and the more work that they do, it's just going to get better and better. It's got to break in. Everything is new, so you've got maintenance working all the time and they're doing a good job. I think the more horses that train on them the better the track is going to be, but we have plenty of time."
"Frankly, I was very pleased with it," said Rice, who has a string at Aqueduct this fall to supplement her main stable at Belmont. "It's a little fast right now but it's in good condition. I'd rather have a fast track than one that's deep and cuppy. Glen Kozak just does a great job and that track is in terrific shape."
The consolidation of dirt racing to a single year-round surface will allow the racing office to card races at consistent distances throughout the year, said NYRA's Vice President of Racing Operation, Martin Panza.
"This is a significant investment in our racing product that matches our commitment to year-round racing in New York," he said. "The changes made at Aqueduct should go a long way to move our winter racing program forward. The new winterized main track will give us greater flexibility in the types of races we can offer our horsemen, especially races at shorter distances."
The addition of a second turf course, with the same one-mile circumference as the former inner dirt track, also allows for a greater variety of distances than has existed with the inner turf course, Panza added, not to mention an opportunity to meet the high demand for turf racing in New York and across the country.
"Turf racing has obviously been very popular over the last several years with both horsemen and horseplayers and we routinely attract large, high-quality fields on the grass," he said. "Having a second turf course at our disposal will give us the capability of running an additional turf race or two a day, which will help our racing product in the months of November and April. Obviously, it's a brand-new course so we plan to be cautious as to not overuse it, but the capability is there to run new distances on the turf at Aqueduct, which we haven't been able to do before. In the long run, we should be able to utilize it to the best of our ability."
Dr. Mick Peterson, Executive Director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, and his team have been involved throughout the process, conducting a battery of tests since the onset of the project, including material sampling, grading measurements, ground-penetrating radar and biomechanical surface testing.
"The key for us is that we've been involved from the very beginning, from the material and design and everything after that," said Dr. Peterson. "The significance of that is so that when we go back after it's been in use, we can make sure that we're meeting the original specifications and the original design concepts and we already have that baseline information. We've been able to inspect the surfaces through every step of the process. And just last week, we finished the last testing using the biomechanical surface tester to replicate the load of the hoof to make sure that we had consistency around the track.
"The final parts of the project should be quite easy to complete given the schedule and everything looked good," he added. "We're still in the process of doing the final analysis of the material right now, but everything has been good so far. The progress and the amount of work they did in the amount of time is just amazing. It's a good crew out there, I was very impressed."
Dr. Peterson will conduct a final examination of the dirt and turf courses next month, a routine procedure before the beginning of every NYRA race meet.