One day last October, Troy Brooks set out to treat his sons to a break from their routine schoolwork with a field trip. Their destination was Keeneland, Kentucky’s landmark thoroughbred training center and racetrack. Before the end of the day, Matthew, 9, Nathan, 8, and Jonathan, 4, had received a history lesson, a chance to watch world-class sporting contests, and peruse some of the most accomplished equine athletes in the world.
“As soon as we got out of the car in the parking lot, they could see from the license plates on the cars that people come to Keeneland from all over the country,” says Brooks, a Florida native who first visited Keeneland as a college student. “I pointed out to them that this is a very important part of Kentucky history and culture.”
In fact, Keeneland is a destination for all manner of thoroughbred horse enthusiasts, including breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, and racing fans who run the gamut from families like the Brookses to European royalty, American presidents, sports figures, and movie stars. They all visit the central-Kentucky landmark for the racing, of course, but also to soak up the sights, sounds, and rich history unique to Bluegrass horse country.
“Keeneland is so many different things to so many different people,” says Nick Nicholson, Keeneland’s president and CEO. “It’s part of what makes living in Lexington different from living anywhere else in the world. When people come here, they feel as though they’ve stepped back in time.”
That’s because throughout the complex, thoroughbred horse racing’s colorful past is preserved and displayed to reflect the vision of the sportsman for whom Keeneland was named.
As the 1920s roared to a close, legendary Kentucky sportsman J. O. “Jack” Keene was in the midst of constructing the equestrian center of his dreams. With the finest in stabling and training facilities and a palatial residence overlooking it all, Keene envisioned a destination for serious horsemen in the heart of central Kentucky. In the early 1930s, the Great Depression swept away Keene’s fortune. But thanks to a group of dedicated horsemen, his dream survived.
The Keeneland that racing fans enjoy so much was created in 1935 when Hal Price Headley and Major Louis Beard recruited a group from central Kentucky to establish Keeneland Associates. The group purchased nearly 150 acres of Jack Keene’s property for $130,000 in cash and $10,000 in preferred stock to create a model horse-racing facility that draws champion horses and riders from the world over. Today, Keeneland’s live racing schedule is short—just three weeks in April and three weeks in October every year. Even so, the meets are critical to owners, trainers, and riders pursuing championship status.
“For the owners, trainers, and jockeys, Keeneland means the first meet in the spring, and the October meet is the highlight of the racing year,” Nicholson says. “It also means being able to compete for the biggest purses in the country. On a single day, we could pay out $650,000, and there are some days we have gone over $1 million.”
But with a nonprofit mission to promote the thoroughbred racing industry, there’s more to Keeneland than racing. According to Nicholson, Keeneland is a destination for Kentucky thoroughbred horse breeders who annually bring their crops of would-be champions for auction four times a year. During the 2005 sale season, horses purchased at Keeneland were sent to 47 states and 38 foreign countries, Nicholson says, and sales totaled $700 million.
“The economic impact is enormous,” he says. “That’s as big as tobacco used to be at its height. And we only keep 4-1/2 percent of that.”
In addition to its mission to promote the thoroughbred racing industry, Keeneland’s founders also created a mandate to turn profits back to support and maintain the complex, and to help fund worthy projects in the arts, historic preservation, education, and equine science. In 2005, Keeneland donated $1 million to those causes, and a total of $13 million in contributions since the 1960s.
For race fans and horse lovers, though, Keeneland’s more-apparent attributes are what attract. Visitors can roam the barn areas to glimpse equine athletes preparing for their next contest, then stand at the rail to watch the race.
“One of the things I really like about the racing at Keeneland is that you can get right up to the rail,” says Brooks. “The boys got a real sense for how fast those horses were going.”
While the horses command all the attention during races, visitors to Keeneland are most likely to be looking at each other between contests.
Kathy Garriott has been in the stands at Keeneland twice a year for the last couple of years. Each trip, she says, is a chance to take in the scenery, enjoy traditional foods such as burgoo and bread pudding, and scan the crowd of fellow racing fans.
“There’s nothing like being there on a bright sunny day watching all those beautiful horses and watching the people,” Garriott says. “The crowd is always interesting.”
And often star-studded, says Nicholson. Over the years, Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Anne have come to Keeneland. So has former President George H. Bush. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner races his horses there. Actor Sam Shepherd is a frequent guest, and Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning went there to get a feel for real-world racing while working on their film Dreamer.
But successful star-gazing is not requisite to making memories there.
“I’ve heard people say that this is where they met their husbands or wives, where they fell in love, or where they had their first date,” says Nicholson. “Everybody’s got a memory from a special day here.”
And the Brooks boys are no exception. During a walk around the barn area, Troy Brooks says he and his sons were approached by a long-time staffer who informed them he had something special in store for them.
“He told us to wait outside the jockey’s room and that he’d be right back,” Brooks recalls. “We waited about 20 minutes, and the guy kept coming out saying, ‘Just wait here, I promise it’ll be worth it.’ Finally, he came back out with a pair of goggles given by one of the jockeys for the boys.
“It made their day,” Brooks says. “I don’t think they’ll ever forget it.”
KEENELAND AT A GLANCE
During Keeneland’s 2005 live racing season, nearly 470,000 visited the track— 235,000 in April and 232,000 in October. According to visitor surveys, 20 percent of those were first-time visitors to Keeneland.
Track admission is $3 for adults. Children age 12 years and younger are admitted at no charge. In keeping with Keeneland’s mission to support equine and community causes, a portion of the profits from the gate and from Keeneland’s horse sales is directed to nonprofits in education, the arts, historical preservation projects, and equine science research. Since the 1960s, Keeneland has contributed $13 million to these causes.
Early risers can visit the workout track year-round from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. to watch trainers and exercise riders put future champions through their paces. Afterward, they can rub elbows with trainers, riders, breeders, and owners over breakfast in the Track Kitchen restaurant.
Keeneland’s 5/8-mile workout track is the first in North America to install a Polytrack surface, a material fabricated to keep equine athletes surefooted even in Kentucky’s fickle weather conditions.
During the 2005 September Yearling Sale, more than 3,500 potential equine champions were sold at Keeneland. The top seller fetched more than $9 million. On its own, the annual Yearling Sale has become a major visitor attraction.
Keeneland’s crowd dresses well for the occasion. According to a recent survey of college students, respondents cited “an opportunity to dress up” as among the most enjoyable aspects of a trip to the track.
Get more information about Keeneland at www.keeneland.com.
BEAUTY BEYOND RACING
Thoroughbred horse racing is known the world over for its traditions, pageantry, and spectacle. At Keeneland, it all unfolds in a setting that is rich in both history and natural beauty.
Covering 941 acres, the Keeneland complex includes the race course, sales pavilion, 54 barns able to accommodate 1,852 horses, five dining rooms, and a clubhouse, all surrounded by meticulously maintained gardens designed in the late 1930s with both equine and human visitors in mind.
“We work hard to keep it bucolic,” Keeneland spokesperson Julie Balog says of the Keeneland environment. “It’s like a national park. People can bring a blanket or lawn chair and watch the racing.”
In fact, Keeneland visitors get their very first taste of the complex’s cultivated natural beauty even before they enter the main complex. Lined with pin oak trees and surrounded by rolling hills, the parking lot and entryway settings are designed to showcase the characteristic beauty of central-Kentucky horse country. That theme carries throughout the complex where dogwood, crabapple, Yoshino cherry, sycamore, pin oak, and maple trees provide shade for both horses and humans.
The tree varieties were carefully chosen to display blossoms in springtime and colorful foliage in autumn to highlight Keeneland’s April and October live racing seasons.
Keeneland’s grounds are constantly perused for uniformity and botanical health. Hundreds of new trees are cultivated in an on-site nursery to replace aging and faltering trees within the complex.
While Keeneland’s grounds and gardens are designed to evoke a graceful, more rural past, its buildings recall a history that belongs only to Keeneland. Originally intended to be the Keene family homestead and residence, the Keene mansion was personally designed by Jack Keene and constructed from limestone blocks quarried from the property and individually chisel cut for a perfect fit. Today, the Keene mansion serves as Keeneland’s clubhouse.
Over nearly seven decades, expansions and additions to Keeneland’s structures, including the grandstands, sales pavilion, and paddock and stable areas, have been overseen by teams of architects to ensure that structural modifications and modernizations are carried out with respect for original historically significant buildings. That includes the new Keeneland Library. Designed by Morio Kow and constructed in 2002, its exterior imitates the stonework in the clubhouse and original barn designed and constructed by Keene.
But Keeneland’s historical significance does not begin with Jack Keene. Keeneland was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 in large part because of a house that resides on the Keeneland grounds in which Revolutionary War General Marquis de Lafayette spent a night.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: ARCHIVING THOROUGHBRED RACING
To read about the extensive collection of history on horse bloodlines, trainers, riders, and the Daily Racing Form dating back to the 1700s in the Keeneland Library, click here: Keeneland Library