It was nearly 70 degrees in New York yesterday; warmer temperatures and delayed darkness have many of us thinking spring. And for New York racing fans, there is no surer sign of spring than the return at Aqueduct to the main track.
Racing on the inner track generally begins in early December, after the big stakes at the end of November—the Remsen, the Demoiselle, the Cigar Mile—have been run on the main track: the opening of the inner is the harbinger of the New York winter.
Until the early 1970’s, New York didn’t race in the winter. But as former NYRA track superintendent Joe King tells it, as off-track betting began to siphon on-track handle, NYRA made the decision to race more days each year, and that meant winter racing.
NYRA first raced year round in 1974, and then-chair of the New York Racing Association, Jack Dreyfus, asked, “What do we need to do for year-round racing?” King told him, “We need a second dirt track.” The main track was clay and soil based, and thus susceptible to damage from winter weather and freeze/thaw cycles.
King recalls the conversations. “The worst case scenario is that we’d limp through the winter with one track, and then in the spring, we’d have a beat-up, worn-out track just as prime racing season was coming up. What were we gonna do, punt?”
“We didn’t have a lot of options then,” King said. Aqueduct at that time had a main track and two turf courses, and according to King, “A second dirt track was more important than a second turf course. We could race on the turf in April, and then we’re not back at Aqueduct until October, and off the turf by November anyway.”
What was necessary, King said, was safe racing all year around, and that concern led to the opening of the inner track in the fall of 1976. “It was sort of uncanny,” King said. “We were racing in November on the main track, and around the fourth race, the jockeys said that they couldn’t race anymore, that the track wasn’t safe.” Though the new track wasn’t supposed to open until later in the meet, King said, “Give us half an hour.” Rather unceremoniously, the new inner track was inaugurated. “We never looked back,” said King.
That first edition of the inner track was soil-based, “extremely kind,” and high maintenance. Between 1976 and 1982, King and NYRA continued to explore options that would make winter racing in New York both possible and safe. “We looked at heating pipes under the track. We looked at many options, even a dome.” King chuckles and admits, “We didn’t look long at that one.” Their research indicated that a limestone-based track would be better than their soil-based surface.
In 1978 a prototype was installed on the pony track at Belmont; happy with its results, King shortly thereafter replaced the training track at Belmont with a forerunner of the current winter track. In 1982, the winter track at Aqueduct needed to be re-surfaced, and that year, the first version of the inner track was replaced with the limestone-based surface that had been installed at Belmont.
“Limestone doesn’t react as violently as soil does to freeze/thaw cycles,” King explained. “When a frozen track thaws, you get a ‘freeze-dried’ effect. Moisture crystallizes in the cushion, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As the clay thaws, the surface is very unstable, and the horses sink into it. As long as it stayed cold, we were fine, but if we got a January thaw, we were in trouble. It’s like trying to pull a car onto thawing ground—you just sink in.”
King recalls that overall, the switch from a second turf course to a second dirt course was met with a positive response. “One Hall of Fame trainer accused us of taking out the best turf course in America. He couldn’t understand why we did it; he wasn’t looking at the big picture, wasn’t thinking about lost racing days and unsafe conditions.”
Asked about the 1977 Gotham in which Seattle Slew didn’t run, the Gotham that was moved from the main track to the inner just a few days before the race because the main track was in such bad shape, King says, “I don’t remember it being a big deal; that was in the papers and the people’s minds.”
A New York Times article on that Gotham switch lauded the installation of the inner track:
It cost about $2 million to winterize Aqueduct, but that money has already been
earned back by the N.Y.R.A. from the days in which racing was not canceled this
Last winter, a total of 6 ½ days were lost to the elements. This season, in the worst winter in New York history, only day has been canceled (and that was not because the inner track was damaged but because it was felt that spectators couldn’t get to Aqueduct in a blizzard). (Katz)
NYRA’s current track supervisor, Glen Kozak, explains the benefits of limestone. “The stone dust—limestone—bottom of the track stands up better than clay, and the base drains better than clay.” Asked why Aqueduct needs two dirt tracks given the benefit of the inner, Kozak says, “The main track’s base is clay, and horsemen find that more forgiving. And the winter track is easier to maintain because it drains better; it doesn’t heave and separate the way clay would. In the winter, a clay track would get like a road with potholes after bad weather.”
NYRA recently cancelled racing for two consecutive days when a snowstorm hit the metropolitan area. “The track was already sloppy from the rain, and then we got eight inches of wet slushy snow. It snowed Saturday until about 2 a.m., so we couldn’t get the track ready for that day,” Kozak said. “All night, we squeezed it, cleaned it off, tried to get the water o the surface. We backraked it all night to get it to dry, and by Sunday, it was in good shape.”
Kozak said races stay on the inner for as long as possible, to avoid bad weather cycles and the freeze/thaw pattern that can wreak havoc with a racing surface. “In late March, cold’s not going to hang around,” he said, “so you can maintain the surface like a summer race track.”
Though frequently maligned, the inner track has its fans: NYRA handicapper Andy Serling says that it’s his favorite surface to handicap and to bet. And the NYRA administration that installed it were fans nearly immediately. “Because safety was important,” said King, “it took Dreyfus about a minute to make the decision. Everything was secondary to the safety of the horses and the humans; safety guided all decisions. If you want top-notch racing, you have to be able to look a Slew in the eye and say, ‘You’re going to be safe.’”
Katz, Michael. “Gotham Is Switched to Inner Track.” Nytimes.com. New York Times. 5 April 1977. Web. 17 March 2010.