The Breeders' Cup's return to Kentucky later this month, and specifically to Keeneland for the first time, reminds me of a famous quote from Kentucky Gov. Albert B. "Happy" Chandler Sr.: "I never met a Kentuckian who wasn't either thinking about going home or actually going home."
The Oct. 30-31 World Championships figures to be one big homecoming weekend for the breeding community.
The Breeders' Cup has been run in Kentucky eight times, all at Churchill Downs, but racing's best traveling road show has never made a stop at its hometown—Lexington—until 2015.
It's fitting, considering for most equine participants Keeneland is squarely in their backyard. Top contenders for the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), American Pharoah and Beholder, were foaled and romped through paddocks just a few miles from Keeneland. Beholder was on the grounds as a yearling, prepped and sold during the 2011 September yearling sale.
Keeneland owns a revered spot in the sport. For many, Keeneland is the hometown track they grew up on and now bring their children to experience the thrill of racing.
Keeneland is bright spring days on the grassy area in front of the clubhouse and Saturdays packed with students from the University of Kentucky crammed in the area by the walking ring and out "on the hill."
Keeneland is fall afternoons, catching the end of the season's sun or huddling under the grandstand against the "Keeneland wind" that can blow hard head-on from the west.
Keeneland is the hearty laugh of former president and chairman Ted Bassett—former president of the Breeders' Cup—and the warm handshake of current leader Bill Thomason.
However, Keeneland for the Breeders' Cup looks a bit different than the Keeneland of old. Every square foot has been repurposed with temporary seating, chalets, and pavilions. The planning and creature features available for these add-on structures have come a long way since Arlington Park and Lone Star Park hosted the Breeders' Cup. However, the plant is only so big, and with only so many seating options, we don't expect everyone to be happy with their accommodations.
And just as Keeneland is known for running everything at a higher standard, Lexington plans on taking Breeders' Cup hospitality to a new level, too. Working with the city, local vendors, and local restaurants, there are more events planned leading up to this year's Breeders' Cup than have been held at any other host venue.
John Sikura has spent his fair share of time at Keeneland, mainly working the barn area during the sales. As a breeder and owner he graced the winner's circle after winning the track's signature fall race Oct. 4, the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (gr. I) with Got Lucky.
"I started coming to Kentucky when I was probably 10-11 years old; the same age as my kids," he said. "I have enormous respect for Keeneland and the quality and the tradition of this race. To win it with a filly like this with her pedigree, it means a lot to us as a breeder.
"This place is like a cathedral; to win here means a lot to me," he continued. "I don't think there is a better place for a myriad of reasons. It's the greatest place in the world to have a Breeders' Cup."
John Gaines, the founding father of the Breeders' Cup, had a vision of a "World Series" of racing that would move around the country to help promote the sport. In the early days it was important to put it in front of the most people, so programs in Los Angeles and New York made the most sense.
The best-attended Breeders' Cups have come at Churchill Downs, 65 miles down the road in Louisville. But this time, the Breeders' Cup comes home.