10/02/2014 11:41AM

Crist: Keeneland takes the high, dirt road

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Welcome back, Keeneland.

The historic Lexington, Ky., track never actually went anywhere and over the last decade has continued to draw enthusiastic crowds and top horsemen for its spring and fall three-week meetings. Since 2006, however, more than half the racing there has had a big, awkward asterisk next to it: Most of the races were run on a synthetic surface, Polytrack, instead of on dirt, the traditional surface for centuries of the American sport.

That was to change Friday, when Keeneland racing returned to dirt after 8 1/2 years in the wilderness. This shift not only marks the unofficial end of the synthetic experiment in American racing but also reconnects Keeneland with the mainstream of the sport and will make its main-track racing relevant again.

In the fall of 2006, when Keeneland ran its first Polytrack meeting, track officials held their breath as the horses who had competed on the new surface headed back to dirt for the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs. Would those who had performed well on the somewhat-mysterious new surface hold that form back on dirt? When Great Hunter, Circular Quay, and Street Sense, the 1-2-3 finishers in the first Breeders’ Futurity held on Polytrack, returned to take the top three spots in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the officials were elated and pronounced the new surface a success.

In fact, form had not held up. The officials ignored the fact that while the same three horses took the top three spots in both races, the actual results had been radically different, not reassuringly similar. On Polytrack, Great Hunter had prevailed in a slow race, with Circular Quay second and Street Sense an unthreatening third. In the Juvenile, Street Sense won by 10 lengths, with Great Hunter third, beaten 12 1/2 lengths. It became clear which race had been the true gauge of quality when Street Sense went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Travers, while Great Hunter was 1 for 11, and 0 for 7 in Grade 1 races, for the rest of his career.

Similar fates awaited most of the winners of Keeneland’s Grade 1 main-track races over the next seven years. Those fixtures became less and less meaningful to the sport as it became clear that Polytrack was more like brown-colored grass than a suitable replacement for dirt. The Blue Grass, once a key Kentucky Derby prep, morphed into an insignificant race for grass horses who were routinely 20-1 on Derby Day. The Breeders’ Futurity and Alcibiades mostly produced winners who were unable to be competitive with the division’s best dirt horses.

For a couple of years, especially after California began racing on synthetics, it appeared that artificial surfaces might rule the day. The movement peaked in 2009, when more than 35 of the sport’s Grade 1 races, including the Breeders’ Cup, were conducted on synthetics. Horsemen, however, had begun to turn on the surface as a poor predictor of quality. It was the trainer Bob Baffert who memorably said synthetics “make great horses look mediocre and mediocre horses look great.” Claims of increased safety did not hold up under scrutiny, and anecdotally, trainers complained about new types of injuries caused by the surfaces.

The tide turned, and with the return to dirt at Keeneland this week and Del Mar next year, the era of Grade 1 racing on synthetic tracks appears to be over. Not entirely coincidentally, those two tracks will host their first Breeders’ Cups in 2015 and 2017.

Dirt is not a failed surface, which was a refrain among synthetic-track salesmen during their brief run at replacing it. It is the synthetics that failed to provide meaningful and formful results while causing a raft of new maintenance and consistency issues.

Keeneland got into the synthetics business as an attempt to be forward-looking and embrace new technology, and it did so with the best of intentions. It took courage to be a pioneer, but it took even more to sound the retreat and acknowledge that the experiment had failed, and it was time to return to dirt.

So, welcome back, Alcibiades and Breeders’ Futurity. You, too, Ashland and Blue Grass and Spinster and all the rest. It’s good to have you back.