Seven and a half years after the era of synthetic surfaces was given a hero’s welcome at Keeneland Race Course, the historic facility ended months of scuttlebutt Wednesday when track officials announced it would indeed be removing its Polytrack surface and returning to a main dirt track in time for the Fall 2014 meet.
Keeneland announced it was switching to a synthetic surface in April 2006 and conducted its first meet over the Polytrack that Fall.
Construction to install the new dirt track is slated to begin on May 19 and be completed by August 15.
“We are extremely proud of the Polytrack and the safety record it has achieved,” Keeneland president Bill Thomason said. “Polytrack has achieved everything that we wanted other than we hoped it would become the prevelant and predominant racing surface around America. And for various reasons, that’s just not happening.
“With that reality and knowing one of our prevailing missions is providing racing at the highest level, we have horses and trainers who just don’t come here, don’t come for those high-level races. So we’ve been looking at it for a while. This is not something that happened quickly for Keeneland.”
In declaring its plans to return to dirt, Keeneland will leave Turfway Park in Florence, Woodbine, Arlington, Presque Isle Downs, and Golden Gate Fields as the only remaining major tracks in North American to retain a synthetic surface. The decision also continues what has been a shift within the Thoroughbred racing community to forsake what had been a heralded surface and re embrace its main-track roots.
Santa Anita Park, which will host its third straight Breeders’ Cup World Championships this fall, switched from dirt to a Pro-Ride surface following a 2007 mandate from the California Horse Racing Board that all its tracks install synthetic surfaces, but returned to dirt by 2011.
Fellow California track Del Mar also announced earlier this year plans to remove its Polytrack surface and go back to traditional dirt for 2015 – a move that was widely seen as a bid to strength itself as a potential Breeders’ Cup host site.
With Keeneland officials revealing last week that it too plans to make a push to host a Breeders’ Cup in the near future, speculation over the track returning to dirt reached peak levels.
When Keeneland announced its intentions to switch to Polytrack in 2006, then track president Nick Nicholson declared its installation as part of a mission was “to create the safest and most modern racetrack in the world.”
The numbers suggest it was mission accomplished for Polytrack on that end.
When the Jockey Club on Monday released the fatality statistics collected from the Equine Injury Database for the five-year period from 2009 to 2013, Keeneland was shown to have a race-related fatality rate of 0.33 per 1,000 starts for 2013 – well below the overall average of 1.90 for all contributing tracks last year.
Since the data has been tracked, Keeneland’s race related fatality rate has consistently been below the average with its highest number being 1.74 in 2012. The Equine Injury Database also shows that synthetic surfaces have a consistently lower rate of fatal breakdowns, coming in at 1.22 from 2009-2013 compared to 2.08 for dirt surfaces.
“I just don’t understand any of it (going back to dirt),” said Keeneland-based trainer Charlie LoPresti, who conditions reigning two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan. “Isn’t it supposed to be about the safety of the horses? That’s what I’m concerned about is the safety of my horse.”
While many pundits lamented being able to handicap form on Polytrack and said the synthetic track did not lure the top handicap horses to its races, Keeneland concluded its Fall 2013 meet with record attendance and all-sources wagering and had an average field size of 9.85 starters per race.
The 2013 Spring meet also featured records for all-sources handle and attendance.
“I guess they had to weigh a lot because they had record field size, record handle, lowest breakdown rate in the country, and record attendance,” said longtime Kentucky-based trainer Rusty Arnold. “Weighing that against the fact that it (the Polytrack) probably affected the quality and the significance of the Blue Grass (Stakes). That would be my guess. But the decision came from a lot higher up than me.”