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America's Palio

The Soul of Horse Racing Has Been Preserved at Lexington, Kentucky's Keeneland Racetrack
By Richard Lerner | From Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
America's Palio

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.

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.

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.