09/28/2006 11:00PM

Synthetic main track opens for training

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland Racecourse opened its newly renovated main track for training on Friday morning, attracting approximately 200 horses whose trainers and riders were eager to test out its synthetic surface and new contours just one week before the track opens its fall meet.

"I'm like a kid with a new toy," said jockey Robbie Albarado, after working three horses over the track. "I can't wait for the races to start."

Keeneland's new Polytrack surface is a mixture of synthetic materials that is designed to reduce the force of a horse's hooves hitting the ground and to drain moisture directly through the surface, rather than to the side. A similar surface, with a slightly different mix of materials, has been used on Keeneland's five-eighths-mile training track for two years.

Trainers and riders were almost unanimously complimentary about the track on Friday morning, lauding it for its consistency and its ability to weather a week of strong rainfall preceding the Friday opening. Lexington broke records last weekend for the amount of rain that fell in a 48-hour period, and another strong storm hit the area on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

"If this was still the dirt track, it'd still be muddy," Albarado said.

About 25 horses had recorded works on Friday morning, with another 175 taking to the track to gallop, according to Keeneland's clockers.

"It's only one day, I know, but I can't find any negatives in it," said trainer Tom Proctor. "It's all one big positive."

Proctor, who normally keeps all his horses at Churchill during the spring, summer, and fall, asked for stalls this October at Keeneland and received 16.

"That was all because of Polytrack," Proctor said. "I wanted to train over this stuff."

Rogers Beasley, Keeneland's director of racing, said that stall applications for the October meet were up 40 percent compared to last year. Beasley spent all of Friday morning watching the horses work on the main track.

"The initial reviews have all been positive," Beasley said. "Everyone I've talked to has been very, very happy about it. That's not to say we don't have more to learn, and just like we did at the training track and Turfway, there's probably going to be some tweaks here and there."

Turfway Park in northern Kentucky was the first North American racetrack to install a synthetic surface over its main track. Keeneland is a part-owner of Turfway, and is also a part-owner of the company that manufactures and markets Polytrack.

Steve Flint, who worked Get Ready Bertie - a recent maiden winner who may run in the opening-day Alcibiades Stakes for 2-year-old fillies - over the main track on Friday morning, said that three of the four horses he worked "took" to the main track's synthetic surface. But he said the other did not like the surface.

"I'm going to try him one more time over it, and if he doesn't like it, well, he doesn't like it, and we'll have to look for a spot on a dirt track," said Flint, who in other comments praised the surface. "I guess that's the way it's going to be. Some horses might not like it, just like some horses don't like wet tracks or turf."

Donna Ward, who shares training duties with her husband, John Ward, said that she had looked forward to the opening so she could get some of the stable's bigger horses onto the one-mile track.

"We've been training on the Polytrack down the hill for two years, and we love it," she said, referring to the training track. "But I've got two horses that are 17 hands, and that five-eighths track is too tight for them to stretch their legs. It's never been a problem for me with the surface. I felt I couldn't get them ready at that distance."

Neil Howard, who trains horses for Will Farish of Lane's End Farm, said that he moved 18 horses to Keeneland so that he could use the synthetic surface for training.

"My riders are thrilled with it," Howard said. "I even took my pony out and went around for a couple of miles this morning. It's giving and it's safe. To me, this is all about safety. If this surface means that there's one less injury, then it's worth it."

Albarado also said that the track would be safer, not only because of the new surface, but because of the new configuration, which is now symmetrical all the way around the oval. Keeneland was notorious, Albarado said, for having two very tight turns: the first, and the last.

"That's why you had all that bias here," Albarado said, referring to Keeneland's reputation for having both a speed-favoring and rail-favoring bias. "You had to cut the corner coming into the stretch, and then you just galloped on the rail, and you were gone. All that's over. It's going to be safer, and fairer."