A Visit to Keeneland

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Keeneland, a horse track in Lexington, KY, begs a visit among things to do while visiting Kentucky, even if they’re only open for racing for three weeks each in April and October. During the off-season, hour long tours are offered at 8:30 in the morning.

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Part of the beauty is getting there.  “Lacking” the vintage in-city clutter and congestion of Churchill Downs, the drive includes miles of rolling fields of Kentucky blue grass with an almost continuous boundary of what becomes ubiquitous dark stained fencing.  It speaks of both the wealth and longevity of horse breeding in the region.

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Upon arrival, you find a parking area that is maintained better than any State park, or about public parking area.  I could brighten the picture, but this is an accurate view of the shaded morning light.

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There were other tours being given, some by commercial enterprises, but the venue guide was great – entertaining and informative.  That said, it costs nothing to enter off-season and wander around.  Our guide went over the history of Keeneland – its failed beginning and successive owners – and it has been conducting live racing since 1936.  We arrived on a morning when training was underway, which certainly amplified the experience.


So here’s a horse, a pretty one.

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The average thoroughbred weighs 1,200 lbs. and runs at 40 mph.  We learned a little about stride length as well, the average being 20’ – the distance at which one of the horse’s feet returns to the ground when running.  Secretariat was 25’ and Man of War was 28’.  Maybe they should publish that info racing tip forms. 

With the goal of the horse running to its full stride during a race, it was pointed out that the jockey is positioned on the horse not to “ride” it but to find that center of motion where he doesn’t interrupt the horse’s natural movement, which makes sense.

We stopped by the jockey weigh in station, where they each visit before the race and the first four finishers repeat after the race, with saddle and all of their gear.  The total jockey and gear weight is measured to meet the handicap weight established for the race.  Lesser experienced horses may not be required to carry the full weight to make them competitive.  The winners are weighed immediately after the race to ensure that jockeys did not remove weights between the weigh-in and the finish.  Jockeys can personally weigh whatever they like, but it helps to weigh close to the allotted amount as it is easier for the horse to carry a human that can move with it rather than a static load fixed to the saddle.  Jockeys usually fall within 4’10'” to 5’6” in height.

Related to possible improprieties, Thoroughbreds are tattooed with a serial code on their lip, which is inspected prior to each race to ensure a “ringer” is not inserted.  Keeneland charges $80 if you’re interested.  All of Keeneland’s rules are published online and make for an interesting perusal.

For prize money, the winning horse gets 60%, 20% to 2nd, 10% to 3rd, and smaller percentages to 6th place.   For a horse owner, 10% of their winnings are given to the trainer and 10% to the jockey.  The guide also indicated that owners pay $50K in training fees per year, per horse.  Trainers, per a Google search, seem to average only $25K per year, so, as the one who chatted ad-hoc with us confirmed, she does it for love.  The horse is Swindle, by the way.

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Keeneland is unique in the U.S. for having a grandstand that faces to the west.  While this makes for shaded viewing of morning training runs, it puts the sun in the eyes of spectators during late afternoon and evening races.  The grandstand includes significant netting to prevent birds from roosting, and the speakers play a threatening screeching sound periodically to keep them away.

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The guide said that they have their own nursery and can replace any tree or bush on the grounds, though I doubt pre-spelled. 

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Keeneland features both dirt and grass tracks, the prior 1 1/16 mile long.  They also have a special training chute that a horse has to successfully launch from three times in a row to be “certified” to run on the track, as the chute is the most dangerous place for a horse and rider.

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Training occurs in three lanes.  The outer rail is for horses new to being trained – they may be walked or lightly run as they get used to a course environment and people watching.  Even experienced race horses are skittish in new surroundings, and apparently a removed bush can upset a horse as much as a different grandstand.  They have to settle in.  Keeneland also has an alarm that sounds when a rider loses his horse, so that others pull up and take caution for a loose horse.  We heard it sound once, though we didn’t see the offending horse.

The next step includes running in the central part of the track, basically to gallop, then they race along the inside rail for advanced training, singly, or, as we observed, with two horses running side by side at full speed.

The public facility is not unusually large, though there are ample offices.  The structures are listed on the National Register, but it’s more the landscaping that makes Keeneland stand out.

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The central Sycamore tree was arguably said to be 150 years old, but it’s hard to miss and dominates the courtyard.  Here’s looking at you, kid.

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That courtyard area includes holding pens and individual walking circles for each of the horses prior to the race where they are first seen by the public.

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There are also a wall of jockey statues.  These are not for “famous” winners, but are rather updated each season with the colors of winning horses in certain races.

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Keeneland manages to make money between their sparse racing seasons.  Tucked to the side is the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction house, with three sales each year.  Per the guide, they sold about 6,000 horses last year for $500M (average of ($83K each).  I’ll assume there’s a nice commission.  It’s like going to church for many, I guess, except there is a small airport directly across from the property for reserved parking, of a sort.

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Overall, a great tour, but for the best experience, see if horse training is scheduled. 

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