The Complex Battle to Achieve the Perfect Dirt

A morning training session at Belmont Park, in Elmont, N.Y., May 31, 2014. The process of caring for the turf at a racetrack is a painstaking one, and it must go on year-round, whether Belmont is hosting modest allowance races or a race where horse racing could crown its first Triple Crown winner in decades. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)
A morning training session at Belmont Park. The process of caring for the turf at a racetrack is a painstaking one, and it must go on year-round.
Victor J. Blue/NYT

A week before the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes, a tractor with wheels practically the size of horses towed a grader along the track while a worker on the back checked the depth of the dirt’s surface every couple of feet.

The maintenance process at Belmont Park is a tedious one, especially because the 1 1/2-mile main track, the longest in North America, looks more like a highway than a place for thoroughbreds. It also circles a gigantic grass infield that, if it were in Manhattan, would have been packed with skyscrapers long ago.

Grading, watering and an assortment of other procedures are necessary to keep the track, which is known as The Big Sandy, in uniform shape. It is a constant battle for the small army charged with its caretaking, and it goes on whether the day’s card is made up of modest claiming and allowance races, as it often is, or whether it is loaded with prestigious million-dollar races, as it will be on Saturday, when California Chrome takes aim at the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.

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“With what we can control, we try and make things as consistent as possible and as safe as possible,” said Glen Kozak, vice president for facilities and racing surfaces at the New York Racing Association.

Kozak, 43, came to NYRA in 2008 after holding racetrack-maintenance jobs in Maryland, Boston and New Jersey. Since arriving, he has transformed an antiquated system that relied on old-school methods and paper records. Now NYRA maintenance workers are equipped with iPads and BlackBerrys and are entering data from the seats of their tractors.

“He’s the future, is what I tell people in track maintenance,” said Dr. Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, a nonprofit organization, and a NYRA consultant. “He’s able to look every day on his phone and see when the equipment went out, what time it went out, what they were doing. This is more like aircraft maintenance than it is like harrowing a dirt track, but if you think about the fact that we’ve got the health and safety of the horses and the riders at stake here, it really needs to be managed more like that than like gardening.”

It is a testament to Kozak that when Keeneland, the prestigious track in Lexington, Kentucky, decided recently to switch its main track from a synthetic surface back to dirt, it turned to Kozak and the NYRA for guidance. Belmont’s racetrack is considered different not just because of its size but also because of its racing surface, which is a combination of sand, clay and silt. Still, the Big Sandy moniker may actually be a misnomer.

“There’s an impression that it’s a lot different, but the numbers really don’t show it as being dramatically different from the other tracks,” said Peterson, a professor at the University of Maine whose researchers routinely gathers data on the surface. “It’s a little sandier, but it’s not that big a change.”

He added: “The biggest difference on racetracks, which is much more important than the sand or the surface composition, is the moisture. And one of the things that makes Belmont quite a bit different is the time of year when they’re racing and how they maintain that.’’

In other words, Belmont is a spring, summer and early fall track, which means thunderstorms, among other things, are a familiar factor.

“And it’s also a huge track, so there’s a lot of maintenance that goes into that big a surface,’’ he added.

The sheer size of the track is also what poses the most problems for the Belmont Stakes contenders. The horses have never raced a mile and a half, and almost certainly never will again, and their jockeys are also either inexperienced or out of practice at covering the distance.

“This is what separates the big boys from the little boys if you will,” said John Velazquez, a veteran rider who won the Belmont in 2007 with the filly Rags to Riches and in 2012 with Union Rags. “It’s a mile and half, and this is where it really ends up whether there is a Triple Crown or not. It’s very difficult to ride and very difficult to know if your horse is going to handle that distance.’’

The other unusual aspect about Belmont’s main track is that its distance markers are in different positions than more traditional 1-mile racetracks, such as the ones at Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course, where the Kentucky Derby and Preakness are run.

Riders in the Belmont Stakes who are unfamiliar with the quirks of the racetrack have been known to mistake the mile pole for the three-quarter pole and the three-quarter pole for the half-mile pole, asking their horse to make a move too early.

“It’s a little deceiving of where you are when you get to the backstretch, so it’s a long while from the mile to the half-mile pole,” Velazquez said. “That’s when they make mistakes, moving a little too early and then you end up with no horse at all.”

On the other hand, veteran jockeys can be fully aware of the track’s mileposts but still use the challenging length of the Belmont Stakes to their advantage, forcing another horse to start going full out too soon when there is so much of the race still to be run.

In 2004, the Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, riding Eddington, and Alex Solis, riding Rock Hard Ten, began to make a move at the mile pole, causing the Triple Crown contender Smarty Jones to make his move earlier than planned and allowing Birdstone to overtake him.

“He was trying to change the outcome of the race, meaning if I challenge him, I might have a chance to win,” Velazquez said. “Which everybody’s going to do that. But he didn’t have the horse to do it. But in the meantime, he actually forced the hand of the other guys. You’re making a move, when you’re not supposed to be moving, and that’s why we didn’t have a Triple Crown that year. Very simple.”

Bailey, for his part, said he was merely doing his job.

“The horse coming into the Belmont that won the first two legs has a bull’s-eye on his back,” Bailey said. “If you tried to beat him and you couldn’t, as a rider you have to try and beat him another way. As a rider in the Belmont, you’re out there trying to win and that was what I was trying to do.”

In this Belmont, California Chrome and Victor Espinoza will be wearing that target. Espinoza arrived from California last Friday and has ridden in a few races at Belmont since he got here, winning the seventh race on Thursday.

New York-based jockeys, as Espinoza’s brother Jose used to be before retiring after a spill in August, say it is imperative to get acclimated with the track before riding in the Belmont.

Come Saturday, even though the weather is supposed to be sunny, Kozak and his crew will be gathering data from the weather monitors set up around the track and entering it electronically. “The construction crew and everyone has a little bounce in their step,” Kozak said of the possibility of California Chrome capturing the Triple Crown. “When you see the tents up, and the flowers, that’s what makes it so special. For these guys to be part of history, they recognize it. But there’s pressure every day. We just try and have a safe and consistent track.”