Of all the places where a hoof meets earth, the race track at Churchill Downs in Louisville ranks among the most famous. The surface that hosts the Kentucky Derby and 800 other races each season gets more than its fair share of attention and care.
Managing the track at Churchill Downs is a multimillion-dollar business and the focus of daily conditioning.
The surface is considered "hard" by horse-racing enthusiasts, as are Belmont Park in New York and Pimlico near Baltimore, the three tracks that make up the Triple Crown of horse racing.
Churchill Downs keeps its track the same mixture of 75 percent sand, 23 percent silt and 2 percent clay. "All the material used here at the track comes from southern Kentucky," explained a track guide. "It's all stored in big piles here and mixed and added whenever it's needed.”
A hard surface makes for a fast track. Track technology is changing and new materials are in use at other tracks. For example, Keeneland in nearby Lexington, Ky., has a synthetic track. The mixture is a blend of sand, polyfibers and a tarlike compound, making for a much softer track.
"If you pick up a handful of the synthetic track and squeeze it, it'll crumble apart when you let go. If you squeeze this track material it'll stay in a clump
when you let go." the guide said.
Consistency is of even more value than texture. Churchill Downs wants the same track for every race so a horse taking to the field for the 2010 Kentucky Derby has the same track that Secretariat had in 1973 when he set a record of 1:59 2/5.
Trainers and owners all want the track to stay the same as they race their horses and watch training times. A surface that changes would produce inconsistent results from one run to the next.
Daily care of Churchill Downs includes leveling, adding water, harrowing and packing.
"We don't need to level the track every day, but the harrowing and packing is done after every race and after every morning workout," the guide said. "The harrows fluff up the top 3 inches of the surface and then the packers come along and pack it down to make it hard."
Without the constant harrowing and packing, the 1-mile track would begin to erode from underneath and that would lead to soft spots and possibly holes in the surface, creating a dangerous condition for horses and riders. Water is sprayed ahead of the harrows and packers to help keep the track mixture consistent.
"On a hot day they'll add 100,000 gallons of water. How much water is applied is determined by the speed of the tank trucks. When it's hot you'll see the trucks creeping along,” the guide said.
When it rains, the surface is packed so hard that water will stand on the track.
"It's still a hard track even when it rains. But that's the kind of track that often favors the long shots (horses not generally favored to win). Some horses just really like a muddy track and that's why we call them ‘mudders,’" the guide said.
A recent flood at Churchill Downs illustrated how hard and well-maintained the track is. Hurricane-like rain and wind swept through the Louisville area in August, leaving the track under more than 2 feet of water. When the water drained, the track was still there and needed only spot repairs, officials said. The attached museum, however, sustained significant damage and many of the artifacts will require careful restoration.