04/02/2014 12:23PM

Keeneland to replace Polytrack with dirt track in time for fall meet

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Keeneland/Coady Photography
Keeneland will replace its Polytrack synthetic surface, installed in 2006, with a dirt track in time for its fall meet.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – In a move with wide-ranging implications, Keeneland Race Course officials announced Wednesday that their Polytrack surface will be discarded shortly after the spring meet ends April 25 and replaced with a dirt track that will be ready for the fall meet in October.

The decision comes almost eight years after Polytrack was installed as a source of considerable intrigue and controversy at this bastion of tradition. Its elimination furthers the demise of synthetic surfaces for racing purposes in North America.

Keeneland president Bill Thomason said the Polytrack surface, first used for racing at the 2006 fall meet, will be replaced by a “state-of-the-art” dirt surface using locally mined material composed of sand, clay, and silt, and that track officials strongly feel that safety is not being compromised “in any way” after conducting “diligent research” into the new surface.

Construction on the new track will begin May 19 and is scheduled for completion Aug. 15. Thomason said the complex drainage system built beneath the Polytrack surface in 2006 is a “critical component” and will be a major factor in the successful construction and operation of the new dirt track and its underlying systems.

Keeneland joins Santa Anita, which reverted to dirt in 2010, and Del Mar, which will scrap Polytrack after its 2014 meet, as iconic North American tracks that installed a synthetic track as its main racing surface, only to dispose of it after a relatively short period. While the number of synthetic tracks in North America peaked at nine by early 2008, there will be only five after this year: Arlington Park, Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, Woodbine, and Turfway Park.

Results from the latest study released Monday by the Equine Injury Database of The Jockey Club showed that synthetic surfaces have produced proportionally fewer fatal breakdowns than dirt tracks.

“The core of our mission at Keeneland is providing racing at the highest level,” Thomason said. “We are very proud of Polytrack and its safety record, and we believe it initiated a discussion that has made dirt tracks around the country even safer and better as well. We had hoped Polytrack would become the preferred surface, but for various reasons, that hasn’t happened. It wasn’t accepted the way we had hoped by horsemen and fans.”

Thomason repeatedly emphasized that safety concerns were paramount in the decision to switch to dirt and that Mick Peterson, who has become the foremost expert on racing surfaces in North America, has been heavily involved in researching how to proceed.

For many years, Keeneland had experienced trouble with its dirt surface, ultimately leading to the move to Polytrack in 2006. Horsemen frequently complained that horses “ran down” badly on the old dirt course, while an obvious bias favoring rail-drawn and/or speed horses often was manifest. There also were drainage and runoff problems that typically led to numerous scratches in dirt races.

Not long after Polytrack was installed at Keeneland, however, critics claimed that the surface was too slow and tended to favor stretch runners, and horsemen said it sometimes led to soft-tissue and hind-end injuries and other problems.

Still, Keeneland was bullish on Polytrack, and as other tracks began using it, Keeneland became an investor with its British designer and manufacturer, Martin Collins. But after the synthetics pendulum began to swing the other way, the partnership was dissolved in December 2011.

Even though Keeneland set numerous attendance records during the Polytrack era, many bettors here and in the national simulcast market proclaimed their dislike for handicapping Polytrack races, as evidenced by a sharp decrease in handle shortly after it was implemented.

Tom Proctor, a veteran trainer at Keeneland and at the California tracks, said: “I do agree that the synthetics are safer, but the problem is if the bettors don’t want to bet it, we can’t have it. I just don’t want to be having the same kind of problems with the dirt at Keeneland like we had before.”

Predictably, not everyone is in favor of the switch back to dirt, perhaps most notably the connections of Wise Dan, the two-time reigning Horse of the Year who has trained over the Keeneland Polytrack his entire career.

“I really don’t understand why they’re doing it,” said Charlie LoPresti, the trainer of Wise Dan. “We know the track is safe; all reports have been that breakdowns are fewer. It’s kept a two-time Horse of the Year sound, I know that.”

Said Thomason: “This is something we have looked at very seriously. We’ve been doing research on every element of the racetrack for the last year, so it’s not a decision that’s been made lightly. It’s not a decision made without a lot of thought from all of us. We’ve told everyone, including our board members, that we weren’t going to change unless we were 100 percent confident in this next-generation surface.”

Thomason said a recent statement by Keeneland that the track is seriously considering making a bid to host a Breeders’ Cup in the near future was not a major consideration in replacing the surface.

“Our decision-making process on that is more about our facility evaluation,” he said.

The Breeders’ Cup was run twice (2008-09) at Santa Anita when a synthetic surface was still in place, but the Breeders’ Cup board since has said that dirt is the preferred main surface. The 2014 Breeders’ Cup will be run at Santa Anita for the third straight year. No announcement has been made about the host site for 2015 and beyond.

During construction this summer, most of the barn area will be closed, although horsemen who remain will have access to the five-furlong training track with a Polytrack surface.