For many, the highlight of each year’s live racing calendar is the summer season and the annual pilgrimage to Saratoga or Del Mar to enjoy top class racing in a picturesque setting. They are journeys worth taking for a variety of reasons, and I encourage you to do so if you have never been. But now that Fall weather is here and both Saratoga and Del Mar are closed for the season, there is another slice of horse racing heaven that awaits. It’s that jewel of a venue known as Keeneland Racecourse. This historic Lexington, Ky., oval celebrates its 75th anniversary this Saturday, with another weekend of world class racing in a setting that is unmatched for its beauty and splendor.
I remember my first visit to Keeneland as if it was yesterday. Walking in from the parking lot, I was in awe of the place. The native stone buildings, the cool Fall air and deep blue sky, the lively crowd, the magnificent horses, the amazing burgoo – together they were a feast for the senses. In fact, I liked Keeneland so much that I returned a year later on my first date with a special young woman. I was hoping that she would think my love of Keeneland showed I had a sense of style and good taste and it must have worked because two years later, she married me. Since that first date, we have visited a lot of tracks across the country and around the globe but none surpasses Keeneland.
Keeneland’s slogan is “Racing as It Was Meant to Be” but that’s not to say that Keeneland is conservative or without the modern amenities found at other tracks. Like Augusta National and Wrigley Field, change has been gradual at Keeneland. Through careful stewardship, Keeneland has artfully blended modern amenities while maintaining its character. But, make no mistake, Keeneland has been an industry innovator and leader from its early days.
Four days before its inaugural racing card on October 15, 1936, Keeneland became the first track in Kentucky to install a totalizator system. Beginning with the current meeting, fans can place wagers directly from their ipad or from other tablet devices. In 2006, Keeneland was the first U.S. track to install Trackus, the state-of-the-art technology system that provides fans with more precise information on the horses’ positions and “distance traveled” during a race. In 2008, it became the first track in the U.S. to commit entirely to Hi-Def television coverage of its races. It’s not surprising then that, just this week, the International Simulcast Conference awarded Keeneland the International Simulcast Award for the fourth time since 2003.
Keeneland also has been a leader on the safety and integrity front. In 1949, it replaced a wooden rail with the first aluminum rail utilized in the U.S., and the safety innovations designed to protect the human and equine athletes have been ongoing and relentless ever since. In 2006, Keeneland became just the second track in America to install a synthetic, all-weather racing surface. Keeneland was also among the first racetracks to experiment with a dramatically reduced takeout. The innovations have not gone unnoticed by fans as Keeneland has been recognized for three years in a row by HANA (Horseplayers Association of North America) as being the most player-friendly racetrack in the land.
Other changes at Keeneland came a bit more slowly. In 1997, in a move to address the then-evolving dynamic of full card simulcasting, Keeneland became the last racetrack in the United States to hire a track announcer to call its races. And, it was among the last racetracks to add Exacta wagering and expand its wagering menu beyond the traditional Daily Double and Win, Place, Show format.
Today you can bet win, place and show, exactas and daily doubles at Keeneland—along with 10-cent superfectas, 50-cent trifectas, pick threes, pick fours and pick fives. But it has always seemed especially true at Keeneland that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Keeneland’s 75th anniversary meeting continues through October 29. For those of you who can’t make it to Lexington by the end of the month, you can get a taste of what Keeneland is all about this Saturday when NBC broadcasts <http://bit.ly/ptGyGQ> the Queen Elizabeth Challenge Cup Stakes and the Keeneland 75th Anniversary Stakes live from 5:00-6:00 p.m. ET. Hopefully, you will agree with me that the flavor of Keeneland is unlike that found anywhere else in the world of Thoroughbred racing.
Let me know about your first trip to Keeneland or tell me about your favorite racetrack.