Upgrades at Keeneland Nearly Complete

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Three horses were running down the stretch at Keeneland almost full-stride Thursday, but it sounded like they were practically tiptoeing.

Keeneland officials were showing off their new Polytrack racing surface and other track improvements, with the horses on hand to perform a demonstration.

While a typical stretch run at the track involves the thunderous pounding of hoof against dirt, the new surface produces far less noise because there is far more bounce.

"You can see the way they react to the surface," Keeneland president Nick Nicholson said. "They love it."

Nicholson said safety to horses and jockeys was the focus of the improvements, which were planned long before Kentucky Derby winner
Barbaro broke down in the Preakness, sparking questions about whether safer American tracks are needed.

The new Polytrack surface, composed of sand, synthetic fibers, recycled rubber and a state-of-the-art drainage system, has arrived at the 70-year-old track in time for Keeneland's fall meet, which begins Oct. 6.

For bettors, the change in surface means a major change in the track's reputation. It has always been known as a favorable track for front-runners, particularly those close to the rail. Now horses can realistically win from any position.

"Everything we have seen from Polytrack is you can win from anywhere," said Jim Pendergest, general manager of Martin Collins Surfaces and Footings, which installed the surface.

Keeneland has been interested in Polytrack since installing it on its practice oval, but Turfway Park in Florence has already gone through a year of racing on the surface.

After a year, the safety difference has been staggering. There were only three catastrophic accidents in which horses had to be euthanized, compared to 24 the previous year.

But while Polytrack is the highlight of Keeneland's off season changes, it's hardly the only one.

The 1 1/16-mile race track has undergone a face lift with wider, more even turns. The back stretch is 110 feet longer. There is a newer safety rail, larger winner's circle, new marker poles and 17,000 more square feet of space, which figures to accommodate more than 3,000 more fans. The full-color video board is much crisper.

Also, starting this fall, Keeneland will be the first track in the United States to offer Trakus video race technology, which tracks the location of horses from virtually any angle, providing far more data than was available before.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)