LEXINGTON, KY (WAVE) - While a bride to be was posing for pictures on the rail at Keeneland, a divorce was going on right next to her. Keeneland is ending its eight year marriage to Polytrack and going back to dirt.
Work has started to dig up 16,000 tons of a synthetic racing surface made out of sand, carpet fiber, and rubber, coated in wax. They will replace it with 19,000 tons of dirt.
"The racing surface will be six inches deep. The three bottom inches will be cushion, and three top inches will be the racing surface," said John Howard, the project manager.
Keeneland dumping Polytrack is surprising for many reasons. One year ago, officials strongly denied rumors they were replacing Polytrack with dirt, telling WAVE 3 News attendance was up, betting was up, and field sizes were up.
"We love it here, but we're not at the end of the journey," said Rogers Beasley, racing vice president at Keeneland, 12 months ago. "We continue to research and make it better and better."
But the biggest reason Keeneland was sticking to Polytrack was safety. After analyzing three years of records in the equine injury data base we found a big difference in fatalities between dirt tracks and tracks that installed synthetic surfaces.
Dirt tracks like Aqueduct and Delaware averaged over three deaths per 1,000 starters. On the Polytrack at Keeneland, there was one death in 1,200 starters while the Polytrack at Turfway Park had one fatality for just under 5,000 starters.
Overall, the catastrophic breakdown rate on dirt tracks in North America last year was nearly five times the rate on Synthetic tracks. So why is Keeneland switching back?
"Owners and trainers are very traditional," said Amy Gregory, communications Director for Keeneland. "It's a very traditional sport. They prefer to race on dirt tracks. So we feel we're not abandoning safety whatsoever. It remains our top priority. We feel moving to a dirt track and having a top safety record are not mutually exclusive. We can do both."
After Keeneland and Del Mar complete the switch back to dirt, there will only be six thoroughbred tracks left in North America using a synthetic racing surface. They are confident they'll have the dirt track and drainage system in place at Keeneland in time for the fall meet.
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