Keeneland officials held a press briefing Thursday morning to unveil its new Polytrack surface and to also showcase several other improvements that have been made for the fall meeting that gets underway Oct. 6.
The new surface at Keeneland will make for the third track in North America to be racing on Polytrack. Turfway Park, in northern Kentucky, is in the midst of its second year with Polytrack, having opened with it at their fall meeting last September. Woodbine near Toronto, Canada, installed a Polytrack surface this summer and opened for racing Aug. 30.
Horsemen in the area should be familiar with Polytrack: it has covered Keeneland's five-furlong training track since the fall of 2004. The synthetic surface--made up of silica sand, rubber, fibers, and wax--was developed in England by Martin Collins and Keeneland is now a partner in Polytrack.
"We are convinced that racing on Polytrack is safer than running on a traditional dirt surface," said Nick Nicholson, Keeneland's president and CEO during the opening remarks. A video was shown of this summer's construction of the elaborate drainage system that underlies the layer of Polytrack and the reconfiguring of the main track. When the main track was designed and constructed back in the 1930s, Keeneland's 1 1/16-mile layout had a sharp bend into first turn due to the geography of the area. With the installation of Polytrack, the area was filled in and the main track is a truer oval.
"Most of the old track was used as fill on the first turn," Nicholson said. "The turn much wider and now the track is symmetrical." With the new layout, the stretch has been lengthened 110 feet to 1,235.6 feet.
He also noted that global positioning satellite (GPS) technology was deployed and they found that around the track, there was a nine-foot variance in elevation that has now been smoothed out.
In a demonstration for local television news crews, trainer Fred Seitz sent out a few horses to gallop over the surface. "We trained on it last year from February through the first of December," he said of his previous experience with Polytrack. "I think it's just wonderful."
As for the day's demo, he said: "My rider and assistant, Ben Colebrook, just came off it and said Keeneland has outdone themselves. He said you could hardly feel yourself turning over it; that you're just floating over it."
With a new surface comes new safety railings.
"We have a new inside and outside rail for Polytrack," Nicholson said. "We found what we think to be the safest safety rail in the country. The old one was safe, but it was 25 years old. We also put a rail on the outside of the turf course for the first time."
On the track's property by Rice Road, a pair of new 40-stall barns are under construction. The work should be done by the end of October. The added stalls will eventually work in concert with the added stall applications Keeneland has received for the fall meet.
"If I had to guess, I'd say they were up 30-40%," director of racing Rogers Beasley said of this meet's stall applications. "We are going to use Barns 11-19, which we haven't used in years and years for the overflow.
"There are some new faces for the fall," he said. "They're guys you usually see in the spring. You have Neil (Drysdale), (Kiaran) McLaughlin, (Christophe) Clement. They usually come in the spring and for the fall stay up in New York or out in California. That's a good problem to have.
"Once the barns are finished, we'll be open for training year round," he said. "We should have 350-plus horses. Before, when only the training track was open, we'd have 240."
Track superintendent Mike Young is hopeful for winter training over the main track. "If it's a pretty day in January and a trainer wants to use the track, we'll have no problem with it. If its 40-50 degree weather, there's no reason not to have it open."
While the new surface should be a treat for horses and horsemen alike, Keeneland has added creature comforts for racing fans as well.
"Once we decided to redo the track surface, we asked ourselves 'What else needed to be done at Keeneland?'" Nicholson said. "'What are other improvements?' We ended up making the project much more than just putting down a new surface.
The most visual is a new LED tote board, adding color to the odds board and a sharper picture to the infield replay.
With the tote board comes a new technology in Trakus. Recently deployed at Woodbine, Trakus provides the ability--via sensor chips carried in the saddlecloths and antennas positioned around the racetrack--to track each horse in a race electronically and digitally in real time. Information is collected, and then can be displayed, in various animated forms.
Keeneland will use the Trakus technology to supplement its live race video and enhance its in-house replay broadcasts. As well, detailed post-race information will be available on at www.keeneland.com.
"We know this is going to open up Thoroughbred racing to an entirely new fan base," Nicholson said. "It's going to make it more exciting to watch. It's going to create data that is beyond anything we can do right now.
"There are so many different options, that as a start up at this meet, we're going to test different things," he said. "We'll have a separate television channel called the 'Trakus Channel' that will be available on a number of television monitors at the track. The Trakus Channel will display different uses all day long that will highlight the most important parts of a race. Each race might use a different angle or functionality of Trakus.
Other improvements for the fall include:
- A larger winner's circle
- New marker poles that have been made from a cast of Keeneland's signature gateposts
- The aprons along the grandstand and clubhouse lawn were enlarged to create more than 17,000 square feet of additional space
- New wrought iron trackside rails along the aprons
- Lighting around the track for training hours
- Ten new high definition television cameras placed throughout the track and paddock
Keeneland's 17-day fall meet runs from Oct. 6-28. They will host 19 stakes worth $5.125 million during the meeting and offer the first grade I race on Polytrack, the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity Oct. 7.