The morning of the Blue Grass Stakes was a testament to the region for which the race was named: the sun was shining, the sky was a deep American blue and there was just a hint of chill in the air as I made my way to Keeneland to experience Lexington’s most important Spring day of racing.
When I arrived at the track, I quickly stashed my belongings in the press box and headed out to the parking area to check out the tailgating scene. Keeneland is unique among American racetracks in that, during its Spring and Fall meets, there is a vibrant tailgating scene in which fans brings drinks, food and games as a warm-up for the afternoon’s racing festivities. People go all out, bringing cornhole, cocktails and decadent feasts to indulge in while music plays from the surrounding vehicles.
One of my favorite areas for tailgating at Keeneland is located just off of the racetrack in the middle of the turn for home. Fans can partake in all of the tailgating festivities and at the same time take in the beauty of Thoroughbreds competing in top-notch races. Plus, by using your smartphone you can access Keeneland’s mobile betting anywhere on the property. That’s a win right there!
I also just had to include this photo, because this guy is a clear pro at photobombing:
When I got back to the Grandstand, Keeneland was packed; as it turned out, it was the second biggest crowd the oval had ever hosted, with nearly 40,000 fans showing up for the Blue Grass Stakes.
Before I knew it, the time had come for the afternoon’s stakes races to begin. The first stakes race (a stakes race is the top tier of racing; and when you compete at one at an elite meet like Keeneland, the competition is fierce) of the day was the Commonwealth, a 7/8 of a mile test for horses four years old and upward. Ten horses were slated to step up to the challenge, and as I photographed them in the paddock I was impressed by the sheer beauty of the equine athletes about to run.
When the race went off, the charge was on and after seven furious furlongs it was Occasional View who stole the show.
The next big race was the Shakertown; this one is a sprint race on the grass for horses four years old and up, and unfortunately due to some computer issues I was unable to get down to the track in time for the race. The good news is that Keeneland’s press box affords an unbelievable view of the racetrack, so I was able to still get photos of the start and finish.
And what a finish it was! Longshot Marchman on the race with an even longer shot, Positive Side, coming in second. If you’d played those two horses in an exacta (meaning that you selected them to finish first and second in the correct order) you would have reaped a whopping $1,202 for a $2 bet. That’s a pretty solid return on investment.
Then it was time for the Madison Stakes; this race is what’s called a Grade 1 stake, which is the toughest of the tough competition. The Madison is restricted to female horses aged four and up, and the mare I was most excited to see was Judy the Beauty. She was runner-up to Groupie Doll in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, and she’s been chasing a Grade 1 victory for her whole career. She’s also a perfectly-named horse, as she is a stunning mare.
As she was having her saddle put on, Judy received lots of loving attention from her groom. I love seeing the bond between racehorses and their caretakers; there’s so much love between the teams of humans and horses, and it’s wonderful to see the trust and reassurance each half of the whole gives the other.
Up next was the Jenny Wiley, a Grade 1 $300,000 test for fillies and mares four years old and up travelling 1 1/16 miles on the grass. There were ten female horses going forward, and I was having a hard time choosing who I would root for. I’m a sucker for gray horses, and there were two to choose from in this field – Discreet Marq (#8) and Hard Not to Like (#9):
I was also struck by the beauty of #5 Class Included. She’s a stunning bay mare with a ton of presence to her:
But the best part is her tail – it’s silver!
Then it was time for the race to begin. The ten fillies and mares surged out of the gate and into the homestretch for the first time as the crowd roared their support.
And as the field swept toward the finish line after completing a lap around the track, it was one of the grays, Hard Not to Like, who stole the lead to emerge the victor by a half a length.
I was so pleased for trainer Michael Matz – he’s an incredible horseman who has not only trained a Kentucky Derby winner but has also won a gold medal for Equestrian in the Olympics. Plus, he’s a really nice guy who is totally dedicated to his horses.
Finally, it was time for the main event: the Blue Grass Stakes. Of all of the Derby preps I’ve been to this year (and isn’t that a fun sentence to type!) there’s a special buzz around the Blue Grass since the race takes place in the heart of Kentucky’s storied horse country. The fans here are passionate about the sport, and there’s electricity in the air that’s unparalleled.
As the horses arrived in the paddock for the Blue Grass, the crowd pressed against the railing to catch a glimpse of the Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
As the horses paraded for fans and trainers and owners strategized, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the equine athletes as they prepared to run the race of their lives.
As the horses made their way to the track, it was interesting to watch which ones were handling the crowd noise well and which ones were rattled by the noise. Some, like No. 8 Dance With Fate, were calm as cucumbers.
Others, like Coastline, were on their toes as they made their way to the track.
As I was about to make my own journey to the finish line, I noticed my friend and awesome photographer Matt Wooley climbing on top of the starting gate to install his fisheye lens. That’s dedication to a shot!
As the horses paraded to the starting gate, the crowd pressed to the rail to get the perfect vantage point for the race.
And when I say that the place was packed, I mean it: there were people on every level of the Grandstand all the way up to the rafters.
At long last, it was time for the Blue Grass to begin! As the horses leapt out of the starting gate and down the stretch for the first time, the crowd roared its approval.
As the horses rounded into the stretch, California invader Dance With Fate made a giant move to the lead, surging from 11th place to the front to take the Blue Grass Stakes in commanding style.
Jockey Corey Nakatani was clearly thrilled, and as he rode Dance With Fate back to the Keeneland winner’s circle he kept patting his mount on the neck.
It was a very happy group that met the pair on Keeneland’s turf curse to get their winning photo taken, and I was so pleased for trainer Pete Eurton and his team. He’s a dedicated trainer who loves his horses dearly, and they’ve been excited about Dance With Fate since he was a two-year-old.
And as the big horse left the winner’s circle to have a bath and some dinner, it was easy to understand his trainer’s and owners’ affection for him: he’s an amazingly beautiful horse, and he has that presence of an animal who knows he’s special.
With that, my Derby prep days for 2014 were behind me and it’s now time to focus on the First Saturday in May and the Run for the Roses. Thank you so much for being with me though the spring, and I can’t wait to bring you all of the fun of Kentucky Derby week starting in just two weeks!