Keeneland begins its 15-day Spring meet on Friday. In advance of the 2010 season, Keeneland president Nick Nicholson sat down with the Lexington Herald-Leader to discuss the current state of the track's racing as well as the ongoing debate over synthetic surfaces.
Q: What are some of the main points you think fans should know about heading into this meet?
A: We were talking the other day and realized this will be the fourth spring meet on the new track and so we felt, well, people might be interested in how has it done. So we've compiled a bunch of statistics on how the track has performed. We've had three consecutive race meets (in the spring) without a fatality. We're really proud of it and I almost hate to say it out loud. I'm sure there is nothing like that that has happened in the history of American racing and it certainly has never happened here. We said when we built the new track that we were doing it for the safety of the riders and safety of the horses and all the rest we'll figure out. But I had a few preconceived notions. One, I thought this track would be slower. Remember how fast and speed favoring the old track was and I thought this new track has got to be slower. So we put in the major distances and races and the average times each year, like 6 furlongs in '04 and '05 was 1:11½ , 1:12 and it's been 1:09, 1:10 and 1:10 and change so this track has been a tick or two faster. You've got the distance between first and second horse, the racing is much closer it looks like here. I remember you used to have horses who would blow 10-12 lengths out here, of course they'd never win another race, but they'd win by 30 here and so we wanted to track that and we found out that is it substantially closer. We used to have a lot of horses that just hated this track and they just would not run at all on it and so the average distance between the first horse and the last horse used to be 30 lengths or something. Now it's substantially less because there are more horses and we've concluded more horses like to run on the surface.
Q: You mention the point about not having any fatalities the past three Spring Meets. Do you think that is due mostly to the surface or is it also the fact that you do get the better quality horses in here?
A: That's what I said when the Jockey Club (Injury Statistic) report came out is I can't wait until they give their full report because certainly the surface is part of it but I think the quality of the race is part of it, the length may be part of it, the sex in the race may be part of it, the age of the race, all of that may be variables. I don't know the answer to your question. Part of my answer would be, well it's always been that way and you've got more horses now, the fields are bigger, there are more horses racing now than there used to be, and they're closer together. So you've got an increase in the chances of clipped heels, and bumping and things that have nothing to do with the track, it's just the running of the race. All those variables are higher because of the way these races are being run compared to the old track. But in terms of the quality of the race, I'm not sure there is much difference than it was 10 years ago. But I'm looking forward to the full report because I've always suspected that a graded stakes would be safer than a lower level claiming race but you don't know. I think sometimes what has begun to work against some of these tracks, particularly a track like Arlington or Turfway, is trainers that are running on circuits will maybe try and get one more start out of a horse on the assumption that those tracks are safer. So they'll run horses that they wouldn't run on a dirt track and that's a horrible thing. We had a trainer last year, I won't say his name, who was going to run a 2-year-old in the Champagne Stakes in New York and he had a bad ankle so instead of running at Belmont he shipped him down here and ran and he busted his ankle after the race. They happen so rarely here that we investigate everyone and when I found out about that I just went crazy.
Q: Is the double-edged sword with synthetic tracks is that some people have the mentality that it is the silver bullet so they think they can get away with more things like that?
A: I think so. I think you have to be careful that doesn't happen but I do think that particularly this racetrack has a reputation for being a very safe track and so people will try that. And that's not good.
Q: It's been no secret across the nation that handle and attendance have been down. Keeneland comparatively speaking has been able to weather some of that better than other tracks. Why do you think that is and how can you maintain that in this current economy?
A: That is the key challenge. You have to make it fun, you have to keep approaching every meet that this is all about fun and you can't get complacent. We start a lot of our planning meetings, the first question I ask is, "What's new?" It's a team effort. You've got to have the horse people out recruiting the best horses, it's got to have interesting horses or the whole thing falls apart. You've got the marketing people trying to dream up new ideas to reach people. There are a lot of things we do to try and keep us subliminally on the minds of people. For instance, our charitable contributions, people feel connected to Keeneland in the community. Also, we're blessed with a great facility and great race days. If instead of April and October we had to do this in January and February, it wouldn't be near as much fun. If we tried to do it 60 days a year we couldn't keep it fresh.
Q: Right or wrong, synthetic tracks have come under some criticism lately and there are some high-profile trainers who have said they don't like running on it. How do you go about changing those trainers' minds and convince them to come back here?
A: It's a challenge and when we did it we said we're doing this for the safety of the rider and the horse. A lot of the most well-known trainers are most well known because they've been very successful in the old way so therefore they have a bias toward dirt. It's how they made their reputation and this is not speed, dirt, I get that. That's fair. I think the worst thing that has happened to the whole movement toward safer racing was the California mandate. When the government mandated it without standards, there was no definition of what a drain system should be or what the standards are supposed to be. So obviously you have problems and you have owners who didn't want to do it and they made it known they didn't want to do it. Well, the only way one of these things is going to work is if everybody is on the same team and if you took the California experience out of the equation, not only would (synthetic tracks) not be not controversial but the experience would be much better. I think the numbers over the long haul are going to be dramatic. We are safer now than any time in Keeneland's history. As to the specific things, if you look at the Kentucky Derbies and Breeders' Cup since this track came down, we have been involved in more Derbies than the 10 years before that. If Street Sense changes leads, he wins the Blue Grass going away. Barbaro spent the entire month of April here and Michael Matz will tell you he thrived here and he was able to stay healthy on this track. Mine That Bird wasn't here, but he had all his graded earnings on synthetics and the Woodbine track is very similar to this. So the current spin is not factual.
Q: All that being said, do you think the trainers that do have that mentality have cost you getting some of the top horses in your top races, specifically the Blue Grass Stakes?
A: It did not the first year. It did not the Barbaro year. If you go back and read the clips the first two years, the press chatter at the time was they were worried the 10 days before the Derby was going to be ruined forever because there were more Derby horses here than there were there (at Churchill). So it goes back and forth and a lot of this is the few high-profile, top Derby trainers are the ones saying it. But it is a fair point the last couple of Blue Grass Stakes. Who knows this year? But you have to look at what other variables there are. I think the way Florida and Louisiana have changed the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby calendar and the changes when the Louisiana Derby is run, those also are variables. Trainers haven't figured out the calendar yet and I think this is an odd year. I don't think we're close to defining the 3-year-old crop right now and I think part of it is the changes when the races start. But we think the most important thing is the safety of the riders and the horses and if we're living up to that, we'll figure the rest out.
Q: Are there any other issues you'd like to touch on?
A. New York Off-Track Betting Corp. is wavering on bankruptcy and that's not just a New York issue it's a nationwide issue as well. I implore the government of New York to save New York OTB and to do it in a way where they're working closer with NYRA. If they would work together up there it is more likely they would come up with a solution that would last over time. I really hope they do, because it's an important thing for the sport.