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America's Palio

The Soul of Horse Racing Has Been Preserved at Lexington, Kentucky's Keeneland Racetrack
Richard Lerner
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

In Siena, Italy, there is a horse race each August called the Palio, run for the past four centuries on the Feast of the Assumption. The horses are brought into the churches before the race, where they are blessed, and then they are led on an elaborate procession. In the Palio, a horse can win without a rider. In fact, to the Sienese, the most beautiful Palio is one in which a riderless horse crosses the finish line first.

In Lexington, Kentucky, Keeneland racetrack has become the modern torchbearer of this tradition of equine appreciation. If all the racetracks in the world disappeared, if the running of horses ceased, all would not be lost if Keeneland was preserved. Like any journey to a shrine, a visit there is preceded by anticipation, a quickening of the pulse and a lightening of the spirit. Although major league sports, a changed tax code and new avenues for legal gambling have taken their toll on the horse industry in recent years, there is little danger that the racing industry will die, and one abiding reason is that Keeneland exists.

To begin with, racing is a special sport. Where else can you see people so involved in a sport in which they've never participated? Most adults have played softball, shot a few hoops or tossed a football around. But only a fortunate few have ever been astride a beast more valuable than the most expensive cars.

Racing's uniqueness, what makes it special, is even more pronounced when it occurs at the center of its being, the way a pilgrim's prayers are intensified when he reaches his personal Jerusalem. In the United States, Lexington is that shrine for the equine soul. The famous horse-breeding farms are here. The country's top studs are here, among them Alysheba, Nureyev, Seattle Slew and Mr. Prospector, generating the next crop of top sires and stakes winners.

But there's more than just horses at Keeneland. It is one of racing's most beautiful settings. Driving through the iron gates, you enter a garden landscape. The stone buildings are covered with ivy. The lawns are as green as green can be. The lanes are shaded by massive oaks and maples. Lexingtonians, who are justifiably proprietary in their attitude toward the park, can be seen taking their early morning run, walking their dogs through Keeneland or having picnics in the shade of its trees--the park is always open.

Keeneland, from the outset, has been dedicated to showcasing the horse and the beauty and pageantry of racing. It was founded in the 1930s by a group of central Kentucky horse breeders to be "a track that would cultivate an endearing appreciation and respect for the noble sport of horse racing." It was never intended to be a money-making proposition. As a nondividend-paying corporation, all profits are put back into Keeneland for improvements, purses and its considerable charitable and research donations for a broad range of causes.

One very clear sign of its orientation is that Keeneland has one of the shorter racing seasons in the country. The split seasons--in April and October--are designed to enhance the color of the occasion by keying into the spring and fall foliage. In the spring, the park is in bloom with flowering crabapple trees, pear trees and dogwoods. In the fall, the oaks and maples put on a show of color.

Anyone who has seen the spectacle of the Kentucky Derby, 70 miles to the west in Louisville, and believes it to be a representative slice of horse racing, cannot imagine what lays in store at Keeneland. It is not a mass outing; the feeling is intimate. For example, this year's Bluegrass Stakes, an important precursor to the Derby and the most important race of the spring meet at Keeneland, was attended by 25,000 racing fans; this year's Derby, in contrast, hosted about 144,000. Keeneland is also the only track in the United States that has been visited by the Queen of England, who has a race named in her honor.

The feeling of intimacy is accented because all of the action takes place right in front of the spectators. The horses are saddled under the trees behind the stands, affording the spectators a close-up of their favorite horse or a glimpse of who's looking like a winner that day. The animals are close enough to touch, and as the steeds walk onto the track, the crowd must part for them to pass. Most tracks have a double rail around them, putting the action farther from the crowd, but Keeneland's single rail allows one to be right at the finish line.

The aura of tradition goes even further at Keeneland. Track officials are justifiably proud that they have no announcer. There are now video screens, which allow viewers to see the back stretch, but in keeping with its traditions, Keeneland doesn't sully its atmosphere with the drone that accompanies races at other tracks.

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