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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 2)

That, too, is easy during a visit to Keeneland. Western Kentucky has numerous charms. The Kentucky Horse Park, a short drive north of downtown Lexington, is worth a trip. The park is a 1,000-plus-acre farm that recognizes the importance of horses in Kentucky's culture. In the Bluegrass region, the top breeders are kept at comfortable stud; even the nonbreeding legends are reserved their place of honor. The park includes a Hall of Champions, where six famous horses are kept in pampered comfort for admiration by the public, including John Henry--the obnoxious little gelding with a big heart, twice Horse of the Year and the all-time earnings winner during his career--Foregon, Bold Forbes, Imperator, Sergeant Pepper's Feature and Rambling Willy.

Glorious former champions that have died are buried here with honors. Man O' War, who lost only one race in his entire career, is buried under a great monument. Opposite is a bronze of Secretariat, the famous Triple Crown winner.

There is also a stable with a selection of horses of different breeds, a museum chronicling the history of the horse from prehistoric to modern times, working harness maker and blacksmith shops and other exhibits displaying nearly everything else that contributes to the horse trade.

Driving from Lexington, the Horse Park is a left turn on Iron Works Pike. To the right it is an equine wonderland. There are rows of stone fences, some dating from the eighteenth century. The University of Kentucky Press has published a text about these beautiful constructs of gravity and stone called Rock Fences of the Bluegrass, by Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Carl Raitz. The side roads that cross Iron Works Pike lead to some of the farms that raise horses which run at Keeneland. Many of the mares in the pastures had just foaled, and the young were cavorting alongside their mothers.

About 40 miles south of Lexington is Berea, home of Berea College. Berea College charges no tuition to its 1,500 students; the students work in exchange for their schooling. The college was a pioneer in educating students from rural Appalachia, and now the school and the town are important reservoirs of Appalachian history and culture. The Boone Tavern, run by the college, is a nice stopover for the night.

Southwest of Lexington is the Shaker village of Pleasant Hill, in Harrisburg. This was one of the main Shaker communities when that sect was flourishing. It now serves as a living museum, with a peaceful inn with hearty traditional fare. It is worth a detour to see the restored buildings amid the bucolic setting and learn a little of a people so devoted to their ideals that they essentially put themselves out of existence by their celibacy.

Finally, all roads lead back to Keeneland. There, the roar of the crowd as the horses rush to the finish line is undisturbed by the whine of a loudspeaker. The rails are packed with avid racing fans watching the thundering pack pound past. In that instant where winners and losers are determined, where so much of racing has been lost or sullied at other tracks, the tradition and grandeur that is such an essential part of thoroughbred horse racing seems securely intact.

Richard Lerner is a writer and practicing veterinarian living in Rebun Gap, Georgia.


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