Keeneland opens despite heavy rains, thanks to Polytrack

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - An imperfect day for racing seemed to be a perfect one for Polytrack, as Keeneland opened its spring meet Friday unhampered by an overnight downpour that might have forced cancellation if the track was still composed of dirt.

Despite a storm that dropped about five inches of rain across central Kentucky, the synthetic surface installed two years earlier allowed for the meet to begin without a hitch.

Although the dirt oval used to produce huge mud puddles, the drainage system in the new Polytrack negated most of the soggy conditions.

"At this time two years ago, we probably would be out of business today," said Keeneland president Nick Nicholson. "this new racetrack has just been spectacular in the way it's handled this unusual weather condition."

Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan, who saddled the winner Merkel in the third race, said he couldn't even notice it had rained.

"It's a very comfortable surface, has a nice bounce to it," said Bridgmohan, who next weekend will ride likely favorite Pyro in the Blue Grass Stakes, the headline race for the meet. "It's not even a little bit sloppy."

While there were no problems with the Polytrack, the wet conditions forced all the turf races - including Friday's feature, the Transylvania Stakes - to be moved to the main synthetic oval.

Nicholson said the new surface has been extremely safe. There was just one horse death per 1,000 starts on Polytrack, he said, compared to twice that many on dirt.

Those numbers reflect a more positive early diagnosis than preliminary statistics from an on-track injury reporting system that showed fatality rates at 42 tracks nearly equal between dirt and synthetic from June 2007 to early 2008.

Trainer Philip Sims said he is definitely convinced Polytrack is a safer surface. He trains most of his horses there and has seen injuries plummet.

"Thank God we have it," Sims said. "I'm a believer."

Fellow trainer Rick Hiles credited Keeneland for good track conditions but said further evidence is needed to confirm synthetic surfaces are safer in all weather conditions.

"I think the jury is still out," Hiles said. "We're going to have to watch and make some adjustments."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)