LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — When Keeneland's spring meet ends Friday, so will an era.
The scenic horse racing landmark in the heart of the Bluegrass State will run its final races on the Polytrack synthetic surface before replacing its main track with dirt and a new drainage system in time for the fall meet. Keeneland installed the wax-coated, grayish mixture of silica sand, recycled rubber and fibers in 2006 and track officials have touted its success in improving safety.
But track officials' desire to attract Triple Crown contenders and host the season-ending Breeders' Cup championship, coupled with an industry shift back to dirt, resulted in the announcement earlier this month to follow suit. The change has elicited praise and disappointment from trainers and owners who must prepare for a different track come October.
Owner Ken Ramsey has mixed feelings. He and wife Sarah boast 13 leading-owner titles at Keeneland and lead the nation in earnings.
But he added that dirt is appealing from a handicapping standpoint.
"The tendency was that if you ran well on turf, you could also run well on the Polytrack," he said, "but you wouldn't want to make a huge bet on that assumption.
"Until they've done it, it's a mystery."
Indeed, Keeneland's marquee Kentucky Derby prep race, the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, has annually produced contenders for Churchill Downs' signature event run on dirt. None has won the Run for the Roses in the Polytrack era.
Keeneland CEO Bill Thomason aims to change that and the track's profile. In an April 2 statement announcing the switch he noted that owners and trainers, "especially those who compete at the highest levels of the sport, overwhelmingly prefer dirt tracks."
Keeneland follows Del Mar's announcement in February to replace the California facility's Polytrack surface with dirt by 2015. Both tracks are interested in hosting the Breeders' Cup, which will be held at Santa Anita for the third straight year this fall. Santa Anita switched from synthetic to dirt in 2010.
Keeneland's switch will leave Turfway Park, Golden Gate Fields, Arlington Park, Presque Isle Downs and Toronto's Woodbine as the only synthetic tracks in North America. Keeneland will keep Polytrack will stay on its 5/8-mile training track during the summer and help resident horsemen with stabling.
The switch will still affect trainers such as Mark Casse.
Casse registered his first win there in 1979, and has had substantial success with horses on synthetic tracks such as Woodbine along with winning six Sovereign Awards as Canada's outstanding trainer.
"I'm not a real happy camper about them taking out the synthetic at Keeneland," Casse said, "and I was very disappointed to read about it at Del Mar because nobody's trained as many horses as I've trained over the synthetic."
Casse touted Keeneland's Polytrack for its drainage abilities that allowed for racing in cold and inclement weather, adding, "It's just superior to anything else. It might play equal on a normal day, but when the weather's bad, they're great."
Ramsey, who's also a successful breeder, praised Keeneland's surface for its safety and ability to transition horses from turf. His top sire is Kitten's Joy, whose progeny are renowned for their ability on turf and synthetic.
"A lot of his offspring have transferred successfully over to it (synthetic), so from that standpoint, I would prefer the synthetic," Ramsey said. "As for the safety angle, you have less fatalities on the synthetic surface than on dirt. But the soft-tissue injuries are probably more so on synthetic than on the dirt."
But while other trainers gear up for Keeneland's change, Dale Romans will keep the same approach when the fall meet begins Oct. 3.
"The fact that it's in Kentucky is why I run there, I don't care what surface," the 2012 Eclipse Award winner said. "I wasn't a fan of Polytrack. I appreciate Keeneland trying something new when they put it in, and I appreciate them changing back.
"Obviously, the gamblers weren't betting on it like they did on dirt, and maybe they weren't getting some of the horses that they'll get now. Whatever Keeneland does, it's going to be first class."