04/18/2006 11:00PM

Keeneland to get Polytrack

Keeneland president Nick Nicholson (left) and Polytrack inventor Martin Collins announce the resurfacing plan's approval Wednesday.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The board of directors of Keeneland Racecourse unanimously approved a project Wednesday to reconfigure the track's racing oval and replace the dirt track with the synthetic surface Polytrack.

When the project is complete in September, just prior to Keeneland's fall meet, Keeneland will likely become the third racetrack in North America to use a synthetic surface. Turfway Park, which is co-owned by Keeneland, installed Polytrack last year prior to its fall and winter meet, and Woodbine racecourse in Canada is scheduled to install Polytrack this summer.

Keeneland president Nick Nicholson said at a news conference Wednesday that the decision was made out of concern for the safety of horses and that the project will "create the safest, most modern racetrack in the world." Nicholson declined to provide a cost for the project.

Polytrack is a mix of wax-coated synthetic and natural fibers laid over a concrete and limestone base that allows water to drain through the upper surface to pipes below it. The surface was developed by the Englishman Martin Collins, who struck a partnership with Keeneland to develop U.S. projects. Because Keeneland is a part-owner of the company, a cost for the project is difficult to estimate, but previous installations have been estimated to cost from $6 million to $10 million.

Aside from the replacement of the dirt surface, the project will also entail the reconfiguration of the track's racing oval to make the shape more symmetrical. The current shape includes two tight turns that result in a slightly irregular oval when viewed through satellite photos.

In addition, Keeneland plans to install 16 light poles around the track to aid horsemen during morning training hours and to erect radio antennas that will allow Keeneland to collect racing data from microchips embedded in horses' saddlecloths. Nicholson said that Keeneland would begin collecting racing data during its October meet, but declined to provide additional details, saying that Keeneland is planning an announcement in the future.

Nicholson said Keeneland had no plans to conduct racing at night. The track currently runs for three weeks in the spring and fall.

Keeneland's decision to install Polytrack was considered a foregone conclusion earlier this year. The racecourse had already installed a Polytrack surface on its training track, a project that was completed in September 2004, and racing officials have said that the recent Turfway Park meet validated the claims of the surface's supporters.

Turfway Park officials said that three horses had to be euthanized on the track during its 2005-06 meet because of catastrophic breakdowns, compared with 24 horses during the same period in 2004-05. Average daily handle at the track during the 2005-06 meet was up 22 percent compared with 2004-05. In addition, Turfway did not cancel a race card because of weather-related conditions in 2006; the track canceled 11 race cards in 2004-05 because of poor conditions.

The Polytrack surface has been praised for its consistency, low maintenance costs, and safety, although several Turfway trainers and jockeys complained during the recently completed winter meet about the amount of the surface that was kicked up during racing. Keeneland officials said the surface at Keeneland would differ from the one at Turfway so as to minimize the amount of surface kicked up by horses.

The project is expected to take four months to complete, and Keeneland's main surface and training track will be closed for three months while construction crews reconfigure the track. Horsemen based at Keeneland will be required to ship their horses off the grounds during the project. Track officials said that most of the horses will receive stalls at either the Thoroughbred Training Center, a facility owned by Keeneland just north of Lexington, or at Turfway Park, which is being converted into a year-round training facility because of the Polytrack surface.