HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, October 6, 2021 – Thursday marks the one week anniversary of Tapeta Track racing at Gulfstream Park, the only major American venue to offer racing on three disparate surfaces: dirt, turf, and synthetic footing.
As I walked onto the apron from the north end of the Gulfstream grandstand, I admit to being confused: Where is Tapeta Track I wondered before realizing the surface was white in appearance, a first.
“Tapeta surfaces differ based on the environment,” explained Bill Badgett, Gulfstream’s Executive Director of Racing Operations. “Every jurisdiction is different, the construction depends on temperatures, amount of rainfall and so forth.
“Ours is a lighter color because we needed the surface to reflect heat, not absorb it. So far this surface has done a good job repelling the heat and of course the surface allows rainfall to seep through [rather than collect standing water].”
Gulfstream’s first ever on Tapeta event was a two-turn mile and a sixteenth for claimers three-year-old and up, and we were startled to see the amount of kickback as the field entered the lower first turn.
“Because the turns are banked, the surface is going to be a little deeper on the turns and will produce more kickback [than the straightaways]. We will make adjustments as we go. It’s a learning experience for everyone involved.”
But what was surprising, too, was that despite the amount of kickback, the horses, including the trailers, came back clean, not covered with soil as is common on dirt surfaces.
“You saw a lot of kickback because the surface wasn’t watered. The people who constructed it wanted to see how it acted before adding water,” Badgett explained. “Wetting it will make it tighter and cut down on kickback.”
Adding water will make the surface quicker and running times will get faster.
“They have gotten a little faster already and overall performances have improved, but Tapeta always will be the slowest of the three surfaces.”
The Tapeta launch was delayed a week and it’s not a stretch to place some of the blame on shipping delays since Covid. The safety rail Gulfstream ordered from the UK was on the dock for a week before being shipped.
But better late…
The grooming of Tapeta will be part of the ongoing process. Gulfstream has learned that the surface doesn’t really need a lot of water, which is now done with water trucks, standard operating procedure everywhere.
Gulfstream has learned that it can run as many as three races without watering the surface which currently is being maintained by rototiller on most race days.
But every 10 days or so, the tiller reaches down deeper and brings the bottom of the surface to the top of the surface, in effect re-creating the surface so that it performs as if brand new.
A new irrigation system is being installed to aid in the maintenance of both the Tapeta and turf courses.
With turf racing a point of emphasis, the course must be scrupulously maintained since there’s less of it to work with, the outside lanes having been converted to Tapeta.
Though far from universally accepted, most handicappers and horsemen agree that turf horses are likely to perform well on Tapeta.
Early results bear this out, but it would be foolish to assume that a large number will do so automatically. Thus far, pressers, mid-pack runners, and ralliers have held sway, thus the ability of turf horses to transition successfully to synth.
Of course, horsemen will experiment to see if their turf horses act just as well on Tapeta. Most jockeys believe that a winning Tapeta strategy is to ride those races as if it were a grass event.
In addition to keeping rescheduled turf races intact, a third surface allows the racing secretary to use the word “or” less frequently in condition-book language.
A race with too many conditions often makes class levels indistinguishable from one another, confusing horseplayers, and horsemen, too. Adding a surface-restriction condition mitigates this dilemma.
The elephant in the condition book, and the track’s purse account, is that field size will not be compromised as badly with the transition to Tapeta vs. dirt with standing water on top. Last year Gulfstream lost over 100 turf races due to adverse weather.
Support for converting a portion of the turf course into an All-Weather surface had universal backing within the Stronach Group and Badgett, a strong proponent, was pleased with the decision to go forward.
“Belinda [Stronach] has supported everything we wanted to do and she’s spent lots of money on improvements.”
Some improvements remain in the pipeline but one thing fans will notice sometime prior to the start of the Championship Meet that begins in late fall is the installation of a new matrix board.
A portion of the existing board has been rebuilt and newer elements were added. Said Badgett: “The new matrix will be 65 feet wide, 35% larger. There now will be room for additional betting information and the visuals will be a lot better.”
And so there is much to be learned about the new surface from all points of view and how three-surface racing interacts from a handicapping perspective.
It certainly will be more challenging at first. Knowledge of pedigree, trainer patterns and riding ability will be more important than ever. The degree of difficulty will increase as should payoffs, even if favorites won at a 60% clip opening week.
Like dirt and turf races, not all Tapeta surfaces play the same. But like slop lovers, or turf specialists, some individuals will discover an All-Weather niche.
We will be patient and careful betting Tapeta track, waiting for horses to get a run or two over the surface and, for the most part, will compare apples to apples.
I love the idea that my hometown track has diversified the game, making it challenging by increasing the options of engagement. By extension, it makes the game safer, too.
Safety statistics show that synthetic racing is, on balance, a good thing for the horses. And what’s good for the horses is good for both the player and the bottom line.