Keeneland in one of the most traditional racetracks in the United States, but when it comes to providing the most cutting-edge technology for its patrons Keeneland spares no expense. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)
This weekend the legendary Keeneland Race Course opens up its three-week racing meet. One of the treasures of the American Thoroughbread racing scene, Keeneland is one-of-a-kind. The track has a conservative reputation, steeped in tradition and history. It so feels like a trip back in time that most of the Disney film Secretariat was filmed there – including the famous Belmont stretch run. Until fairly recently there wasn’t even a public address system. Races were run in absolute silence. Well, run in silence save for the roar of the huge crowds that pack the grandstands and grounds every race day.
Despite Keeneland’s reputation of being stuffy coat-and-tie traditionalists, the fact is Keeneland has been on the cutting edge of the sport for a long time now.
First track to install an aluminum rail – Prior to 1949 the rail at Keeneland was wood, just like everywhere else in the country. The problem with wooden rails was that when horses bumped them they would splinter. Horses would get these splinters stuck in their legs and bodies. Aluminum rails also promised little maintenance compared with wooden rails. Soon after spending $5,000 on their aluminum rail, Keeneland saw every other track in America follow suit and install aluminum rails of their own.
First track to use Visumatic Timer – In 1961 when the Visumatic was installed the technology was state of the art. Using a beam of light the Visumatic Timer would record a horse’s times whenever the beam of light was broken by the horse’s body. It was a Visumatic Timer that was at the root of the controversy of Secretariat’s winning time in the Preakness 12 years later.
First track in Kentucky to take and cash bets from any window – Before the development of the Amtote system in the late 1970s, bettors at racetracks had to place bets at one window and cash them at another. Not only that, they had to go to a window designated for the amount they wanted to bet: $5, $10, etc. The Amtote system allowed racetracks to have what they called ABC windows, All Betting and Cashing.
First track to implement Pick 7, ten-cent superfecta – Keeneland has been consistent through the years in trying to diversify their wagering menu in ways that are interesting and helpful to gamblers of all stripes without being gimmicky. While the Pick 7 hasn’t caught on (and an attempt at a national Breeder’s Cup Pick 7 pool flopped), the ten-cent superfecta has become a staple at tracks across America. Along with Hawthorne Race Course in Illinois, Keeneland was one of the first major tracks in America to offer the micro-bet in 2005.
First track to offer fractional wagering, decimal odds – Last year, Keeneland became the first American track to offer bettors fractional wagering and decimal odds, two things that are common at European racetracks. Fractional wagering allows bettors to make bets in any increment over the minimum they choose. If a bet has a minimum of $1, with fractional wagering you can bet $1.10 or $1.15 or any other amount over the minimum you want, rather than in increments of $1. This is an important change because it simplifies multiple-combination bets so that you can fit the bet you want into your budget. Decimal odds are now displayed on the toteboard at Keeneland. Instead of seeing the fractional odds you would see at most American racetracks, like a 3 (for 3-1) or 9/2, at Keeneland you only see the amount of money that will be won on a $2 bet.
Polytrack – Keeneland’s boldest move may have been their switch to a synthetic Polytrack furface for their main track in 2006. Turfway Park was the first track to install the artificial surface. In its first season with Polytrack, Turfway they had three fatalities compared with 24 the prior season. Keeneland was the next American track to make the conversion, and, given Keeneland’s status as an industry leader, lent the surface a great deal of legitimacy.
RACING ON KEENELAND'S POLYTRACK SURFACE
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Keeneland’s motivation for making the switch was primarily safety and, insofar as that is concerned, Keeneland has been pleased with the results, citing the fact that since the change to Polytrack they are consistently one of the top tracks in the country for safety and number of fatal breakdowns. The switch was controversial, however. It had a dramatic effect on how horses ran, acting more like a grass surface than dirt. Some trainers said they would refuse to run their horses on the surface.
The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, historically the race that has produced more Kentucky Derby winners than any prep race other than the Florida Derby, hasn’t graduated a Kentucky Derby winner since 2007. That year, the first year that the Blue Grass was held on Polytrack, the future Derby winner, Street Sense, ran second in a dramatic-yet-slow Blue Grass Stakes where four horses came on strong in the stretch to overtake his lead in a blanket finish. In the photo that gave Dominican first place, Street Sense was only behind by a nose, but separated from the next three finishers by less than a length. The slow, flukey finish was blamed on the synthetic surface and fueled trainers and horseplayer’s objections to it as an adequate replacement for dirt.
In the time since Keeneland implemented Polytrack, the Blue Grass Stakes has fallen in stature as a key Kentucky Derby prep. The Santa Anita Derby and the Arkansas Derby, two preps run on traditional dirt, have seen their status as important Kentucky Derby prep races rise in the wake of the change to Polytrack at Keeneland. Management has vowed to stick with the surface, arguing that the safety benefits outweigh any of the other factors.
Trakus – The same year Keeneland installed Polytrack, they also were the first American track to install Trakus, a hi-tech computerized tracking system that used digital sensor chips under each horse’s saddlecloth. This is the technology that allows Keeneland to display digitally where the horses are located along the track on the toteboard in real time. The system also records data on a horse’s time and distance to a degree that has never before been recorded. Very few tracks have installed Trakus because of the high cost, but Keeneland believes in the technology. If their past prescience of industry trends is any indication, their belief in Trakus will very likely spread. Already a number of top U.S. tracks like Gulfstream, Del Mar, Churchill Downs and Santa Anita have adopted Trakus. As more tracks use it, the more data that will be available to horseplayers and horsemen to give them a more complete picture of performance and form.
TRAKUS AT KEENELAND
Keeneland Race Course was ranked first for the fifth straight year by the HANA, the Horseplayer’s Association of North America. From low takeouts to carding interesting, competitive races, the track has always been popular with gamblers and other fans of the sport. The fact that they are able to regularly card races with one of the largest average field sizes in the country, and to do it without running many claiming races, shows that the track is just as popular among horsemen. They have built their reputation by being innovative and thoughtful in their approach to how they run their business. They don’t squeeze every nickel they can out of gamblers and horsemen. They invest in technology and put a great deal of care into the overall experience of fans. They may have the reputation of being conservative and traditional, but Keeneland is actually anything but.