Shortly after the main track at Keeneland opened at 5:30 a.m. Aug. 28, there was a familiar racetrack sound that had been missing at the Lexington oval since 2006: the clippity-clop of hooves striking the dirt as they breezed through the stretch.
The Aug. 28 works and gallops at Keeneland were the first since the track completed installation of what it is billing a "state-of-the-art" conventional dirt oval to replace the Polytrack all-weather artificial surface that had been in place since the fall 2006 meet.
Later in the morning of Aug. 28, Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason, director of racing Rogers Beasley, track superintendent Javier Barajas, and those involved with planning and construction of the new surface held a news conference to officially unveil the new track.
"We will have thundering hooves again at Keeneland," Thomason said as he observed some of the early works.
Since the fall meet does not begin until Oct. 3, the only horses training over the Polytrack training track and the new main track are those stabled year-round at the Rice Road annex. As a result, there was a paucity of activity early Aug. 28, but among the top trainers sending horses to the track were Ken McPeek and Wesley Ward.
Ward said the early reviews from his exercise riders were positive.
"Everybody is very happy," said the trainer who is overseeing 40 horses stabled at the Rice Road barn area. Ward said he would let his horses gallop over the track for several days to get a feel for the new surface before actually breezing any.
Keeneland's clockers said they were surprised there were any workers considering the newness of the track, and that the workout times were not particularly fast nor slow. According to Equibase, there were about a half-dozens official works over the new dirt track.
Two 2-year-old fillies—Liquid Crystals and one unnamed—each breezed three furlongs in :37 3/5. Among four horses working a half-mile, the best time of :48 3/5 was turned in by the 4-year-old stakes-winning filly Allanah. Working five furlongs was 3-year-old Bump Start, who was timed in :59 3/5.
Beasley said Keeneland had targeted mid-August for the new surface to be in use, but that an unusual amount of rainfall in the Lexington area during the month had set the project back slightly. It was still early enough before the meet began to give the track a good workout.
According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, 9.18 inches of rain has been recorded in Lexington so far in August, compared with an average of 2.8 inches for the month that is usually one of the driest of the year.
Beasley said that on one day when more than four inches of rain were recorded, "the new track drained perfectly."
Keeneland, which used the expertise of Dr. Mick Peterson, executive director of Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, in the planning and construction of the new track, has said it would return to a conventional dirt surface in an effort to attract more horsemen who shunned Polytrack, and also as a lure to become a host track for the Breeders' Cup World Championships.
Although Breeders' Cup did not tell Keeneland that having a dirt track would help its chances, according to Keeneland officials, the track subsequently was selected to host the 2015 World Championships.
"The new materials and advanced technology available to monitor consistency and moisture content in the racing surface have enabled us to build a world-class dirt track that will be as safe as possible for horse and rider," Thomason said in a release.
Conversion of the main track from a synthetic Polytrack surface to a dirt surface began May 19.
"This dirt track represents more than a year of study and testing with regard to materials, water drainage and track maintenance, but our job is not done," Beasley said. "We want to be part of the national dialogue about track maintenance and safety. The data we retrieve from our ongoing research will be an opportunity to move the industry forward."
"Keeneland has addressed the single most critical factor in both dirt and turf track maintenance and design: moisture content," Peterson said in a statement. "In addition to a novel drainage system, Keeneland has committed to an ongoing study of the way water is applied by the water truck, how the water evaporates from a dirt racing surface and the maintenance response to rain. By committing to understanding the single biggest variable in dirt race track design and maintenance, Keeneland is not only providing a superior racing surface but also supplying technology that can be used throughout the industry."
Construction of the dirt track got underway when workers began removing 16,000 tons of Polytrack to reach the existing layer of porous asphalt that covers a complex drainage system installed during the 2006 track renovation. The porous asphalt was then covered by Mirafi 140N geotextile fabric, which maintains the integrity of the 26,000 tons of Class I sand placed on top of it to form the base of the track.
According to Keeneland, the dirt track features a unique drainage system, the first of its kind in North America, along the inside and outside rails that works in tandem with the existing system beneath the track.
Under the inside rail and along the outer rail through the straights and chutes, interlocking EcoRain drainage cells filled with pea gravel were stacked horizontally and covered by a flexible porous paving material made from recycled tires. This system is designed to consistently collect and discharge water into the existing drainage system and away from the track surface.
A blend of approximately 19,000 tons of sand, silt and clay native to Kentucky forms the main track's six-inch racing surface. The surface composition consists of approximately 87.5% sand and 12.5% clay and silt.
Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason and Dr. Mick Peterson, Executive Director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, explain the significance and innovation involved in the new dirt racing surface installed at Keeneland during a August 28, 2014 reveal.
Watch horses on the new Keeneland dirt track in the early morning: