Installing a Training Track

Design, size, site selection, and maintenance
are key considerations

by Henry Q. Murphy (reprinted with permission from Thoroughbred Times)

Most breeders do not set out to train very many horses on the farm. Perhaps in the beginning the game plan might have been drawn to include the retention of a couple of fillies each year, who if they proved to have some ability, might serve as replacement mares after their racing careers were over.

     Under these conditions, breaking and early slow miles would be possible on the farm, if there was a large enough level field, and the farm had the personnel, expertise, time, and will to begin the youngsters on the farm. The alternative of course is to send the hose to have its initial training be done by someone who specializes in getting young stock ready for the track. Although this is not as expensive as having a horse in training on the track, it still can typically run $25-$30 a day. In addition, many owners who have the expertise find some satisfaction in starting their babies on the farm, where they can more closely monitor their progress and instill the basics that they have found important over time.

     But in the last several years, many breeders have found themselves with more horses to put to put into training than they originally planned on. While the current downward shifts in stud fees and breeder realities have reduced somewhat the gap between what the owner thinks a horse needs to bring at auction and what it does bring at auction, more owners than ever have found themselves with horses to train in the fall. While some are still going to end up in the breeder's stable, the expense of having many horses in training is beyond what many owners can afford. Not wanting to take a bath in the September sale, the owner has opted to either attempt to sell in the two-year-old in training sales, or privately on track. But as expenses mount on the racetrack, and the number of horses being broken and conditioned rises, at some point the owner with some spare acreage and cash is likely to ask the immortal question, "I wonder what it would cost to put in a training track?"

     Steve Greene of Lexington-based Horseman's Track and Equipment, Inc. knows the answer. For years, Greene and his company have been acting in a unique capacity as racetrack consultants who can advise from the initial planning stages through contractor selection and construction supervision to the sale of maintenance equipment and the safety rail. So how much will it cost? "That's like asking how much will a car cost," answers Greene . "It all depends on a combination of factors. Very important is what the planned use of the facility will be if an owner comes in and says, 'Well right now I'm breaking for four or five out in the field every year,' I'll probably recommend against building a track. The use at that level would never justify the expense. But I've had another client who was sending 45-to-60 babies to South Carolina every year, in the addition to significant numbers of lay ups cycling off the track each year. With him, the savings the first year after paying for the track amounted to something like $400,000. His response was, 'When can you get started?'"

     The size of the track obviously plays a significant part in determining the eventual expense of the facility. Although many private facilities are half-mile ovals, Greene agrees with those that such "bullrings" are not desirable.

     "Five-eighths is the minimum I like to recommend," he said. "It's like day and night compared to the half-mile tracks, you can't get big enough turns. If all you are doing is legging a horse up, they might be adequate, but to ship and run, for instance, I would not suggest breezing horses around less than a 275-foot radius, which is not possible on a half-mile track unless you sacrifice so much of the straightaways that it practically becomes a circular rather than oval track. With five-eighths of a mile, you have a 300-foot radius on the turns and you do more with the horses safely from a design standpoint than on a half-mile."

      Is bigger better then?

     "Really with a mile you can't do much more than on a five-eighths surface. Our most popular size has been six furlongs-that takes about 32 acres of ground in a rectangular-shaped plot of ground. What we've learned from the do-it yourself types in the horse business is that the time to do it right is the first time. You can't enlarge these facilities after the fact without tremendous expense, so the initial planning is crucial to continued success and safety for the horses and riders."

     Once a track size has been arrived at, it is time to look at the site the owner has for the facility. Such an examination for site suitability has two main criteria. First is the actual lay of the land. While the owner may have some land selected for whatever reason, it may require an inordinate amount of expense to prepare for a track.

     "Sometimes we would recommend people to find another site if they would need, say, too much area to fill," Greene said. "You could pay more per acre for land, and it would cost less than 300,000 yards of fill."

     The prospective site would also have core samples taken at regular spacings in order to locate such factors as rock formations and depth, underground water souces, and the like.

     "We would have the survey map drawn, basically a contour map showing the site's elevations on 12 spacings, said Greene . "We would then accurately detail what size of track would fit on the site, as well as see where the sun would set, the best location for the horses, underground water, etc. Again the time to do this is before the first piece of heavy equipment arrives. Preparations and planning are the keys to cost control and eventual success."

     Once the site has been selected and the preliminary soil tests are completed, construction can begin. It can begin, that is, if the weather is right. "Weather plays a significant factor in track construction," Greene says, "because each layer of the base has to be compared to a specified figure. And if the soil is too wet, it will later shrink as it dries. And if it's too dry, the material will just not compact at all and turn to dust as you attempt to work it." As a result, most track work in the Kentucky area, for example, is done from March to mid-November.

     But even if the weather is right, there is more involved in track construction than just bulldozing an oval strip in a field and filling it with sandy loam. "A lot of people think that you can go in there, run a grader around, throw some rock down, and throw some sand on top," says Greene. "That's not how you build a track."

     The climate of the area also determines what type of base the track should use. The two major alternatives are clay and limestone rock of various diminsions. Each type of base has its particular characteristics.

     As Greene explains, "It takes a lot more water for a limestone-based racetrack than it does a clay-based racetrack, because it drains. The clay will hold some moisture. You have to look at where the racetrack is wanted, look at their almanac, see what their average rainfall is, and how much temperature variance there is over the year. We have to see where the freeze line is. We prefer to put a dense-grade, stone-based racetrack down in the North, because the freezing and thawing can make the clay move around over the winter if it's in the North. Kentucky is really kind of the dividing line. Everything south of here we could go with a clay base and anything north of here we recommend putting a stone base in."

     But once a material is selected there is still consideration given to the suitability of the material locally available.

     "There are a lot of variables when we get in a project. Some people say they want to use a certain material from the farm on their racetracks. 'I want to use this clay and this sand,' and I tell them I'll be glad to test it and see if it's acceptable because I like to think that any racetrack I do, I would like to have my horses there. They don't understand that there are significant differences in the suitability of the materials used. To me, the time to get it right is the first time, and through our experience and what we have learned from others, we have a good idea what works and what doesn't.

     " If a client tells us they want to use their clay, I will point out that it is gumbo clay and not adequate for the task. The first time a horse steps in, he's going to break his leg, his cannon bone, or knee. The first time it rains, he's going to go through there and it can't support the cushion. The material just falls to pieces. There's a lot of variation just in the clay itself."

     Again as the base is being prepared, it is more complicated than just laying the material to the right depth as specified in the designer's plans. "We act either as the contractor or as the contracting supervisor on these projects," says Greene, "and we test the compaction of the base as it's being installed, one foot of fill at a time. Basically we are looking for 95% modified compaction as measured on the Proctor scale, which is the standard measurement for foundations or roadways. Now you can pile the base in, roll the top to 95%, and think you did the job, but sooner or later the track will just fall apart. So we test each foot of fill as it is installed and at regular intervals in all directions. We use two methods of figuring the compaction, which serves as an internal check. And if we find a problem we can eliminate it before the next layer is put down."

     Incorporated into or just above the clay or limestone base is a perforated drainage tile. As Greene explains, "The tile goes all the way around the inside of the racetrack. Every 50 feet, we'll T-off at that with a straight PVC pipe to the ditch line. The water is going to have a place to get off every 50 feet. It won't go down the track. It will drain evenly all the way around. It is expensive. It also drains your base. This will prevent the track from being washed out with every heavy rain. It will still move some--they have to be maintained--but good drainage is essential to a safe track design."

     A typical racetrack in the U.S. has a six inch subbase, a nine-inch base, and three-inch cushion. But the type of sand used in the upper layers of the track and how it is installed are again another detail of great significance. As Greene explains, sand is not sand.

     "You can put any two samples under a microscope and begin to see differences. One sand may drain well, but it won't give; it doesn't have the resiliency that horses need in a surface. They just hit dead on it, it has no give. They won't bounce on it. The horses will run through their bandages every day. Basically, an ideal surface is 75% round river sand, and such as the surface they have at Churchill Downs. It is a fine sand and you can put it between your hands and rub it and it doesn't scratch you.

     "If you use a more angular sand, then you can imagine the horse's legs on that. It will be a much more abrasive surface. You want 20% silt and loam and 5% clay. You want a little clay with the silt and loam. This allows you to roll the track and tighten it back up and get your bounce. By having your clay there, you can also roll your racetrack and seal it before a big rain. So the water will sheet off the top and not sink in, which will significantly change the character of the surface. As with the base, it is very important to maintain even compaction as every layer is added to the surface and test it throughout the construction.

     Installation provides the actual working surface that is visible to horse and rider.

     "Personally, I like one-component tracks," Greene said "That is, say you have your base and then your next ten inches is all the same. You put it on two lifts--sifted and mixed--six inches at a time. It's going to be compacted to five inches. You find 20% compaction and then you do the same on the next layer. It gives you a safety layer in between, where the horses hit the top and hit the bottom. This is especially true on a limestone racetrack. You don't wnat to hit the bottom. They can't get through it down to the bottom. It gives you a protective layer if it's wet, for example. The first few rains you get, you can redo the cushion because it's all the same. That's the best way to it, especially on the farm tracks because they don't have the maintenance crews, like the racetracks that have 15 people."

     With even Ellis Park putting in a turf course, the question arises, "What about one on the farm?" Greene notes that while they look very nice on the infield, they are not very practical for the owner. "I think for a farm or a training center a turf course is a waste of money, because you can't use them on a constant basis. Of course, when it rains it gets a little dangerous and if you let it dry for two days and put horses on it, they tear it up and it's a real maintenance headache compared to the sand track. I don't think it's worth it."

     But all the best-intentioned preparation in the world does not ensure continued success if the track is not adequately maintained. What kind of life expectancy can one expect from a training track? "Well it's like your automobile," Greene said. "If you run it hard and never open the hood, you won't get the same mileage from a car as you would have if you change the oil every 4,000 miles. You're going to have to pull your rail because it's going to build up. It's going to be deeper. With a racetrack you get out of it as much money as you put in it--that's what you get back. There's no racetrack that's maintenance-free or anything like that."

     And the key to a successful maintenance program is the trackman in charge of it. "You have to to have a knowledable person, to take care of the track daily," he said. "The track changes daily because of the rain or the freezing. We have developed a basic maintenance guide about what you should do and we try to get the people to hire someone while we are there and say this is the kind of racetrack you are going to have. If you'll keep this racetrack rolled and watered at night if it's hot, this is what you can expect back from it. If you don;t do it right, the track will get hard as a brick. This is a daily maintenance program and one guy can do it. But it's a prety good job for one guy. That's why we recommend that on a dirt track.

     "A lot of people want to put in sprinkler systems. Well, what happens is that whan the wind is blowing, part of the track gets all of the water and some of track gets none of the water. So we have a boom on a water wagon or water truck and we keep it 1 1/2 feet off of the ground under pressure where it will pump and that way we are sure that the whole racetrack is going to get watered. You may not know it, but the ones that are going to know it are the horses and riders."

     How difficult is it to find the right personfor the maintenance? "Basically if they can drive a tractor, we can teach them what to do."

Hank Murphy, manager of Donerail Farm near Lexington, KY is a contributing editor to Thoroughbred Times


Horsemen's Track and Equipment, Inc.
7321 New LaGrange Rd., Suite 140 • Louisville, KY 40222
Toll Free: 1-800-950-9545
Phone: 1-502-423-7798
Fax: 1-502-423-5042