Above: Keeneland, April 7, 2006.
In Race Day: A Spot on the Rail with Max Watman, the turf correspondent for the New York Sun writes:
"Discovering Keeneland is akin to discovering that someone in your family owns a horse farm. Anyone like me, who learned about tracks at Belmont, Aqueduct, Gulfstream, and Hialeah, will not immediately recognized this as a place for horse racing. The grandstand looks more like a library at a fine private school. The grounds are trimmed and lush. Everything is built out of stone. The paddock is a lawn party among the hedges, with light white furniture and a rock wall. At Keeneland, even the parking lots are pretty. Nowhere to be seen are the typical oceans of asphalt that surround most tracks. Plenty of old trees shade the cars and dapple the sunlight."
It's all true.
So, yes, I should have been prepared for how pretty it all is. The shot above shows the shedrow (where we noticed Bob Baffert’s parking space was empty), along with one of the gates and the “lawn party” Watman describes. Yet despite this warning, on our first day, we continually found ourselves simply sighing with delight as we wandered the grounds rather aimlessly. Adding to our enjoyment was the fact that the rain, which started the minute we crossed the Kentucky state line on Thursday, had abated at some point during the night, so the fact that I had forgotten to bring an umbrella was not an issue. And, doggone it, everyone was friendly and helpful -- and seemed delighted that we'd come to visit. It was simply heavenly.
We got to the track before sunrise and stayed till the sun was starting to sink in the sky, casting some sort of ethereal, spring glow over the grassy grounds. We had breakfast at the track kitchen. We watched horses being bathed and caught the morning works. Mornings at Keeneland are tranquil; there’s a sort of mist around the trees that surround the track, and the only interruption to the hushed quiet is the occasional sound of a single set of hooves galloping past.
Later, we sat on the benches by the track basking in the sunshine, lamenting the fact that I had purchased the wrong batteries for the camera. So, we left the track briefly for a stop at a gas station to pick up batteries. We thought we'd get the Racing Form while we there, but they were sold out. Not to worry; the clerk and the folks in line behind us all provided suggestions about where we could pick one up. (The closest stop was the Liquor Barn, where a limited supply of Maker’s Mark in a commemorative bottle had caused a line to form in front of the store -- at 10:30 in the morning! Bourbon, the Form, and Derby glasses for $2 made this a productive little stop.)
Perhaps the track's bucolic setting distracted us from our handicapping, because we had a rather dismal day at the windows. Or perhaps it was just the shock of discovering that Keeneland offers quinellas on every race. Often, the exacta and quinella odds were shown on the same screen, and this too distracted me, as I tried to identify the scenarios where the quinella is a better play than the exacta. (It seems to involve favorites over longshots, but I could be wrong.)
While it was a joy to be able to say "quinella" all day long, I’ll cut to the chase: I didn’t hit a single one all day. (Guess I’ll have to investigate the Quinella Crusher after all.)
However, we did have some fine handicapping moments. In the 4th, $54,000 N1X allowance race -- by the way, let’s take a moment to say “$54,000!! I never see allowance races like this!” – for fillies and mares, it featured a horse named Lee Gage who last ran at Mountaineer on March 24, where she’d been ridden by Rex Stokes to a 4th place finish in a $27,800 allowance race. That’s a fairly high-quality race at Mountaineer. And, even though the track was rated fast, it still looked kind of damp to me – and dear Lee Gage had a win by 9 lengths on a sloppy Keeneland track last October. So, maybe this poor horse has a chance to be in the money. I decided to play her with Dance Hall Dreamer, who seemed to me to be good on an off-track, and Fieldabeat, who was being ridden by Julien Leparoux, the hot apprentice jockey who'd ridden her to her only wins. So off to the windows I go to play the trifecta, and while I’m in line, I realize that Keeneland offers the dime superfecta. Heck, I’ll just throw in the favorite, Initforthekandy, and box the superfecta!
(Left: Don't Lee Gage (the 6 horse) and Dance Hall Dreamer (the 7 horse) look fast in the post parade!)
Here's how they finished: Dance Hall Dreamer, Fieldabeat, Lee Gage (in the money, as I’d hoped) and… I’m A Cat Too. The trifecta paid $325, but the almost-superfecta paid nothing.
Saturday dawned bleak and frigid. It had rained all night, and the sky was overcast all morning. I wished I'd brought my gloves. It looked like it might rain again. We stopped at the gift shop to pick up an umbrella. (My souvenirs all seem to have a weather-related theme: if you look closely, you’ll see the fringe of my Breeder’s Cup scarf blowing in the rather brisk wind.)
I abandoned quinellas for the more sensible exacta box wager -- and a few well-placed win bets (the best: Ice N Lemon at 12-1!), and we were able to cash some tickets.
By the time the Ashland Stakes rolled around, the sun was out, and the track was drying out. (Again, I didn’t think it looked “fast,” but folks in these parts know a whole lot more than me, so I'll take their word for it.) I bet Balance to win solely to have a ticket with her name on it as a souvenir. Of course, with Balance going of at something like 1-2 odds, I needed another wager, so I played an exotic, too.
After the race, the King was shocked when I told him I’d won. “But Balance lost,” he said.
True – but that’s why you box those exotic bets. While I was cashing my ticket, the nice man at the window looked up from his register to say, “So you hit that superfecta, did you?”
Well, yes, sir, I did.
And yes, I'm rather keen on Keeneland.