In horse racing, horse and jockey safety is the top priority. Racetracks across the world are continually looking for ways to make racing surfaces safer and more consistent.
With conventional dirt tracks, water drains horizontally. This can compromise the track’s condition by allowing it to freeze in cold temperatures or become muddy after intense rainfall events. These types of conditions could lead to a decrease in the number of starters, plus an increase in injuries and the number of cancelled race days—all of which can contribute to unappealing wagering and reduced track attendance.
Some racetracks are turning to improved drainage and synthetic racing surfaces to help solve the problem. Polytrack, a surface made up of a blend of fibers, recycled rubber and silica sand covered with a wax coating, is one such solution.
It allows water to flow vertically through the top surface to the sublayers below and helps prevent a freezing or inconsistent racetrack. The sublayers include porous macadam and dense aggregate rock that provide a solid foundation, and the vertical drainage system carries water away from the track. Together they work to provide a safer, more consistent racing surface than conventional dirt tracks.
From Mules to Polytrack
To date, representatives from three North American racing facilities have announced plans for installing this type of track and drainage system. Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., is one of these three.
The racetrack has not undergone construction since the 1930s.
In the heart of Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region, this storied racetrack was built in the 1930s and has played host to some of the sport’s greatest races. The facility’s grandstand, concessions and wagering technology have been modernized over the years, but the main racetrack’s design and layout have stayed the same.
In 2006, the time came to say goodbye to the old dirt track. Keeneland Association officials decided to replace it with the vertical drainage system and Polytrack combination.
“Our track has not changed much since it was laid out and constructed using mules prior to our first race meeting in 1936,” said Nick Nicholson, Keeneland’s president and chief executive officer. “The time had come for us to take advantage of the latest, cutting-edge advancements to create the safest racing environment possible, furthering the mission outlined by our founders to build a model racetrack.”
The existing dirt track was not having drainage problems. The reason for the new vertical drainage system was that it is a prerequisite to the Polytrack; one needs the other to function properly, and the success of the final product is dependent on the two working in unison.
The project began in May and needed to be complete by the end of August—in time for Keeneland’s fall race meeting. Engineers and contractors were under pressure and knew that if they were to complete this project on time, superior and versatile drainage products would have to be used.
The drainage system was constructed using Advanced Drainage Systems (ADS) pipes and Nyloplast structures and basins. Harvey Helm, an engineer for GRW Inc., recommended these products for Keeneland, which had utilized ADS products in the past.
Three runs of perforated pipe running parallel to each other around the track were put in place, spaced about 20 ft apart. Every 300 ft around the track, the three pipes connected to a cross-drain perforated pipe that ran toward the inside of the track. Three cross-drains connected to the Nyloplast manholes, which were spaced 300 ft apart.
Under the inner part of the track, just past the rail, a pipe system was installed to gather water coming from the track to the manholes. This system drained in multiple directions around the entire inner portion of the track. The pipe diameter ranged from 8 in. at the high point to 30 in. at the low point. At the low point of the manhole, a 42-in.-diameter pipe was placed across the track and over the back slope to an exiting manhole.
Crews installed perforated pipes to promote drainage.
Pipes and basins were also used around the clubhouse lawn areas for drainage of the newly established grades. Elevation of the grandstand apron changed as well. This required an end-to-end drainage structure to empty runoff from the trench and roof drains.
All told, the track and drainage installation incorporated almost 9,000 ft of ADS drainage pipe; 62 Nyloplast structures and basins; 16,000 tons of specialized Polytrack material; 90,000 tons of asphalt; and 4,500 tons of porous asphalt.
The Finish Line
The new track has already been put to the test. Shortly after the installation, a record-setting rainfall poured down, and the new drainage system passed with flying colors.
The track’s inaugural fall race meeting, held Oct. 6 to 28, 2006, was a huge success. Results included an increase in total wagering, record attendance and an average field size of 10.02 starters per race.
Keeneland's racetrack was ready for its inaugural fall meeting.
“While we are proud of the many records that were set, we are even more proud of how well the Polytrack surface and ADS drainage system performed,” Nicholson said. “It remained very safe throughout the meet, despite getting more than twice the usual amount of rainfall during the month.”
In early 2006, the California Horse Racing Board declared that all major tracks in the state must install a synthetic surface by Dec. 31, 2007, or have their racing licenses annulled. This might be the start of a trend. If so, racetracks, engineers and contractors should be comforted in knowing that their collective drainage needs can be fulfilled, just as those of Keeneland were.