The true verdict on Keeneland's latest grand undertaking won't come for months. But on Thursday morning, ample smiles were all around as the sound of hoofbeats rang out in a way that hasn't been heard in eight years.
Having recently completed the installation of its new dirt racing surface, Keeneland opened its main 11⁄16-mile track for training at 5:30 a.m. Thursday. Numerous horses and riders tested the layers of sand, silt and clay that replaced the synthetic Polytrack surface that had been in place since Fall 2006.
The process of removing the Polytrack and laying the dirt down over what Keeneland has termed a state-of-the-art drainage system began on May 19 and was completed by the middle of this month.
Eight to 10 horses were initially sent over the track on Monday, according to Keeneland's vice president of racing, Rogers Beasley. With feedback coming back positive, the blend of approximately 19,000 tons of material that forms the main track's 6-inch racing surface officially welcomed a plethora of trainees Thursday, including seven horses who posted works over the track.
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"It's been very good. We got feedback from a lot of people, the riders and trainers as well," Beasley said while watching gallopers on the rail. "The horses who worked here this morning, the clockers said they worked very well within themselves.
"It will probably be faster times as the track gets set up and people get used to it. So I think it will be a good fast track but a safe track, that's our main key. And it's a continued work in progress."
Amy LoPresti, wife and assistant to trainer Charlie LoPresti, conditioner of two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, said their exercise riders reported the track "felt good to them" while fellow trainer Phil Sims also gave a positive report while monitoring sets astride his pony.
"It gallops real well," Sims said. "Of course, it's going to take us several days to evaluate it better. The old (dirt) track had been there for so long, and this is a new surface so it's going to feel better for a while. But it seems nice."
Keeneland — which will host the Breeders' Cup in 2015 — announced in early April its plans to switch back to dirt in time for the upcoming Fall Meet, citing a desire to further lure the top training outfits and handicap horses to its boutique track.
Already, that idea seems to be coming to fruition as Beasley pointed out that multiple Grade I winner Close Hatches — the nation's current leading older female — is reported to be pointing toward a start in the Grade I Juddmonte Spinster on Oct. 5 as her prep for the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
"This is what we've been talking about, bringing back the best horses here," Beasley said. "This is what we told people why we are doing this. It's proving out."
One of the main criticisms of the old dirt track was how badly it performed in inclement weather. Given the more than 9 inches of rain that have soaked Lexington this month, the new drainage system has already been put through some paces in its ability to pull water away from the track surface.
"We got tested, more than we really wanted because it cost us 4-5 days of work. But the drainage exceeded every expectation," Beasley said. "While it worked on the test plot, you never really know until you are (racing) on 11⁄16 miles and all that.
"Another thing that will take a while to really get into is the moisture content ... and that will take us a little bit because we have short meets here to ascertain. But we've done experiments and ... for the horsemen, we wanted to get them on here and make sure everything was right. We are looking forward to this meet."