Bruno Dishes On the New Keeneland Dirt

TwinSpires Staff

October 3rd, 2014

Keeneland is full of dirt. No more plastic, no more Polytrack, and starting Friday we are on the road to having a track that will become relevant again on the Triple Crown trail.

When Sinister Minister won the 2006 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes by 12-plus lengths, he ran away from his rivals by using his speed to get to the inside and run the competition into the ground.

And that was pretty much the template for victory on the old Keeneland dirt.

Handicappers, trainers, just about everyone—even clockers—commented regularly how inside horses were best in the morning in team works and in the afternoon in competitive events.

The timing was right to try a synthetic surface, and Nick Nicholson (then president of Keeneland Association) joked, “We’re paying for it by taking the gold out of the rail.”

Eight years later, the synthetic era has run its course, and a push for the Breeders’ Cup to come to Lexington helped expedite a surface change that just took the summer to execute.

Keeneland had become an afterthought for the connections of legitimate Triple Crown contenders. Sure, champion Street Sense and Palace Malice used Blue Grass runner-up finishes as springboards to Derby and Belmont glory, respectively, but the list of winners—Dominican, Java’s War, Brilliant Speed, and Stately Victor—aren’t going to replace the likes of Skip Away, Summer Squall, Strike the Gold or Holy Bull among Keeneland’s all-time greats.

Keeneland's new main track looks kind to horses. Having watched a few days of training, it is evident that the trainers who conditioned year-round on Polytrack have stuck around for the dirt too. They still have their Polytrack training track down the hill, and can still get the benefits they believe their horses receive from synthetic surfaces.

Currently, we haven't had a flood of barns rushing to Keeneland to train for the meet, as the big names like Todd Pletcher, Larry Jones, Eoin Harty, and Brian Lynch are mostly trickling in. Watching horses train, we expect the horses who have performed well on the main tracks at Belmont Park, Churchill Downs and Monmouth Park to do well here.

Preparing for the fall meeting at Keeneland is unique because the main stable area is full through mid-September with yearling sales horses, so the only horses training on the surface are those there year-round. Is that an advantage? In the Polytrack era maybe, but not now.

Shippers will do well over this sand, silt, and clay native to Kentucky. Speed will do well, and as always the wind will always play havoc with race shapes and running styles. When it gets hot I don't know how much water it will take to keep this main track from becoming brittle and fast, almost the same phenomenon you see at Santa Anita with the Santa Ana winds.

The circumference of Keeneland's main helps speed. At 8 1/2 furlongs or a 1 1/16 miles, they finish at the first wire at the sixteenth-pole, which means there is about eighth-mile stretch run. Hard to rally with a short stretch, and inside speed should cut corner and go. Late runners will have to be in position to strike well before the quarter-pole, which is actually the five-sixteenths pole.

The finish line for the rest of the events is located a sixteenth farther down and it is just short of a quarter-mile, again, a short stretch by any means. Add the wind, add fast Thoroughbreds and you have a unique course that may indeed favor speed, which means positioning and jockey alertness is a key. Top barn with top jocks will prevail by making sure their horses will get the right trip. In my eyes that's what happens at Keeneland this fall on the dirt.

The first couple of teams I caught on this main track, the inside horse won the drill. Welcome back Keeneland.