Feature Article - February 2007
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Turf Wars

How to win the battle against overuse and other enemies

By Kyle Ryan

o one wants to watch Flicka die.
It's blunt, but that's how Roy Arnold, president of the Arlington Park horse-racing track in Arlington Heights, Ill., put it at a press conference in early December. Inside Chicago's ESPN Zone restaurant, he announced that Arlington Park would become the fifth track in North America to switch from dirt to synthetic turf for its racing surface. The dead-Flicka comment arose from the more than 20 fatal "catastrophic breakdowns"—i.e., on-field horse injuries—that occurred at Arlington Park during its 2006 season.

Although independent investigations concluded that Arlington's dirt wasn't to blame for the accidents, the park saw a 15.6 percent drop in earnings, according to a published report ($6 million according to another). The new surface will cost $10 million, but Arnold and Arlington's parent company, Churchill Downs, believe it's money well spent if it keeps horses and riders safe—and brings families back to the park. No parent wants to be asked, "Daddy, what's wrong with that horse?"

The new surfacing, which looks like dirt from a distance, will be a composite of waxy sand, recycled rubber and polypropylene fibers, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. Below that will be a layer of porous asphalt, then a layer of drainage stone (leading to a pipe), which rests atop a dense aggregate layer. The exceptional drainage capacity means the days of muddy tracks are history. The whole project, which began in early December, will be completed in time for Arlington's first race of 2007 on May 4.

Lucky for humans, on-field injuries rarely result in euthanasia, but turf vitality remains a critical issue for every facility, from high schools to municipal parks to arboretums. Whether natural or synthetic, turf needs special attention. Without the proper care—particularly when it comes to overuse—problems inevitably arise.