The first race carded for the opening day of Keene land's Fall Meet is benign enough: a maiden special weight test for 3-year-olds and up going 11⁄16 miles on the main track. Twelve reasonably even-matched horses are entered.
The outcome is not expected to be glamorous — except that it figures to be one of the more scrutinized races in what could be the most-dissected Keeneland meeting in years.
After eight years of contesting its boutique meetings on the synthetic Polytrack, dirt racing returns to Keeneland — for the first time since spring 2006 — when its 17-day Fall Meet begins with a 10-race card Friday.
Keeneland's decision last spring to remove the Polytrack despite years of positive handle figures and one of the lowest fatality rates in the nation was greeted by horsemen with near equal parts celebration and skepticism.
Installation of the new sand, silt and clay surface that sits on a state-of-the-art drainage system has received positive reviews, winning over some of the early critics. The new surface stands to get put through the wringer right off the bat, with Friday's forecast including an 80 percent chance of rain/thunderstorms.
"I can't say enough good things about it," Keeneland-based trainer Charlie LoPresti, who conditions two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, said of the dirt surface. "Everybody knows I was on the fence about it only because of how I'll train in the winter and prepare horses and everything. But I was never against dirt, because I think when a dirt track is right, there is nothing better than a dirt track.
"I think this dirt track is as good as any track I've been on. Wise Dan absolutely relishes it. All my horses, they're all training good, they're breezing good, they're coming back good — from the top level to the middle level to the bottom level."
Months after the decision to go back to dirt was announced, Keeneland was named as the site of the 2015 Breeders' Cup World Championships, the first time it will host the two-day event.
Luring the best horses and the top training outfits was cited by Keeneland officials as the main catalyst behind the surface switch. Indeed, six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher has a full barn on the grounds, as does Hall of Famer Nick Zito.
The dirt surface also was the primary reason Judd monte Farms opted to send its multiple Grade I winner Close Hatches, the current leader of the distaff division, to Keeneland for Sunday's six-horse field in the Grade I Juddmonte Spinster Stakes, as opposed to her stablemate, defending race winner Emollient.
"We're up a little bit in stall applications, maybe a couple hundred," said Rogers Beasley, Keeneland's vice president of racing. "And a couple hundred is a lot in today's world.
"What I told the board is if we go back to the dirt, the objective is to get the best horses. And arguably Close Hatches is the best mare at this particular time. The plus is we got the best mare, the minus is no one else really wants to run against her. That happens."
Keeneland averaged 9.85 starters per race for its 2013 Fall Meet and is running a tick below that this opening weekend, with average field sizes of 9.4, 9.5 and 8.6 for the respective cards on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
How the track plays, especially as inclement weather rolls in, will be the crux of the matter. Keeneland's previous dirt track was criticized for its inside speed bias and poor performance in wet conditions.
To that end, new track superintendent Javier Barajas — a veteran of more than 30 years who has worked at Arlington Park and Dubai's Meydan Racecourse — has aimed to get the cushion just right before the races begin.
"I didn't want to give it a full amount of cushion and then the horses dig it up more and make it too deep," Barajas said. "Hopefully I'll hit it right on the money. but ... you won't really know until they are racing on it. The most important thing is it being consistent."
When asked if he felt additional strain given the scrutiny for the new track, Barajas joked, "I really put a lot of pressure on myself for everything to go good. Whatever it is, I'm a nervous wreck."
The early feedback from several horsemen has been that the Keeneland main track is playing fast but fair in training. Most important, those who routinely have been over the track say their horses are coming off of it in good order.
"I like it a lot. Horses seem to get over it real easy," said trainer Kellyn Gorder. "It's fast, it seems very consistent from the inside to the outside. It's tighter (than Churchill Downs), they get over it easier. Of course, there is not as much traffic on it, so it doesn't get chewed up as much.
Added jockey Julien Leparoux, the 10-time leading rider at Keeneland, "The first time I came here it (the new track) was hard, but it's deeper now. It's still fast, but it feels good. The racing will tell. Here, they take very good care of the track, so I'm not really worried about it."
While many early assessments will be made after Friday's opening card, time will dictate whether this venture ultimately is viewed as a success.
"So far so good," trainer Rusty Arnold said. "But I don't want to praise it and I don't want to knock it until we get some racing over it. get some traffic on it."