By Ron Mitchell and Claire Novak
There was no unanimity on reactions to the April 2 announcement by Keeneland Race Course that the iconic Lexington track would replace its synthetic Polytrack surface with a state-of-the-art dirt track later this year. (Read story) Included below are comments from a cross-section of the industry, including trainers, owners, and a jockey.
Nick Zito, trainer: "Hallelujah. I was very vocal on (criticizing) it (installation of Polytrack). I love what the (Keeneland) president (Bill Thomason) said, and I echo every single one of his comments. Knowing them, they will have a state-of-the-art dirt track and they will be the leader in racing again, as they should be. Hopefully this thing will work. I actually came back (to Keeneland) this spring with a barn. I am very happy to be here."
Ken McPeek, trainer: "(The decision) is a tough one for me because I am the all-time leading trainer on Polytrack. But it is what it is. The fact they have the Kentucky Derby (Presented by Yum! Brands, gr. I) prep (Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, gr. I) on Poly, and then they have to go from Poly to dirt, I see the motivation (to replaced Polytrack). I won races when they had dirt, I won races when they went to Poly, and hopefully I will win races when they go back to dirt.
"The old dirt surface was unacceptable. They had a limestone base and didn't have a good drainage system, so they had some issues. I don't begrudge them going to Polytrack and I don't begrudge them going away from it. Sometimes change is good. I'm sure if they have problems with the new dirt track, Keeneland will fix it."
Charles LoPresti, trainer: "I'm confused. The biggest thing for me is how I'm going to handle where I go with these horses. I will keep the bulk of my stable at Keeneland because I can still train on the training track; I'm looking into maybe getting some stalls at the Kentucky Training Center and maybe Churchill Downs... I'm still figuring it all out. Keeneland's my home track and I depend on them. It's thrown a monkey wrench in things but I'm not the only person that has to deal with it. I think it's something they feel they have to do and that's what's right for Keeneland, and I'll have to live with it.
"I can tell you one thing, Keeneland never does anything half-way, so whatever they do will be top quality. I have to believe and I have to trust in the people that are in charge. (On Wise Dan plans) In a perfect world he'll run in the Maker's 46 Mile (gr. IT, Keeneland) and then run in the (May 3) Woodford (Reserve Turf Handicap, gr. IT, at Churchill) and have two races under his belt. That's going to carry me into the summer at Saratoga. He'll keep training at Keeneland between those two, since they're not closing the main track until May 19. I'm not too concerned about it."
Barry Irwin, Team Valor International, owner: "Polytrack was a noble and courageous experiment by Keeneland, but I am glad to know that dirt will return. Horses move better and are infinitely more attractive racing on dirt. I really believe a well maintained dirt track is a better choice than Polytrack in America."
Mark Casse, trainer: "I wasn't surprised, because I could see the writing on the wall, but it was very disappointing. I definitely will race here less often. It will make it much tougher for us, especially in the fall when we are coming here from Woodbine (which has a Polytrack surface). It is much harder for a horse to come from synthetic track to dirt. I do not think the moves back to dirt—and this is not just at Keeneland—are based on the best interest of the horses."
Jack Wolf, Starlight Racing, owner: "Keeneland does everything in first-class fashion and I am sure the new surface will be the best in the business. I would guess that going forward Starlight horses will see more action on the new dirt surface."
Rosie Napravnik, jockey: "I have always preferred dirt over Poly and only in the last two years have I had much experience riding over the Poly, mostly at Keeneland. It is definitely a complete different dynamic of a race. I have never preferred it and will be excited for it to get back to dirt. It's disappointing when you have a horse that has been running on dirt or grass and you get them in a really good race on Polytrack and you're hoping for a great performance and they just aren't getting a hold of the surface properly.
"I have limited problems with kickback at Keeneland on Polytrack, but Turfway's was a different story. Keeneland's surface was much better than Turfway's. It took two weeks for me to figure out how to ride (over Polytrack). In the last couple of seasons I have ridden here a lot more and had a lot more success and really figured out how to ride it, focusing on how the more successful jockeys ride the track."