Founder’s daughters recall Keeneland’s early years

Many people have special memories of Keeneland Race Course — pleasant spring and fall afternoons spent watching beautiful horses and people, eating, drinking and, if you’re like me, losing a few dollars at the windows.

Some of my favorite Keeneland memories are from 1984, when I covered Queen Elizabeth II’s visit for the Atlanta newspapers. Everything was freshly painted, and everyone was on best behavior.

When the spring meet opens April 8, Keeneland will celebrate its 75th year.

Sisters Alice Chandler and Patricia Green have unique memories of Keeneland’s early years. Their father, Hal Price Headley, was the driving force behind creating it.

“When Keeneland opened, I was 10 years old,” Chandler said. “I had a pony named Pal and I used to ride my pony down the Versailles Road. Now, can you imagine doing that today? I would get up early and ride him down to Keeneland while they were building it.”

Headley and Louie Beard headed a group of local horsemen in 1935 who wanted to replace the old Kentucky Association track near downtown, which closed in 1933. Jack Keene gave them a good price on a piece of his farm, which included a rambling stone barn he had built as a private training and racing facility.

One corner of “Keene’s folly” became the original part of the Keeneland clubhouse. Stone from the rest of it was used by architect Robert McMeekin for the track’s grandstand and paddock.

Much of the equipment used to build Keeneland came from Headley’s Beaumont Farm, which once covered several thousand acres between Harrodsburg and Versailles roads.

“He took everything we had on the farm,” Chandler said. “The mules, the tractors, the wagons, everything. There just wasn’t enough money to buy that sort of thing and they needed it.”

Despite an aggressive construction schedule, the track wasn’t finished in time for a spring meet, so racing didn’t begin until October 1936.

Chandler, 85, said she will never forget what happened to her on that first opening day. “I was walking up the steps in the grandstand and some guy behind me pinched my bottom,” she said, laughing. “I couldn’t believe it!”

Green, 83, remembers spending many childhood afternoons playing on the clubhouse lawn. “We were given the run of the place,” she said.

Furniture from the Beaumont Farm mansion, which stood where Sullivan University is now on Harrodsburg Road, was taken to Keeneland for use in the clubhouse during those early years.

Green remembers the Beaumont gardener starting what is now the giant infield hedge that spells “Keeneland” in a plot behind their home. “It was a tiny little thing,” she said.

Their older sister Alma’s husband, Louis Haggin, succeeded their father as Keeneland’s president. Alma also played a key role: her taste defined Keeneland’s interior decoration for decades until her death in 2008 at age 96.

Headley had five daughters, then a son. With so many children competing for his attention, “Me now!” was a common expression in the Headley home, Green said. It became the name of one of Headley’s most successful horses. Menow was the champion 2-year-old in 1937, placed third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1938 and sired 32 stakes winners.

Chandler and Green, the youngest of the Headley’s five daughters, have fond memories of their father treating them more like sons.

“I just adored him,” Chandler said. “If my toe wasn’t under his heel I was running behind. My mother insisted on sending me to boarding school from time to time. I hated every minute of it, because it kept me from going to Keeneland.”

The sisters have remained close to racing. Green’s ex-husband managed two horse farms and she owned Silks Unlimited, a maker of jockey silks that her daughter now owns.

Chandler became a prominent horsewoman. She turned part of Beaumont into award-winning Mill Ridge Farm, where she bred Sir Ivor. He won the 1968 Epsom Derby and helped attract European buyers to Keeneland’s sales. Giacomo, winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby, was foaled at Mill Ridge.

Chandler and Green think their father, who died in 1962, would be proud of what Keeneland has become. “It’s a tremendous place,” Chandler said. “There’s no other race track like it.”

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