I was pleasantly surprised by Sham Racing’s post on the African Betting Clan forum regarding proposed plans for a Polytrack at Fairview Racecourse and immediately dropped Phumelela’s Horse Racing Executive, Patrick Davis, a quick line. Ever helpful and enthusiastic, I received a reply immediately, writes Robyn Louw.
As per the recently issued press release, plans for a second track at Fairview have been on the cards for some time. It is costly to maintain two fully functional race tracks and it seemed sensible to concentrate all the racing activities in one centre and Fairview seemed the obvious choice. There are a host of reasons for this decision, ranging from the cost of maintaining the aging Arlington facility, the cost of transporting runners from and to the Fairview training centre, and last but by no means least, the encroaching development.
Last November Phumelela received permission from the Eastern Cape Gambling Board to close Arlington. However, there was still a certain amount of logistics and red tape to get through, not to mention local hearts to win.
The disposal of Arlington would leave Fairview as the single available racing venue. However, turf tracks can only handle a certain amount of traffic safely and with nearly 70 annual race meetings scheduled for the PE centre, the need for an alternative was clear. While the installation of a second turf track at Fairview would have been the most economical option, Phumelela have decided to invest R36 million in a synthetic surface instead. The upgrade also includes a further R4 million investment to improve the existing grandstand and racecourse facilities.
The vote for a synthetic track has predictably proved somewhat controversial and it has its proponents and detractors. However, a major factor behind the decision was the fact that the Polytrack surface is composed of a sophisticated combination of wax, fibred and PVC and does not need water, a critically important factor in the Eastern Cape, where droughts and water restrictions have made course maintenance a challenge.
Phumelela have chosen The Martin Collins Group to install a Polytrack surface. The company has a well-established reputation and there are 16 existing Polytrack surfaces worldwide, including 5 in the UK and Ireland, 3 in France, 5 in the USA and Canada, 1 in Spain, 1 in Turkey and Kranji race track in Singapore. Additionally there are 125 miles of training track in the UK with 12 of those being at Newmarket. There are also racecourse-based training tracks in Japan, Korea and Ireland. The surface has been tested in a number of different climatic conditions and can be finessed to suit specific local needs. Perhaps most persuasive is the fact that the first Polytrack racecourse which was installed at Lingfield Park in November 2001 has not required any refurbishment work to date despite intensive use, so the Michael Collins surface comes with a pretty impressive CV.
The new track will be laid out on the inside of Fairview’s existing turf track to comprise an oval course, approximately 1800m in circumference, bringing it in line with the majority of the international configurations. Where the current Fairview track has a long 800m straight, the synthetic track will have a shorter 450m straight, approximating the shorter run in that will be lost with the disposal of Arlington.
A 2-year study conducted by the Jockey Club in the US comparing statistics on dirt, turf and synthetics, showed synthetic surfaces to be the safest in terms of catastrophic injuries. However, the synthetic surface will take some getting used to and horses will need to be acclimatised to it gradually. As with any racing surface, the Polytrack will present its own unique set of challenges and will have its fans and detractors – human and equine alike.
There will undoubtedly be an initial period of adjustment for track managers, trainers and horses as everyone gets to grip with the new surface. Much as we have track specialists, we will in all likelihood find horses that show a preference for the synthetic surface as well. However, the synthetic tracks seem to be closest to turf tracks in terms of ‘user experience’ and it is expected that the local PE horse population will cope well.
Port Elizabeth racing
There are still a few minor issues to be ironed out in terms of the layout and logistics (EIA approval is pending for a minor variation to the proposed track configuration), but it is hoped that work will get underway as early as May. It will be an 8-month project and with a bit of luck and a fair wind, the new facilities should be up and running early next year. Racing will continue at Arlington in the interim and plans for disposal will only commence once the new Polytrack is up and running.
There has been extensive discussion and consultation with the local PE racing fraternity. A delegation has travelled to Johannesburg to inspect the Randjiesfontein surface which has been in situ for approximately 7 months now. Gavin Smith reports being particularly impressed with the drainage system – a high priority for the marshy conditions at Fairview. While it will be sad to lose Arlington, the overall feeling is that the installation of a Polytrack is a forward-thinking, sustainable choice and a positive step for the future.