LEXINGTON, Ky. – For 75 years, the park-like ambiance of the Keeneland race track in Lexington has attracted visitors and horse racing fans from across the globe. The central Kentucky atmosphere also has an effect on horsemen. With the fall meet in full swing, Brenna Angel reports on what keeps trainers and jockeys coming back to Keeneland.
When trainer Kenny McPeek watches exercise riders take thoroughbreds around the track on a cool morning at Keeneland, he's looking across a landscape where he not only goes to work, but he's also grown up.
"I used to go to the races as a boy with my grand-dad, and he used to make me hold on to his tweed jacket. And if I let go I got in trouble because he didn't want to lose me in the crowd."
McPeek is a Lexington native and has been the top trainer at Keeneland for the past two meets. He says the times of year when the track opens for racing -- in the spring right before the Kentucky Derby and in the fall leading up to the Breeder's Cup -- make Keeneland's meets an important stop for horsemen.
"So it's short and it's sweet and really good, and I think that's one of the great ways to promote horse racing."
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Keeneland, which was established on the Keene family farm in western Fayette County. Trainer Wayne Catalano started racing horses here a few years ago.
"This is the race track you want to win races at. These are the ones people notice. So you want to be here. If you're here and you're winning races, then you got some fairly decent stock. You win the big races and you got some really good stock." Catalano's good stock includes Stephanie's Kitten, who won the $400,000 Grade 1 Alcibiades Stakes on opening day.
Keeneland is a track that values its history and tradition. Surrounded by horse farms, the grounds are meticulously maintained year-round.
"That's the whole thing," says Catalano. "It's a beautiful setting around here. So the atmosphere and the setting, and you know the horses, and the famous horse farms and everything. It's like horse paradise around here."
Keeneland may be in the middle of the thoroughbred capital of the world, but Vice President of Racing Rogers Beasley says that's not the only factor that made the track a success.
"Yes there would have been a racetrack here. But it never would have achieved the status it did without the vision of not only the founders but the continuing board members for the past 75 years."
Part of that vision included the installation of Polytrack, a synthetic surface that replaced Keeneland's dirt track in 2006.
"The previous race track was really bad," says Kenny McPeek. "They had a limestone base here and horses were getting injured because they would go to the bottom. It was sand; top surface was sand, and it's real abrasive."
Polytrack is supposed to be better for drainage and safer for the horse, although the surface does have its critics. Jockey John Velazquez says when it's post time, the only thing on his mind, is his mount.
"The whole difference is the horses have to like the track. No matter what surface you're running on. Whether it's a wet track, dry track, polytrack, or grass. The horses have to like it and enjoy it. And if they don't enjoy it they're not going to run good."
Even on a rainy weekday afternoon, loyal patrons will come out to Keeneland in suits and dresses, ready to place their bets. But the track is not without its challenges. The clubhouse could use more room and track officials want Kentucky lawmakers to approve expanded gaming.
How Keeneland addresses those issues and others will affect its future with horse fans and the trainers and jockeys who race here.