By Ron Mitchell and
Keeneland will remove its synthetic Polytrack surface at the end of the spring meet and return its main track to dirt before the fall meeting this October, the Lexington oval announced April 2.
The five-eighths of a mile training track will remain a Polytrack surface and will be open during the summer months.
According to Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason, Keeneland hoped Polytrack would have gained greater acceptance among horsemen and other racing associations due to its reputation for being safer than conventional dirt tracks.
But the Kentucky track has decided to end its eight-year run with the artificial surface as a way to lure back some horsemen who have eschewed Keeneland, especially on the paths to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Breeders' Cup World Championships.
"One of our founding principles is, we are to provide racing at the highest level possible—and we have to acknowledge we have a lot of horses who are not coming to Keeneland," Thomason said. "Those horses preparing for the Triple Crown races and Breeders' Cup just have not been coming to our prep races and significant races because of it.
"We think it achieved every objective that we wanted with the exception that we hoped it would become the most prevalent racing surface in the United States and that everybody would have it," Thomason said of Polytrack. "For various reasons that has not happened. We regret that it didn't become the prevalent surface. But we also don't think we have to sacrifice the safety parts of it. We are going to be diligent in working toward the safety of the dirt track. We don't think those two are mutually exclusive."
Thomason declined to put a price tag on the project, but said, "it's a significant investment. When Keeneland is involved in doing something, we do it right and the financial side of things never trumps the end objective of achieving our mission—and that mission is quality racing and the safety or our athletes."
The main track will close May 19, with the work scheduled to be completed by mid-August.
Keeneland installed Polytrack in between the spring and fall meetings of 2006, replacing its dirt surface. At the time, Keeneland was the third track in North America to install a Polytrack surface, joining Turfway Park and Woodbine—and the Lexington track went on to become one of the biggest advocates of synthetic surfaces. California would soon mandate that its major tracks switch to synthetic surfaces by 2007 and Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita Park would make the switch.
But the trend has reversed in recent years. Hollywood Park has closed and Santa Anita Park switched from its Pro-Ride surface back to dirt in 2010. In February, Del Mar announced it would switch its main track surface back to dirt in 2015, leaving the Tapeta Footings surface at Golden Gate as the lone synthetic surface in the state. Arlington Park, Turfway, and Woodbine continue to offer racing on Polytrack.
The Keeneland Polytrack did deliver in terms of safety. Last year there was only one catastrophic breakdown on the surface during racing for a rate of 0.43 per 1,000 starts. According to the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database, the average catastrophic breakdown rate on dirt tracks in North America last year was nearly five-times that rate at 2.11.
Rogers Beasley, Keeneland's director of racing, said the announcement coincided with the determination by track executives that a change in surface would be made. He said the association felt it important to let horsemen know of the decision as soon as possible so they could make future arrangements.
"The rumors were out there so we thought we would meet it head-on," Beasley said. He noted that some Keeneland-based horsemen will stay and train over the training track while others relocate to the Kentucky Training Center in Lexington or to Churchill Downs.
"If you wait another month, they have no place to go. Now that we have made this decision, we have to take care of these horsemen," Beasley said.
Keeneland has put extensive research into a combination of base and top surface for a conventional track that will not sacrifice safety and could be an industry innovator much as the way Polytrack was when it was first installed, Thomason said. Leading racetrack surface expert Dr. Mick Peterson has been involved with Keeneland's planning for the new surface.
"We have been working on this for a long time because we made the commitment we weren't going to make a change unless we could make the next-generation dirt surface that was not only going to be accepted by the community, but would achieve the safety standards for our equine and human athletes we wanted to achieve," Thomason said. "We feel very confident in our selection of the construction and materials.
"The effort we put into Polytrack over the years, with the research...we are going to do the same with dirt," he continued. "The same type collaboration we put in with other tracks that installed Polytrack, we are going to be a part of that same type of collaboration as we try to make all tracks safer."
Thomason said the track's existing drainage system and other parts of the sub-surface would be retained for use with the new dirt track.
Despite its lack of acceptance throughout the industry, Polytrack helped raise the bar for racetrack safety, Thomason said.
"It has established a standard for safety around the country for which we are very proud," said Thomason, who became Keeneland president and CEO in 2012. "Because of it, traditional dirt surfaces have become better because they have increased their level of research into maintenance they are taking within their racetracks."
Del Mar and Keeneland have expressed interest in hosting the Breeders' Cup World Championships and the past four years that event has been contested on tracks that offer a dirt main track (full story on Keeneland's Breeders' Cup bid here).
Thomason said having a dirt surface might help some horsemen decide to participate in a Keeneland-hosted Breeders' Cup, but he added that Cup officials did not tell Keeneland a dirt track would be a prerequisite for a host track.