10/01/2014 11:15AM

Keeneland meet opens with rich stakes, new dirt surface

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Barbara D. Livingston
Wise Dan (left), the winner of the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic over Seek Again, will be one of the top draws during the first weekend of the Keeneland fall meet, which starts Friday.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – A new country song called “Dirt” espouses the many uses of God’s good earth but neglects to mention its popularity as a replacement for Polytrack. But when some 75,000 fans flock to Keeneland on the opening three-day weekend of the fall meet, many will express their delight at laying eyes on the ecru-colored loam conspicuously absent the last eight years here.

Indeed, a new era begins Friday at Keeneland with a new dirt surface, meticulously planned and constructed to displace the ballyhooed synthetic that had alternately enraptured and annoyed horsemen and gamblers since the fall of 2006. Track officials have provided a virtually endless supply of technical information about the new surface and its state-of-the-art drainage system (everything except its cost), but the bottom line is a return to a familiar Keeneland mantra: “Racing as it was meant to be.”

Rogers Beasley, the director of racing at Keeneland, has been a point man since the planned re-transformation of the surface formally was announced in early April, along with track president Bill Thomason and new track superintendent Javier Barajas.

“I think everybody’s excited about the new surface,” Beasley said at an impromptu news briefing on the track apron Tuesday. “We had quite a bit of rain here the last two months, and the drainage system worked very well. Obviously, we won’t know until we start racing on it, but we’re very confident we’re prepared to handle whatever comes our way.”

Trainer Rusty Arnold said he has “heard nothing but good things, honestly,” about the track since he returned to his longtime base from Saratoga in early September.

“I’m like a lot of other people – eager to see how it does when we actually start racing on it,” said Arnold, now in his 40th year of training. “Until then, I think any kind of conjecture about it would be premature.”

The introduction of the new surface coincides with what is another sensational opening to a fall meet front-loaded with huge races. Cleverly billed as Fall Stars Weekend, the first three of 17 fall programs feature nine graded races, none more important than the one in which Wise Dan will run.

The reigning two-time Horse of the Year, Wise Dan will be heavily favored in the Grade 1, $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile, one of five Saturday stakes and the richest race in track history.

“He’s coming into this the right way, yes, sir,” said Charlie LoPresti, who trains the 7-year-old gelding for owner-trainer Morton Fink. “He really is training lights out. I’m as ready as anybody to get him over there Saturday.”

The meet kicks off Friday with a 10-race card anchored by the first of six Grade 1 races at the meet, the $400,000 Darley Alcibiades for 2-year-old fillies. Fashion Alert, who has won the Astoria and Schuylerville stakes in her only two career starts, will be favored when breaking from the rail in a field of 13.

The other Grade 1 races are the First Lady and Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity (Saturday), the Juddmonte Spinster (Sunday), and the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (Oct. 11). In all, there are 17 stakes. All but two are graded, and eight are Win and You’re In events toward the 31st Breeders’ Cup championships, set for Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 at Santa Anita.

Racing secretary Ben Huffman said he expects per-day purses to average more than $650,000, once again among the highest levels in North America. Not surprisingly, the best of the best will be in pursuit of those purses, with Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, D. Wayne Lukas, and Steve Asmussen among the trainers with opening-day entries, and jockeys John Velazquez, Julien Leparoux, Rosie Napravnik, and Joel Rosario being named on the choicest mounts.

Although the weather in this region has been unseasonably warm and dry for the last two weeks or so, rain and cooler temperatures are expected to move in this weekend, with highs of 73 for Friday and just 57 for Saturday.

With all the fantastic racing on tap, and with additional thousands of sports fans in town for the South Carolina-Kentucky football game Saturday night at nearby Commonwealth Stadium, big attendance figures can be expected throughout opening weekend.

Chris Lowe More than 1 year ago
That didn't take long. Silver Valley Race 3, pulled up, DNF.
Chris Lowe More than 1 year ago
At least she walked off.
john g More than 1 year ago
Finally the Bluegrass stakes will be a true Ky Derby prep race again. Vast majority of the locals have been wanting a return to dirt for years. Although not too many Bluegrass winners won the Ky. Derby, if I'm not mistakes, quite a few of them hit the board in the Derby at very good odds. You can double check this stat if you wish, or just go ahead and send me my cut now. lol
Brian Duntugan More than 1 year ago
Looking 4ward 2 hopefully enjoy Keeneland's new dirt surface. I hope it will be a safe one 4 this meet.
Ian GW More than 1 year ago
Wasn't all that impressed with their weekend cards. Sat the last race was top betting. And Sunday the 2nd race. B2B 6 fields kill the early pick 4. The fields are way down. I want Kentucky Downs back. Shame Gulfstream closes. Maybe cards will fill up at KNL as they go forward.
John Murray More than 1 year ago
Thank God Wise Dan races on turf, Keeneland its just dirt, expensive new and improved dirt and well drained too. dirt suitable for a Breeder's Cup venue but statistically shown to be higher in horse deaths. Ironic that respected high paid officials speak glowingly about new dirt. Hope you have great safe meet with no fatalities and jock's going down.
John Burton More than 1 year ago
I am a HUGE Keeneland Race Course fan! It is my second favorite race course after Saratoga! I am excited with their return to a dirt surface. I appreciate their meticulous attention to details and significant financial investment to return to the very best dirt surface that our current state of knowledge can produce. So best wishes and the very best of Luck, Keeneland Race Course! You deserve the best! P.S. - I will visit you as often as time and money permit!
sjm80s . More than 1 year ago
What is it that you love about Keeneland if you are happy they are returning to a dirt track?
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
Very excited to see Conquest Tsunami try dirt. Quality horse, and also excited to see No Nay Never scorch up the track.
sjm80s . More than 1 year ago
Hes not racing the dirt race. He will be on the grass.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Going to be a good meet
sjm80s . More than 1 year ago
How do you know?
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Sorry for being optimist, I guess. Full fields new surface, good horses.
Phillip More than 1 year ago
Its keeneland, its always great. This isnt churchill
Chris Lowe More than 1 year ago
"This isn't Churchill." EXACTLY!
sjm80s . More than 1 year ago
Who ever claimed Churchill was good? Churchill is good once a year.
[removed] More than 1 year ago
This comment has been deleted
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
I have now flagged this POS spam bot 3 times, and this comment is still here. Is the flagging Support specialist out sick?
Marvin Friedman More than 1 year ago
You jobs.com is a scam,google it and see for yourself
Robert Davies More than 1 year ago
the polytrack surfaces in N.A. have the lowest death rates BY A SIGNIFICANT MARGIN over dirt tracks. unfortunately safety has now taken a back seat to what certain influential owners (and trainers) want; a more predictable surface, safety be dammed! because the horse has been bred for SPEED SPEED and more SPEED so who the heck wants polytrack??!! race 'em on dirt for the speed until they break down and put 'em to sleep (sadly) seems to be the motto...for now. I wonder how the jockeys really feel about it...let's ask Ramon Dominguez...
robert bertz More than 1 year ago
What does Ramon's injury have to do with dirt or synthetic? His horse clipped heels. It had nothing to do with the surface. Someone could say just as ridiculously the synthetic caused Rene Douglas' injury. Of course they would be just as wrong.
John Murray More than 1 year ago
Agreed, New York Times study shows synthetics are many times safer than all dirt track., Keeneland Del Mar, could have researched improved synthetics but gave in for money and pride, but "this time it's different" with new improved better dirt and drainage too, we've heard it all before, just wait. Dominguez accident whether by clipping heels or any other jock's fall, shows how much preventing one tragic fatality can prevent crippling or losing a star jock or a horse's life.