Friday, April 12, 2013

Ayes for Keeneland

This should come as no shock to anyone, but Keeneland Race Course is outstanding!

The NJ Horseplayer caravan -- and my two kids -- returned last Sunday from a 5-day junket that ultimately I dubbed the 2013 America's Pastime Tour, including baseball day games in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, as well as stops at Keeneland and Old Friends Farm just outside of Lexington, KY.

Feast your eyes on Thurman's
Bacon Cheddar Ranch Burger...
3/4 lbs. of juicy goodness
(and a higher BP for me
There's nothing that says Americana more than baseball and horse racing...and burning up lots of gasoline to drive over 1,000 miles round trip while stopping along the way at some of the top local U.S. establishments, including Thurman Cafe in Columbus, OH, Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh and the Windy Corner Market in Lexington, KY.

Keenelend will be a critical focus in the week ahead, especially ahead of next Saturday's Simulcast Series Challenge Invitational at Monmouth Park (2 NHC seats up for grabs among 60 entries), where as you might have read me boasting about winning two entries.

As Keeneland is one of three contest tracks scheduled (Tampa Bay Downs and Aqueduct the others), I really need to brush up on my Keeneland in advance of the SSC, but come away from my visit last Friday with nothing but visions of grandeur.

If I let my daughter pick for me, I might do even better next week; my brilliant 11-year-old called the winners of last Friday's early Pick 3.  (I did one-up her with a good score on a 3-to-1 shot -- Upgrade, a horse I loved at Gulfstream in SSC#3 that scratched that day -- and a $30 base exacta.)

NJ Horseplayer road-trippers
bracing for a big visit to Keeneland
For anyone who has never been to Keeneland, I would highly recommend spending more time than we did.  One day simply is not enough, especially if you have the time.

We rolled into the parking lot around 11:30 a.m. for the 1:05 p.m. first post on opening day and spent some time feeling our way around the grounds.  Regretfully, I was a day early and had to pass on fellow blogger Derek Brown's (@NJDerek) kind offer to attend his tailgate; tailgating, I learned, is a must, and there's plenty of acreage for it on the expansive Keeneland grounds.

On the way in, I could not avoid how well-dressed everyone was for the occasion (many, especially the younger set, in khakis, sport-jackets and ties), and how young an audience.  The kind folks (Sam and her husband Dave relation to either NASCAR or the 60s guitar icon) seated next to us deemed this the norm, and that many UK students regularly attend the track, particularly during the spring meeting.  I was impressed, flying in the face of widespread negative commentary I have seen elsewhere that racing cannot attract a younger audience.

Scene from the paddock
Access to everything once inside, from placing wagers to buying food and drinks to gift shopping, was brilliant.  I would estimate the crowd at roughly 25,000-30,000 and I did not wait in a single line, and all of the staff were extremely pleasant, unlike many other sporting venues I have attended.  The food was good; my son and I took Tom S's advice and got the Kentucky Burgoo (stew), which was very tasty, and the "adult" drink selections obviously focused on bourbon but was diverse as well.

The paddock, meanwhile, combined a feel of new-world construction with old world charm.  The facades at Keeneland are impeccably clean and everything else so well manicured, and the crowds around the walking circles are electric and hospitable, even elbow-to-elbow with most patrons.  Keeneland reminded me of Saratoga in many ways in terms of the experience and quality of racing, but is unique.

Upon our exit, we strolled through the stable area, which interestingly sits to the right front of the main track entrance and is pretty much open access.  We caught stable hands washing down and feeding horses, and I found it a great experience, especially for the kids, to get a backstage pass of sorts into the operation.  Not that patrons cannot access the stable areas at places like Saratoga and nearby Monmouth, but scheduled tours are the norms there, from what I have experienced.

I absolutely cannot wait to return to Keeneland again, maybe next time with my wife and/or friends, to experience more of the outside "adult" activities like the Bourbon Trail...and to see more premier racing.

Catching Up With Old Friends

Outside of Keeneland, one place I will absolutely revisit in Kentucky is Old Friends Farm.

NJ Horseplayer-in-the-making
bonds with Arson Squad
The kids and I hit Old Friends on Saturday morning on our way to Cincinnati to meet a longtime Rutgers friend at the Reds game, and the 90-minute tour was extremely enjoyable and would far prove more nostalgic for fans with deeper historical knowledge of racing.

As a casual thoroughbred racing fan until joining the NHC Tour in 2010 and getting involved in the handicapping contest circuit, I could only lay claim to recognizing some of the name residents at Old Farm -- Gulch, of course...Arson Squad and Seabiscuit impostor Popcorn Deelites, to name a few.
Gulch enjoying a happy retirement

I was hoping to meet Eclipse award winner Rapid Redux, who gained headlines for 22 straight wins in 2011-2012, but he was resting at a satellite farm.

The tour is magnificent!

Visitors benefit from the setup the proprietors afford, walking through a well-designed route that provides hands-on access to the horses, most of whom were happy to take in a few carrots from us and a rub of the neck.

Outside the Windy Corner
Market, hidden away in the
beautiful horse-countryside
of Lexington, KY
I felt particularly connected to Arson Squad -- not sure why. Maybe it had to do with winning a NJ-based Meadowlands Cup in 2008 and sensing that we were Jersey folk, but probably more that he was just a cool and friendly customer.  I really enjoyed being in his presence most.

As the kids and I made a donation to take the tour, and spent a decent amount of cash in the gift shop, I would encourage readers to consider making a donation to this wonderful venue.  Until last week, I heard their advertisements multiple times on At the Races on Sirius and contemplated a donation but lost track.

Now, however, I plan to include Old Friends as part of my family's annual giving, recognizing not only the value that the operators of Old Friends put in to caring for these distinguished horses, but the education and joy they provide to anyone crossing the farm's path.


  1. Hey Bill, I am jealous. I only have one entry at Monmouth.
    Frankie Sal

  2. Good job getting one, Frankie Sal! It's hard enough doing that...took me 3 years of trying to get this year's spots, and know I'm beside myself about how to handle multiple entries. I'll see you there. Where do you play? I'll be in the restaurant, down by the glass.