09/21/2006 12:00AM

Keeneland unveils new look, new surface


LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Keeneland Racecourse formally unveiled its new retro look on Thursday following a summer-long renovation project that reconfigured the track's racing oval, replaced the main dirt track with a synthetic surface, and upgraded the track's telecommunications and broadcast technology to the state-of-the-art.

The renovations -- which, in addition to the changes on the main track, included the installation of a new tote board, marker poles, track railings, and fiber-optic wiring, plus the purchase of high-definition broadcast equipment -- were designed to "make Keeneland the safest and most modern racetrack in the world," said Keeneland president Nick Nicholson at a press conference on Thursday morning at the track.

Keeneland will become the third racetrack in North America to conduct racing over a synthetic surface, following Turfway Park in northern Kentucky and Woodbine Racecourse in Canada. The track's fall meet is scheduled for Oct. 6-28.

Keeneland officials declined to disclose the total cost of the renovation, but said that the cost of the artificial surface was $8 million. The cost of the surface renovation is difficult to measure on a true out-of-pocket basis because Keeneland is a part-owner of the company that manufactured and installed the surface.

The mixture that Keeneland used for the surface has slight differences from the mixture used at Turfway, Woodbine, and on Keeneland's training track. Visually, the new mixture stands out by the use of multi-colored strands of cabling wire among the various synthetic ingredients.

Aesthetically, the renovations to the track include several retro flourishes that nearly transport a viewer from the grandstand back in time. The new marker poles, which are square and far more prominent than the previous poles, were molded from Keeneland's signature gatepost at the entrance to the track. That post was the former gatepost from the long-shuttered Kentucky Association track in downtown Lexington.

In addition, the tote board and fence separating the grandstand from the racing surface are constructed partially of stone, making the two features reminiscent of the stone walls that are rapidly disappearing from the Central Kentucky agricultural landscape. The previous grandstand fence was made of chain-link.

The new tote board comprises five video panels using light-emitting diode technology. LED screens can be used either for video or the display of graphics.

Keeneland officials said that the main center panel will be used to broadcast the race, while the four adjoining panels -- two on each side of the main panel -- will be used to display odds and experimental, animated representations of races. Those animations will be made possible by a contract with Trakus, a Massachusetts-based company that uses radio transmitters placed in horses' saddlecloths to determine the continuous three-dimensional position of a horse in a race.

"We're going to try out a bunch of different things during the meet, and we don't know yet what those will even be," said G.D. Hieronymous, Keeneland's director of broadcast and simulcasting.

Trakus is already being employed at Woodbine Racecourse in Toronto, which is using the technology to broadcast real-time representations of races on its simulcast signal. The system requires an array of antennas placed throughout a racetrack in order to collect the data, which is then fed into a graphics station and archived at Trakus's headquarters, according to Bob McCarthy, the founder and president of the company.

Barry Weisbord, the business development advisor for Trakus, said that the data collected by the system -- which could be used to develop highly detailed handicapping products -- would be owned by two separate entities. All traditional point-of-call data -- the time of the first-place horse, plus the lengths separating race entrants -- will be owned by Equibase, the racing industry's sole data-collection company. All other data will be owned by Trakus and the racetracks where the system is employed, Weisbord said.

"There was a concern, obviously, that the racing industry would lose control of its traditional data, so that's why it's structured that way," Weisbord said.

Using the Trakus data, Keeneland plans to display the exact distance traveled by each horse in the race as part of the official order of finish, Hieronymous said. The data will allow handicappers to confirm what are many times subjective opinions of a horse's trip in a race.

Also as part of the project, Keeneland purchased 10 high-definition television cameras. The cameras will be used to broadcast Keeneland's races on high-definition monitors within the grandstand, and could be used by broadcast networks such as ESPN, which has two HD channels, when televising Keeneland's races, Hieronymous said. Typically, broadcast networks like ESPN -- which will broadcast the Breeders' Cup this year in the HD format -- cart their own cameras to sporting events.

HD television currently suffers from a limited distribution network, but Hieronymous said that Keeneland decided to invest in the cameras, new fiber-optic wiring, and a mobile broadcast center "so we're ready for when the technology catches up to us." Keeneland, which only races six weeks out of the year, may also seek agreements with other tracks to lease the cameras during their meets, Hieronymous said.

Keeneland will also seek to get its races broadcast on existing HD channels such as HDNet, the network owned by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban that has shown HD broadcasts from Santa Anita in previous years.

The renovations to the racetrack itself included a complete reconfiguration of the main racing oval, plus the installation of new safety rails. Nicholson said that the difference between the highest and lowest point on the track had previously been nine feet; the difference is now a half-inch, Nicholson said.

The reconfiguration also allowed Keeneland to address the lack of symmetry to the previous track, which was lopsided. The track is now symmetrical all the way around, Nicholson said, contending that the new shape would be safer for horses and riders going into the first turn, which had been much tighter under the previous configuration.