Field size, handle are down after Keeneland's switch to dirt

When announced this spring, the return of a dirt surface to Keeneland was hailed by several horsemen and horseplayers alike. Widespread support from all fronts failed to materialize, however, as the track's 17-day Fall Meet concluded Saturday with declines in attendance, handle and field size.

Among the factors cited by Keeneland in opting to remove the synthetic Polytrack surface and going back to a dirt main track was a desire to lure more top-quality outfits, particularly those prepping for the Breeders' Cup in the fall and the Triple Crown races in the spring.

It was also a call they knew affront key figures that had largely deemed the all-weather surface a success.

Where the 2013 Fall Meet produced record fall attendance and all-sources wagering for its 17-day season, this year's meet saw total attendance decline 5.6 percent to 251,574, on-track wagering fall three percent to $17,625,834 with all-sources handle coming in down 12 percent at $122,844,887.

Field size also took a hit, falling from 9.85 starters per race in Fall 2013 to 8.42.

The drop-offs in field size and handle are a nationwide trend with the decline in foal crop cited as a major issue.

Still, Keeneland did not get the volume of shippers from the East Coast as expected and also did not have its typical influx of horses from Presque Isle Downs and Woodbine, both of which have synthetic surfaces.

"When the decision was made to switch from Polytrack to dirt, one of the minuses was that we were going to lose field size," said Rogers Beasley, Keeneland's vice president of racing. "The Presque Isle people have supported us very well and that will be a development for us, going out and getting different outfits, dirt outfits.

"To a degree, we probably had people bringing not as many horses from New York for a variety of reasons, a brand new track being one of them. There is the question of 'Do I want to take a whole stable here or am I better off taking 8-16 and try it out?' But I would like to think the track met every challenge."

Not helping Keeneland's cause was October's wet weather and having to go head-to-head against University of Kentucky football games on three weekends — including Saturday's closing day when UK hosted No. 1 Mississippi State at 3:30 p.m.

According to meteorologist Chris Bailey of WKYT-27, the area got 3.72 inches of rain from Oct. 3-20 and precipitation fell on 14 of those days.

The rain did provide the new surface, its drainage system and track superintendent Javier Barajas a trial by fire that each passed. The old dirt track was knocked for its inside rail bias, but the new surface largely played fair and consistent — though a byproduct of that was short-priced favorites claiming a majority of the win money.

"We had some horses win in the lead, but if you look at the form they were the best horses," Beasley said. "We've had stalkers win, horses come from behind. The team put together a great, great surface there and we're really pleased with it."

Two horses suffered fatal breakdowns while racing over the dirt this meet. Keeneland had one racing fatality on the synthetic for all of 2013.

Ironically, the trainer title represented both ends of the opinion spectrum on the surface switch. Six-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher, who had not been a big supporter of the Polytrack, and Graham Motion, a major proponent for synthetic surfaces, tied for the meet title with eight wins apiece.

"I thought I had lost my chance when the synthetic era was over," Motion said on his Twitter account. "Missed the synthetic track ... but very impressed with new dirt surface that handled some very wet days remarkably well."