by Tom LaMarra and Claire Novak
As Keeneland officials noted with a laugh, it couldn't have been better scripted. But sometimes in horse racing, things have a funny way of coming together despite numerous factors. And on Friday, opening day at the Lexington racetrack, they did just that.
The first race on Keeneland's state-of-the-art synthetic Polytrack was won by Lordly, who is owned by longtime Keeneland trustee Louis Lee Haggin III. Haggin's father, who died in 1980, was a past president of Keeneland Race Course and the Keeneland Association, and also chairman of the board from 1970-80.
Haggin, on hand for opening day, was beside himself. Haggin was elected a Keeneland trustee in 1980 upon the death of his father. Now 71, Haggin was born in California but his family moved back to Lexington six months after his birth.
"There are no words to say how I feel," Haggin said in the winner's circle. "My wildest dream has come true. I'm the leading owner, and have the first track record (on the new surface). It's just one of those things but I'm mighty proud of it."
Lordly, by Victory Gallop
, was bred in Kentucky Haggin and Alma Haggin. The filly had made her three previous starts on the grass at Monmouth Park. She won the Keeneland maiden special weight event at odds of 31-1.
"I've had a lot of special moments, but this the biggest one," Haggin said.
Haggin said he was impressed the horses "were 10-wide around the first turn," which they were. The 1 1/16-mile race produced a scramble into the first turn, which was evened out somewhat in the track renovation. Lordly, trained by Phil Oliver and ridden by Rafael Bejarano, rallied wide from off the pace, hooked favored Maizelle at the top of the stretch and wore that one down for the victory.
The time was 1:45 4/5, well off the old dirt-track record of 1:40 4/5 but good time for the first race on a surface that probably needs a little time to settle. The surface is similar to the one at Turfway Park in that it contains Spandex and cabling material that makes it a bit tighter and bouncier.
The winners of the first three races came from off the pace, and the times appeared to quicken as the surface got some use.
Just before the first race, officials cut a ribbon signed by Keeneland employees and members of the crew that installed the new surface and made other improvements at the facility. On hand was Martin Collins, the inventor of Polytrack, who soon after indicated pride in the Keeneland project.
"For me being an Englishman, getting to do a prestigious racetrack as Keeneland is quite an achievement for me," Collins said. "It's quite emotional, actually. (Keeneland and the construction crew) did a fantastic job."
Bejarano, who has ridden on the Polytrack at Turfway, said after his first-race victory: "The new track is great--I really like it. I think it's better for the horses and better for the jockeys, too, because you can come back from the race really clean, you don't need to use too many goggles during the race, and you have more time between races."
"It was a little hard to tell the difference because I was riding a green horse today, but she seemed to handle the track well," said John Velazquez, who rode the second-place finisher in the first race, his first race on Polytrack. "It felt comfortable. I was more curious than anything else. I finally got a test of it and it seems good to me. Hopefully, it will be an answer for horse racing for the better."
Julien Leparoux, leading jockey at the Turfway Park summer/fall meet and record-setting apprentice during this year's winter/spring meet at Turfway, said the Keeneland surface "felt pretty much the same" as the Turfway track.
"The track at Turfway is a little bit faster, but it's going to be the same after a couple of days," Leparoux said. "It's very different, the dirt and the Polytrack, and the way the racetrack is now is very good, the turns and everything. It's very nice."
The first race also marked the debut of Trackus, a tracking system for racehorses. The Keeneland tote board showed the system at work, with cartoon-like horses on one screen and the actual running numbers in little boxes on another screen. The figures move simultaneously with the horses on the track.
"I thought it was pretty neat, actually," said Kyle Zorn, assistant trainer to Patrick Byrne. "I think it's unique and different. It reminds me of a video game with the horses racing on the animated screen--the exact same thing. I was enjoying the overall effect so much that it was a little hard for me to see where our horse finished, but I think it'll be really neat to see how it works out."
The synthetic surface has drawn plenty of interest from owners and trainers. Keeneland director of racing Rogers Beasley said there are about 900 horses on the grounds for the fall meet, up from about 500 in previous years. Keeneland is using barns 11-49 for the meet.
"We haven't used that many barns in 15 years in the fall," Beasley said. "We've had 75%-80% shippers in previous years, but that will change."
With an additional 110 stalls in new barns across Rice Road, Keeneland expects more activity during the winter training season. Beasley said the main track used to close on Thanksgiving Day, but management hopes to keep it open through at least December. The training track is open year-round.
Trainers who regularly have horses at Keeneland have increased numbers and quality, and there are some new faces. S. Matt Kintz, who had stalls at Turfway last winter, will have four stalls at Keeneland primarily because of the Polytrack surface.
"I can't say enough about (the surface)," said Kintz, whose primary base year-round is Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in West Virginia. "I really like it. I have a horse I would consider a poster child for Polytrack. She went to Turfway to race on Polytrack, and she competed much better."
Neil Pessin, who's usually based at Keeneland and will ship to New Orleans again this fall when Fair Grounds reopens, said he likes the Keeneland Polytrack so far--for training purposes.
"I'm still not passing judgment because we haven't raced on it yet," Pessin said, "but we still have a great training track."
Pessin enjoys Fair Grounds, and the milder weather there in winter, so at this point, Polytrack won't keep him in Kentucky year-round. "It still gets cold here, and you still have to thaw out frozen ice buckets in the wintertime," he said.
With more horses at Keeneland, Turfway in Northern Kentucky is expected to benefit. Since the introduction of Polytrack, stalls have been at a premium at Turfway, where many horses ship from Lexington and Louisville to race. When stall applications are counted, officials expect there to be a full house at Turfway for the holiday and winter/spring meets.
"(Having more horses at Keeneland) will be a help to Turfway, and part of the objective is to help," Beasley said. "We've already seen fuller fields at Turfway. I think it's good for Kentucky. California is now entering the process (of installing synthetic surfaces), so we'll see what happens at other racetracks."
The 22-day Turfway summer/fall meet ended Oct. 5 with average field size of 8.98. For the comparable meet in 2005, it was 8.68, though fields early in the meet were rather light due to an unofficial boycott by horsemen over more restrictive race-day medication rules. This year, however, the track filled more allowance races and generally lured better-quality fields.