Lexington KY April 20
Thursday was six hours of equine knowledge but it must be only considered an appetizer since Friday’s ten hours was a sumptuous entrée. The great weather Friday was the dessert. Sunny all day, a little cool in the morning but the 60 degree temperature in the afternoon was perfect.
Our morning was a three and a half hour tour of Keeneland race track and horse farms in the Lexington country side. Our tour was with Horse Farm Tours, there are lots of different tour companies, and Ernie Flynn was our guide. Ernie is a former jockey and trainer who was able to add invaluable insights, although his soft voice made you stick close to him when out of the van to hear him.
I will admit we messed up a bit. Of course we arrived early (7:50 AM) to the pick-up point, an Embassy Suites a half hour away. Of course we checked in with the hotel to make sure we were at the right spot and where to wait. But then, for some unknown and unusual reason, we became passive. We waited for the tour people to come in to the hotel and call our names. By the time we realized it was getting late, our van had already left. Luckily, a friendly competitor gave us a ride in his van to Keeneland where we joined Ernie. Most tours start at Keeneland in order to watch the early morning work-outs before going off on their own list of farms to visit.
Keeneland dates back to 1936 and was built starting as a private track by Jack Keene but the depression ended his dream and a group of local racing people got together and purchased Keene’s property and completed the track. Today it is a closely held for-profit company that seems to distribute its profits in renovations and donations to the local community. No dividends are issued. Keeneland is one of the top tracks in the country, holding a 17 day meet in the spring and a 15 day meet in the fall. It is a beautiful facility, constructed of stone, and immaculately groomed.
Keeneland holds horse auctions that bring in top yearlings from around the country. We did not tour the auction facility but went down to the track and watched the early morning workouts. Trainers are free to bring their horses down anytime between 5:30 and 10:30, no appointments, no scheduling. Ernie indicated most horses work-out about once every five days. There are normally 1700-1800 horses housed here during the racing season; many horses stay here year round to train. The early morning workout time was quiet; a few people, mainly on tours, watched the horses and walked through the building. There is a secondary training track and more stables located on the back side of the main track which we drove through once we left Keeneland.
Next we spend time driving the back roads and being introduced, from the road, to some of the most famous and exclusive farms in the area. Calumet Farms, once the most celebrated stable in the country, was founded by the maker of Calumet Baking Powder. Most of the other exclusive farms are owned by Middle East sheikhs or wealthy entrepreneurs. Ernie related stories of many farms and the horses which are now, or were, stabled there.
Other details came out during the ride, such as the use of rounded corners on the fencing so horses don’t get hurt when running and so that older horses can not pen a younger horse in a corner to establish dominance over it. Wood fences are used, plastic materials had been tried but rejected. Most fencing is two deep; prevents horses from trying to jump them and protects from errant cars going off the road, breaking a fence, and allowing horses to escape. Some of the farms have extensive stone fences on the road side; expensive to build but beautiful to look at.
We pulled in to Hill n Dale Farm to look from a close distance spot. Seattle Slew, an undefeated Triple Crown winner, is buried there, standing up. The farm has a stallion, Curlin, which we saw out in the paddock, whose breeding fee is $150,000 and brought in over $20,000,000 in fees last year. Thoroughbreds are not artificially inseminated, only the real thing. (The state does collect 6% sales tax on the breeding fees, I asked.) The breeding facility looks like a home of a multi-millionaire. At Gainesway Farm, their campion stallion’s (Tapit) fee is $300,000 and he was bred 160 times last year.
We made stops at two other farms to see horses up close and personal. This is the season when foals are born, we saw foals ranging from several weeks to two days old. At one farm, we visited the “recuperation” (my word) barn where horses who had surgery were recovering.
At McPeek Racing and Magdalena Farms, we met and talked with the owner, Kenny McPeek. He introduced us to a Brazilian jockey who is here for a race Saturday. This jockey has won 13,000 races. McPeek’s farm goes back to just after the Revolutionary War when a soldier was given land in payment for his service. He selected this land and brought his wife with him. Magdalena was his daughter-in-law and was the matriarch of the farm for decades. She and many descendants are buried on the farm and McPeek keeps the name Magdalena as the name of the farm.
When we were dropped off back at Embassy Suites, the traffic to Keeneland was heavy and we chose to have a good lunch at the hotel rather than concession food at the track. We arrived at Keeneland, missing the first two of ten races. There was still plenty of time and races left to enjoy our seats in the cheap seats in the sun. The temperature may have only been 60 or so but the sun was hot.
The races were an eye-opener for us. It was a social event, with women in dresses and hats, men in ties and suits. I even saw a few seer-sucker suits which fit in here very nicely. Couples on dates, office parties, and gatherings of friends were more numerous than race aficionados or tourists like us. There were very few children. I guess it makes sense; the races only happen twice a year, it involves lots of money, and the races only occupy a few minutes allowing great opportunities to mingle, gamble, chat, and drink. We made six two dollar bets on horses to show and won a total of $15.60. Did not cover our $5 entrance fees but a reasonable showing. Chris made all of the choices so she gets the credit.
Our bench seat in the sun was also occupied a young couple, she was obviously pregnant. Turns out she was a development officer for Berea College so she and Chris shared notes. Chris found out Berea admits about 85% of their students from Kentucky and they must be poverty level. 10% are from abroad and 5% from the rest of the country. If a student graduates and does well financially, their children can not attend because the children will not be from a family with poverty level income. Legacy student admissions are not a big deal at Berea. The husband is a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service stationed at Daniel Boone National Forest located in the Cumberland Falls State Park area. He has attended the fire fighters school in Missoula Montana that we toured several years ago.
The couple informed us that today’s crowd was much larger than they were accustomed to. The comparison between the few people at the morning workouts and the afternoon races was stark. We stayed until the end, being one of the last people to leave. Dinner was picked up a Kroger grocery store. The roast beef wrap was large enough for both of us and combined with a personal size triple berry pie and two side salads, we had a pleasant dinner back at the farm.
Ed and Chris. April 21