Keeneland's track draws crowd

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is certain of only a couple things when it comes to Santa Anita Park's new Pro-Ride surface.

One is that the barely tested synthetic track represents the single biggest question mark hanging over this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships.

The other, in light of that uncertainty, is that Keene land's lineup of stakes races now have greater importance.

While there has been no shortage of key Breeders' Cup preps in recent weeks, some of the most relevant results for those seeking insight into this year's 25th running of the World Championships might come during Keeneland's fall meet, which begins Friday.

Ever since Keeneland's first meet on Polytrack in October 2006, the results of its marquee races haven't been viewed as reliable predictors because the Breeders' Cup has always been on dirt.

But with Santa Anita making the synthetic switch, the jaundiced eye sometimes used to view Keeneland's outcomes has been altered.

"Oh for sure," McLaughlin said Tuesday when asked whether Keeneland's preps now take on added importance. "People want to try their horse on the Polytrack or a synthetic track to see if they might like it, whereas last year they may have been more focused on going to Belmont or somewhere.

"Now, more people are going to Keeneland, or Turfway even, because ... you really never know (if a horse likes it) until they race on it."

It was the prospect of synthetic experience before the Breeders' Cup that helped prompt McLaughlin to enter maiden winner Majestic Blue in Saturday's Grade I Lane's End Breeders' Futurity, one of five Grade I's on tap at Keeneland this opening weekend.

Majestic Blue was a three-quarter length winner in his debut at Saratoga on Aug. 27.

"He's been training on the Polytrack all summer," he said. "It's a bit of a step up for him but if he likes the Poly the way we hope he will, we can move forward with him."

Initial plans may not have called for her to be in the entry box this weekend, but Grade I winner Unbridled Belle is another who'll test synthetic for the first time at Keeneland.

The 5-year-old daughter of Broken Vow was scratched from the Beldame Stakes last Saturday after Belmont's track came up sloppy. But owner Barry Irwin of Team Valor thinks her presence in the Grade I Spinster Stakes this Sunday could end up being a blessing in disguise.

"That was our thinking," Irwin said Tuesday. "She breezed on it yesterday and that was the first time she had ever set foot on (a synthetic track) in her life. According to (trainer Todd) Pletcher, she put in her normal work, but until you run them on it you have no idea."

Considering the variances that occur with all synthetic surfaces — even those of the same make — no one is claiming a bang-up result at Keeneland will automatically translate on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride.

But instead of being the question mark this season, Keeneland's Polytrack could go a long way toward providing some needed answers.

"I think the synthetic surface will make it better for those certain horses that can handle that surface well," said trainer Bill Mott, who will saddle Stormy West in Friday's Grade I First Lady Stakes as well as War Monger in Saturday's Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile, Indescribable in the Spinster, and Pioneerof the Nile in the Futurity. "There are probably some very good horses that won't participate (in the Breeders' Cup) because they have not run well on that surface already."