Polytrack Raised the Bar Rather High

By Tom LaMarra

For the record, the final Polytrack race run at Keeneland was won by Longitude Farm's Contessa B., trained by Al Stall Jr., ridden by Rosie Napravnik, and bred by Patricia Morange.

The 3-year-old Kentucky-bred filly by Good Reward many end up being a historical footnote, but the synthetic Polytrack employed by Keeneland since the 2006 fall meet should carry more significance. Catastrophic breakdowns were reduced, field size increased, the surface played fair, and pari-mutuel handle reached record levels.

In short, it held up to repeated criticism very well. It may have won the battles, but it lost the war.

Surely there is more to Keeneland's return to dirt for the fall of 2014 than has been stated, including the fact its investment in Martin Collins, the Polytrack company, failed to produce enough North American installations. The bottom line, however, is it's happening, and everyone in racing should hope the new "state-of-the-art" dirt surface delivers. It has much to live up to post-Polytrack.

According to the Equine Injury Database compiled by The Jockey Club, for the 10 meets at Keeneland from 2009-13, the rate of catastrophic racing injuries was 1.048 per 1,000 starts, or roughly half the typical average nationwide. In 2013 the average was a five-year best of 0.33 per 1,000 starts.

Only Presque Isle Downs & Casino, which has a much-acclaimed Tapeta synthetic surface, has a lower five-year average with 0.828 catastrophic injuries for racing per 1,000 starts, according to EID statistics. Presque Isle Downs races 100 days a year versus about 32 for Keeneland.

(Of the 28 racetracks that have publicly released their statistics through the EID, seven have synthetic surfaces. The only North American track with a synthetic surface that doesn't is Arlington Park, but its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., has that policy for all of its racetrack holdings.)

As for field size, the last three Keeneland spring meets on the old dirt surface from 2004-06 averaged 8.35, 8.03, and 8.09 starters per race, respectively, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems. For the first spring meet with Polytack in 2007, averaged field size jumped to 9.54 horses per race, which is the highest figures for eight spring meets with the synthetic surface.

From 2007-14, the lowest average field size for a spring meet was 8.03 in 2010, though it gradually rose to 9.35 in 2013. The average for all eight years was 8.95 horses per race, one of the highest, if not the highest, for a major United States spring race meet.

Total wagering on this year's 15-day spring meet, which ended April 25, was down more than $20 million–12.99%–from 2013, when the meet was 16 days. (Easter Sunday, a dark day, fell during this year's spring meet.)

Average daily handle, however, was down 7.19% to $9,202,229 from a record $9,915,037 in the spring of 2013. Average daily on-track wagering, meanwhile, increased 7% to $1,262,110 from $1,180,662.

According to TJCIS statistics, purses averaged $613,584 per day at Keeneland this spring, up from $578,264 last spring. With fewer races the number of 2-year-old starts dropped 57.35% from 68 last spring to 29 this year.

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