For die-hard racing enthusiasts in Lexington, Kentucky, autumn’s arrival is not heralded so much by the gradual transition of warmth to cold, or even the leaves changing colors. It begins with the commencement of another stellar race meet at Keeneland Racecourse.
Day two of the meet dawned slightly chilly yet sunny, a welcome respite from the cold and rain that had been forecast. The stage was set for a great day. The man at the “Fast Pass” entrance remembered me—as I remembered him—whether days or months had passed. Somehow Keeneland always manages to have that timeless quality, even while seamlessly incorporating new innovations, which make it easy to feel you’ve never left and nothing’s changed. It’s a rare gift to maintain such a balance—an art and a science—and they manage it perfectly.
I stood near the walking ring as a lovely rendition of the national anthem flowed across the grounds, reminiscent of all the grace and effortless ability demonstrated by a top Thoroughbred in full stride. The anthem’s last notes faded as star jockey Julien Leparoux began to answer questions drawn from the people present and from Facebook fans, moderated by Donna Barton Brothers. He spoke of his recently announced move to California to ride, one motivated by his private life rather than a statement about the future of Kentucky racing.
Here beneath the shade of the track’s iconic sycamore, it’s hard to imagine Kentucky racing struggling at all, when you see the caliber of the horses that race in this pastoral setting. Even if it’s known to be true, it seemed less real here, somehow.
I remained for a few more questions and watched some horses school during the conversation, the rhythm of training continuing unabated, before departing to wander through the barns. Leparoux’s softly accented voice followed me like a breeze through the track speaker, growing fainter and then subsiding entirely as I moved far enough away.
One of the horses that had been schooling grazed at a nearby barn, between impatient attempts to go into the shedrow. When he had been schooled earlier, I saw that energy channeled into pirouettes in the paddock—perhaps a sense of the races to come that transmits itself to the horses and to the crowd.
He paused, and I saw that indefinable “something” in his eyes that sent me reaching for my camera, captivated for a moment before moving on…
At another barn, a man stood with his dog among the quiet serenity of the backstretch, beneath a neat row of trees splashed with crimson, gold, and green. Nearby, a parallel line of leg wraps picked up the breeze as they dried.
It was twenty minutes prior to the first race, and the procession of entrants circled the path between two barns like a private post parade, one only I and the horses in the adjoining barns witnessed. Flower pots lined the barn rafters, attracting butterflies. They seemed as numerous as the horses that day, later seen landing on a man’s ball cap as he stood by the rail. I’d never seen butterflies at Keeneland before, but maybe this was a good omen of some sort?
Picking up on the adrenaline the horses felt, coiled tight and ready to run, it was time to find a spot to watch. I followed a path on the track’s perimeter to take in a few races at the head of the stretch. “Welcome to Keeneland!” boomed the voice of a valet near the clubhouse. I was steps away from the equally inviting track, looking like a neatly furrowed dark brown ribbon.
It is here that I view the races in one of my favorite spots, almost a pure distillation of Keeneland’s motto (“racing as it was meant to be”)—true essence of the racehorse in full flight and no distracting elements. The roar of the crowd receded so far away, they may as well not exist.
Beneath the day’s baby blue skies, trailed by wispy white clouds, I saw only the elemental will to win as they thundered out of the turn… breathed loud… hooves a staccato beat… heard it all when it’s not obliterated by the crowd. In a heartbeat they’re gone, while mine still beat fast, fueled by the excitement and captured by the driving force.
Later I returned to the paddock and to the rail, and witnessed a good run for the wire: it also fueled the excitement and afforded a stake in the eventual winner. An infrequent bettor, my picks for the day were not based on seeing the horses in the paddock beforehand or a careful study of their form and race records. Yet I knew the basics of the race records of the horses I liked and had seen them before; I simply wanted them to win, more than I wanted to cash tickets.
Groupie Doll was my first pick and excitement flowed to a crescendo as I watched her enter the walking ring, calm and focused. The excitement increased exponentially as the post time for her race, the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes, drew nearer, and then they began their surge down the track. Groupie Doll sat behind the leaders patiently as announcer Kurt Becker intoned, “Groupie Doll… needs running room and is looking for it, inside, outside, can’t find it yet…” and I held my breath to see if she’d get clear. A path parted for her just in time; she grabbed the lead in a blink and never gave it back, demolishing the field behind her in a thrilling tour-de-force. In the winner’s circle, jockey Rajiv Maragh said he knew she’d win when she got a clear path, and she was just waiting for him to say go… an unwavering faith in this remarkable filly that echoed my own. For me, it was born on a day I got to make her acquaintance at the barn, and she licked my hands. Love can grow out of the simplest things. I was also told that day nearly a year ago that she was going to be the next champion: a potential realized and a belief handsomely rewarded on this day. It is for the connection like this, more than betting or even winning, that has drawn me to the track again and again.
Next up, my other pick Tapitsfly—she of the regal bearing—entered the paddock for the First Lady Stakes. She first caught my eye at this same track months ago with a look over her withers, a perfect pose. It seemed to seek recognition of her ability and presence, a true star quality. A few weeks later, in the rapidly spreading darkness at the conclusion of Derby Day, she displayed the same unmistakable presence in a test barn at Churchill Downs. It was a quiet confidence, beauty, a far-off gaze over her hay net, reason to pause and take her in—a snapshot both for the memory and my camera.
On this October day, she didn’t indulge in poses but was still an alluring individual. On the track, she shook free of the pack like a silver comet in the sunshine and captured the race dramatically in the last strides.
I had two picks, two wins, and nearly got the exacta in Tapitsfly’s race: another day of perfection at Keeneland to add to the deck of beautiful memories.
Pataky Kid impressed in the paddock, but the Dixiana Stakes Futurity for 2-year-olds belonged to Joha. He would not be denied, winning wire-to-wire.
Data Link jumped and bucked once while waiting to be saddled for the Shadwell Turf Mile, but Wise Dan saved the feats of athleticism and energy for the race, proving his superiority with his win.
While the horses are what drew me to the track, the people side can be interesting as well, both visually and verbally. Mario Guiterrez walked through the crowd, in the famed silks he wore to victory in the Derby with I’ll Have Another, displaying a big friendly smile. Has he ridden at this track before? I’m not sure. His mount that day was He’s Had Enough – is this the antidote to I’ll Have Another? Even if he is, young Mr. Guiterrez seems to have a solid future and it is doubtful he won’t continue his ascent up racing’s ranks. His Derby ride and study of previous winners was too masterful and cleverly executed, especially for one riding in his first Derby. He could be another “Iceman.”
Other notes of interest involved race attendees: An extremely drunk woman shouted into a phone, “We’re in the padlock,” while one of her companions carefully and patiently explained to her that a padlock is what you put a key in, and they were in fact in the paddock, which does not have an “l.”
While three runners circled a tree early in the card, one observer commented: “He may not be a winner in this race, but he’s a winner in life.” This may be one of my favorite racetrack observations of all time. The man who said this knows what I discovered long ago: the horse always speaks; you just have to know how to listen.
Today’s runners spoke volumes about who to watch, and reaffirmed Keeneland’s position in the pantheon of great racing. Mission accomplished: another perfect day at the track.
Sun and shadow alternated along the paths the horses walked when I arrived for the last two races of the day. Cars were parked on the hill in great numbers and the spots at the rail were crowded, but not impossibly so.
Through the entrance and to my left, Starformer – keyed up and ready to go – caught my eye: slender, muscular, a ball of energy bouncing along while being saddled at the walk.
It took a moment to realize her trainer, performing the saddling duties, was Bill Mott. It takes time to adjust to trainers you follow aging with gray hair – has it really been that long since the days of Cigar? Yet it has. Standing at track rails and paddocks long enough, definitely you will see favorites age, and new stars arrive, or fade away…
I left work twenty minutes early, a whirlwind of commotion, bright lights and non-stop people parading through the doors. It was a relief to escape to the track, where it’s easy to relax.
It was a reunion of sorts, the first time I’d seen In Lingerie and Ramon Dominguez since opening weekend at Saratoga this year. Little impressions lingered, and bigger ones went unnoticed in an exhaustion-fueled state, a pleasant haze of an afternoon where racing seemed to happen on the periphery. The race calls for once didn’t register: they just flowed around me like a melody, soothing but with no meaning.
What did register besides Starformer’s “look-at-me” stance?
The win by In Lingerie, “my” Empire Maker girl – the third of his daughters to win the Juddmonte Spinster, making her sire’s absence from the U.S. seem even more conspicuous;
Velazquez’ smile that seems ever-present;
The boys playing with whips like they were swords one moment and light sabers the next, a spirited game invented by children who grew up around racing, using common props in their lives…
With a late arrival and no program, I can only identify the horses in the final race by any significant distinguishing features they have. It’s like going to the races in my dreams – witnessed, absorbed, enjoyed it – but everything happened all around me like I was not there, which makes it no less wonderful.
The horses I noticed are: Braids, a gray with wise eyes; a bay who gleamed in the sun; another gray, tall and stately, who looked at me in a way that seemed kind and benevolent, while atop her back her jockey seemed to be gazing at the track already with a laser-like focus that saw nothing around him. And it was they who won, propelled across the turf course first in the final strides. The photos below, while not the best, I found interesting as they showed the two horses in front running in tandem, their strides appearing evenly matched down the length of the stretch.
And with that, one more lovely day at Keeneland had reached its conclusion.