Keeneland Race Track Maintenance Merges Art and Science

Keeneland is committed to advancing knowledge and providing the most consistent dirt and turf racing surfaces in the industry. This commitment is reflected in the significant investment made in the unique design and ongoing maintenance of our dirt track, turf course and training track, and the year-round best practices employed by our track maintenance team.

Keeneland, in consultation with a team of experts including Dr. Mick Peterson, director of the University of Kentucky’s Ag Equine Program and co-founder of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, undertook more than a year of research and testing of materials and water drainage systems and race track design before converting the all-weather main track to dirt in 2014.  

Keeneland’s 1 1/16-dirt track is a blend of approximately 19,000 tons of sand, silt and clay native to Kentucky.

Keeneland main track
Keeneland's main track

The drainage system under the track is key to maintaining a consistent racing surface. Beneath the track is a layer of porous asphalt that covers the complex vertical drainage system installed during a massive track renovation in 2006. The asphalt is covered by Mirafi 140N geotextile fabric, which maintains the integrity of the 26,000 tons of limestone screenings (Class I sand) on top of it that form the base of the race track.

Under the inside rail and along the outer rail through the straights and chutes, 27,500 interlocking EcoRain drainage cells filled with pea gravel are stacked horizontally and covered by a flexible porous paving material made from recycled tires. This system, the first of its kind in North America, collects and discharges water into the existing drainage system and away from the track.

This summer, the main dirt track underwent routine maintenance and testing to preserve its health and safety. At that time, the cushion material on the on the track was pulled back to allow ground-penetrating radar testing to be done. The testing ensured that the hard pan and limestone base below the racing surface remained in good condition. When testing was complete, the cushion was re-laid across the track and the mix supplemented as needed with additional sand, silt and clay.

Keeneland’s 7-furlong turf course is a mix of rye, bluegrass and tall fescue. The turf track features an innovative Mawsafe Turf Rail designed to spring and bend similar to the ropes around a boxing ring, absorbing the impact of a horse and rider and allowing the rider to safely guide his or her mount back onto the turf course. “Kick out” uprights on the rail allow for a pivotal, slip-free connection to the base plate. The design enables the upright to swing away should a fallen rider hit it. Upon impact, several uprights can slip free without losing the integrity of the railing. 

Keeneland turf track
Keeneland turf track

Keeneland’s 5-furlong all-weather training track is open year-round. The main track is closed through the winter months, reopening in mid-March before the Spring Meet.

Jim Pendergest, General Manager of The Thoroughbred Center (TTC) and longtime race track professional, is Keeneland’s Director of Racing Surfaces. Pendergest oversees the dirt, turf and all-weather tracks at both Keeneland and TTC.  

During Pendergest’s tenure at Keeneland, he has overseen major renovations to the main track, including installation of the all-weather surface in 2006 and the dirt surface in 2014. He brings extensive experience to his role as Director of Racing Surfaces, having supervised installation of six race tracks, 10 training tracks and some 20 equine arenas in the U.S. and Canada. 

Pendergest works with Tim Fahrendorf, Assistant Track Superintendent Technology and Administration and Alfredo Laureano, Assistant Track Superintendent Operations, in using the most advanced race track technology and research to maintain the safest racing surfaces possible. 


Layers of the Keeneland main track