Were this most years, the current talk on the Keeneland backstretch would be squarely focused on Friday's start of a 15-day meet that will feature some of the highest-quality racing in the sport.
For the third straight season, reigning two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan is likely to treat devoted patrons with his presence during the 2014 Spring Meet. And if the first two graded stakes are any indication, Keeneland can expect large, diverse fields to bolster the 16 stakes races that highlight its boutique run.
Yet a day after Keeneland officials confirmed it would be removing its main Polytrack and going back to dirt by fall, the grounds were still shaking as horsemen digested the fallout from the track's final meet conducted on a synthetic surface.
Opinions on Keeneland's surface switch came in as rapidly as the babies were moving in the breeze-up show for Monday's 2-year-olds in training sale.
A desire to lure the best quality horses and outfits was cited as a primary reason for Keeneland opting to do away with Polytrack as synthetic surfaces have become steadily less popular across the sport's landscape.
Though they may not have drawn the sexiest names in their respective divisions, Friday's Grade III Transylvania Stakes and Saturday's Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes have fields of 12 and 13 horses, respectively. A full field of 14 is also expected to fill the gate when Keeneland's main Kentucky Derby prep race, the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, goes to post on April 12. The Grade I Jenny Wiley Stakes has three Grade I winners among its probables in defending race winner Centre Court, Stephanie's Kitten and Egg Drop.
"I understand Keene-land's reasoning (for going back to dirt); they feel like they haven't been getting the tip-top horses," said trainer Mark Casse, who will saddle Resistivity in the $500,000 Ashland. "Though I can tell you, the Ashland has a 13-horse field and we won't see any more 13-horse fields in the Ashland (back on dirt).
"I just watched the first race at Aqueduct on the dirt and it was a four-horse field and I was like, 'There you go.' I hope the change back to dirt will be better for Keeneland than it has been for tracks like Santa Anita. But I like synthetics. I think (the switch) is pretty disappointing."
One thing remaining steadfast on the Keeneland grounds is the challenge of trying to find opponents willing to take on Morton Fink's homebred champion Wise Dan.
The 7-year-old Wiseman's Ferry gelding has launched his season at Keeneland the past two years, including his victory in the 2013 edition of the Grade I Maker's 46 Mile.
Barring any major setbacks, Wise Dan is likely to make his 2014 debut in that spot again on April 11. Only a handful of probables have been wrangled to face him thus far including Grade I winner Lochte, Za Approval, Reload and Gentleman's Kitten.
"I would say he was 75 percent fit when I brought him here to this race last year," said Charlie LoPresti, trainer of Wise Dan. "But I know how he is once you put him in the gate."
Gentleman's Kitten is owned by Nicholasville-based Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who have won 13 meet titles at Keeneland and obliterated the all-time track record when they won 25 races during the 2013 Spring Meet.
Ken Ramsey says they are aiming for "quality not quantity" this meet and they're now taking aim on breaking Keeneland's record for most stakes wins by an owner.
To that end, the Ramseys will send out stakes winner Thank You Marylou in the Ashland on Saturday. The Jenny Wiley will mark the season debut for the Ramseys' Stephanie's Kitten while their graded stakes winner Bobby's Kitten remains on track for the Blue Grass Stakes.
"We're trying to make a push to get the gold pitcher (awarded at Keeneland after 16 graded stakes wins) out there; we already have the gold tray (eight graded stakes wins)," Ken Ramsey said.
Ramsey is in the camp of those who say they have mixed feelings over Keene-land's impending return to dirt and how it will affect his program.
For the next few weeks, however, those on both sides of the fence will get back to zeroing in on achieving the best results possible at what remains one of the nation's marquee meets — regardless of surface.
"My stable in particular, I feel like we did embrace (the Polytrack). I've never had a horse break down over it, and that's a great thing," said trainer Kenny McPeek, who will saddle Rosalind in the Ashland. "But I think (the change back) will be good for Keeneland. The issue with this track prior to Polytrack was drainage so ... if they put a dirt surface in that drains well it should be fine."
College Scholarship Day
Friday's opening day is also College Scholarship Day at Keeneland. Admission is free for full-time college students with a valid student ID, and full-time students can also register in the College Zone in the North Terrace to win one of 10 $1,000 scholarships and prizes from local vendors after each of the day's races.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.