By Tom LaMarra
There could be as many eyes on the racing surface as the horses when Keeneland begins its fall meet Oct.3 and the first races are run on its new dirt track.
The new dirt surface at Keeneland - Anne M. Eberhardt Photo
The main surface at Keeneland has been synthetic since the 2006 fall meet. The Polytrack was removed soon after this year's spring meet but the all-important base and drainage system were left in place and enhanced.
With an 80% chance of thunderstorms, primarily in the morning and early afternoon opening day, the surface will get a test. But Keeneland director of racing Rogers Beasley said it already has performed well under such conditions.
Keeneland director of racing Rogers Beasley - Anne M. Eberhardt Photo
"We had almost 10 inches of rain in August, and four to five inches in September," he said. "One day we had four inches, and another day three inches. The drainage system worked very well. The second step is getting horses accustomed to dirt here, but we've gotten a good response from trainers. (Track superintendent) Javier (Barajas) talks to them regularly."
Track superintendent Javier Barajas - Anne M. Eberhardt Photo
Beasley said the return to dirt has had an impact as far as the horse population is concerned.
"Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito requested full barns, and Kiaran McLaughlin has half a barn," Beasley said of the New York-based trainers who didn't race many horses on Polytrack. "Graham Motion was a big proponent of Polytrack but he's back with 24 horses. The response has been good, and we're actually up a little with stall applications--a couple hundred is a lot in today's world."
The first program attracted 98 entries, including four on the also-eligible list.
Keeneland officials have said they decided to return to a dirt track to attract the best horses in the country. There is, of course, a trade-off, as the short list of probable starters for the Oct. 5 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (gr. I) shows.
Graded stakes on Polytrack at Keeneland regularly attracted large fields. As of Sept. 30 there were four pointing to the Spinster, but one of them is Juddmonte Farms' Close Hatches, four-for-four this year with three grade I wins and one in grade II company.
Close Hatches is among those expected for the Spinster - Anne M. Eberhardt Photo
"We did go back to dirt to get the best horses," Beasley said. "So we go the best mare in the country, but nobody wants to run against her."
Beasley said the switch to dirt had nothing to do with an alleged resistance by the public to wager on synthetic-surface racing or the fact Keeneland will host the 2015 Breeders' Cup World Championships.
"With the exception of the last spring meet our handle went up with the synthetic surface," he said. "The handle on the synthetic went up despite people claiming they wouldn't bet on it. That had nothing to do (with the change to dirt).
"We worked about 15 months on this before (the decision was made to switch to dirt. When the decision was made (by Breeders' Cup), we had a lot of things already planned."
The Keeneland meet will run through Oct. 25.