Saturday morning in Lexington, Ky. dawned cloudy and warm: it was the perfect weather to head over to Keeneland to take in Fall Stars Saturday! If you’ve never been to Keeneland, it’s definitely a track to put on your list of places to visit; it’s located in the heart of the Bluegrass, and on the weekends the crowd here is young, dressed to the nines and ready for some fun.
I started my day at Keeneland on The Hill; this is a fairly new area of the grounds, where fans can set up tailgates, play cornhole, hang out, watch some races and get some bets in. Even better, if people want to go up to the Grandstand to watch the races in person there are free shuttle buses galore to take them to and from their tailgates.
After shooting a quick video asking fans what they thought obscure racing terms mean, it was time for me to get down to some very serious business: the business of Bar-B-Que! My friend Matt Watts makes literally the best pulled pork I’ve ever had in my life, so I moseyed over to his tailgate to hang out.
Matt sets up in what’s called the Louisville Lot; it’s a really great place to hold a tailgate since there’s tons of room and a truly outstanding view of the track. What’s even cooler about the area is that fans can walk right up to the outside rail and even chat with jockeys as they make their way to the starting gate.
Matt and his crew were awesome as always. One of my favorite things about Matt is that he’s not afraid of fashion, and today he was rocking the greatest pair of trousers EVER. That’s Matt on the left sporting jack-o-lantern pants. I mean, amazing!
After we hung out for a bit (and I got to meet some Twitter friends in person, which was fantastic! Hi Elizabeth!) it was time for a taste of heaven in the form of pulled pork; I mean, seriously, check this action out:
It was SO, SO good! I mean, if you need a visual representation of my love for this Bar-B-Que, here you go:
Yum. So much yum.
Once I had decimated the majority of Matt’s delicious food, I had to boogie over to the press box since there was some seriously top-notch racing about to get underway. A huge crowd was on hand to watch the afternoon’s festivities, and there was a definite buzz in the air as fans got more and more excited for the main events to begin.
The first stakes race of the afternoon was the Woodford; it’s a race for 3-year-olds and older who would be competing at 5 ½ furlongs on the grass. Ten contenders were lined up to vie for the winner’s share (which is, FYI, 60% of the purse) of the $150,000 prize. Each horse was polished and primped for the big race, and to me there’s really nothing so beautiful as a Thoroughbred at the top of its game, with coat gleaming, as it bounces on its toes full of the anticipation of running.
At the end of the 5 ½-furlong race, it was Havelock that earned his way to the winner’s circle. He’s a tough, gritty horse and it was great to see him score a big victory today.
Up next was the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. This weekend is one of the last opportunities for horses to earn their way into the Breeders’ Cup, so there were some seriously talented Thoroughbreds lined up to take a shot at a free trip to the World Championships.
The favorite of the day was Groupie Doll. She won the Filly and Mare Sprint at the Breeders’ Cup last year and is a just a tremendous runner in general. However, her presence in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes here at Keeneland certainly didn’t scare too many horses away, so there were five other fillies and mares lined up to take their shot at the win and the chance to go on to Breeders’ Cup glory. After a testing six furlongs (a furlong is an eighth of a mile, so it was a three-quarter-mile race) on the main track, Judy the Beauty found her stride and won by a length. We’ll be seeing her in California in four weeks! Groupie Doll ran a game third, finishing behind a horse named Gypsy Robin, who’s partially owned by prominent sports personality Jim Rome.
The next big race was the First Lady Stakes. This is a mile-long test for older female horses on the lawn. As the horses were in the paddock getting ready to head to the track, the heavens opened up and there was a downpour like I haven’t seen since I left Florida. I mean, I don’t think “torrential” is too strong a word to use here. Since the weather predictions I’d seen before I left New York had promised perfect weather, I was woefully unprepared. Fortunately, the good folks at Keeneland’s photo agency are extremely kind and loaned me a rain jacket, because I’m telling you that it was nuts out there. Think hurricane-style horizontal giant drops hurtling at us – it was intense. But because the storm came up so quickly, the race was still held on the turf course and the fillies and mares made their way to the starting gate.
After a mile, it was Better Lucky who gutted it out to win by a head over Dayatthespa in a nail biter.
When I got back to the press box, I realized that my trusty Nikon, which has been my constant companion for the last two years had finally given up the ghost due to the rain – it still worked, kind of, but the LCD screen was kaput. Thankfully, I could still shoot with it, but it looks like I’ll have to invest in a new camera before Breeders’ Cup. RIP, little buddy; you served me well!
Because it was still pouring, I decided to preserve what was left of my camera as best I could and shoot my photos for the next race from the press box. I was really excited to see the next event, the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity, which is a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” for the Juvenile. There were an even dozen 2-year-olds going to post for the race, and it’s always thrilling to see racing’s future stars duking it out in the fall as we get closer to the Breeders’ Cup; these are the horses we’ll be watching on next year’s Triple Crown trail, so it feels like a sneak peek of the fun to come in 2014.
When it was race time, 12 juveniles sped over 1 1/16 miles on the main track and it was We Miss Artie who took home the lion’s share of the $400,000 in purse money and earned a free trip to California for the Breeders’ Cup. I can’t wait to see him again in a month at Santa Anita Park!
Up next was the main event: the Shadwell Turf Mile, which included my main man Wise Dan. Because of the heavy rain – at that point, 1.5 inches had fallen since 4 p.m. – the race was moved from the turf course and would be run at 1 1/16 miles. Even though I’m always nervous when Wise Dan runs, I was extra worried today since the change in the weather was messing with my mojo. I mean, I’m very superstitious so any little change can freak me out at the races, and today was no exception. Dan looked awesome in the paddock, but the competition was stiff in this race and every horse looked ready and willing to challenge him.
Finally, it was race time, and I was up close when the gates opened and the field surged out.
Wise Dan put out a huge effort, but today was Silver Max’s day, and the Dale Romans trainee put an end to Wise Dan’s nine-race winning streak. As much as I love Wise Dan, it was a great race and Silver Max earned his victory with an impressive performance against extremely talented horses.
His connections were delighted; high fives were exchanged and hugs were distributed all around. I love seeing the joy of the horses’ human counterparts after a big win. There’s nothing like the thrill of victory, and winning at Keeneland is such a rare and exciting achievement that it warrants some celebration.
It was a great end to a spectacular day of racing, and I feel so lucky to have been able to been here at Keeneland for such a fun afternoon of top-notch racing with so many fun people.
Thank you so much for stopping by, and I’ll be back at the Breeders’ Cup with lots of behind-the-scenes action for you.