With at least 300 horses stabled at Keeneland at any time, and as many as 1,900 during peak horse sales, disposing of tons of straw and manure shoveled every day from barn stalls becomes a major environmental challenge for the racetrack.
On Friday, Keeneland received a conditional-use permit from the Board of Adjustment to establish a processing plant to convert muck into biofuel on property zoned for agriculture.
"It's a somewhat experimental idea. We thought we ought to give them a shot," said Jim Marx, senior planner for the Board of Adjustment.
Keeneland is in negotiations with Three Seconds To Oil of Albany, Ga., to set up two mobile units that would convert muck — or any carbon-based product including grass, paper, pine needles or vines — into a liquid biofuel.
A contract has not been signed, "but we're considering it very, very strongly," said John Howard, Keeneland's projects administrator. The track wanted to have zoning in place, assuming the deal will be approved.
If all goes according to plan, the mobile plants could be operational by early March.
"Obviously, if it is as good as we all hope it is, it would be a solution to a big problem," Howard said.
For racetracks, training centers and large horse farms, finding an environmentally friendly way to dispose of muck is a never-ending problem.
In 2008, Keeneland paid to have 911 truckloads of muck hauled to a mushroom farm in Tennessee. Each truck carried 18 to 21 tons.
Living up to the company name — Three Seconds To Oil — the biofuel conversion process is fast, taking only a few seconds to heat any vegetable-based product to a high temperature. It is cooled quickly, turning the product into fuel that runs off into a container.
The process, called pyrolysis, was discovered by German scientists in World War II and was used to make fuel for tanks and ships, according to the TSTO Web site.
TSTO has a prototype plant in Albany that Howard and another Keeneland employee visited last summer.
Earlier, Howard had immersed himself in researching options for getting rid of muck. "This is by far the most cutting-edge technique we can embrace," he said.
With two biofuel-processing units, Keeneland could process 60 tons of muck each day. Each ton of muck produces 100 gallons of oil.
"Sixty tons of muck is about what we truck away every day, on average," Howard said. The track also would use the units to dispose of grass clippings, leaves and limbs.
If Keeneland could reduce hauling costs from 911 annual truckloads of muck to 200 tanker trucks of oil, "That would be a huge savings for us," Howard said.
"The real driving issues are converting muck to something that can be readily used, and secondly, reducing our hauling costs," said Harvie Wilkinson, vice president for the Keeneland Association.
The oil that is produced is No. 3 grade fuel oil. It has numerous uses, including fuel for barges and the manufacture of asphalt.
Three Seconds To Oil would own and operate the biofuel containers. Muck would be hauled to a two-acre storage site on Keeneland's property where the units would be set up.
The track is looking at biofuel conversion as a way to save money, but Howard sees the day when Keeneland might earn money from its oil. "It's definitely a possibility," he said, adding with a chuckle, "I look at this as an above-ground oil well."
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is putting racetracks across the country in contact with Three Seconds To Oil.
Churchill Downs spokesman John Asher said the Downs is aware of Keeneland's involvement with the biofuel company and will be interested in the results. The Louisville track has a vendor that turns muck to compost off site.
Taking a new approach to disposing of muck is part of Keeneland's Going Green program that includes expanded recycling.
In 2008, Keeneland recycled 70 tons of paper, aluminum, glass, plastic and wood.
Last June, after Howard took over the track's recycling program, results skyrocketed. Between June and September, Keeneland recycled 56 tons.
During this year's three-week fall meet, it recycled 51.3 tons of material.
"Attendance was down. If we had normal-size crowds, our recycling numbers would be even higher," Howard said.
"Since June, we kept 107 tons of material out of landfills," he said. Taking material to the landfill costs $50 to $60 a ton.
Howard sells most things by calling recycling companies. "Whoever's making the best offer today, that's who I sell to," he said.
The city accepts the glass and tires. The whole idea is to "sell your recycled material to help pay for your recycling program," he said.