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Belmont Stakes contenders to gallop on track primed to curb career-ending injuries

Glen Kozak, vice-president of facilities and racing surfaces

Glen Kozak, vice-president of facilities and racing surfaces for NYRA, is seen at Belmont Park on Friday May 29, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

When American Pharoah and his thoroughbred competitors spring from Belmont Park's starting gate Saturday in pursuit of the final jewel in the Triple Crown, they will gallop over one of the most carefully manicured and monitored racing surfaces in the country.

The racetrack known as "The Big Sandy" will have been harrowed, graded, watered and -- depending on the weather -- rolled and sealed to keep rain from infiltrating the cushion of the racing surface.

The man whose admitted passion is the mile-and-a-half track's perfection is Glen Kozak, 44, vice president in charge of facilities and racing surfaces for the New York Racing Association.

"Every day we have horses racing and training on our track is an important day," said Kozak, sitting on the steel benches near the finish line. "We do the same maintenance and give it the same scrutiny."

Belmont Park in Elmont is far more than the track upon which multimillion-dollar thoroughbreds will compete in the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes. For jockeys and trainers, it is where they work every day, and where their horses sometimes suffer career-ending and life-ending injuries.

What that means to Kozak, who took charge in 2008, is that -- more than ever -- he has to record and analyze everything he does to that surface of sand, silt and clay, with a top cushion that measures from 4 1/4 inches to 4 1/2 inches deep.

Belmont and several other elite tracks are at the center of a national movement to push for more precise maintenance and measurement of racing surfaces and conditions that affect them.

It is fueled in part by the spotlight on the tragic breakdowns of such prominent racehorses as Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness Stakes and Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby -- both of which were witnessed by national television audiences. In New York, it comes after the deaths of dozens of racehorses in lesser-known contests at NYRA tracks.

"Lives are at stake," Kozak said. "We're all in this together."

Grew up on horse farm

Kozak, 44, grew up on a New Jersey horse farm and is the son of a small-animal veterinarian. He knows how to speak the language of horses when he consults with veterinarians, trainers and jockeys about track conditions. Each has a different preference as to the surface that a particular horse prefers. He sometimes hangs out at the scales where jockeys are weighed, just to get their input.

"They may not always agree with our preparation, but we'll explain to them what we're doing and accommodate them if we can," he said.

Kozak is in charge of all three of NYRA's tracks: Belmont, Saratoga Race Course and Aqueduct Racetrack. At any given time, he said, up to 3,000 horses are either training or racing at the three. At Belmont alone, there are three dirt tracks, including the main one where the Stakes is held, and two turf courses.

While he supervises the maintenance of all three facilities, it is the track surfaces at each that command the majority of his time. Of 300 people in his department, a total of 45 people work only on track maintenance, using more than 30 pieces of equipment.

Maintenance begins in the predawn hours, before horses' workouts, and continues through the morning. Later, after racing begins, the track is harrowed -- or "opened" -- a process repeated between each race.

The traditional equipment includes the harrow, used to comb the track's surface; the "float," to make it more compact; and the grader, to smooth out inconsistencies. Most important is the water truck, which irrigates the dirt. Depending upon the weather, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water may be used daily to keep the track at the correct moisture level.

Modern tools that Kozak and other track managers now use include iPads, to digitally record everything that is done to the surface, and GPS monitors that show whether workers are accurately carrying out their instructions.

Perhaps most critical, Kozak said, is his ability to predict the weather. There are weather stations all around the track, and he constantly checks at least three meteorological services online and over the phone to figure out how to respond to weather changes.

"We can control some of the things on the course, but weather dictates everything," he said. "Our big thing is timing: When is the rain moving in?"

"You look like a star when the rain comes in at the right time," he said. "But when it doesn't . . ."

After the rain-soaked Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore, Kozak spoke to the track superintendent, a close colleague. Before the race, that track was repeatedly "sealed," or "floated," to compact the dirt and prevent rain from making the surface too slippery.

"It was prepared really well," Kozak said. "It looked like a sealed, floated track, which is how it should have looked -- perfectly flat."

Close monitoring of the effects of weather on track surfaces was a key recommendation from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's task force on racehorse health and safety. The panel was appointed after 21 racehorse fatalities occurred at Aqueduct between December 2011 and March 18, 2012.

More monitoring advised

The task force's September 2012 report mentioned Kozak by name and said maintenance at all NYRA tracks is "state-of-the-art." It suggested even more intense monitoring of track conditions -- something Kozak says he already had in motion.

"Being able to have that information means that if there is an incident, you can look at every aspect of what took place," he said.

The panel also recommended that track data of all kinds be cross-checked with a database of equine injury records to "improve the decision-making process and possibly improve track safety." It also suggested looking at installing a synthetic track at Aqueduct on the inner track there, where all the fatalities took place in the 2011-12 season.

Neither of those recommendations has been carried out by NYRA, although Kozak said both are being explored.

Kozak and other top track managers now consult with Mick Peterson, a mechanical engineer and college professor who worked with the governor's task force and runs a laboratory at the University of Maine in Orono. With some funding from the racing association, the lab analyzes track samples sent from NYRA tracks and other participating facilities such as Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, site of the Derby.

Peterson also visits racetracks, taking with him an assortment of devices -- including ground-penetrating radar and a biomechanical hoof tester -- that shows whether the surface is properly maintained and safe for racing for the local climate. Factors such as consistency, moisture content, bounce and cushion depth are all recorded and analyzed and compared against what is considered ideal for a safe, well-maintained surface.

"Horses move from track to track. American Pharoah is a case in point: He's worked at Santa Anita, Churchill Downs and now Belmont," said Peterson, who works with tracks around the world. "Our philosophy has been that tracks should not vary."

"The load on the horses' legs" and other factors "should be as consistent as possible," he said. "Then it's up to people like Glen to produce the track the horses need."

Peterson had always been a horseracing fan. As an engineer, he was curious about the science behind track maintenance. He was a professor at a Colorado college when he started looking into it.

"I was just appalled when I realized how little science went into it," he said. "But now, we are ahead of the curve because we have these consistent measures that we can use from track to track."

12 horses died over 22 days

Even when a racetrack surface is deemed safe, tragedies can occur that may or may not be related to the track surface.

In the 2014 Aqueduct season, even though Peterson had repeatedly examined the track and found it acceptable, 12 horses died over a 22-day period. The state's investigation into the deaths is ongoing and is being led by Dr. Scott Palmer, New York's newly appointed equine medical director who chaired the governor's task force.

Already, emergency measures have been put in place, although so far they have nothing to do with the track surface. Some of these restrict the frequency of racehorse starts and use of drugs and therapy.

Trainers who had complained about the spates of fatalities in 2012 and 2014 said they have no criticism of Kozak's track maintenance.

"I train over at Aqueduct, and at no time did I feel the racing surface was unsafe," said Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, composed of trainers and owners. "Glen, if he isn't the best, is one of the best track superintendents on the planet."

Terry Meyocks, former NYRA president and now national manager for the Jockey Guild, sounded a similar theme. He said New York's jockeys "have the utmost confidence in what Glen brings to the table and the job he is doing, and that's a positive."

For Kozak, the job of maintaining NYRA's tracks, including Belmont, means juggling the needs of jockeys, trainers and horses while guarding against racetrack damage and inconsistencies that might lead to injury.

He's at the center of a high-stakes whirlwind where a lot is riding, so to speak, on his decisions.

"It's a balance," he said. "We try to accommodate as much as we can while still protecting the racetrack."

Tools used for maintenance

Harrow -- Iron rake that combs the surface, used in combination with watering, especially on a fast track in good condition. Different pin settings used depending on angle of grooming.

Float -- Metal plate to "seal" or compact the track before rain. Roller also can be used before heavy rain to reduce water infiltration into track cushion.

Grader -- Pulled behind a tractor, grader adjusts the depth of the track's cushion so it is consistent. Done more in winter, along with harrowing, to keep a track from freezing and to prevent material from moving.

Water truck -- Maintains moisture content.

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