It was somewhat awkward attending live racing at Keeneland for the first time in 1994. Being from the Northeast, I was used to spending time at "betting factories"--functional racetracks that weren't much to look at.
Atlantic City, Delaware, and Monmouth were an exception, as was the second coming of Garden State until it fell into disrepair. But we also spent a lot of time at Keystone, with its lovely view of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and in the bowels of The Meadowlands, AKA Big Swamp. There was nothing like a cold night of harness racing standing under space heaters that hung from the ceiling at Harrington.
When we moved to Kentucky, I was much more comfortable on the first floor of Turfway, complete with the old garage doors that allowed access from the apron.
Aside from the very good racing, Keeneland really didn't do it for me. It seemed rather stuffy with its private clubhouse and strong bent toward tradition--I saw it as lack of willingness to change. It was a nice place to go for the races, but nothing more.
Over the last 15 years, however, live racing at Keeneland somehow became cool. I still scratch my head--in a good way--because it figured to be one of the last tracks to do so.
It took some time, but all that marketing, advertising, promotion, being closely tied to the community, and accepting change paid off. The crowds are large and diverse. College kids love it, though I'm sure an afternoon of downing beer has something to do with that. And Keeneland did so without really changing its traditional look and reliance on tradition.
It's not quite Saratoga, because the crowd there is more edgy (not a bad thing) given its geographic location, and perhaps a little more down to earth. All that quality racing, and you can still find a group of guys yelling at Finger Lakes races on the televisions in the paddock betting row. Love it.
Saratoga has a lot going for it, but it's a plus that Saratoga Springs is a cool town. That Keeneland has become cool is a real accomplishment given its location. Lexington is a very nice place to live, but it ain't cool.
Keeneland isn't perfect, as evidenced by its struggles with simulcasting the other 10 months of the year. Maybe one day, we'll get a few Keeneland-branded sports bar/race books in town. Much more can be done in this area.
Today, I appreciate live racing at Keeneland much more than I did in 1994. Live meets are something to look forward to, and if you like to people-watch, they're hardly boring.
Given the state of Kentucky racing, the 17 days of racing at Keeneland in October have even more meaning. Enjoy it while it lasts. The month goes fast.
Keeneland cool? I still laugh when I think about it.
So let's see. If Keeneland can be cool. ... You get the picture.