There was plenty of action afield in the Thoroughbred world from coast to coast during the Aug. 10-11 weekend. Racing was stellar at Saratoga, Arlington International, and Del Mar, and The Jockey Club hosted its 67th Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing. Meanwhile, Colonial Downs reopened its doors, boosting the vital signs for racing in the Midlantic region.
In Lexington the center of activity fell to Keeneland Race Course with the inaugural Railbird Music Festival taking place on “The Hill” behind the Entertainment Center. While banners promoted “Music – Bourbon – Equine,” make no mistake, music was first and foremost on festival goers’ minds. While The Raconteurs and Hozier were the main closing acts during the two evenings, Americana artists Brandi Carlile and Kentucky’s own Tyler Childers might have stolen the shows.
Musical performances at racing venues are nothing new. Del Mar has hosted summer-long series of rock acts for years. The majority of fans in the infield at the Preakness Stakes (G1) hardly even know they are at a sporting event, and Pimlico has hosted many events, including the Moonrise Festival the same weekend as the Railbird. Churchill Downs used to have performances in the infield Derby week and even created an entertainment arm of Churchill Downs Inc. hosting the Rolling Stones and Alice Cooper in September 2006.
The Railbird Festival was different in that it a) didn’t actually use the grandstand—or infield—as a seating area, instead utilizing several acres of green space (well, brown space, it is mid-August after all); b) housed multiple stages over multiple days; and c) wasn’t a “Keeneland” event. It was promoted by AC Entertainment. While it had an “equine” theme, it felt more like a community event.
“We have been approached over the last several years by folks reaching out to us trying to host a music festival,” said Vince Gabbert, Keeneland’s vice president and chief operating officer. “The timing just never seemed right or the structure just wasn’t right. When the guys from AC Entertainment came in, we hit it off and were able to come up with a structure that worked well for us. They do some big festivals such as Bonnaroo and Forecastle (in Louisville). They also do more ‘boutique’ style festivals in Charleston (S.C.), Chattanooga (Tenn.), and Memphis.
“And the time worked well for us. We don’t have a lot going on at our campus right now. It was time to get together and try the opportunity to host one.”
Kentucky’s best months are April and October, which Keeneland holds race dates for. Pretty much the entire month of September is tied up with the yearling sale, so August seemed to fit.
“They essentially rented our facility for the weekend,” Gabbert said. “Our staff is engaged at all operational levels: ticketing, maintenance, and security; that sort of thing.”
The expected attendance for each day was about 15,000. Keeneland has some expertise there, as “the Hill” usually has that many casual fans on a busy race day Saturday.
“We’ve approached this as more of a community event, which is part of our mission. When you look at all of the studies that have been done of the city and what the city needs and what the folks want, a music festival is one that always popped up toward the top of the list as an amenity that Central Kentucky doesn’t have. If you are going to pick a venue anywhere in the region, we’ve got one of the best sites with ingress and egress and the capacity to handle that sort of crowd.”
The equine aspect wasn’t lost on the crowd. Not many music festivals have an area dubbed the “Lucky Day Plaza” with jumbotron screens showing races such as the Arlington Million XXXVII Stakes (G1T) and races from Saratoga. Several sauntered inside the “Wagering Central” tent to catch some simulcasts. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and Central Kentucky Riding for Hope had information booths that fielded queries from non-racing types who genuinely seemed interested.
The crossover was able to find its own stage.