Despite what any calendar suggests, the first day of spring for residents of Lexington, Kentucky and the surrounding area is opening day at Keeneland Race Course.
At least once during the track’s month-long meets in April and October, I try to make a pilgrimage down to Central Kentucky to catch up with friends and take in everything that comes with the Keeneland culture. An invitation to a party following the opening day’s races was all the excuse I needed to make the trip.
Opening day was foreshadowed by the lengthy backup on Versailles Road to enter the grounds. The issue was not so much one of traffic congestion as it was a lot of people wanting to go to the races – a lot to the tune of an opening day record-setting 24,734 fans of horse racing, tailgating, alcohol or a combination of the three.
Before even leaving the vehicle, it quickly becomes apparent that Keeneland is not like any track around. The physical plant is preceded for about a mile by well-kept rolling hills on both sides of the road, dotted with barns and fences that make the property resemble one of the surrounding Thoroughbred farms.
The opening stretch of road is highlighted by the Keeneland Library, an archive of racing literature and information which sits on top of a hill about a half mile from the grandstand. Because I was a little slow getting to the track that day, this was where I was told to park.
Standing at the top of the hill provided a spectacular view of the sea of vehicles that led up to the grandstand. The ones that were not parked filed through the drive-through betting lines (you heard me) to get a taste of action before heading on their way. Coming from a state where the average racetrack attendance hovers in the hundreds, seeing all of this never gets old, even if it meant I had a significant hike ahead of me.
After finding my parking spot and surveying the area, I partook in arguably the greatest of Keeneland’s traditions – tailgating before the races. As the first outdoor event on the social calendars of many in the region, the tailgate draws college students from many of the local schools together to eat snacks, listen to music and participate in one of the many games of cornhole going on across the property. The setup of the typical Keeneland tailgater may not be as elaborate as those at your local National Football League stadium, but they are more refined. The drinks are a little higher on the shelf. Dress shirts and ties are the norm for the males, while females are normally seen in tight sundresses.
Before long, it was time to get down to business. There a select few tracks where I have no issue paying a $5 entry fee to visit, but Keeneland is on that list. The building is primarily a stone brick structure with ivy creeping up many of the walls. The saddling area is dotted with trees sporting numbers to correspond with the entries in the races. Shrubbery surrounds the paddock and walking ring, which becomes a natural countertop for horseplayers to rest their programs while they browse the field.
The only complaint I could find about Keeneland’s aesthetic setup is the Polytrack course; not because I have a problem with racing on synthetic surfaces, but because I think I might be allergic to the stuff. In my life, I have been to two racetracks with Polytrack surfaces, Keeneland and Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. Whenever I am on the apron at either track, I get watery eyes and the uncontrollable urge to sneeze.
Keeneland is almost always crowded on race days, but the record crowd made it even more so. This meant weaving through masses of people like Barry Sanders was necessary to get to any desired point on the track. Despite the crowds, I was never shut out at a window, despite my best efforts to make it happen. The track employed a legion of mutuel clerks who were, for the most part, very good at keeping the lines moving. Truth be told, I probably would have ended up a lot less in the hole for the weekend had I failed to get a few of those bets off, but I suppose blaming good customer service for my lousy handicapping is quite petty.
As the country’s major spring boutique meet, Keeneland draws many of North America’s best horses and horsemen. Most of the cards feature at least one graded stakes race, and many of the undercard races include at least one horse that draws a memory from the national scene, be it fond or otherwise.
This gathering of the sport’s best and brightest brought about one of the events I will remember most about my time at the races that weekend. While hanging out by the paddock bar with Ed DeRosa, retired Hall-of-Fame jockey Chris McCarron walked by on his way to the saddling area. We were introduced, and McCarron asked me where I was from. When I said “Michigan”, a sympathetic look fell over his face and he replied “Man, you’ve gotta get out of there.” I seem to get that a lot when I venture out of state.
Through the big names, the big bucks and the fancy dress, the thing that consistently stands out is the incredibly high percentage of young people who attend the live races. With no major collegiate sports to occupy their attention and a winter’s worth of pent-up energy and wardrobe, students from the University of Kentucky and other neighboring schools appear in full force. They all have tickets in their hands, many have programs, and some of them even sound like they know what they’re talking about. These kids may not all become racetrack lifers, but they’re pumping money through the windows hand over fist, and more than a few of them are likely to stick around. Whatever Keeneland is doing right, racetrack marketers need to take note.
Guys in suit coats and aviator shades congregate in front of television monitors to get a look at the payouts of the last race with a beer in one hand and their impossibly gorgeous girlfriend’s hand in the other. Fortunately for the rest of us, the impossibly gorgeous female ratio at Keneland is shockingly high. If the head bob doesn’t come through on the track, there are far worse consolations than the head-turners that can be found all over the grounds.
Readers may have noticed I have spent very little time discussing the races themselves. That is because what happens on the track is almost secondary to what happens on the apron, in the grandstands, in line at the windows and anywhere else track patrons can see and be seen. Though I saw my fair share of races, I spent much of my weekend as a social butterfly, hanging out with the likes of DeRosa, Thoroughbred Times Managing Editor Tom Law, superstar freelancer Claire Novak, Ryan Patterson of the Graded Stakes blog and sale guru Emily Plant.
Instead of a day at the races, Keeneland’s live meets more closely resemble a racetrack convention. People wait in long lines dressed up in things they don’t normally wear to discuss and participate in an activity that is largely misunderstood by those out of the know. Sure there is always the keynote speaker (in this case, the races themselves), but the best part of any convention is perusing all of the different booths, taking a little from each and perhaps parking at one that catches the patron’s fancy.
Racing, betting, drinking, fashion, tailgating, socializing, people watching, things for the high-class and the t-shirt and jeans crowd – Keeneland has more booths than any track I have ever seen. For the experience alone, Keeneland Race Course is highly recommended. The world-class racing is a nice bonus.
Tune in next time for a look back at my experience with the Keeneland Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale. Until then, here are a few photos I have taken over my last couple visits to the track.