Keeneland’s founders set about to create a special racetrack in Central Kentucky. Their vision, as outlined in the track’s original prospectus, was “to create a model racetrack to perpetuate and improve the sport and to provide a course that is intended to serve as a symbol of the fine traditions of Thoroughbred racing.” Since its fi rst meeting in October 1936, Keeneland has continued to strive for excellence in its racing program, which perennially ranks among the nation’s best in terms of purse distribution, field size and quality of racing.
Keeneland affords horsemen outstanding opportunities to showcase two-year-olds, veteran turf stars or contenders for racing’s classic events. Over the years, numerous champions have graced Keeneland, and its spring and fall race meetings have served as a springboard to success for many Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup champions. Keeneland’s spring stakes schedule features five Grade 1 stakes, anchored by the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass and the $500,000 Central Bank Ashland, as well as the Vinery Madison, Maker’s 46 Mile and Jenny Wiley, each worth $300,000.
The fall meeting opens with Keeneland’s signature FallStars Weekend, highlighted by five Grade 1 stakes – $1-million Shadwell Turf Mile, $500,000 Juddmonte Spinster, $500,000 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, $400,000 Darley Alcibiades and $400,000 First Lady. Keeneland also hosts the $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1), an internationally renowned invitational for 3-year-old fi llies on the turf.
Keeneland not only attracts the best horses, but the finest jockeys in the business. Through the years, such legends as Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker, Angel Cordero Jr., Pat Day, Don Brumfield, Gary Stevens and Jerry Bailey, have ridden at the historic track. Today, the jockey colony is among the deepest in the sport.
That Keeneland is such a special place is no accident. It took the grand thinking of Jack Keene, coupled with the shared aspirations of a group of prominent horsemen, most notably Hal Price Headley and Major Louie Beard, and the careful stewardship of subsequent management, to fully realize their vision. With the demise of the Kentucky Association track in 1933, horsemen faced a dilemma – for the fi rst time in more than 100 years Lexington was without a racetrack.
Concerned citizens began meeting in 1934 after determining it wasn’t feasible to reopen the shuttered track. From among 20 locations, they selected Jack Keene’s property, primarily because Keene was willing to part with the property for much less than its fair market value. Plus, the site included a mile-and-a-furlong private track, combination stone castle and barn, a 100,000-gallon water tank, a roadway and land for future stables and parking. The facility, while a good start, still required much work. Headley, Beard and others worked feverishly around the clock, and a mere 15 months later, Keeneland opened its gates.
It was managed by the Keeneland Association, which consisted of a team of volunteers under the direction of Beard and Headley, Keeneland’s first president. On opening day, more than 8,000 fans came to the races — ranging from locals who simply wanted to see racing in their hometown for the first time in years to titans of business who brought their best bloodstock to compete. By the end of the nine-day meet, Keeneland had scraped by, losing just $3.47 in its first year.
Lexington, a town of 46,000, had supported racing’s comeback as the meet posted attendance of 25,337. And even with 15 million Americans out of work, those fans had taken a gamble or two, wagering more than $500,000. As Headley said, “We want a place where those who love horses can come and picnic with us and thrill to the sport of the Bluegrass. We are not running a race plant to hear the click of the mutuel machines. We want them to come out here to enjoy God’s sunshine, fresh air and to watch horses race.”
Early symptoms of Kentucky Derby (G1) fever are apparent at Keeneland each spring, as contenders from across the nation compete in the track’s signature prep, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. Since 1936, 19 horses have used the Blue Grass as a steppingstone to victory in the Derby, most recently Unbridled (1990), Strike the Gold (1991), Sea Hero (1993), Thunder Gulch (1995) and Street Sense (2007).
The Central Bank Ashland Stakes is a premier prep for fillies with Kentucky Oaks (G1) aspirations. Thirty-one fillies have won the Oaks off a start in the Ashland, including such standouts as Silverbulletday, Summerly, Princess Rooney, Blush With Pride, Optimistic Gal and Real Delight. In 2008, Proud Spell rebounded to win the Oaks following a third-place fi nish in the Ashland, while Ashland winner, Little Belle, ran second. In 2010, Ashland winner Evening Jewel narrowly missed the garland of lilies, losing the Oaks by only a nose to eventual champion Blind Luck.
Keeneland’s fall meeting has produced 32 Breeders’ Cup World Championship winners. Keeneland counts among recent fall stakes/Breeders’ Cup winners Dubai Majesty (won 2010 Thoroughbred Club of America and Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint); Chamberlain Bridge (fourth Woodford [G3]), won Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint [G2]); She Be Wild (second 2009 Darley Alcibiades, wonBreeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies [G1]) and Informed Decision (won 2009 Thoroughbred Club of America and Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint). Forever Together won the 2008 First Lady and Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf,following in the footsteps of Intercontinental (GB) (2005) and Perfect Sting (2000). Street Sense rebounded from a third-place effort in the 2006 Breeders’ Futurity to capture the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and two-year-old colt honors. Four other colts also have used the Breeders’ Futurity as a steppingstone to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile—Tasso (1985), Boston Harbor (1996), Favorite Trick (1997) and Answer Lively (1998). Nine fillies have prepped for wins in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) by running in the Spinster – Pleasant Home (2005), Unbridled Elaine (2001), Spain (2000), Inside Information (1995), Paseana (ARG) (1992), Bayakoa (ARG) (1989-1990), Sacahuista (1987), Life’s Magic (1985) and Princess Rooney (1984).