Seven and a half years after a supposed era of synthetic tracks was given a hero's welcome at Keeneland Race Course, the historic facility ended months of scuttlebutt Wednesday by announcing it will remove its Polytrack surface and return to a main dirt track in time for the Fall 2014 meet.
Construction to install what Keeneland President Bill Thomason deemed "a state-of-the-art" dirt surface is slated to begin May 19 and be completed by Aug. 15.
The switch back to dirt concludes months of speculation over whether Keeneland would retain the synthetic track that has been in place since its 2006 fall meet. Though the installation of Polytrack was seen then as a potential wave of the future for North American racing, Keeneland's return to dirt will leave Turfway Park in Florence; Woodbine; Arlington; Presque Isle Downs; and Golden Gate Fields as the only remaining major tracks in North America to retain a synthetic surface.
"We are extremely proud of the Polytrack and the safety record it has achieved," Thomason said Wednesday. "Polytrack has achieved everything you wanted other than we hoped it would become the prevalent 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."
The cost of the renovation was not disclosed.
The dirt surface will be a sand, clay and silt mixture that was picked after Thomason said their team examined "hundreds" of quarries in the region and consulted with noted track specialist Dr. Mick Peterson.
The decision also continues what has been a shift within Thoroughbred racing 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 after 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 this year plans to remove its Polytrack and go back to traditional dirt for 2015 — a move that was widely seen as a bid to strengthen 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 a peak.
"Breeders' Cup told us that (having dirt) was not a condition for having the Breeders' Cup," Thomason said. "It hasn't been laid down as a condition ... but we also know one of the things it does impact is our horsemen who have their horses going through those traditional dirt races coming to the Breeders' Cup."
Added trainer and Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin, "Owners and trainers who compete at the highest level prefer a dirt track. Keeneland's return to dirt will provide greater consistency for horses shipping in from New York, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas and other tracks around the U.S."
Some horsemen see no reason for change
When Keeneland announced its intentions to switch to Polytrack in April 2006, then-track president Nick Nicholson declared its installation part of a mission "to create the safest and most modern racetrack in the world."
The numbers suggest this mission was accomplished.
When The Jockey Club on Monday released 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 have 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 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 trainer Charlie LoPresti, who is based year-round at Keeneland and 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, Keene land 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 would have thought ultimately what we were looking for was full fields and a safer surface. And that's what (the Polytrack) gives us," said trainer Graham Motion, who keeps a string at Keeneland during its meets and is based at Maryland's Fair Hill Training Center, which also has a synthetic surface. "I point for this meet every year and (the change to dirt) is going to significantly affect how I do things. There is less incentive for me to come for sure."
When the Polytrack was installed in 2006, it replaced a dirt surface that was viewed as unsafe and problematic, especially under wet conditions, and prone to speed biases.
"It was a very, very bad, run-down track in the past," said Kentucky-based trainer Rusty Arnold. "I would be very disappointed if we came back to that type of racetrack. But I don't think they'll let that happen. Keeneland is going to give us the best track they can."
Thomason said the base that was put in when the Polytrack was installed and the drainage system that will be put in place will make the new dirt surface unlike its predecessor.
"Whatever everybody thought about the old track does not exist," he said. "It's got a totally different subsurface when we made the new track. The technology that has been used to create this macadam layer, it's not the same base layers as what was on the old track."
Putting Derby prep back on dirt
Though Keeneland is home to Wise Dan and has seen such champions as Groupie Doll successfully prep over its Polytrack, the perception has been that its signature Kentucky Derby prep race — the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes — had become less relevant by being on a synthetic surface.
In the 15 runnings of the Blue Grass before the switch was made to Polytrack, the average finishing position of that race's winner in the Kentucky Derby was 9.8. In the seven runnings on synthetic, the average Derby finishing position for Blue Grass winners was 10.29.
"It's not just the Blue Grass. It's myriad things," said Rogers Beasley, Keene land's director of racing. "There are a lot of pluses for synthetics. But to attract the highest quality of racing ... to be an island is a very difficult thing."
Thomason and Beasley said that Keeneland will work with resident horsemen to provide ample time and accommodations for summer stabling. Keeneland's five-eighths mile training track will remain a Polytrack surface and will be open during the summer months.
"This horse racing thing sometimes goes in waves. Polytrack was the fad for a while," said owner Ken Ramsey, who along with his wife, Sarah, has been the leading owner at Keeneland 13 times. "From a handicapping standpoint, I'm all for replacing it. From a safety standpoint and my personal interests, since I have a turf stallion (Kitten's Joy), I have mixed emotions."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.