The recent announcement by authorities at Keeneland Race Course that the horse racing venue will be replacing its synthetic track with a dirt track in time for the fall season in October, has highlighted the ongoing debate about which racetrack surfaces are safest for the horses that run on them. Statistics related to equine injuries released by the Jockey Club earlier this month revealed that, with a fatality rate in 2013 of 0.33 per 1,000 starts, Keeneland is one of the safest tracks in the United States, primarily due to the synthetic surface it installed in 2006. So, the decision to return to a dirt track, which statistically is more dangerous for horses, appears counter-intuitive.
In a published interview Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason shed some light on the matter, stating that one of the founding principles of Keeneland is to ‘provide racing at the highest level possible’, going on to say that it needs to be acknowledged that a lot of horses are not coming to Keeneland because of the Polytrack. Horses training for the Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown races, which are run on dirt tracks, apparently steer clear of Keeneland’s races as they do not replicate the conditions these horses will face when competing in the Breeders’ Cup, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
When Keeneland installed the Polytrack synthetic surface in 2006, it was with the expectation that other major racetracks would follow suit, and some did (Turfway Park, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields), but the majority did not. At the time the primary reason for investing in synthetic tracks was safety, and statistics have shown that, on average, races run on synthetic tracks have fewer major injuries. There were some problems with the synthetic track following excessive rain at Hollywood Park, which is now closed, and Santa Anita reverted to dirt a number of years ago, with Del Mar reportedly planning to do the same for 2015.
While noting that it is regrettable that Polytrack did not become the prevalent surface for horseracing in the United States, Thomason went on to say that the new dirt track will not compromise the safety of the athletes competing on it. The main track at Keeneland closes on May 19, with the new dirt track scheduled for completion by the middle of August.