You don’t have to be a fan of horse racing to have heard the news this weekend when Rich Strike, facing 80-to-1 odds of winning, came out of nowhere to win the Kentucky Derby May 7.
The horse wasn’t even expected to race and was only picked for the Derby a day earlier when the owner of another horse had to pull out, opening a spot at the starting gate. Rich Strike was barely mentioned in the broadcast of the race until the final strides, when he pulled ahead of two favorites.
"Oh my goodness," Larry Collmus said in calling the race for NBC. "The longest shot has won the Kentucky Derby."
The inspiring win from out of nowhere turns out to have a plastics angle. Rich Strike has been racing recently at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., a facility that uses a synthetic track surface that has been “barely embraced” and called “plastic” as a derogatory term, as the New York Times’ Joe Drape phrased it.
Synthetic tracks have wax-coated surfaces made of rubber, silica sand and synthetic fibers. Polytrack, the biggest maker of synthetic tracks, uses polypropylene. Its competitor Tapeta has not disclosed what plastic material it uses.
The tracks have the advantage of having a surface that can stand up to more extreme conditions while also being safer for horses. But, as Drape wrote, some traditional race fans see the tracks as leading to inflated race speed, so they dismissed Rich Strike as not being a serious contender for the Derby.
At this point, only about five horse racing venues in the U.S. use a synthetic surface. It may be interesting to watch if Rich Strike’s success improves the odds of more facilities embracing it.