Keeneland changes constantly, yet never seems to. Behind stone walls and an image of timeless tradition, the elegant race course has faced one challenge after another.
To kick off its 75th anniversary, Keeneland invited Lexington’s business community to breakfast Friday to hear President Nick Nicholson and his two predecessors swap behind-the-scenes stories.
Nicholson, president since 2000, was joined by Ted Bassett, who became president in 1970, and Bill Greely, who succeeded him in 1986. They entertained a Commerce Lexington crowd of 185 people with tales of triumphs and troubles — and all the funny things that happen when you play host to movie stars, tycoons, Arab sheiks and European royalty.
“We worked hard, but we played hard, too,” Greely and Bassett both said.
“The biggest difference between then and now is we no longer play — we just work, work, work,” Nicholson added, sending the other two into gales of laughter.
Bassett recounted Keeneland’s founding on a shoestring budget in 1935, the middle of the Great Depression. Horsemen Hal Price Headley and Louie Beard wanted a racing venue to replace the old Kentucky Association track near downtown, which had closed in 1933. Their unorthodox vision was to create a non-profit institution to benefit the sport and the community.
After Bassett arrived in 1968, after heading the Kentucky State Police, he added barn space to bring in more horses for racing, and a new sales pavilion to boost the horse auctions that are the Keeneland Association’s bread and butter.
Although steeped in tradition, Keeneland has always been an innovator, opening with the state’s first electronic tote board. Bassett added the state’s first turf track in 1984, where half of Keeneland’s stakes races are now run.
Bassett resisted installing a public address system. Like the founders, he didn’t want to disturb Keeneland’s ambiance. The PA system came under Greely, in 1997, which Bassett jokingly reminded the crowd — several times.
“I had almost all of the support of the board,” Greely replied.
Innovations have continued under Nicholson, from high-tech electronic systems to a synthetic track surface that has reduced injuries to both horses and riders. Still, Nicholson is passionate about maintaining Keeneland’s timeless beauty, down to tiny details of the landscaping.
“We take our traditions seriously,” Nicholson said. “We take our trees seriously.”
Keeneland also takes its Clubhouse dress code seriously, but that, too, has evolved. Denim is still not allowed, though, as actor Joe Pesci found out once when he showed up wearing jeans.
Bassett recalled that the prohibition against women’s pant suits ended in 1975 after Anita Madden, the flamboyant owner of Hamburg Place farm, wore one and was told she must have a dress. So, she stepped in the ladies room and removed her pants. Her suit jacket became her dress.
Two of Bassett’s favorite Keeneland guests were actress Elizabeth Taylor and Queen Elizabeth II. The queen’s visit in 1984 had Bassett worried, although she turned out to be a friendly guest and knowledgeable horsewoman.
“She was very easy to talk to,” he said, although there were some anxious moments when she lost a shoe under the table at lunch. Who should retrieve it?
“He got Queen Elizabeth, but I got Ashley Judd,” Nicholson said. And Charlize Theron, whose photograph standing beside Nicholson during her 2009 visit is reproduced in Keeneland’s new 75th anniversary book.
Nicholson recalled taking Judd and her husband, race car driver Dario Franchitti, to meet some famous jockeys at Keeneland. They compared notes about their two racing sports, and Franchitti concluded that racing horses was more difficult, Nicholson said.
Nicholson said Keeneland has faced big challenges under his watch, beginning with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which occurred the morning of what he had expected to be one of Keeneland’s biggest-ever auction days. The economic slowdown that followed the attacks hit Keeneland hard, as did the mysterious disease that killed many Kentucky foals that year.
When Keeneland finally managed to recover in 2008, the worldwide financial crisis began. Things are getting better, Nicholson said, but the horse industry’s long-term prospects remain challenging.
What will not, change, Nicholson promised, is Keeneland’s commitment to providing the highest-quality horse racing and sales environment possible. “That was our founders’ philosophy,” he said. “It is a wonderful philosophy that has made this organization strong.”