Harness racing at Keeneland? Yes, there was, but it’s not what you may think.
Two exhibition races for Standardbred pacers were held at the Lexington racetrack the afternoon of May 21 to give the principals in a racetrack under construction in Alberta, Canada, an idea as to whether a synthetic surface can be used for both breeds. The Calgary track, which will replace Stampede Park when it opens in 2009, will offer Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing.
Keeneland provided its Polytrack surface, and a group of Standardbreds based in Kentucky made up the races with local drivers and a few from western Canada. The results? The horses, not unexpectedly, got a pretty good workout; they are used to racing on much harder limestone and clay surfaces.
A few of the drivers said the horses were a bit weary after their one-mile races, which began at the finish line and ended at the sixteenth pole on Keeneland’s 1 1/16-mile main track. The horses’ hooves also didn’t have that little “slip” they have on conventional harness surfaces.
And they went much slower than usual: 2:11.11 on a “rolled” surface, and 2:12.46 on a “cut” surface. The horses that shipped in usually go in the neighborhood of 2:00 or faster for a mile.
Gordon Wilson, president of United Horsemen of Alberta, indicated the experiment was worthwhile given the focus on both breeds in the province.
“We’re in the final decision-making process for a synthetic track for Thoroughbreds,” Wilson said. “We have designed a seven-furlong (harness) track inside the one-mile track. The process we’re going through here is we’d like to put a synthetic surface down for Thoroughbreds, and would like to see if we could do that for Standardbreds also.”
Standardbreds raced on Polytrack at Keeneland only once before, while others trained on the Tapeta Footings surface at Fair Hill Training Center. Though it seems a longshot, there could come a day when harness horses race on synthetic surfaces, said Polytrack creator Martin Collins, who also was on hand at Keeneland to watch the races.
“They’re trying to do something a bit unique here,” Collins said. “(The surface) would have to be made especially for it. Until one starts doing this type of thing, there won’t be improvements. I’ve got some ideas I want to focus on, and within the next 18 months I’ll be focusing on harness tracks to see what we can come up with.
“Anything is possible. It’s just a matter of how much money you can throw at it.”
Alberta has two major racing locations—Calgary and Edmonton—that race both breeds. When Thoroughbreds race in Calgary, harness horses race in Edmonton, and vice versa.
“It’s critical for us to take care of both breeds and both cities equally,” Wilson said. “It’s important for our economy to have both breeds racing at the same time.”
Organizers of the new track have high hopes for an influx of racehorses given the fact Stampede Park and Northlands Park in Edmonton have five-eighths-mile tracks. The new track will be one mile.
“I think we’ll get a lot more horses from neighboring provinces, in particular Ontario and British Columbia,” Wilson said. “Our purses are up and we have a good economy.”
The complex will feature a racetrack with slot machines but also will have entertainment and retail development. The total cost of the project is about $1 billion, with the racing/gaming facility tabbed at about $300 million.