This Friday, April 5th, 2013, Keeneland's Spring Meet opens. Even though I'm a native of Florence, Kentucky, where Turfway Park is, when I think of horse racing, I think Keeneland and Churchill Downs before I think of anywhere else. That doesn't mean that Turfway Park should be dismissed. There's more history to the track than one would think.
Before I started going to the track with my dad, and even before my birth, Turfway has had famous winners race there in the 1980s and early 1990s. Broad Brush won the Jim Beam [now the Spiral, its original namesake] and later ran 3rd in the Derby and Preakness. Alysheba ran there as a 2 year old. Summer Squall won the 1990 Preakness. Hansel won the 1991 Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Lil E. Tee became the first horse to win the Jim Beam and Kentucky Derby in 1992. [Animal Kingdom was the second in 2011 when it was the Spiral once more.] Prairie Bayou won the 1993 Preakness. Which meant that 4 years of racing saw Jim Beam Stakes winners win 5 of the 12 Triple Crown Races in that span.
Four horses that have won major races at Turfway Park won the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race. Silver Charm, Captain Steve, and Roses in May won the Kentucky Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup. Animal Kingdom won the Spiral Stakes and the Dubai World Cup. In 2000, Point Given won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile before becoming a Champion 3 year old that was a Dual Classic winner and the Horse of the Year in 2001. Tiznow probably would have been more likely to win 2001's Horse of the Year if he did what he did in 2001 in 2013, but that doesn't take away from Point Given, my generation's Damascus with a shorter racing career.
The first time I remember going to a racetrack with my dad and grandpa was the 1994 Kentucky Cup. I saw Tabasco Cat win the inaugural Kentucky Cup Classic. The following year, I went to my first of five ['95, '98-'00, '11] Derbies to see Thunder Gulch win the Roses. He was also at the Kentucky Cup Classic for its 2nd running. Silver Charm also ran there in 1998 after his successes in the 1997 Kentucky Derby, 1997 Preakness, and 1998 Dubai World Cup and won the '98 Kentucky Cup Classic in a famous dead heat photo. The jockey statue they painted the winning colors' on for that race is still in the 1st Floor lobby today with half the Lewis' famous gold and green striped silks and the other half the Stronach Stables silks for the other dead heater, Wild Rush.
While many of my early memories of the track were formed at Turfway, the allure of Keeneland seamlessly molds the traditions and buildings of the past with the technologies of the 21st century. The ivy on the walls of the main building, the Trakus high-definition TVs, the polytrack and the apron--all of it takes my breath away. In my eyes, it's the premier meet in the country--both Spring and Fall alike.
Living in a horse-racing rich state like Kentucky can spoil you as a racing fan. Churchill's always 90 minutes away from Florence. When I was in undergrad at the University of Louisville, it was a 5 minute drive up 4th Street to Central Avenue. Churchill opens 1 week before the Derby and closes around the 4th of July. Then it opens again for the end of October and November. Turfway runs December-March and September. If you miss one day at either track, there's plenty of other opportunities to check it out during a live meet.
Keeneland is an hour or so away from either
Lexington Florence or Louisville. It has more of the allure as a seasonal or boutique meet because it's only open in April and October. The seasons are limited, but less is more with Keeneland's product. While missing a weekday outside of Derby or Breeders' Cup week is quite normal for Turfway or Churchill, you could go to Keeneland on a Wednesday and not miss a beat compared to most tracks' weekends. While October offers the aspirations of the championship contenders for all racing divisions and offers great racing in its own right at Keeneland, April at Keeneland is the time of the most promise for me. You see the first regular 2 year old races at 4 1/2 furlongs, the Oaks contenders, the Derby contenders, and every other division in between.
Being more or less a lifer at the track through my father, who has been going since the early 1970s, most of my peers didn't catch the racing bug until they were ready to graduate high school or more likely, in college. Since then, it has taken an even greater hold of my life. Being the lifer, people around my age usually ask me for betting advice, especially around Triple Crown or Keeneland seasons. I usually don't explicitly say "bet this horse," but I will advise them what would fit their opinions based on what I know.
Friday is College Day and Opening Day at Keeneland. I shall be there for yet another time. I've lost count of the times I've visited, I've been there so much in the past 15-20 years. I do have vague memories of when there used to not be an announcer on track and several with Kurt Becker. I have memories of the dirt track and the polytrack eras. Every single trip involves different positive memories that change from year to year, but the allure of Keeneland never seems to lose its charm. Here's to some more good memories in the Spring of 2013.