Saturday, October 9, 2004

Keeneland dares to mix history, hi tech



By Murray Evans
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - Keeneland prides itself on tradition - this is a race track, after all, that didn't even have an announcer for years, and few people seemed to mind.

But as Keeneland's annual fall meeting opened Friday, experiments are taking place at the training track, the mutuel windows and in the chartcallers' booth.

"We call it 'progressive tradition,' " Keeneland president Nick Nicholson said. "You have to continually try to improve and set standards high."

Keeneland's opening day, called "Founders Day," still had an old-fashioned feel. Most employees dressed in 1930s garb, harkening back to the track's opening in 1936. As track officials saluted Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley and 1941 Triple Crown champion Whirlaway, a brass band played and a replica of Keeneland's original orange-and-black flag flew.

"You enjoy history. You enjoy the fun times from the past," said Mickey Farmer of Birmingham, Ala., who won the female division of a contest for patrons dressed in 1930s-era outfits

Farmer wore a Franklin Roosevelt campaign button and carried a copy of a Dec. 12, 1936, newspaper with her, while the male division winner, Rob Lindauer of Lexington, showed off a gold pocket watch and took pictures with a Speed Graphic camera from the 1930s.

But signs of the future also could be found around the track.

Last month, Keeneland became the first racing facility in North America to debut a new all-weather surface known as Polytrack on its training track. Polytrack is a combination of conventional and synthetic materials that has a cushioning effect that helps reduce injuries to the back and legs of horses.

During the fall meet, Keeneland will become the first track in North America to use the TurfTrax Speed System, an electronic chartcalling system that uses radio transmitters and antennas to gather information such as how wide a horse might have tracked during a particular race, when a horse accelerated or slowed down, the distance between horses and precise finishing times.

Keeneland also debuted Friday a new wagering system for those who don't know much about racing. Fans, with one wager of $20, can bet on several different races that have been handicapped in advance by an expert.

The system will work much as a mutual fund manager selects stocks for a fund.

"Keeneland has a very unique fan base that we feel will support this kind of wager," Nicholson said. "We run the gamut of very educated horsemen and women who are experienced handicappers to folks whose only visit to the track is a day of socializing and dining at Keeneland with a little racing mixed in."




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