Keeneland: The Leader of the Pack After 75 Years

Marc DocheCorrespondent IOctober 13, 2011

The back bone of the horse racing industry remains strong afer 75 years at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
The back bone of the horse racing industry remains strong afer 75 years at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.

Mission accomplished for the pioneers during the Great Depression who set out to turn Jack Keene’s training facility and partial race track into one of the great race courses in the world. Keeneland’s 75th anniversary is a true celebration of what is the gold standard in the sport of thoroughbred racing played and showcased at the highest level.

“Keeneland has thrived in modern times, but it has done so in staying true to its original core values from the 1930’s,” Keeneland's President and CEO Nick Nicholson told me in an interview this week. “The founders set extremely high standards and goals and I get a sense of how difficult it is to have those types of dreams in economic situations like they were in because it’s very difficult for us. Just because of this recession we’re in, we should not lose confidence in our core business and economic values.”

Current economic conditions aside, many have lost confidence in the sport of horse racing over the past decade as it has mostly fallen out of favor in mainstream America.

“I’m a great believer that at its core the sport is as good as it’s ever been,” said Nicholson, who has been Keeneland's head honcho for the past 11 years. “The problems that racing has are much more because of two-legged animals than four-legged animals.”

A concerted effort needs to be made across the country to duplicate the product in Lexington, Ky., where Keeneland’s corporate mission is to exist solely for the benefit of thoroughbred racing and the community.

“We in many ways are the industry’s laboratory and we embrace that roll,” said Nicholson. “We are not afraid to try things that don’t work. We’re hoping that by example of trying things we can enhance the patron’s experience. Horse racing is a wonderful spectator sport.”

The first President and CEO of Keeneland not to have a direct link to the founders, Nick Nicholson has successfully maintained their vision after over a decade in charge.
The first President and CEO of Keeneland not to have a direct link to the founders, Nick Nicholson has successfully maintained their vision after over a decade in charge.

At Keeneland, immaculately maintained grounds nestled into a picturesque back drop of the Bluegrass give the racegoer a classic feel of early Americana mixed in with state of the art innovations.

The opening of the fall meet last week may have been one of the most amazing weekends in Keeneland’s history. Nine world-class stakes races serving as preps for next month’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships had an average field size of over 11 runners and attendance numbers were way up.

In an attempt to lure a youthful crowd to the track, $20,000 in college scholarships are being given away on Friday, October 14. Similar promotions during previous meets have resulted in thousands of youngsters coming out for a day at the races.

“It’s concrete evidence that goes against people that say thoroughbred racing does not have a future,” said Nicholson. “The enterprise of thoroughbred racing and breeding together and the thrill that you get from being an investor in a thoroughbred is every bit as much fun of owning. a professional sports team.”

Die-hard race fans will watch the ponies no matter the presentation, but of great importance is to portray the beauty and pageantry of the sport to casual and new fans.

In a society where high-definition production has revolutionized the way we watch televisions and computers, the horse racing industry has for the most part missed the boat … except Keeneland.

“Being in HD is a critical step forward,” said Nicholson. “We’ve been investing in HD equipment for eight years. Racing can’t get there soon enough.”

Horses storm to the finish line over Keeneland's Polytrack with state-of-the-art television screens featuring Trackus behind them.
Horses storm to the finish line over Keeneland's Polytrack with state-of-the-art television screens featuring Trackus behind them.

Instead of experiencing the eye-catching beauty of the sport in HD on just big race days covered by the major networks, Keeneland offers this every racing day. But, it doesn’t stop there.

They have continued to improve the product, and for someone who watches lots of horse racing like I do, it’s exhilarating to watch races from Keeneland.

“We have patterned our television production after the ongoing philosophy in France to present the beauty and ambiance of the setting of the race combined with tight shots of racing that show the excitement, drama, tension and the pure athletic competition of the different angles of the race,” said Nicholson. .

Keeneland is also the premier auction house of thoroughbreds in the world, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. This makes Keeneland an international destination for prominent figures in the sport with deep pockets and new ideas.

The proceeds from sales fuel purses, which are some of the highest in the country, and also are invested back into the community and fund research at local universities.

Auctions were not part of Keeneland’s original planning, but a ban on rail transport during World War II prevented yearlings from getting to Saratoga in New York, so Central Kentucky breeders threw a tent up in the paddock and had their first sale.

In Japan, Dubai Australia and across Europe, horse racing is still the Sport of Kings that enjoys tremendous main stream popularity and some of the biggest investors in Kentucky-breds come from these far away lands.

An overhead view of Keeneland Race Course.
An overhead view of Keeneland Race Course.

“One of the benefits of having the sales here, is we listen to the leaders of other countries and we frequently adapt to what they’re doing,” said Nicholson. “The festival atmosphere is a key thing. At our best, whether it’s Keeneland, Saratoga or Del Mar, the U.S. is as good as anywhere in the world. They’re exciting and well-presented meets and as competently managed as any race track in the world.”

What those domestic meets have in common is a schedule that is short in nature, but high in quality. The 17 days in the spring and 15 fall afternoons when racing is held at Keeneland is a tradition that will never change.

“Notre Dame doesn’t play 100 straight days in South Bend and neither do the Yankees in New York,” said Nicholson. “There is too much racing now. There isn’t as much of an audience for bad baseball or football and the same holds true with horse racing.”

Keeneland has also introduced the Trackus system that through a GPS device in the saddlecloth of each horse allows their numbers to show up in running order on television as the races are run. This innovation is increasingly being used by tracks around the world and also aids the handicapper by providing a new tool in relation to the speeds a horse travels in parts of a race.

The synthetic Polytrack that was installed in 2008 has been a hot-button topic throughout the industry, but the bottom line is that it has made the racing much safer for both horse and rider. Similar tracks have been installed at many tracks both in the U.S. and overseas and it’s evident they are here to stay.

“The horse comes first. People can relate to that,” said Nicholson. “Our responsibility is to provide a fair racing surface that is safe and assures integrity.”

In commemoration of the conditions from a stake run during Keeneland’s inaugural meet, Saturday’s co-feature is the $125,000 Keeneland 75th Anniversary for two-year-olds sprinting six furlongs on the main track.

That precedes the $400,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (Grade I), where an eclectic mix of eight star-studded three-year-old fillies runs a mile and an eighth on the turf.

As is the case with the majority of racing at Keeneland, runners from various circuits have converged for both elite events that will be televised on NBC … in high definition.

Keeneland, “Racing how it was meant to be.”

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