Keeneland, which has spent 79 years building an international Thoroughbred sales and racing powerhouse, earned the final jewel in its crown Friday by hosting the 32nd Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
The first of two days of racing came off with few hitches under mostly cloudy skies with temperatures in the 50s.
Breeders’ Cup purple replaced Keeneland green as the color of the day, but bright fall leaves offered some competition.
Keeneland spent $5 million to add temporary buildings and seating for an extra 10,000 spectators, and that kept the track from being uncomfortably crowded during its biggest day of racing ever.
A record number of fans for the first day of a Breeders’ Cup, 44,947, came to the track and to hospitality areas on Keeneland’s grounds. The crowd is expected to be even larger Saturday, when the most prestigious races are scheduled.
Customer service seemed to be at Keeneland’s usual high level, with one big exception: A reserved-seating mixup at the Maker’s Mark Lounge left some early arrivals angry when Kentucky state troopers were brought in to ask them to move.
Traffic, parking and shuttle systems operated smoothly for the most part.
“Honestly, it was easier than a normal day at Keeneland,” said Nyoka Hawkins of Lexington. “I think they’ve done a fabulous job. I bought a parking pass, and we just drove right in. It was shocking.”
Lexington received high marks from out-of-town visitors, said VisitLex president Mary Quinn Ramer. They especially enjoyed being able to get close to famous horses and tour farms while they were here. “Our four-legged celebrities are being well-adored this week,” she said.
Ramer said people from 16 nations attended the media party Thursday night. From the grandstand seat where she was hosting Garden & Gun magazine publisher Nancy Carmody, dozens of private jets could be seen parked across Versailles Road on the Blue Grass Airport tarmac.
“I’ve talked to horsemen and horsewomen from all over the world, and they’ve said our hospitality has been second to none,” Ramer said. “It’s a really big deal for Lexington to host this global audience, and we seem to be right good at it.”
Alex Lloyd-Baker, an insurance executive from London, England, agreed. He flew in Thursday from Santiago, Chile, and was staying with Lexington friends Tony and Debbie Chamblin. He planned to leave Sunday to fly to Australia for the Melbourne Cup, that nation’s biggest race.
“I’m having a wonderful time here,” said Lloyd-Baker, who attended the 2014 Kentucky Derby but had never seen a race at Keeneland. “This is just fantastic. It’s a beautiful race course, everyone is so friendly, and it’s the top quality of racing in the world.”
Several floors below Lloyd-Baker’s table overlooking the paddock, along the track rail in the general admission section, Rob Krebs of Berkeley, Calif., and Peter Valencic of Cleveland sat on a bench that they arrived early to snag.
The old high school buddies had decided a little more than a week ago to come to the Breeders’ Cup, and they easily found $100 general admission tickets online.
“Keeneland is a great place; they know how to do it right,” Valencic said. “It’s great they’re finally getting to host the Breeders’ Cup.”
Valencic said he was at the 1973 Kentucky Derby when Secretariat won the first leg of his Triple Crown. He and his friend were eager to see American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, run in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Martha and Tony Rezeli of Saylorsburg, Pa., had been to Keeneland before and were excited to return for the biggest weekend in its history.
“We just got back from Las Vegas and said, ‘Let’s go to Breeders’ Cup!” she said. “We didn’t do so well there, so we’re hoping to do better here.”
Nick Nicholson, retired Keeneland president, said he was impressed by how things went, even though he had nothing to do with it. “They worked together so well with the Breeders’ Cup, and the winner is the fans,” Nicholson said. “I’m proud of us.”