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.

Kathryn Baker More than 1 year ago
My entire interest is the safety of the horses and riders. I do not care if bettors want dirt. If all tracks were synthetic, the bettors would have to suck it up. Do credible and authentic scientific research and use the type of track that is best for the horses.
David More than 1 year ago
Most of the bettors posting prefer betting dirt to synthetic tracks. Yesterday, 4/4/14, Oaklawn Park had three races with 12 runners, a race with ten, two races with 9, three race with 8 and one short field. Their total handle for the ten race card was almost 2.2 million. Keeneland, yesterday 4/4/14, had a race for 10,000 claimers, 8 horses, with a betting handle of over half a million on just this one race not counting the doubles, pic 3s and 4s. This race did not appear to be a good betting race on paper, but the bettors preferred this bottom claiming synthetic race to similar claiming races with more horses on the dirt at Oaklawn.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
This is a very divisive subject, it appears. I think dirt is the most natural and surely the most abundant surface that horses of all breeds ran on from the beginning of horses. I have the utmost concern for the safety of the horse, (and riders, naturally, but they do make their own decisions to pursue their career as a jock) but limited "stats" showing a lower percentage is not the end all or be all answer, nor conclusive. How about some real Actuarial Science behind these "stats". I think the majority of horses that have a catastrophic breakdown, will have it, be it on dirt, turf or synth. Too many variables, as noted by posters, and believe it, Walter is dead on about respiratory problems on synth tracks, it will appear in horses and humans alike. How about horses that breakdown, that could be prevented? I've seen too many horses take "bad steps" the jock stops riding for a few strides and then continues to ride and almost always at the first use of the whip, the horse goes down. Just one example (of many), Inexcessivelygood, in the Jim Beam at TP some years ago, CJ, one of the best jocks of our era, was on him, and if you watch the race, you see that beautiful Gray take a "bad step" coming down the stretch, Chris freezes, gathers him up a few strides, smacks him with the whip and down he goes, that was preventable. But we're all human and not perfect, and in no way do I blame CJ. Also, problems that aren't seen, is a major factor as well, and soft tissue injuries DO lead to major injuries and catastrophic breakdowns. Scintigraphy is a technology that can screen horses for microfractures that usually lead to more severe injuries. "It isn't a lameness meter, Someone has to interpret the information. And a third of the time scintigraphy doesn't show the answer because it (the problem) is in soft tissue, which is not visualized as well. It has to be combined with a lameness exam to tell you what it means." This was a direct quote by Dr Larry Bramlage I am all for the safety of our horses, they are the show and one of God's most beautiful creations, but real work and research must be done and A LOT more of it is needed, I appreciate the stats, naturally, but we need to know the whys, too, in all breakdowns.
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
Grass is the natural surface for horses.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
In some cases I agree, but not from time immemorial.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
I'm glad English Council took to the synth as much as his breeding screams for his "natural surface" :)
Lefty More than 1 year ago
Hey, I am excited! This is great news.. Funny thing as I skimmed the article there are others who don't feel the same, that's a bit stunning..I dig dirt! Quite frankly, every track should do it, but eh what can you do. However, it's a good move as far as I am concerned, I love this move!
telfe23 More than 1 year ago
I thought Lopestri was a real smart guy, how is that he doesnt understand this move? American racing is about dirt, that's why the best races should be run on that surface. Hasn't he noticed that the Blue Grass has become irrelevant in the triple crown trail??
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
Ummm he prefers his horse be on a safer surface and cares about the life of his animal? silly of him to care about that.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Then maybe he should've scratched Wise Dan for the BC Turf, that was just as bad (and just as hard) if not worse than the rolled concrete that day(s)
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
What horse won the derby that won the Blue grass?.....in the last 15 years prior to the switch to Poly....1 horse?, 2 MAYBE. So don't give me this important relevant prep bs.
Will More than 1 year ago
As far as Lopresti's comments, does anyone know if Keeneland training track will be changed to dirt?
john g More than 1 year ago
This is absolutely fantastic news that Keenland is switching back to dirt. The local betting public that went to Keenland has been wanting the switch back for years, overwhelming support for the switch back, hands down. The locals wanted Keenland to once again retain the Bluegrass Stakes as a major Ky. Derby prep, afterall, its only 70 miles from Louisville and Churchill Downs. I don't believe the decision had nothing to do with a very small 10% chance of hosting Breeders Cup races when Keenland doesn't have the seating or space to support BC races. And, if turf races get rained off the turf, it will be like any other track, short fields, that's the nature of the beast, and will be a small amount of races. As far as what is done in other countries, so? Do what makes the Bluegrass Stakes a major Ky. Derby prep once again, switch back to dirt.
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
Here is the difference between racing countries. who treats their horses better overall. England- Whip rule, no race day meds, only run on Turf or All weather in the winter, Horses train at their yards on PEACFUL gallops. The British Horseracing authority has some of the strictest rules for Flat racing anywhere. USA Racing - 99% of horses run on meds, No whip rule, Horse train in highly stressful enviroments, and trainers are caught every year abusing horses with medications they don't need, or crappy patch work on horses hoofs, leading the stable to run sore horses.
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
Now they want all their tracks back on dirt highways from coast to coast.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Drug use on horses is more concerning and has more negative effects than the surface they compete on. Every horseplayer has their preference on what surface they like. Every horseplayer should be uniform on the use of drugs on horses
john g More than 1 year ago
You forgot one other difference, USA is home to the most prestigious race in the world, the Ky. Derby, which is also ran on dirt, so why not make the Bluegrass Stakes which is a major Derby prep run on the same surface, dirt.
martymar . More than 1 year ago
prestigious according to whom?
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
Its the most prestigious in America. America = the world? British and Japanese and Australian and south african and south American countries could careless
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
Most prestigious in the USA...sure. I say USA because in Canada we run our biggest races on Turf aside from the Plate. But I would say the most prestigious 3 year old race in the world would be the English Derby.
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
John you severely missed my point. I was speaking on the welfare of the horse. The race is secondary. I pointed out how they treat their horses in Countries where racing is TRUELY resepected.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Synthetics were a fad just like the pet rock. Kee is not changing because of the Breeders Cup. Remember Kee has a financial interest in Polytrack since they own a piece of it. They are changing because of public opinion against the poly. Handle has risen because Kee operates the most friendly wagering meets of the year. Takeout is one of the lowest in the country, field sizes are large and it's a short meet. Hmm... Sounds a lot like meets in Hong Kong & Japan. Maybe boutique meets like Kee are the future of American racing.
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
Field sizes will shrink considerably when races are moved from the turf.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
The main reason they went to polytrack was they thought it would not require much maintenance. They were wrong. the safety of the horses was always a tertiary concern for them behind handle, cost and trainer wants.As far as the bettors they are simply having the same reaction they used to have to turf racing back in the 70s and some still have today its new its different it makes handicapping a little more complicated. But lets face it Keenlands dirt track was constantly a merry go round biased to inside speed and hard as a rock.something we already have plenty of.most bettors now have accepted and love turf racing and if dirt racing is to survive it must deal with its shortcomings namely the track crews who insist on making them paved cement like speed biased death highways.
john g More than 1 year ago
The main reason Keenland is changing back is they want to return the Bluegrass Stakes to the major Ky. Derby status it once enjoyed, and the Ky. Derby is also ran on dirt, so its a no brainer, and the overwhelming majority of the public wanted the change back. The locals mainly wanted to see the Bluegrass Stakes return to days as a major Ky. Derby prep., after all, its only 70 miles from Churchill Downs.