MIKE de Kock is excited about Phumelela’s new polytrack at Fairview and he attended the first gallops on this all-weather surface at the Port Elizabeth track last week. In this month’s blog, Mike gives a rundown of his experience training and racing on polytracks. This project will bring top benefits to the South African racing industry but with it comes big challenges to the horsemen confronted with the possibility of a frustrating period of adapting. Mike offers two essential pieces of advice in what he describes as a great opportunity for his fellow trainers to learn, grow and progress.
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I was privileged to be invited to speak to trainers based in Port Elizabeth when horses galloped at Fairview’s new polytrack last Thursday. I was asked to share my experience of training and racing on polytracks in other parts of the world and to answer relevant questions.
As most will know, my stable’s exported runners invariably start their overseas campaigns in Dubai. They are stabled at the Meydan training centre and prepared on its Tapeta all-weather training track, which is very similar to the all-weather polytracks successfully in use elsewhere in the world and about to go into full swing at Fairview. We’ve enjoyed some wonderful results since the adjacent all-weather racetrack at Meydan was introduced as the racing surface of choice in 2010, but getting to a consistent level of excellence wasn’t all plain sailing.
The all-weather training track at Meydan was in full operation about two months before we started competing on the main Tapeta racetrack. We had a few weeks to figure out the most effective ways of training horses on the surface and we had to adapt some of our training methods. It took several months to eliminate teething problems, but noticed one clear benefit within just a few days. The track’s wax-coated mixture of sand, rubber and fibre proved to be markedly kinder to our horses’ legs than the conventional dirt tracks and turf.
We faced some unknown outcomes sending our first string of runners about their paces on the synthetic surface, due in part to the fact that a change of surface can affect horses on a physiological level. We had to experiment and re-experiment and sometimes we were left confused, but since more horses were returning from the new track in sound condition more often, we remained committed and saw it through. Over time we had things under a measure of control. We haven’t stopped learning, however. This is a gradual process that carries on.
Know this: In the weeks ahead my fellow-trainers at Fairview will be facing many a challenging morning working on the new surface. Chances are they will see some indifferent performances from runners at the first few race meetings on the polytrack. Two races are scheduled for 25 October 2013 and the first full meeting will be held in December. I believe, however, that the pointers and advice I was able to pass on will make their imminent learning curve a good deal easier to cope with.
I am going to wrap the basics of the polytrack here for the sake of reference, re-iterating at the offset that our Fairview trainers must always keep the known basics in mind and stay always positive as they venture into ‘foreign territory’.
I am assuming with a degree of confidence that anyone with an interest in horse racing and a desire to move forward will be wholly in favour of the polytrack considering the core benefits it brings to our industry. Start with a commitment and full support to something that will be here to stay!
Statistically, there is no doubt that the surface is safer for horse and rider. One can never eliminate freak accidents, but there will be a significant reduction in horses breaking down. Logic holds that horses that stay sound for long periods of time, or in some instances for longer periods of time, are able to exercise more often and hence will reach their required levels of fitness quicker. It follows that even some of the chronically unsound runners will show improvement. A bigger proportion of the throroughbred population will extend their careers by an extra racing season, making more stakes earnings possible for owners and trainers.
Another clear advantage for horsemen and the racing operator is that the polytrack can deal with heavy rain. We won’t lose essential training days, race meetings or betting turnovers due to bad weather.
There are two hugely important pieces of advice I’d like to offer in closing.
I urge the trainers at Fairview to have open minds. They must remain committed to improving their results and consistency through good times and bad. What lies ahead is a period of trial and error in which some of them will have to change established ways. However, success is entirely achievable with persistence. In due course obstacles will be overcome and everything will fall into place. The majority of trainers based at Randjesfontein preferred to stay fixed in their regimes when the polytrack was introduced there a few years ago They were inflexible, failed to embrace the opportunity to develop new skills and as a result have not been able to see fresh fruits sprouting from their labour. Don’t let it happen in Port Elizabeth. Don’t give up!
I urge the racing operator, Phumelela Gaming & Leisure, to make the maintenance of the Fairview polytrack an ongoing top priority. If maintenance procedures are not strictly adhered to, problems of a nasty kind will arise, gather momentum and cause much animosity and unhappiness. Many congratulations, Phumelela, for investing in something that can grow and improve racing in South Africa for all. But I say again because this is extremely important – make a concious decision at the highest level not neglect the maintenance of your R40-million project!