Oklahoma track renovation nears completion

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Forty-one seconds. No horse will ever work a half-mile that fast on Saratoga Race Course’s Oklahoma training track – not on purpose anyway – but it was the bullet figure (:41.09 to be precise, sort of) for depositing 25 tons of dirt in less than a sixteenth of a mile Tuesday morning as a complete overhaul of the historic 1-mile oval nears completion.

New York Racing Association senior vice president for operations and capital projects Glen Kozak oversees the project and was out on the track this week as dump trucks spread the cushion material – don’t call it dirt – in the final stages. Construction began last fall, after the stable area closed in November, and involved a number of steps. In short, the project:

  • Stripped away the old material and regrading the absolute natural base of the track.
  • Added levels of limestone base, clay pad and drainage sand (with the cushion material going on last before days of blending) which essentially raised the track by 3 feet.
  • Widened the track by an average of 12 feet.
  • Installed an inside safety rail.
  • Aligned various gaps, access and crossing points.
  • Removed problematic pine trees along the backstretch.

Work was in high gear this week and Kozak said the facility will “look like a racetrack” by Sunday with training to start in two weeks potentially. Tuesday it was more of a construction zone with three dump trucks taking turns spreading the first loads of the cushion material. Filled by an excavator stationed in the chute at the head of the stretch, drivers (in big 12-wheelers from Blue Mountain Landworks and Bacigalupo Trucking and a smaller NYRA truck) took turns – navigating over the packed-down base, backing into position, raising the dump bed (with chains keeping the back gate open about a foot) and slowly driving forward to loosen the material. Then they’d motor back to the chute and repeat the process. At :41.09 per truck, it really wasn’t going to take that long but it’s a big job.

“It’s pretty delicate, we’re not just throwing dirt out there,” Kozak said after helping one driver with a stuck tailgate chain in front of the Whitney Viewing Stand.

The overhaul mimics a similar project done to the main track last year. As with that job, the work focused on what people don’t see – base layers under the material horses and tractors and people actually touch.

“We had a challenge with the natural base, natural sand, under this track and how it dried out inconsistently,” Kozak said. “From the bottom up, everything is brand new.”

The old track reached a point where it dried unevenly after rain and even reacted inconsistently to traffic and maintenance. Kozak mentioned a puddle at the quarter pole, a dry spot near the five-eighths pole and a spot past the wire that wouldn’t dry. Feedback also pointed to the track holding up well in the spring and fall – when fewer horses used it.

“We saw trainers bouncing back and forth based on how the track would recover,” he said. “Last year they would use the main track because of how it reacted after it rained. We stripped the cushion back and it was very similar to what we saw on the main track (in 2020), where it hadn’t been touched for so long and when it was touched you had different things out on the track as far as the base material.”

Oklahoma1As he did with the main track, Kozak consulted with horsemen and track safety expert Dr. Mick Peterson from the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Kentucky and went to work. In addition to the new base, the entire track was raised which will also help with drainage and maintenance. It’ll also make leaning on the outside rail a bit easier for some people.

Like any construction project, this one fought through some delays. Six inches of snow didn’t help early, for sure, and NYRA worked with several local organizations to get approvals to remove pine trees from along the backstretch. Planted decades ago, but not necessarily historic like some of the barns and other structures on the grounds, the trees grew to heights of 40 feet or more and their root systems had grown under the track. NYRA will ultimately plant more trees on the property than they removed, but the views from across the track and from homes along Fifth Avenue are different. NYRA consulted a landscape architect and other preservation experts on the plan, but kept the track and horse safety in mind throughout.

“They were here a long time and were a big deal on the backside, but somebody had the idea of planting pine trees along the outside rail and never thought they’d grow 30 feet out on to the track,” said Kozak. “That was one of the things we saw. After stripping the track back and seeing how the roots were in the base and to the cushion was eye-opening. When people saw it firsthand, the impact of the trees on the track, it made it real simple. We will get trees back, but they won’t be next to the track or they’ll be a variety that won’t impact the surface.”

The project met another more historic obstacle in the horsepath and barns along the track’s eastern edge, which is why that portion remains its traditional width while the remainder is considerably wider – 10-14 feet – to accommodate busy summer training days. Gaps were widened, making track access easier, and the cockeyed crossing to the Oklahoma turf course was straightened – which might seem like heresy to some.

“Hopefully it takes some of the rodeo out of it,” Kozak said with a laugh. Somewhere exercise riders breathe a little easier.

Though the barns are a long way from full, and those of Oklahoma regulars such as Bill Mott and Christophe Clement are empty, Saratoga opened its stable area on schedule April 15. Typically, off-season training happens solely on Oklahoma track but NYRA opened the main track this year to give Kozak and his team time to complete the job.

“It’s rewarding to do it and to be able to do it right,” Kozak said. “No corners were cut, the drainage was done correctly, all of it. We’re thankful to the board at NYRA for letting us do this, for coming up with the funding. With equine safety, it’s a great investment. But you never think you’re going to get to the finish line on a project like this.”

You can see it though, 41 seconds at a time.