The Enduring Appeal of Keeneland

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.  
 

7 Comments

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greengirl

I live in Lexington and the buzz that goes around the area when it's almost time for the meet to start is fantastic.  Keeneland makes it an anticipated event, which is part of what makes it so special.  It's really a beautiful place to go for scenery, top horses, and an all-around great experience.  I even try to time visits from out-of state family and friends to coincide with Keeneland because everyone loves it!  I think other tracks might enjoy similar results if they made the meet an event rather than a 9-month long slog to the end.  

12 Oct 2011 5:44 PM
Lindsey S

Keeneland is the best!  My first visit was to the fall meet in 2005, and I fell madly in love.  Both meets are great, but the fall meet is my favorite.  Nothing beats a crisp fall day at Keeneland.  I'm so glad we were able to make the trip down last week to be a part of their 75th anniversary!  No matter how many tracks I may be lucky enough to visit someday, Keeneland will always be my true love!

13 Oct 2011 7:25 AM
Ben D'Antonio

I made my first trip to Kentucky and Keeneland last year for the spring meet and the Marker's Mark Mile.  My first experience at the track was around 7am for the morning workouts and I was just in awe at how beautiful the track and surrounding landscape were.  There were few if any fans that we saw there on this morning, only the equine and human athletes hard at work preparing for the afternoons.  

The breakfast at the track kitchen was really great and being able to walk through the barn area in the mornings was amazing, an experience that I enjoyed so much I returned the next morning (and again the following year) just to take it all in.

I can't say enough about the wonderful experience my family and I had, the wonderful people of Kentucky really just want you to enjoy yourself and who can forget about the scenic bourbon trail.  For anyone who's never been to Lexington, I really can't think of a better excuse than a race meet at Keeneland, you won't forget it any time soon.

13 Oct 2011 12:15 PM
hank

In 1959 I was stationed at Ft Campbell 101st Airborne Division, when ever i had a three day pass I would hitch hike up to Paris,Ky and visit the thouroughbred farms, on one trip Keeneland was open and I took taxi from hotel and went to the races there, couldn't wait to get to the paddock to look at all famous jockeys there Willie Hartack was the most impressive, as the horses left to go on track I never really paid much attention to anything as I was deeply engrossed in trying to pick the winner, time passed and all of a sudden i started hearing everyone screaming and hollering I couldn't figure out what was going on till all of a sudden the field of horses were finishing the race, it was then that I realized there was no track announcer giving call of race or anything, quite amusing and I made sure I paid attention the rest of day. It was the most beautiful site, horses etc 52 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.

13 Oct 2011 11:36 PM
Tricia

I must say while Keeneland comes in an extremely close second - my heart belongs to Saratoga.  As everybody who is there during those 6 weeks is there for horseracing and the town  is just abuzz with talk of the stars of the show - whether it was Rachel Alexandra or Flat Out or Funny Cide being a stable horse.  Also, being able to go on the backside - WOW!  And that just warms my heart.  One of the reasons Keeneland comes in a fast closing second is because of all the white fences and all the wonderful farms and of course, the KY Horse Park where I fell in love with DaHoss.    

14 Oct 2011 10:48 AM
derblin

Keeneland is very special.  I made my first trip back in 1973 to see the Blue Grass stakes.  Back then it was run on Thursday so I skipped my college classes and headed on over with my boyfriend.  Secretariat did not run in the Blue Grass but we did get to see some special horses like Forego run.  I remember how huge he was.

I was just in awe to be able to get so close to the horses as they were walked around the ring.

Since that first visit, I have been able to return many times but the first will always be remembered.  The boyfriend is now my husband of many years.  Hopefully, before I die, I will make it to Saratoga but Keeneland will always be in my heart.

14 Oct 2011 2:16 PM
maryann727

My first trip to Keeneland was in 2008.  I was participating in a photography trek of Lexington and we spent two afternoons at the racetrack.  What a beautiful atmosphere and ambience.  I've been to Belmont Park and Saratoga but Keeneland is my favorite.  Something in the air makes it special.

16 Oct 2011 1:39 AM

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