04/20/2006 12:00AM

Tread cautiously on Polytrack


NEW YORK - The decision by Keeneland's board of directors Wednesday to replace its dirt track with Polytrack beginning with its October meeting was a bold and innovative move. That does not, however, mean that every other track in the country should rush to follow suit - at least not yet.

Keeneland will become the third North American track to use the synthetic Polytrack instead of dirt as its primary racing surface, following Turfway Park near Cincinnati this past winter and Woodbine near Toronto this summer. The initial results at Turfway have been highly encouraging. There have been bigger fields with no cancellations, leading to a dramatic increase in business at a track whose dirt course was routinely savaged by winter storms and spring thaws. Even more compelling, Turfway officials report that there have been only three catastrophic equine breakdowns over the new surface as opposed to 24 a year earlier.

Keeneland, a part-owner of Turfway and the North American distributor for Polytrack, is the perfect site for the next logical step in an industry-wide trial. Like Turfway, Keeneland is in a nearly no-lose situation by switching to Polytrack because its present surface is so problematic. The issue at Keeneland was not winter weather but an idiosyncratic strip that resisted all attempts to remove a pronounced inside-speed bias that often played havoc with results.

Another thing that makes Keeneland such a good candidate is the brevity and quality of its two three-week meetings. Turfway runs only seven graded stakes all year, none of them Grade 1 races. Keeneland runs 15 graded stakes on dirt in its combined six weeks of racing, including four Grade 1 dirt races - the Ashland, Blue Grass, Spinster, and Breeders' Futurity - that will henceforth be contested over Polytrack.

Keeneland will be a an ideal laboratory to see how Polytrack affects the highest level of American dirt racing, one of the many open questions regarding synthetic surfaces. One season of racing at Turfway presents far too little evidence as to how well dirt form holds up and whether certain running styles or pedigrees are helped or hindered by the new footing. What if it turns out that the bloodlines that American breeders have been honing for decades are not as effective over a synthetic surface?

Three weeks of world-class racing over Polytrack next October will be fascinating, and it may ease some concerns, but the industry should consider itself in the very early stages of seeing whether synthetic surfaces can and should become a ubiquitous replacement for dirt. Although synthetic surfaces have been used successfully at training centers for more than a decade and now at Turfway for two full meetings, there are plenty of unanswered questions that require more empirical data.

How much of the reduction in breakdowns is due to the absence of sloppy tracks? Are there other environmental factors or new types of physical problems that will arise from its prolonged use? How well will horses cope with switching back and forth between synthetic tracks and dirt racing? As Stan Bergstein recently noted in this space, the synthetic Tartan track was seen as a similar savior a generation ago but ultimately was scrapped when long-term safety, maintenance, and durability issues arose.

The California Horse Racing Board was wildly premature last month in proposing a mandate that all California tracks convert to synthetic surfaces next year. Del Mar, whose management is enthusiastic about such a change, might be a good trial venue in the same way that Keeneland is, but to switch over Hollywood Park and Santa Anita would be a radical and risky move. Until we know more, it would be similar to decreeing that all races in Southern California will now be run on the grass.

Turf racing is completely different from dirt racing, rewarding entirely different types of horses, pedigrees, training and riding styles, and handicapping methods. It makes a nicely complementary piece to dirt racing but no one would want to see it become the sole available surface. Will synthetic surfaces prove to be more like grass or conventional dirt? It's too early to say, and thus too early to make a nationwide change.

The industry simply lacks the information and confidence to make an informed decision on whether to end dirt racing as we know it. Are we ready to run five Breeders' Cup races on Polytrack and determine divisional champions and the Horse of the Year that way? If Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont all convert, will the Triple Crown still be the Triple Crown? These are questions that deserve a full airing after more and better races are run on synthetic surfaces, rather than a rush to transform the game as we know it before more is known.