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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

A traditional dirt track can be dangerous for thoroughbred race horses. At California's Del Mar track, 18 horses fell and had to be euthanized this summer. In Kentucky, the Keeneland Racecourse is trying something new. Today, as it opens its fall season, Keeneland horses will run on Polytrack, a new synthetic surface for horseracing.

NPR's Noah Adams went to the track and he has this report.

NOAH ADAMS: Go down to the rail and get up close to the track with Rogers Beasley, the director of racing at Keeneland. Pick up a handful of the waxy, sandy, synthetic surface. It's light and fluffy, with strands of red, green and blue rubber.

You've got to admit, it looks like somebody's had a - sort of a carpet remnant sale and all those fibers have gotten chopped up and here they are in your racetrack.

Mr. ROGERS BEASLEY (Director of Racing, Keeneland Racetrack): The rainbow. There you go. It does have some fiber. It has some rubber. But that all helps with energy return and binding the surface. You have to remember, the vast majority is sand anyway, and so it's not like totally synthetic. Eighty-eight percent of it is sand to begin with.

ADAMS: Two tractors are pulling harrows, loosening up the new track. They took out the dirt here at Keeneland, put in four inches of limestone dust, four inches of small stones, two inches of porous macadam, then seven inches of the Polytrack material. There's a vertical drainage system. Rain goes down and away. The word sloppy will no longer appear in the daily racing form to describe an outing at Keeneland.

Mr. NICK NICHOLSON (President, Keeneland): My name is Nick Nicholson and I'm president of Keeneland.

ADAMS: You'll find synthetic tracks in England. There's a new one in Canada. And Turfway Park in northern Kentucky. But this is Keeneland. There is elegance here. There wasn't even a public address announcer calling the races until about ten years ago. Gentlemen in the clubhouse section still wear coats and ties.

Mr. NICHOLSON: Probably our most important tradition is that this is a place built for the horse, and we should always put what's in the best interest of the thoroughbred first. And if ever there was a day where Keeneland did that, it was the day that we decided to go with this new surface.

ADAMS: The planning and research took about two years. Polytrack was tried out on a training oval near the barns. And last spring, the Keeneland board of directors said spend the 8 million. This was one month before the Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro shattered his right hind leg in the Preakness. Nick Nicholson says watching what's called a catastrophic breakdown can make people physically ill.

Mr. NICHOLSON: When there's an accident here, people have the same emotional reaction. When I talk to other racetrack operators and we talk about why we made the decision, one of the things I say is that I'm tired of the knot in my stomach. And I don't have to describe it. They know exactly what I mean.

(Soundbite of auction)

ADAMS: The Keeneland September yearling sale finished up last week. Every couple of minutes a young horse, full of energy, made to shine with promise, would be led into the sales pavilion. Three thousand, five hundred horses found new owners.

Ms. NANCY EMBROSE(ph) (Horse Buyer): We drove in from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We bought a few horses.

Mr. STAN WOOKIDGE(ph) (Horse Buyer): We have all kinds of horses except thoroughbreds. Just reading the catalog, I thought the prices were decent, and why not give it a shot? Then I'll be rich some day.

ADAMS: Stan Wookidge and Nancy Embrose took four horses home in their trailer, including one they got for only $1,000. But Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, he bid $11.7 million to win a colt that he liked. Breeding is making the horses faster, but often more fragile.

And if you've got money like that - running - you want it to be on a safe track. If you're a jockey, there's a tactical difference. The cushioned surface is quiet, no longer the thunder of hoof beats. Patty Cooksey(ph) raced on dirt and she's trained horses on Polytrack.

Ms. PATTY COOKSEY (Jockey): Whenever you're in a race, two or three lengths in the lead, and you know, you're just kind of letting your horse coast a little bit, well, usually you can hear a horse coming behind you. And when you do, you can pick your horse up and ask him to run and kind of extend his stride and go on. But on the Polytrack, you can't hear that. You can't hear a horse coming.

(Soundbite of rain)

ADAMS: Well, I'm standing under an umbrella, right here at the Keeneland Racecourse, quiet a bit of rain coming down. We're just after first light. The track - to my eye - looks dry.

A trainer arrives, huddled in a yellow rain suit. He sends a couple of his exercise riders out on the track. Usually, Larry Lay(ph) says, in this weather on dirt you'd be back in the barn office drinking coffee. He's happy with Polytrack, has 20 horses boarded at Keeneland, says his vet's bill has been cut in half, fewer injuries, and he's keeping the horses out of the cold mud.

Mr. LARRY LAY (Trainer): It's much healthier for the horses, you know. It's just - you have no mud on them now. When you come back, you look at these horses (unintelligible). They're just - they're as clean as they are when they leave the barn.

ADAMS: There are some doubts and some quibbles as Keeneland(ph) leads the way into the synthetic race track era. And the biggest question: If you're training and competing on Polytrack, how do you get ready for the Triple Crown events - the Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont - all on classic horse-racing dirt?

Noah Adams, NPR News.

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