LEXINGTON, Ky. - If friends hear you're heading to Kentucky for horse racing, they will likely assume your destination is Louisville and
The central part of this state is called the horse capital of the world because it's home to more than 450 farms where thoroughbreds and standardbreds are bred, born, and nurtured on limestone-enriched bluegrass. As the center for training, racing, and selling top-flight thoroughbreds, Keeneland attracts a who's who of owners, breeders, trainers, and jockeys.
Other states and countries have thoroughbred facilities, but nothing compares to this part of Kentucky. It's why the ruler and deputy ruler of Dubai have stables in the area. It's why Queen Elizabeth II has flown in to see horses. It's why Derby winners Smarty Jones and Street Sense, among lots of others, stand at stud at area farms.
"People truly love this place, truly love horses," said Rogers Beasley, Keeneland's director of racing.
Despite its commanding place in international racing, visitors with all levels of interest are welcome year-round, whether it's for the high-stakes April and October races, the world's largest auctions, or simulcast racing.
"It's a unique little gem," said Ed Boutilier, chef de cuisine of Turf Catering Co., who returned four years ago after working 15 years for a similar company at Churchill and other tracks. "When you pull into Keeneland, the ambience is different. Although Churchill is considered the Taj Mahal because of the Derby, it's located in the city and has no atmosphere. Here people dress well. When they get up in the morning, they say, 'We're going to Keeneland.' It's special. It's like Derby Day all the time."
This time of year, the world's largest yearling auction attracts determined international buyers who proffer spectacular bids for a future Secretariat. According to Geoffrey Russell, director of sales, last year's auction totaled over $385 million, with 32 horses sold for more than $1 million apiece. This year a record 5,555 yearlings are up for bidding over the 15-day auction that ends Sept. 23.
Then the excitement will shift to the track's fall meet Oct. 3-25 and a record $5.4 million in 19 purses - one of North America's richest stakes programs. The Oct. 3-5 Fall Stars Weekend offers nine stakes races worth $3.4 million, six of which are prep races for the $25 million Breeders' Cup World Championships, the racing season's grand finale Oct. 24-25 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. (Keeneland's April meet features the Blue Grass Stakes, a prep race for the Derby and the Triple Crown.)
There's also year-round simulcast racing, and visitors are welcome to tour the grounds any day and grab a bite at the Track Kitchen, the backside cafe for jockeys, trainers, and horsemen.
At breakfast in mid-April, I eavesdropped as playwright-actor Sam Shepard discussed the next day's race for one of his horses. Going to early morning workouts on the main track is another wonderful slice of track life. Among those I spotted were jockey Julien Leparoux and Michael Matz, trainer of the late lamented Derby champion Barbaro.
"It's the best track in America," said Steve Bass, 50, a Louisville native and retired jockey and now agent for Leparoux. "The facility is second to none. The horsemen are treated well, and there are races for every class."
Ercel Ellis, 77, a Kentucky native and thoroughbred expert, agreed. "Day by day Keeneland is the best racing in America. Saratoga Springs used to be the best, but after that track started restricting races to New York-bred horses, the quality has been diluted."
"Howard Battle, the late racing secretary, called it 'the national park of racing,' " Beasley said of Keeneland. "He's right. . . . We have 1,100 acres as a way to preserve and conserve this area so it looks like it always did."
Landscaped with a precisionist's touch, the property includes a limestone grandstand with reserved seating (under a roof) and upper-level dining rooms. The ovals are turf and Polytrack, a synthetic mix used instead of dirt. Before each race, people cluster behind the grandstand to watch as the horses are saddled in the paddock. A modern sales pavilion, 57 barns for 1,951 horses, a training track, a library, and an entertainment center are other sites.
On race day, dress sensibly chic. The track program and a Beginner's Guide on the Web provide betting tips and other inside information. Beasley also recommends Breakfast with the Works on Saturdays. For $5, it includes a buffet (7-8:30 a.m.), jockey visits, and 8:45 paddock demonstrations. There are also handicapping pointers at 11:30.
At the admission area, buy a Daily Racing Form for more information on the day's card (and schedules for other tracks). Keeneland's LED tote board is fabulous, the images sharp, and it details minutes to post, scratches, odds, results, betting pool, and payouts.
Keeneland is a study in clock management. Mutuel windows open at 12:30 and the first of nine races is off at 1:15 p.m. with about 30 minutes between races. The bugler sounds at 10 and two minutes to post.
The auctions are as important as the races. At the yearling sales, which begin at 10 a.m. and end at 7 p.m., about 400 horses a day are sold. "We try to have a sliding scale for each day. We start with the best horses," Russell said.
"There are multiple levels of buyers: ones interested in the $300,000 to $1 million horses, those who are in for $200,000 horses, and others buy horses for $75,000-$100,000. Some of the highest bidding can take longer, though sometimes a million-dollar horse is sold in two bids."
Last year's Horse of the Year, Curlin, was bought at Keeneland. Big Brown, this year's Derby and Preakness winner, was purchased at the April 2007 sale. "We've sold the last five winners of Triple Crown races. Success begets success," said Russell.
Jan Shepherd can be reached at email@example.com.