It was only one year that Keeneland held races without the general public in attendance, but for something that had been part of the rhythm of my spring and fall since October 2005, the hiatus in some ways felt like so much longer. It was but a small disruption to the cadence of life as most of us had known it prior to 2020, but such things that are intertwined who we are and involve a place we love still matter to get back to when the time is right. So I was grateful that Keeneland was able to welcome limited numbers of spectators back, but it was not until a quiet moment sitting near the rail waiting for a field to come onto the track that the serenity I generally feel at Keeneland at some point during a visit there swept over me. Things felt more normal, more of how life had once been, at that time and I savored that more than I had any other time. That is the beauty of Keeneland. It evokes feelings no other track ever has. After the day I went (the second day of the meet, Blue Grass Stakes day), I saw one of their promos on social media referring to making up for lost time. And I fully understand. It is not in any way trivializing what people endured and still may due to the pandemic, and losses they may have suffered. Rather, it is to say there can soon be a path back to what people treasure, even if they are not experienced quite as they were, and that can be restorative.

It felt a little surreal to arrive in the parking lot, and realize attending the races was in my reach. I only saw well-known racehorses last year one morning leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, as they went through preparations at Keeneland, and so it was wonderful to be back at a big race day when necessity dictated missing them all last year. And I knew that was not the most important thing, to experience those days in person, but when racing feels like it is intrinsically part of a person, the desire to have been there runs deep. So I savored this Blue Grass day, greatly. It also was one I felt glad to be there for because I’d had my second COVID vaccine a day and a half before, and had just shaken off a plethora of side effects the morning of Blue Grass day.

I thrilled to witness a dead heat in an allowance early in the card, between the Empire Maker filly Empress Eleanor and her rival Enjoyitwhilewecan. Amazingly, that same race had another dead heat for fifth place. I’ve heard connections are not enthused by dead heats for the win spot because it means the purse is split, but I still thought how exciting and somewhat of a rare occurrence, so I thought it could be a harbinger of the racing excitement to come over the course of the afternoon. And no doubt part of it was a healthy sense of elation at being back to witness a day of top-notch racing.

The results of the day’s stakes races are all documented on Equibase and in industry publications, so I won’t recap those especially over a week after the events unfolded, but the Blue Grass certainly merits a mention. Much of the attention was focused on Godolphin’s undefeated Essential Quality, and he dug down with all the determination a stellar racehorse inherits in spades, adding a fresh luster to the Derby prep, and very likely stamping his status as the Kentucky Derby favorite.

I don’t know if, in the midst of the day’s work, the jockeys, outriders, or anyone else involved in the day’s card being run had time to note the cheers of the crowd and were glad that some spectators could return, but it struck me at one point. Again, a Blue Grass Stakes was run to the voiced enthusiasm of attendees instead of near-quiet of the previous running.

Essential Quality shipped to Churchill Downs shortly after his Blue Grass victory, as his connections sought to give him ample time to train over that course in preparation for the Run for the Roses. I don’t know if he will regress slightly after every race so far being a winning one and a Blue Grass that took a lot of grit to win (although that quality bodes well in a race that is testing as the Derby), but I don’t dismiss his chances. His status as the likely Derby favorite was further cemented the week after the Blue Grass when Concert Tour did not prevail in the Arkansas Derby.

That same day the Arkansas Derby was contested was the second Saturday of Keeneland’s meet, as well as the date of the Grand National in England. While I chose to only attend the meet twice, still wanting to be cautious about large gatherings, I am so glad it has fans back and am savoring it even more, even while watching on the track’s live feed instead of on-site, and the second Saturday continued to be a showcase of what racing there means to people and the quality the top horses who gather will display. 5-year-old mare Change of Control captured the Giant’s Causeway, giving trainer Michelle Lovell her first Keeneland stakes win and 500th stakes victory. The victory was also the first Keeneland stakes win for the mare’s jockey, Colby Hernandez.

Stage Raider wrapped up the day’s card with an emphatic victory in his second career start. While he raced greenly down the stretch, the half-brother to Justify by Pioneerof the Nile signified that he should be a star on the rise.

The Grand National also proved to be a spectacular renewal, marking the first time a female jockey won, as Rachel Blackmore and Minella Times prevailed by 6 1/2 lengths. I had never watched the race before, but a friend in England mentioned she picked a horse though she’s not into racing, but seemed it was still almost a British tradition. I loved hearing that, and when I heard Blackmore notched a historic victory, I was more compelled to tune in. It was incredible to see a race with 40 runners that lasted over 9 minutes and featured two race callers taking turns to call the race. I went to Liverpool two years ago, and had not even realized until then that is where the Grand National was. I still recognize it as an iconic race, though I had never tuned in until this year, so kudos to Blackmore, her mount, and all the connections. A great two Saturdays of racing!