Along the Way, Keeneland Got Cool

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.



Leave a Comment:

Tim G

Keeneland is my favorite track, right behind Saratoga and CD would be #3, well #1 on Derby Day (because it does my heart good to see ALL those fans there and know that MILLIONS are watching it unlike all the REST of our racing.).

Keeneland has it right and I'm kind of happy that the talk of changing it to try and attract the BC has calmed down.

They have college scholarship day where they give tshirts to the first 1000 kids who register and then $1000 scholarship after each race, Make a Wish Day and tailgaiting (although it's more 'regulated' than football games. DON'T even think about underage drinking there.) just to name a few highlights this year. It's not just one of the most beautiful tracks it's a lot of fun and EVERYONE should try to get there at least once. Same with Saratoga and The Derby.

07 Oct 2009 4:12 PM
steve Viuker

One of the negatives about simulcasting is you can still find a group of guys yelling at Finger Lakes races on the televisions and ruining the mood of tracks such as Monmouth Park.

07 Oct 2009 8:04 PM

Keeneland is Cool, but their Polytrack stinks! Often unplayable, unpredictable results happen on that synthetic surface. Will not bet Keeneland because of it. We have been duped into the reasoning that synthetic will save horses lives, when it has not been proven to do so.  Go back to dirt Keeneland and you will get mine and many other wagering dollars back in your coffers.

07 Oct 2009 9:48 PM
John T.

 If there are two racetracks more

world renowned in North America than even Churchill Downs they would be Saratoga and Keeneland.I can remember visiting Keeneland back in the 70,s in the days when there was no race announcer to call the races and I was in totally

awe .In 1990 I had the pleasure of attending the races at Saratoga and what a great feeling it was to be at the place were so many great thoroughbreds have graced the turf. It's almost a crying shame that neither Saratoga nor Keeneland have never hosted the Breeders Cup mainly because the facilites could not accomodate the large crowds.

07 Oct 2009 10:37 PM


08 Oct 2009 3:04 AM

My husband took me to Keeneland for our wedding anniversary last week. They had not started racing yet, but that was OK by me. We looked around, watched the morning works and did a little shopping at the gift shop. What a beautiful track.

We had breakfast at the track kitchen, and that in it self was a real treat for me. As we were eating I looked over to my right, and Jean Cruget was sitting right there! I couldn't believe it. I was too shy to get up, and go over to talk with him, so my husband did. He came over, shook my hand and gave me his autograph on a napkin. That will be an anniversary I will never forget.

08 Oct 2009 7:40 AM
Nora Frisch

As someone who lived in Lexington for 5 years and attended all 10 Keeneland meets while I was there, I cannot think of a day when I felt the atmosphere was stuffy. I agree tradition is strong there, but I love the mix of beautiful women in fancy dresses sipping blood mary's and people wearing fanny packs and drinking Bud Light.

My major problem with this blog is your idea that Lexington isn't "cool." I think you should spend more time downtown on Friday nights hearing live music, or at a bourbon distillery, or touring stallion farms, or attending a concert at the Dame, or.... Very cool indeed.

08 Oct 2009 8:47 AM

I think Lexington is making some progress in coolness, but it still has limited things for people under 21 to do, especially for being a major college town. Thanks to Busters, the 18+ venue is a large help.

Louisville, Covington/Cincy and Nashville all still have some draw that Lexington is missing. So I see progress in Lex, but want to see more.

As far as Keeneland, they need continue to innovate in ways that don't interfere with their tradition.

08 Oct 2009 9:46 AM


08 Oct 2009 10:50 AM

Keeneland is arguably the most beautiful track, with the best racing, in the country - I've heard the same of Del Mar and Saratoga, but being a Kentuckian I cannot agree. Nonetheless, your comment that Lexington "is a very nice place to live, but it ain't cool" is very surprising to hear coming from someone who has lived here for 15 years - perhaps it is because you are a native of the Northeastern part of the country, or perhaps it is because you haven't really given it a fair chance. Either way, please remember: you're IN Lexington and WRITING ABOUT Lexington, so don't tell us the place we live and love "ain't cool".

08 Oct 2009 11:12 AM
Tim G

If there is one thing about Keeneland that I don't like it's the racing surface. The old days of the dirt, no announcers, the lovely ladies in their big race day finery. So much like Saratoga.

Of course I love Louisville...LOL but Lexington is okay even if UK is there.

Actually I liked CD better before the corporatization of it.

I HOPE they never have the BC at either Saratoga OR Keeneland. The changes they'd have to make would ruin the tracks. It'd bring a huge amount of money in for ONE day but would ultimately have a negative impact on their day to day regular season and the ambience of BOTH places.

08 Oct 2009 11:20 AM

Just to clarify a reference to Lexington. ... Cool is more a state of mind in this case. I don't believe the city leaders have a vision for what Lexington can be, so it flounders. Having been raised in NJ, I can tell you firsthand, suburban sprawl isn't cool. Thank heavens for the horse industry in Central Kentucky.

08 Oct 2009 11:23 AM
Johnny Slots

You are dead-on Tom.  It's not like it happened all in one year either.  Just kinda snuck up on us regulars and the atmosphere of class never disappeared alongside the hipness.  Quite frankly I don't mind the guys hollering at the simulcast signals - just adds to the fabric and spirit of the sport.

08 Oct 2009 11:31 AM
Terry Merkel

Keeneland is my most favorite place in the world.  It is a beautiful place and the people are so warm and friendly. I have been going for 40 years and it does get better each spring and fall. Can't wait to go next week

08 Oct 2009 12:56 PM

The beauty comes to life twice a year... It is a must for horseplayers' bucket list of places to visit.....

08 Oct 2009 3:50 PM

Keeneland is a great and even 'cool' place, on Wednesday's to Friday's.  It is the most bettor unfriendly track in the country on the weekends, and guess what, they don't care. And simulcasting, they just don't get it.

08 Oct 2009 11:14 PM

I'm trying to understand anyone who would feel more at home in the bowels of the Meadowlands or Turfway (no offense to either; racing 'plants' are necessary to the business) than the delight of Keeneland, where there is beauty, history and, yes, tradition, in addition to horse racing. Keeneland has room for everyone---from the guys shouting at the simulcasting to the college students who tailgate in the parking pastures to crowd in the club house. The trick is, instead of the track gearing down for all that, the later additions gear up, and the overall atmosphere remains something special. Like Saratoga, it is one of the jewels of the sport. You would prefer something sterile, with the appeal of a hockey arena?

All that said, I agree that Lexington city management has all the intelligence and foresight of a wrecking ball.  There is nothing unique about, and tourists will not come to look at, subdivisions and industrial parks---a fact lost on city politicians.  

09 Oct 2009 10:57 AM

We have won races at DM, SA, HOL, BM and SAR.  Have sold ylgs at SAR.  But, I have been to every KEE Spring/Fall meet since 1975 and LOVE it. CD has really taken its image upward and have been to the Derby many times, but there is nothing like KEE.  Even tho I am from Texas, the sun shines brighter on Keeneland than anywhere else!

09 Oct 2009 11:49 AM

Catbird: I think you misinterpreted the background info. The point is how Keeneland has grown, not that the aforementioned places are more preferable for ambiance. ... As for Lexington, you'd probably agree people wouldn't come here to see CenterPointe either, if it's ever built.

09 Oct 2009 12:00 PM

Take it from someone who lives in metropolitan Detroit.  Lexington is very cool.  We look forward to our weekend get away to Lexington each year.  The horse farms, the downtown area, the Horse Park, Keeneland,even The Red Mile. We are fans of Lexington.

10 Oct 2009 8:45 PM

I have had the great pleasure of visiting Keeneland three times in the last six years. I feel that Keeneland is greatest racetrack in the world. Yes there is the newer technology there but the down home southern charm is there!! Something us here in the Northeast cannot come close to duplicating!!

I would love to live in the town of Lexington. Keeneland is also the place to meet the great jockeys outside the jock room. I have met Rajiv Maragh, Rafael Bejarano, Miguel Mena, Jimmy Graham all around the jock's room. I also got the chance to speak with former jockey great Jerry Bailey on the parking lot and I spoke with trainer great Michael Matz in the A.M. Workouts. The workers at the track are the most friendly and Keeneland workers go out of their way to service the crowd. How about workers coming out to the stands to electronically take their betting order so the person does not have to wait in line?!

I would love to see Keeneland eventually get the Breeders Cup and some temporary seating could be set up. Any day, I get to spend in Lexington, KY and Keeneland is a day spent in heaven for me!!!

12 Oct 2009 1:02 AM
Tim G

Hey, just drive over to Keeneland from Historic Louisville!

The only thing about the BC at Keeneland is it would take more than just a few temporary grandstands to handle a big event like the BC. Can you imagine how many people would want to come to it there?

Just like CD always has the biggest crowds.

Tornadoes, snow storms, floods aside here, this is definitely Gods country. Just a drive around the farmland, green pastures? Need I say more

12 Oct 2009 12:50 PM

Let's face it. The REALLY cool thing that distinguishes Keeneland is the open backside. It makes the whole experience. The afternoon is fun, but the mornings are magic!

13 Oct 2009 11:29 PM
ivan b

Keeneland might be a neat place to experience the ambiance but the serious horseplayer has abandoned it because of its synthetic track. The Blue Grass Stakes used to be a Derby prep on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Now it's a novelty race on a sideroad to nowhere.

09 Mar 2010 6:27 PM

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