Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky has announced that they will replace their synthetic polytrack surface with dirt. They’ve raced on polytrack since 2006 and were at one point one of the most strident supporters of synthetic racing surfaces in all of horse racing. The announcement by Keeneland is also the end of major race tracks racing on anything but old fashioned dirt. Major stakes races like the Kentucky Derby have always been contested on dirt but for awhile there was a fair amount of ‘day in/day out’ racing held on polytrack or other types of synthetic surfaces.
Synthetic racing surfaces came into vogue in the early to mid 2000′s following the death of Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness and Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. The plan was to come up with a racing surface that was safer for horses but also similar to dirt and easy to maintain. The good news is that there was some evidence that synthetic surfaces did result in fewer on track fatalities, though exactly how many is a subject of much debate. The bad news was just about everything else. Horsemen hated it, bettors hated it, it was expensive to install and tricky to maintain. To be fair, there are parts of the world where synthetic surfaces are commonplace but in the US it looks like the trend toward artificial racing surfaces is over for the time being. There hasn’t been a new installation of an artificial racing surface in North America in over 7 years.
Keeneland President said it all in a telephone interview last month:
“We were hopeful that when we installed a synthetic track, it would be the surface that America was going to embrace, and they did for a while But at this point, clearly we see there’s a preference for horsemen in America – especially at the highest level – to race on a dirt surface.”
And that’s that. As long as the horsemen who control the product have a disdain for synthetic surfaces and as long as the betting public continues to express a preference for natural surfaces it’ll likely be a long time before they return to American race tracks.