The art and science of racetrack surface maintenance

Chris Bosley was named dirt track superintendent for the Maryland Jockey Club in the spring of 2018, and for the last year and a half he has been focused on consistency and safety.

It’s a critical position—and one that’s frequently under a microscope. It’s also a job heavily dependent on weather and having the necessary resources and latest research at your disposal.

Bosley regularly attends Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association Board of Directors meetings to provide updates on surface maintenance and to field comments and questions. He acknowledges it’s difficult to satisfy everyone, but he welcomes feedback with the ultimate goal of providing the best and safest surface possible.

“Everyone needs to keep communicating,” Bosley said. “If something happens or needs to be done, don’t think we’re not going to care about it or it doesn’t bother us. All the guys (on the track crew) care about the racetrack as much as I do.

 

“Not everything is going to be perfect. But we try to give (horsemen) a track they love and to make them proud they run here. It’s more than a job—it’s a privilege to have and do the job. And with this job, if it doesn’t become an obsession, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

In response to concerns expressed earlier in the summer that the dirt surface was producing too-fast times, MTHA board member Phil Schoenthal reached out to Bosley for a better understanding of track maintenance. He said he found it enlightening.

“The racetrack composition itself is radically different than it was prior to Chris getting here,” Schoenthal said a few weeks ago. “It’s a different mixture, and this mixture holds together much better than the previous (composition), which provides for more year-round consistency.

“The times are faster because the surface is tighter and the horses get more grip and push off from it. The racetrack consistently stays about 3 ½ inches deep and it looks great.”

Other tracks in the region with a similar dirt-track composition also have experienced faster times. Bosley took a closer look at the Laurel surface, however, and made an adjustment. The result has been slightly slower times in most races.

“Horses are floating over it and they handle it really well,” Bosley said. “With that said, we caught on to something. The issue (with faster times) was too much fine sand—if there is too much the track holds a lot of water underneath. We were getting a false reading. The top was drying out quickly but not the bottom. It was running through the top and staying tight underneath.

“So we’ve added more coarse sand the last two weeks and we noticed the times were heading back to where they should be. (Trainer) Dale Capuano said he noticed it. I think we’re on to something but we have a ways to go.

“To get a track consistent it needs water, and the more consistent the track is, it will keep water, which helps out tremendously. That goes hand-in-hand with grading the surface. Water and grading are the main things.”

The material can shift, so Bosley said he regularly gives the surface “a haircut” to ensure it is even. About three days a week the crew spreads some new material to keep it fresh, he said.

The MJC gets its surface material from Stanley Concrete, a local company that handled repairs to multiple parts of the base of the Laurel surface a few years ago. The three components of the top 3 ½ inches of material are sand, silt and clay, and the percentages of each can be adjusted to get the best surface for various seasons.

This goes hand in hand with regular hydrometer tests of the “running lanes” in various areas around the 1 1/8-mile track, Bosley said. Samples are taken each time and sent to Mick Peterson of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory and a local engineer for examination as part of industry best practices for surface maintenance.

“There is a higher percentage of sand, but what matters is the type of sand,” Bosley said, noting the goal is for Stanley Concrete to provide the exact mix required for Laurel.

The surface is looser in the winter to combat freezing, Weather systems in the winter can result in the track maintenance crew working three shifts seven days a week, Bosley said.

Schoenthal noted that making adjustments to a surface can take weeks, not one day.

“It’s a constant fine-tuning of the mixture and adding what needs to be added to maintain the mixture,” he said. “It’s a daily job that requires a tremendous attention to detail, and prior to Chris being here it wasn’t being done nearly enough.

“Maintaining the track is as much art as it is science. As the seasons and temperatures change, the way you maintain the track changes.”

Bosley, whose first track superintendent’s job came at the Maryland State Fair at Timonium—a different kind of challenge, he said, because of the banking on the turns of the five-eighths-mile track—said taking regular measurements and testing water content are key. He didn’t, however, underestimate developing a sense for identifying problems and knowing what needs to be done.

“I asked another track superintendent if you can get too caught up in the numbers,” Bosley said. “He said, ‘Sometimes you can.’ But if you do this job long enough, you kind of know. It took a while to figure out. There were times the numbers said we were right on the money, but they didn’t tell me I had coarse sand out there (when it should have been something else).

“It’s something science can’t teach you. It’s about experience.”

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