So long Polytrack

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Keeneland’s decision to remove its Polytrack and replace the main track with a traditional dirt surface is the latest maelstrom in the Thoroughbred industry.

The timing of the announcement came right before Friday’s spring meet opened and a little less than two weeks after the hullabaloo over PETA’s “undercover investigation” of trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn and The New York Times’ subsequent and predictable swallowing of the bait that made the story into a big issue.

Like the Asmussen affair, everyone in racing seems to have an opinion on Keeneland’s move.

Some agree, others disagree and maybe some don’t care either way.

So-called purists – most of whom are just minions of believed-to-be authority figures with titles and no actual decision-making responsibilities – say it should be done because the most prestigious races that Keeneland run have been hurt by lesser quality because they’re run on Polytrack.

The minions point to the winners of the Blue Grass, who haven’t won a classic race since 1991, but ignore the fact that winners of other key preps like the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby endured or are enduring their own runs of futility in recent years. For the record, no winner of the Wood has won anything in the Triple Crown since Empire Maker in 2003 and Santa Anita Derby winners went from 2002 to 2011 without classic success.

Others say it’s being done without regard for the horses and point to a recent statistical analysis released by The Jockey Club that shows a lesser rate of breakdowns on synthetic tracks compared to dirt tracks.

The study of data – not a manufactured and flawed database that included Quarter Horse races, jump races and ignorant misconceptions that equated horses who pulled up in races with breakdowns – showed “synthetic racing surfaces continued to be associated with significantly fewer fatal injuries than dirt and turf,” according to a veterinarian and scientist who works as a consultant to The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. (Read the report.)

Finally (well, there are certainly other opinions), there are those that say it’s being done with the preferences of horseplayers in mind.

Horseplayers prefer dirt. Right?

They prefer dirt so much that despite all the fan/bettor education initiatives and the like that the quarterly handle figures released by Equibase seem to always show a decrease while the number of forgettable 6-furlong races with small fields on dirt tracks from coast-to-coast seem to be increasing.

And they prefer dirt so much that they stay away from synthetic racing, or so you’d believe despite record handle figures at Keeneland the last few meetings.

All the arguments seem to fall in line with those about chickens and eggs. It seems the most rational statements are those that trend toward it being a “complicated” issue at best.

The decision to change from dirt to synthetic wasn’t too complicated when it was made, considering the perceived safety issues and speed bias of the former main track. The Polytrack wasn’t seen as a panacea, but it was supposed to help those problems.

I remember being turned off initially by the racing on Polytrack the first few seasons, disdain I now know was caused by the fact that I found it difficult to cash a bet on races being run on the main track. So I did what a lot of other minions might do, I swore off Keeneland’s Polytrack races.

“I’ll never bet another race on the Poly,” was the rallying call.

There were plenty of other options available via simulcast, so that was that.

The ban didn’t last long. Call it lack of will power if you will, but when one spends a day at Keeneland watching simulcast races you completely miss out on the experience. Keeneland is successful for many reasons, the setting, the seasons, the facility and definitely the wagering product.

It wasn’t overnight, but I basically went from hating races on Polytrack to embracing races on Polytrack. They presented a new challenge, not unlike trying to bet horses going from the dirt to the turf or vice versa. Other tracks – Arlington, Turfway and Presque Isle to name just three in relative close proximity – featured synthetic main tracks so there were certainly plenty of horses with experience on the stuff.

Looking back now at the self-imposed ban makes me chuckle a little bit.

It all seems so silly.

I thoroughly enjoyed Keeneland’s fall meet last October, whether I was watching the live feed at the office or on hand in Lexington, and a big part of the reason why was the track itself.

Bringing back a traditional dirt main track won’t change the Keeneland experience all that much – although rainy days will decimate the cards with scratches in a way that wasn’t evident with the Polytrack, so bettors will complain (again) – since the place sells itself.

The people in charge get it, and for the most part always have, so we’ll have to chalk it up to them knowing what’s best for Keeneland.

In the meantime, there’s 14 days of Polytrack at Keeneland left.

Time to get to work