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Apr 04, 2014

Up the Backstretch: A back-to-nature movement in racing

By: By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor

 Philadelphia, PA ( - Following several years of pronouncements that synthetic surfaces for thoroughbred racetracks were much better and safer for race horses, the era of the artificial racetrack is nearing an end.

Wednesday of this week, Keeneland announced it will be changing back to a dirt main track in time for its fall meeting, beginning Oct. 3.

"This dirt track will be a 'next-generation' surface," said Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason, "the most extensively researched and most sophisticated in North America. We believe that with the new materials and research available to us today, we can build a world-class dirt track that is as safe as our synthetic surface for horses and riders. Their safety absolutely remains our top priority."

Safety was the primary reason tracks across the United States switched from the traditional dirt surface to synthetic ones over the last 10 years. Keeneland made the move in 2006 as did Turfway Park in Kentucky and all four major tracks in California: Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields.

"We are proud of our Polytrack surface; it has set the standard for safety in the industry," Thomason said. "The amount of science and research that has been conducted with regard to synthetic surfaces around the country has helped elevate all racing surfaces."

However, problems did occur with synthetic tracks. Most notably at Hollywood Park where heavy rains several years ago caused all sorts of problems forcing days of racing to be canceled when "sink holes" developed. Now Hollywood Park is closed, Santa Anita went back to dirt several years ago and Del Mar will do the same for 2015.

"Keeneland's return to a more traditional dirt surface will help attract a greater number of top stakes horses, and those horses contending for the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup World Championships," said Will Farish, owner of Lane's End Farm.

A consensus of leading trainers, including Kiaran McLaughlin and Todd Pletcher, not only prefer dirt surfaces for their horses, they almost avoid racing the thoroughbreds on synthetic tracks.

"Owners and trainers who compete at the highest level prefer a dirt track," McLaughlin noted. "For us, being based in New York, it's what our horses are used to running on. Keeneland's return to dirt will provide greater consistency for horses shipping in from New York, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas and other tracks around the U.S."

"I look forward to having a greater presence at Keeneland with its return to a dirt surface," Pletcher said. "It's a better fit for our horses and the goals of our racing stable."

None of the New York tracks have used synthetic surfaces and Gulfstream Park along with Churchill Downs never jumped on the train. What exactly happened to change minds in regard to synthetic racetracks might never be fully known. But there was a rush to judgment against dirt tracks that has abated.

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