Before the sun is up, horses are on the track.
Riders in thick jackets and leather chaps ease them up the stretch and gallop them back down, around the turn.
Hooves pound. Steam puffs from big nostrils. The grandstand casts a giant shadow holding winter’s last chill.
Behind the rail, rows of green benches wait to be straightened. Their only occupants are the last fat drops of an overnight rain.
Men and women with rags carefully wipe each grandstand seat. Mop the floor. Hang the bunting. Above them, birds dart in and out, looking for a perch.
Down by the racing office, people stand with steaming cups of coffee. Many wear caps embroidered with the names of famous farms and recent champions. Three Chimneys. Big Brown.
Conversations are spiced with accents from down the road — and New York, and Ireland. Warming up yet, John? How have you been? Two exercise riders chat in French. Hot walkers speak Spanish. Between two owners, whispers in Japanese.
Some stare off into the distance, closely watching one of a dozen horses breezing by. Others pace with cell phones, telling someone far off that their horse looks good, is exercising well, will be ready to race. You should be here. Man, it is so pretty!
The rising sun casts a soft glow on flowering white trees and limestone walls. Freshly mown grass rolls out like an emerald carpet, rippled with the shadows of fences and trees. The track’s edge is a patchwork of budding green, flowering pink, forsythia yellow.
The stone-framed tote board and video screen forms a dark wall in the infield, waiting for a big jolt of electricity to bring it to life. Soon, it will chronicle the rise and fall of afternoon fortunes.
Out back, crunchy fine gravel leads to white block stables beneath severely trimmed trees. The remaining limbs reach skyward like arthritic fingers, waiting for leaves to hide their ice-inflicted wounds.
Outside the stables, grooms with white buckets of warm water carefully wash each tired horse. Steam rises from silky coats of chestnut brown and dappled gray. Ankles are carefully felt.
Many cars and pickup trucks are parked outside the stables, New York and Florida plates scattered among the Kentuckys. Old bicycles that were pedaled out Versailles Road in the dark stand propped against trees.
The track kitchen is alive with clattering plates and conversation. I’ll take the special. Sausage or bacon? Apples or grits? Coffee in a thick stone mug. That’ll be $5.26. Customers gaze at framed photographs of champions on the walls — and dream.
By mid-morning, sunshine reaches into the paddock and touches the big, white sycamore tree. Raindrops begin to dry off neatly trimmed boxwoods along the rail. A man with a leaf blower sweeps grass clippings from soft pavers.
A beer truck and an ice truck release their cargo. Kegs are stacked by concession stands and boxes beside rows of betting windows in the dim underneath of General Admission. Men with yellow ladders move from one rafter-mounted TV screen to another, pulling off fabric covers.
White metal tables, each with five chairs, stand beside pansies freshly planted in green washtubs. The sound of a sweeping broom echoes from a stone corridor that leads to the clubhouse. In a gift shop window, colorful Derby hats wait for just the right pretty head.
Soon there will be people; lots of people. Colorful dresses, navy blazers, khakis and bright ties. White parasols along the grandstand balcony. A sea of sunglasses and sunburns below.
Burgoo and beer. Crab cakes, fried green tomatoes and bread pudding bathed in sweet bourbon sauce.
It must be spring. It must be Keeneland.