I am so clever.
The 2014 October meet at Keeneland kicked off today with the brand new, state of the art dirt course replacing the polytrack we've known and had mixed feelings about since 2006. Keeneland is fantastic, dirt or poly, but opening day was not exactly a big success.
Handle for today's 10 race card (by my calculation, as it was not provided on the results charts) was $7,531,398. That's a 24.2% decrease from 2013 opening day's $9,931,006. That's not the way you want to start a meet.
Field size took a hit, in part due to races being taken off the turf. Average field size today was 8.3. Opening day 2013's average was 10.8. That's a 23.2% drop. Payoffs took a hit as well. The average $2 win return today was $13.08, compared to last year's $19.02. Five of the winners last year paid between $10 and $20, while only one of today's winners was in that range, so you can figure out which year's average was boosted by bombs.
Now, is the surface change the direct reason for this? No. Losing two and a half horses per race is. That's a big decline in field size. Of course, losing the added variable of the synthetic surface won't drive handle, but I don't think it's fair to say that losing that variable caused an opening day drop of almost 25%. The big problem with going back to dirt is that off the turf races will be decimated with scratches just like they are everywhere else that races on dirt. People are going to play Keeneland no matter what. If the fields get smaller, however, the people will bet a lot less, and they showed that today.
Tomorrow will be an interesting day to look at things, assuming the races stay on the turf. Before scratches, average field size is slightly higher than this day last year. Hopefully the card doesn't have many scratches, and we'll get a good idea of how much people will bet on these new Keeneland races.