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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

(continued from page 1)

Apart from the Bluegrass Stakes race, the next important concourse of the season is the Ashland Stakes, the second biggest race of the spring meet. During a visit to the track on Saturday, April 22, the weather was looking changeable enough to warrant a seat in the grandstand if a spring storm should happen by. Normally, for the day of a big race, it is essential to book a table in advance at either of the dining rooms. Thanks to good fortune, there was a cancellation at the Equestrian Room, a casual, á la carte dining room where you can place bets without leaving your table; there are roving mutuel clerks who will take your wagers. From the tables, it is a quick step outside to take a place at the finish line. (The second restaurant, the Phoenix Room, requires a jacket and tie for men.)

Keeneland is no exception to the basic rule of the track: The only thing that approaches the joy of watching a horse round the turn is betting on which horse will finish in the money. Of course, handicapping efforts usually leave little to show. But here, even more so than other tracks, betting is a kind of "involvement fee," a spot of money that most gladly pay to be part of the action. Study the Daily Racing Form and the race program. Eavesdrop around the track: "I like number six since she's started using blinkers"; "There's no way he can win on a muddy track"; "Oh, no, he's started using the whip, he's in trouble." It's tempting to think that these people know what they're talking about, but winning consistently at the track is extremely difficult. There are too many variables, too many players, too much chance. But who cares? Betting adds to the day's pleasure.

Before each race, examine the horses. Judging by looks is hard, but there's always that certain something in the horse's eye, conformation or gait. Or maybe you will get a feeling that will impart that quintessential bit of knowledge which will magically create a master handicapper. You often hear someone saying, "Oh, you could just tell by the way he was walking, by the expression in his face, that today was his day, that there wasn't a horse that could beat him." Of course this is generally told with the benefit of hindsight; it's easy to be smug with winnings in your pocket.

The novice handicapper quickly discovers that judging a horse's potential isn't something that's learned in a day, or even from occasional trips. Favorites have won a large percentage of the races this year at Keeneland, but it's hard to make money betting on favorites. On the other hand, a favorite hasn't won the Derby since 1979; nothing is as fun (or as profitable) as picking a long shot, although the chances are, well, long.

"Better lucky than smart," goes the saying, and that April Saturday was a day for luck. In the seventh race, a long shot, Wolf Prince (ridden by jockey Julie Krone), which I had tossed into a three-way perfecta box for no reason other than that the horse looked good, won what was a close race, and the losses for the weekend were covered. (A perfecta is a bet where the bettor picks the winning and placing horses, in order. In a perfecta box, the bettor covers all the combinations of 1st and 2nd place finishes for three horses. For example, a $1 perfecta box costs $6, covering all possibilities for the three horses; a four-horse box costs $12, etc.)

Perfect weather capped off that Saturday's main event, the Ashland Stakes, a race for three-year-old fillies. There were 91 nominations for this year's race, and six horses ran, including Minister Wife, who had already won over $300,000 in her lifetime. The favorite this year, Urbane, easily won the race. While the race added no money to this writer's pocket, the track was put behind me with money in my pocket, food in my belly and sun in my face. All in all, a perfect day at the track.

The thrills of Saturday led to a decision to arrive at the track early on Sunday to wander around a little, talk to people and look at the horses. I visited some of the horses that I had bet on the day before, thanking some of them, extending my heartfelt regrets to the others. One of the horses was with its trainer. He was explaining her history to a family.

In the press room, one wall contains photographs of Eclipse award winners: Keeneland regulars, reporters and photographers who have won the horse racing industry's awards for everything from Horse of the Year to turf writing. Most of the people pictured were actually in the room working and, of course, betting--even the press room is equipped with a betting window.

Another part of Keeneland's open policy is the track kitchen. Bettors can eat with track employees, including some of the best trainers and jockeys in the world.

On Sunday, the weather--and Saturday's excellent betting performance--took turns for the worse. But if one is dressed for the occasion, a blustery day is a good experience. The crowd thins out, and a place on the rail is anyone's for the taking. But after eight races in foul weather and few winnings (in fact, all of Saturday's winnings were returned to the track that Sunday), it was time for something else.

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