Derby Day at Keeneland: all that was missing was live horses

May 3, 2014

140503Keeneland-DerbyTE0124Derby Day at Keeneland was a laid-back affair. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Billy Hargis of Danville got to Keeneland early on Kentucky Derby Day to stake out a bench and start studying the program in the hope of picking a winner.

“I’ve been coming to Keeneland for a long time, since I was 16,” said Hargis, 64, adding that it is his favorite place to be on Derby Day because of the family atmosphere and smaller crowd.

“I went to Louisville once,” he said. “All I saw was a horse’s tail.”

Before long Saturday, Hargis had plenty of company. A picture-perfect day brought 19,344 people to the Lexington racetrack, which had everything a Kentucky Derby fan needed — except actual horses.

The horses were on TV screens, including the big one across the track in Keeneland’s infield. Spectators gathered in the stands and on the plaza benches below, picnicked in the paddock and tailgated in tents and RVs outside the gates at perhaps the world’s largest Kentucky Derby party outside Churchill Downs.

Jeff and Lisa Kayes have been coming to Kentucky from the Buffalo, N.Y., area each first Saturday in May for 18 years to catch the Derby action. Only four of those years were actually spent at the Derby in Louisville.

“We’ve done that; the riff-raff in the infield gets old,” Jeff Kayes said of Churchill Downs. “This is more laid-back.”

Keeneland has long allowed people to gather at the track for Derby, but it started making a bigger event of it in 1995. Now, as many as 20,000 fans come each year, wearing fancy hats and toting picnic supplies.

There was a hat contest, children’s activities and plenty of beer, mint juleps, other refreshments and souvenirs for the adults. For $5 admission, it was quite a show for both horse fans and people-watchers.

Debbie and Bill Viney of Georgetown set up a family picnic in the paddock with son, Tom, who lives in Louisville, and his daughter, Allie, 10. They were all dressed up, enjoying the sunshine and games of corn hole until it was time to eat.

“This is great,” Tom Viney said. “I’ll come to Keeneland seven days out of seven vs. going to Churchill.”

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Lexington center finds new careers for retired race horses

April 28, 2014

140403MMSecretariatCenter0195Susanna Thomas, director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center, talked to Sullenberger, a former race horse who is being trained for a new role as a pleasure horse. “Sully” was recently adopted.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When the Kentucky Derby comes around each May, public attention focuses on the glamour of Thoroughbred racing. But reports of abuse and performance-enhancing drugs also have people asking questions about how those horses are treated — and what happens to them after their racing days are over.

Horses are living creatures, after all, not disposable commodities for gambling and sport.

“If the industry wants to survive, it can no longer treat after-care as a charity that can or cannot be supported,” Susanna Thomas said. “It’s a sustainability issue that will not go away.”

As director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park, Thomas works with a mostly volunteer staff to retrain about 40 retired racehorses each year for new careers as hunters, jumpers and pleasure riding horses.

Thoroughbreds have a reputation for being high-strung and hard to retrain. But Thomas said the problem is often not the horses, but people who lack the knowledge, skill and patience to help them make a difficult transition.

“It’s sort of like taking a soldier who’s been in heavy-duty combat in Iraq and putting him right into a job on Wall Street,” She said. “He’s going to want to dive under the table every time bells go off.”

The center was created in 2004 in a partnership between the horse industry and the distillery, which raised more than $600,000 for it through the sale of special bourbon bottles.

Thomas became the center’s director six years ago, bringing a diverse skill set and background to the job. Raised in New York City and Europe, she is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert K. Massie, a Lexington native, and Suzanne Massie, a Russian expert and presidential advisor who taught Ronald Reagan the phrase, “Trust but verify.”

140403MMSecretariatCenter0209AThomas had worked in journalism and non-profits. She is married to James Thomas, who before retirement in 2005 spent 41 years restoring Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. She has a degree in comparative literature from Princeton and speaks several languages. “Now I speak Equus,” she said.

Thomas has always been fascinated by the intellectual and spiritual relationship between people and horses.

“As a rider, I was never interested in chasing ribbons,” she said. “I was interested in how can I understand this animal better and be in partnership.”

She got a hint at her future when, as a child, she saw carriage horses being abused in Naples, Italy. Thomas told her parents that when she grew up she was going to come back and save them. “I didn’t do that,” she said. “But I save whatever horses I can here.”

The center’s 24-acre campus has a variety of facilities for teaching Thoroughbreds used to running lickety-split on flat dirt or turf to slow down and handle more varied terrain. There are hills, woods, a creek, a cross-country course, two specialty pens and a riding arena. A lot of time is spent getting horses to trust their new trainers and desensitizing them to noises and distractions.

“As a responsible trainer,” Thomas said, “you have to figure out a way to make the right way easy and the wrong way hard and to build (a horse’s) confidence so he’ll understand it better.”

When a horse is donated to the center for retraining and adoption, Thomas and her staff begin by assessing its physical and mental condition according to a system she developed.

“Every horse gets a horsenality assessment,” Thomas said, which helps determine its best future role, the most effective retraining methods and what kind of new owner will be a good match. Thomas won’t approve adoptions she thinks are a bad match.

The average horse spends two months at the center at a cost of about $2,000. Thomas keeps a “baby book” on each horse that includes its expense records. New owners are asked to cover those expenses as the price of adoption.

“The horse’s job is just to cover its expenses,” Thomas said, adding that the rest of the center’s $300,000 annual budget comes from grants and donations.

“Every horse that comes through us can go on to be an ambassador for this breed at any level in a variety of disciplines,” she said. “We’re talking from Pony Club to the World Equestrian Games.”

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Veteran sign painter creates art from Lexington, racing nostalgia

August 5, 2013

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John Cox, owner of Thoroughgraphics, shows a copy, at right, he is making of an old sign from the Nashua Room at the old Hialeah racetrack in Hialeah, Fla. Cox said he acquired several old Hialeah signs years ago when the sign company he worked for was hired to replace them.  Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

John Cox’s artwork is a shot of nostalgia for anyone who lived in Lexington or followed Thoroughbred racing during the decades after World War II. His paintings are literally signs of the times, recalling the famous and infamous.

Cox’s hand-painted signs look as though they spent decades at such places as Joyland Park, Stoll Field, Scott’s Rollarena, Comer’s Restaurant or Keeneland.

Remember the Library Lounge, that swinging singles bar in the 1970s? Or the Red Lion Lounge, which featured the “exotic” dancer Chesty Morgan? And don’t forget Boot’s Bar, where headliners included the Fabulous Table Toppers and Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, upside down, backwards guitar player.

Longtime racing fans may recall the Citation Room at Hialeah Park in Florida, the Boots & Saddle Bar across the street from the track or Greentree Stable, Payne Whitney’s New Jersey farm that was a Thoroughbred powerhouse in the 1920s.

“I had had several people who asked me to make them a sign that looked like it was old, from some memory they had,” said Cox, who since 1982 has owned and operated Thoroughgraphics, a Lexington sign company.

Cox was soon making “new old” signs for gifts. Since late last year, he has been showing and selling his pieces at Gallery Hop. His work is now on display at Congleton Lumber Co.’s new showroom, 1260 Industry Road, and at his website, Newoldsigns.com.

Cox left last week for Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Saratoga Race Course is celebrating its 150th year. His company will be making modern signs for its many customers there, and he has made some “new old” Saratoga-themed signs for sale through Lexington’s Cross Gate Gallery.

“It’s a unique niche,” said Cox, 54, who began his career hand-lettering signs for Johnson Sign Co. in the 1970s while a student at Lafayette High School.

130723OldSigns0102Cox had always been interested in calligraphy, and he studied art at the University of Kentucky. Because many of his fraternity brothers were in the horse business, he focused on that industry. His customers now include farms, tracks and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga. He just finished making metal plaques for the newest group of Hall of Fame inductees.

Other than Cox’s artwork, little hand-painting is still done at Thoroughgraphics, which has a lot of modern technology for making all kinds of signs, from huge printers to computer-controlled wood routers.

“There are lots of different ways that are better and longer-lasting now than painting signs,” Cox said, adding that “when they took the lead out of paint, it didn’t last as long or hold its color very well.”

That technology would make it easy to reproduce old-fashioned sign images. But that wouldn’t be the same as what Cox does. His hand-painted letters show brush strokes, and he makes each piece look old and authentic with creative use of sandpaper, varnish and sometimes even a little dirt.

“I don’t try to pass them off as being old,” he said. “If you look at the back of them, you can see they’re brand-new materials.”

Cox said his signs are a mixture of authenticity and imagination. He researches a place, looking for photographs of old signs there. If he finds a design he likes, he copies it. Or he may use imagery from old promotional materials, such as matchbook covers.

For other signs, Cox simply makes up a design appropriate to the era — how he would have done the job, if only he had been around then to do it. Most of his pieces are inspired by signs from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Cox has collected more than 100 antique signs that cover the walls of his workshops at Thoroughgraphics. There has been a resurgence in public interest in old signs. There is even an American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.

Most of Cox’s “new old” signs sell for $200 to $400, although he is asking $2,000 for a large Keeneland sign painted with gold leaf.

Cox said he has enjoyed showing his work, because people come up and tell him great stories about their memories of the places depicted in his signs.

“It’s a great creative outlet for me,” he said. “And people seem to really enjoy them.”

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Kentucky Derby infield tamer than my first one, but still a wild party

May 4, 2013

130504KyDerby-TE0033

 Patrick Just of Louisville takes a turn on an improvised water slide during an afternoon downpour in the infield at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. “You don’t do Derby,” he said. “Derby does you.”  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Like many people, I attended my first Kentucky Derby as a college student in the infield. Except I was an intern for the Associated Press, assigned to write a feature about one of the world’s biggest and wildest parties.

It was 1979, when Spectacular Bid won the 105th Derby, then the Preakness and fell just short of the Triple Crown. But that’s not what I remember most.

Derby Day was sunny and hot, and the infield was a “boiling sea of people”, just as Hunter S. Thompson described it in his famous 1970 essay, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. Alcohol flowed freely and, as the afternoon wore on, many a young woman became separated from her clothes. As I wrote in my story that day, the infield was a place where “you are liable to see almost anything — except perhaps the Kentucky Derby.”

I have been to 16 Derbys since then, and each year the infield seems to get smaller and tamer, even as the admission price has risen from $10 to $40. But the 139th Derby was proof that the infield is still quite a party — even on a day like Saturday.

For most of the day, it poured rain, but that didn’t keep people away. The Derby Day crowd was more than 151,000.

The wet weather wasn’t a problem for big-ticket Derby patrons, who enjoyed catered food high and dry in enclosed luxury suites above the track. Saturday was a good day to be rich or famous — or a guest of someone who was.

Outdoor grandstand seats were problematic. But the infield crowd just got wet. Very wet. Not that anyone seemed to mind.

The steady downpour quickly turned the infield into swamp. In the past, that wouldn’t have been a big problem. Although umbrellas have always been banned, infield regulars usually come equipped with large picnic tents.

But this year, citing security concerns in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Churchill Downs banned tents and coolers. Still, many people brought tarps that became makeshift tents, attached to the chain-link fence along the track’s edge or propped up on folding chairs. A few people managed to sneak in forbidden tent poles and stakes.

“I knew people would get creative,” said John Asher, the Churchill Downs spokesman.

While some in the infield tried to find shelter, many others didn’t bother. People walked around, drank and danced in the rain and mud.

“You’ve got to do it,” said Cathy Hanrahan of Louisville, who has been to six or seven Derbys and was enjoying this one dancing in the infield with friends while wearing a hat that looked like a lamp shade. “You can dry out tomorrow.”

Still, even on a dry day, the Derby infield isn’t what it used to be.

For one thing, the infield is a lot smaller. A big chunk of the real estate was taken in 1985 when Churchill Downs built the turf track inside the dirt oval. The whole front side of the infield is now taken by two-story enclosed and tented luxury boxes. And, each year, more and more vendor tents compete with fans for space.

The infield also is a lot tamer. Although it is harder to smuggle in booze, Churchill Downs makes it very easy to buy alcohol, from beer to mint juleps to champagne. But a multitude of cops keep patrons’ good times from getting out of hand.

There is little nudity anymore, even on a warmer, drier Derby Day than we had this year. Before Churchill Downs’ most recent renovations, the Herald-Leader’s work room was next to a room where Louisville police with high-powered binoculars scanned the infield looking for nudity and other misbehavior.

But none of this seems to have stopped the infield crowd from having a memorably good time, year after year.

“I heard it’s the most wild time you could find,” said Jesse Jerzewski, 26, of Buffalo, N.Y. “And I’m not disappointed yet.”

Jerzewski’s first Derby was doubling as his brother’s bachelor party. They and their poncho-clad friends were especially fond of mint juleps.

A big crowd of young people gathered around a huge plastic sheet, which became a well-lubricated water slide in the heavy afternoon rain. They dared each other to give it a try. Patrick Just of Louisville was among those who accepted the challenge.

“You don’t do Derby,” he said. “Derby does you.”

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Five generations of family vets have cared for horse racing’s stars

July 30, 2012

Luke Fallon of Hagyard Equine and intern Jackie Snyder check a mare in foal at Castleton Lyons farm. Alicia MacDonald holds the horse. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Dr. Luke Hagyard Fallon is a fifth-generation Lexington horse doctor. What led him to keep up the family tradition?

“Lack of originality,” he joked.

“We never learned any better,” added his father, Dr. Edward Hagyard Fallon.

But his mother’s explanation seems more logical.

“It’s in our bloodline,” Priscilla Fallon said.

That’s the way it works with successful horses, so why not with the people who care for them? Luke Fallon, one of 17 partners in Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, has a pedigree that’s hard to beat.

The institute, which calls itself the world’s oldest and largest equine veterinary practice, was founded by Fallon’s great-great-grandfather, Dr. Edward Thomas Hagyard. It is considered the third-oldest family business of any kind in Lexington, after Milward Funeral Directors and Hillenmeyer Nurseries.

E.T. Hagyard was a British-born doctor’s son who studied veterinary medicine in Scotland and Canada before being summoned to Kentucky from his Ontario home in 1875 to save a prize shorthorn bull in Winchester named the Eighth Duke of Geneva. Hagyard did such a good job treating the bull’s gastrointestinal distress that local cattle and horse breeders persuaded him to stay.

Hagyard opened a veterinary practice in Lexington in 1876 that has been operated by his descendants and their partners ever since. The family’s patients have been a who’s who of Thoroughbred racing history: Man o’ War, Domino, Whirlaway, Citation, Affirmed, Secretariat, Storm Cat and many more.

But Luke Fallon’s pedigree doesn’t stop there. His parents grew up on legendary Lexington horse farms their fathers managed.

Ed Fallon, 80, who retired from veterinary practice more than a decade ago after developing Hagyard Equine’s 108-acre campus on Iron Works Pike across from the Kentucky Horse Park, grew up on Beaumont Farm, then the 2,400-acre spread of Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley.

Priscilla Fallon’s father, Arthur Roberts, a well-known American Saddlebred trainer, managed Winganeek Farm. Her family also includes top Thoroughbred trainer John T. Ward Jr., a third-generation horseman and executive director of the state racing commission.

“All of that comes together to create a nice tradition in Central Kentucky that I’m privileged to be a part of,” Luke Fallon said.

Fallon, 42, joined the Hagyard practice in 1996 after graduating from Cornell University’s veterinary school exactly 40 years after his father. In the span of their two careers, equine medicine has changed dramatically.

Hagyard treats all breeds of horses “and the occasional llama,” Luke Fallon said. But when Ed Fallon started out, he treated a lot of work horses and trotters, whose numbers have declined dramatically.

Now, after decades with Thoroughbred breeding as the focus, the practice is working more with sport and pleasure horses, with five of the firm’s more than 60 veterinarians devoted to them.

A big part of Hagyard’s business now is preparing more than 700 horses a year from the Keeneland sales for international shipment— something all but unheard of a few decades ago.

Equine medicine has seen big scientific advances, too.

“When I got out of school, we did everything out of the back of our car,” Ed Fallon said. Surgeries were rare because almost all work was done in the field.

Hagyard vets did some of the first equine surgeries, such as taking bone chips out of racehorses’ ankles, the Fallons said. Medical advances have enabled pregnancies to be diagnosed earlier and mares to be bred more often.

Field work is still a backbone of the practice, with Hagyard’s 36 vehicles logging more than 1.6 million miles annually. But about 6,500 surgeries are performed each year at Hagyard’s high-tech clinic, which has MRI machines for spotting leg injuries and a hypobaric healing chamber big enough for a horse to stand in. The practice treats about 2,500 internal medicine cases and about 500 critical-care foals.

“We now have a lot more tools at our disposal,” Luke Fallon said. “And we’ve been blessed with good owners who have been very trusting and let us try new techniques.”

Although Central Kentucky’s horse industry faces many economic challenges, Fallon expects it to rebound and continue benefitting from advances in veterinary medicine.

But will there continue to be a Hagyard descendant treating those horses?

The odds might be good. Fallon has two sons and a daughter, ages 3, 5 and 8.

“They all love horses already,” he said.

 

 Fifth-generation equine veterinarian Luke Fallon, right, with father, Ed, and mother, Pricilla.

Luke Fallon and Jackie Snyder unload equipment for checkups at Castleton Lyons Farm.

Luke Fallon checks a 45-day-old horse fetus during an exam of a mare at Castleton Lyons Farm.

Dogs in Castleton Lyons farm manager Jamie Frost’s truck provide an audience as veterinarian Luke Fallon checks mares.

Veterinarian Luke Fallon checks on a mare and her ill foal at Hagyard Equine Medical Center.


A beautiful afternoon for a record Kentucky Derby crowd

May 7, 2011

LOUISVILLE —The weather forecasters were wrong, thank goodness.

The sun was shining bright on a perfect spring afternoon as a record crowd of 164,858 stumbled over the words to My Old Kentucky Home before seeing Animal Kingdom win his first race on dirt to take the 137th Kentucky Derby.

Brief periods of rain earlier in the day didn’t faze the biggest Derby crowd in history. The field was wide open, and, as always, horses were just part of the attraction. The Derby is a big party, a peerless networking opportunity and a colorful pageant of women in tight dresses and bodacious hats.

For hours leading up to the so-called greatest two minutes in sports, Kentucky’s captains of horseflesh and industry wined and dined those lucky enough to receive invitations from them.

“It’s such a selling opportunity for the state,” said Alltech founder and President Pearse Lyons. He and his wife, Deirdra, sat on Millionaire’s Row with John Petterson, senior vice president of Tiffany & Co., who said construction of his company’s new plant in Lexington is on schedule for completion in July.

“The whole state of Kentucky has been good to us,” said Petterson, attending his first Derby. “This is a wonderful place to do business.”

Executives from Mexico and India were among those being entertained by state officials hungry for investment.

Proeza of Monterey, Mexico, owns three automobile parts factories in Kentucky that employ 1,200 people. “We hope to increase employment,” said CEO Enrique Zambrano, who was loving his first Derby. “We come from a family that loves horses, and this is an experience.”

Across the table from Zambrano was Rewant Ruia, director of Essar of Mumbai, India. “I think it’s a fabulous event,” said Ruia, who said his conglomerate employs 10,000 people in North America, including coal miners in Kentucky. “To be honest, I did not expect the Derby to be so big.”

Across the track and far below the luxury suites, the infield crowd had arrived early to set up tents against the predicted rain. They partied the day away, progressing from $7 breakfast Budweisers to $10 mint juleps.

“The atmosphere, the people, the party,” said Ken Keske of Charlotte, N.C., when I asked why he keeps coming back every year. His Derby outfit included a furry viking helmet.

Nearby, Karolyn Cook of New Jersey and two girlfriends from New York and North Carolina were sporting lovely dresses and elegant hats. They sat on a blanket in the infield, snacking on potato chips. “My mother is stationed at Fort Knox, so this was the thing to do,” Cook said.

Tim Rask came from Iowa City, Iowa, for his seventh Derby, his fifth wearing a bowler hat topped with a tall arrangement of red roses that required almost perfect posture. “All that finishing school paid off,” he joked.

Rask keeps coming “because it’s the greatest time to be had in the country,” he said. “It’s great fun to make a fool of yourself once a year.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who took office in January, was enjoying his first year as Derby host. “People love coming here and they all leave with a smile on their face,” he said. “It’s fun to be part of that.”

When I saw Fischer, he was shaking hands on Millionaire’s Row and introducing people to Lt. Gen. Ben Freakley, who is overseeing a big expansion and mission change at Ft. Knox that in the past year has expanded the base’s payroll by $45 million.

“You see these beautiful ladies in these fabulous hats and then a dude in a T-shirt,” said Freakley, who was attending his first Derby. “This is America. We’re all celebrating what we are as a country. It’s pretty neat.”

It’s also a pretty neat day to be a Kentuckian, said Central Bank President Luther Deaton.

“It showcases Kentucky and what a great place we live,” he said. “We’re the luckiest people going.”


Kentucky Oaks goes pink for breast cancer awareness

May 6, 2011

LOUISVILLE — The Kentucky Oaks has grown from Louisville’s day at the races into a spectacle almost as big and colorful as the next day’s Kentucky Derby. And the color of the Oaks is most definitely pink.

Many women at Churchill Downs on Friday wore pink hats and dresses. Men wore pink jackets and ties. The track bugler and outriders traded their red coats for pink ones. Balcony railings below the Twin Spires are wrapped in pink fabric. Even the tractors that pulled sleds to smooth the dirt track were pink. All for a good reason: breast cancer awareness.

For the third year, the track donated $1 from each Oaks Day admission to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and $1 from the sale of each Oaks Lily beverage to Horses for Hope.

More important than raising money, though, was raising awareness of breast cancer, the second-leading cause of death among Kentucky women. About 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the state each year.

Oaks Day is ladies’ day, after all, where fillies run for the lilies in the featured race. And before Plum Pretty held off St. John’s River to win the 137th running of the Oaks, there was a special parade in front of the grandstand.

A crowd of 110,100 spectators, the third-largest in Oaks history, cheered as 137 breast cancer survivors walked with a friend and family in symbolic victory over the disease. The survivors were chosen by the public from nominees whose stories were posted on the Kentucky Oaks’ Web site. More than 30,000 votes were cast.

“It’s very emotional,” said Gina Robinson of New Albany, Ind., who was diagnosed 15 months ago and was there with her husband, Dan. “He looks good in pink, doesn’t he?”

Robinson participated in last year’s parade, too, and found it deeply emotional. “I thought I had it all together until everyone started cheering and I lost it,” she said.

“It’s a big responsibility to represent so many people,” said survivor Angie Brown of Shelbyville, who said she was there to show that young women can get breast cancer, too. “It’s not just your mom’s or your grandma’s disease.”

Brown, 36, was diagnosed and began aggressive chemotherapy when she was 24 weeks pregnant with her third daughter. It was a scary time, but she recovered and her daughter, now 20 months old, wasn’t harmed by the treatment

Hugh Campbell of Louisville, the only male breast cancer survivor in the parade, was nominated by his daughter, Emily, who walked with him. He wore pink pants and, like the women, carried a lily.

“I try to keep it out there that men get this disease, too,” said Campbell, who was diagnosed in December 2007 and has had five recurrences. “I have met several other men with it in the Louisville area, but most men don’t want to be out front about it.”

Like many women, Campbell first noticed a lump in his breast. But unlike many men, he went to a doctor to see about it. He knew what it might be. Campbell’s mother had survived breast cancer, and he had been active in the Komen organization on her behalf since 1997.

“I knew it was out there for both women and men,” he said. “I just didn’t want it to be me.”

Cheering them on was P.J. Cooksey, the all-time leading female jockey until Julie Krone surpassed her number of victories. Cooksey won 2,137 races and overcome a lot of hardship during her 25-year career in a male-dominated sport. But her biggest challenge and victory was over a breast-cancer diagnosis almost 10 years ago.

“It’s no longer a death sentence, especially with early detection,” Cooksey said. “It means a lot to me to see racing get behind this cause in such a big way, because you reach so many women in this state when you connect women and horses.”

Besides, she said, “I love all the pink!”

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Keeneland chiefs share behind-the-scenes stories

March 25, 2011

Bill Lear, left to right, a Keeneland trustee who was the moderator, former Keeneland Presidents Ted Bassett, Bill Greely and current President Nick Nicholson shared a laugh. Photo by Charles Bertram

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.”


How Kentucky became the Thoroughbred capital

September 29, 2010

Maryjean Wall learned a lot about the “Thoroughbred capital of the world” in 35 years as an award-winning racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. But it wasn’t until she retired and finished her doctorate in history at the University of Kentucky that Wall figured out how it came to be.

Kentucky’s domination of Thoroughbred breeding during the past century wasn’t really about the mineral-rich bluegrass and limestone water, although they certainly helped. It resulted from a chain of events during the turbulent decades after the Civil War that Kentuckians cleverly exploited.

Maryjean Wall. Photo by Mark Cornelison

It involved crafting an Old South image for Kentucky at the turn of the last century that appealed to the nation’s richest horsemen — and all but erased African- Americans from the picture. Wall pulls this story together in a new book, How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders (The University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)

I had heard pieces of this fascinating story for years. When Wall was still at the Herald-Leader and I was the managing editor, she would occasionally wander into my office and tell me about her research.

The finished book is a remarkable page-turner that earned glowing cover blurbs from some of the best historians of Kentucky and Thoroughbred racing. The book puts together many pieces of a complicated puzzle, and it is filled with well-documented stories that explain a lot about the evolution of Kentucky society and the horse industry.

Kentucky dominated Thoroughbred breeding in the early 1800s, thanks to its grass and water. But the Civil War devastated Kentucky’s economy; much breeding stock was killed, stolen by raiders or moved out of state for safe-keeping.

Northeast industrialists and Wall Street speculators emerged from the war as the nation’s richest men, and they embraced the “sport of kings.” They began buying the best mares and stallions and installing them on new farms in New York and New Jersey.

Kentucky breeders realized they were losing their grip on the industry and needed to attract that Northeast capital. But there was a problem: Kentucky had a well-deserved reputation for violence and lawlessness that scared away the tycoons who now dominated horse racing.

Kentucky was a Civil War border state that officially remained loyal to the Union. But as industrialization led to more anxiety and racism in American society, the public imagination was captured by “lost cause” nostalgia for an idealized Old South.

Until the 1890s, African-Americans had been some of the most successful jockeys and trainers. Jockey Isaac Murphy became a rich man. But as racism grew, blacks were forced out of all but the most menial horse racing jobs, not just in Kentucky but across the nation.

Wall writes that Kentucky breeders eagerly exploited this Old South myth to rebrand the state. Novelists and newspapermen started depicting a land of white-suited “Kentucky colonels” on columned verandas — a place where the living was easy for wealthy white people and black folks knew their place.

New York’s leading equine journal, Turf, Field and Farm, published by Lexington-born brothers Benjamin and Sanders Bruce, offered Northeast horsemen a steady drumbeat of Bluegrass boosterism.

That led several Northern moguls, including August Belmont and James Ben Ali Haggin, to start breeding farms near Lexington. Many more followed after anti-gambling forces outlawed racing in New York and many other states about 1910.

Modern Kentucky has many legacies from this period, including the large number of absentee farm owners and a professional class of bloodstock agents, trainers, veterinarians and others who have made horses a vital part of the state’s economy.

“I hope readers put this book down with a greater respect for the (horse) industry,” Wall said over lunch last week. Like many, Walls fears for the Thoroughbred industry’s future in Kentucky, but she thinks the solutions are more complex than the long fight over expanded gambling.

“It was never a given that the horse industry would stay here after the Civil War, and that is still relevant today,” Wall said. “The grass was never enough. And it’s still not enough.”

If you go

Maryjean Wall will discuss and sign How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders:

■ 4 p.m. Oct. 2, Morris book shop, 408 Southland Dr., Lexington

■ 7 p.m. Oct. 5, Woodford County Public Library, 115 N. Main St., Versailles

■ 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7, Kentucky Historical Society, 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort


Helping women, horses recover from hard track life

June 16, 2010

PARIS — Kim Rosier left home in Nebraska at age 13 and spent most of her life moving from one racetrack to another — grooming, walking, training, exercise riding, whatever needed to be done.

“It’s a rough life,” said Rosier, 53, who now has a bad back and other health problems because of her work. “When you get old … they have no use for you. What are you going to do, die in a tack room?”

What Rosier did in April was pack her belongings into a suitcase, board a bus in Hot Springs, Ark., and move to Bethlehem Farm and the Center for Women in Racing in Bourbon County.

The non-denominational Christian ministry helps horsewomen who need temporary housing, pastoral counseling or help with medical, legal or substance-abuse problems, or a safe haven from domestic violence. Some of the women care for retired and rescued race horses on the farm.

During the past five years, 37 women have lived at the center, the restored 1830s Wright-Barlow House near Paris, founder Sandra White said. An additional 112 — from stable hands to high-level Thoroughbred owners — have sought non-residential help.

The Wright-Barlow House is owned by Bourbon County and is leased to the Center for Women in Racing. White’s Bethlehem Farm is nearby.

“I developed a model to reach women who wouldn’t normally be reached by the church,” said White, who has a network of professionals to help with clients. “There’s so much need, we couldn’t begin to meet it.”

White has ambitious plans, which she will discuss June 25 at Horses and the Hearts of Women, the center’s fund-raiser. The event honors first lady Jane Beshear and includes a talk by jockey Otto Thorwarth, who appears in the movie Secretariat, which is scheduled to open in October.

White’s eventual goal is to acquire more land and create the Center for Renewal in Racing, a self-sustaining rehabilitation center for men and children as well as women and horses.

Much of the financial support for the Center for Women in Racing has come from White, her friends and donors in the industry. The center also sells gifts, including official Kentucky Derby silk scarves. The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture is helping White to develop a long-range strategic plan.

White, who grew up in a horse- owning Texas family with Kentucky roots, would seem an unlikely missionary and social worker. A former public relations executive in Houston, she sold her firm in 1990 and moved to Kentucky. She had always wanted to live on a horse farm — and she felt God’s call.

White earned a master’s degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in 1993 and worked with the Rev. Bobby Aldridge, a racetrack chaplain. “I had to spend a lot of time at the racetrack learning what it was like for the girls because I had never been allowed to be there,” she said. It was an eye-opening experience.

“It doesn’t matter how well you do in life. Stuff happens,” said White, a divorced mother of two teenagers and the incoming president of the Paris/Bourbon County Chamber of Commerce. “You may lose your business, you may lose your health.”

White bought a 50-acre farm on Bethlehem Road in 1995 and created a non-profit organization in 2000. In 2004, she opened the center in the Wright-Barlow House, where as many as six women can live in three upstairs bedrooms.

Bethlehem Farm also is home to a rotating cast of retired or rescued Thoroughbreds, and a gentle giant of a draft horse, a Percheron named Abram. Caring for them is good therapy for women at the center. The love of horses is something they all have in common.

Some women even come with their own. “We don’t separate girls from their animals, which makes us unique — and absolutely crazy,” White said. “But for many of these women, all they have is their horse or their dog.”

When White and Rosier showed me around Bethlehem Farm last week, it was a perfect summer afternoon: blue sky, plank fences and rolling meadows. Only horses, birds and our conversation disturbed the windswept silence.

Rosier said that living in such a peaceful place is helping her to mend her body and her spirit. “I feel safe here,” she said. “I’m a runner, but it’s like the first time in my life I haven’t wanted to run.”

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Rain doesn’t dampen Kentucky Derby crowd

May 1, 2010

Tawni Colmone of Portland, Ore., wasn’t expecting this when she asked her grandmother to take her to the Kentucky Derby. What was she expecting?

“Sun, actually,” said Colmone, 17. “And watching races instead of looking for a place to stay out of the rain.”

As the steady rain grew harder a couple of hours before the big race, Colmone and her grandmother, Karen Wilson, kept their hats dry by standing under a vendor’s tent. But they planned to go back to their bleacher seats to watch the Derby, no matter what.

“We’re having a ball,” said Wilson, who was more upbeat than her granddaughter. Maybe it was because she’s from Seattle and isn’t bothered by rain. Or maybe it was because she was holding a mint julep.

“It’s all thrilling,” she said of their first Derby. “It’s an experience we’ll always remember.”

Fortunately for the 155,804 people who packed Churchill Downs in the sixth-largest Derby crowd ever, the rain stopped and the sun popped out just in time for the 136th Run for the Roses.

It was a perfect break for one of the wettest Derby Days in years. As usual, many women were dressed to the nines. But thanks to clear plastic ponchos, everyone could still admire them while they stayed dry.

Women with especially large hats had to keep a hand — or two — on them so they wouldn’t blow away. Kevin Mangas of Lexington thought he had the perfect accessory for his linen suit: a hat shaped like a yellow duck.

Many spectators with outside seats sought refuge from the rain in the bowels of the grandstand, which resembled a New York subway platform at rush hour. Others simply swaddled themselves in plastic. Some women wore rubber boots; others soldiered on in stiletto heels.

The infield quickly became a sea of mud, which made it all the more fun for Atlantans Rachel Heller and her brother, John Loftin, to dance in. “I’m having a blast,” she said, showing off the red rubber boots she bought at Wal-Mart to go with her yellow hat.

“We wanted to experience the Derby; we’ve watched it on TV for years,” said Roland Carey of Chicago, who was sitting in lawn chairs in the infield with his sister, Raquel Carey, and niece, Tiffani Brown. “We’ve got ponchos. We’re ready. There’s a real spirit here, rain or shine.”

Nick Longobardi and Tina Brown, who live near Ft. Myers, Fla., didn’t seem to notice the rain as they stood in the infield mud and kissed. After I shot their picture and asked their names, Longobardi leaned over and whispered that he planned to ask Brown to marry him later in the day.

Keeping dry wasn’t a problem for those on Millionaire’s Row and other fancy suites atop the grandstand. They kept busy eating fine food and posing for photos with celebrities such as UK basketball Coach John Calipari and golfing great Arnold Palmer.

Six crew members from the Navy’s USS Kentucky, a ballistic missile submarine based near Seattle, took in the Derby as part of a goodwill trip to the state. They also planned to meet the governor and visit the Louisville Slugger museum and the universities of Kentucky and Louisville before heading back to the sub.

“This has been great,” said Lt. JG Richard Sanford, who is from Grand Rapids, Mich. “The people here have been so nice to us.”

For some, Derby Day rain was a mild distraction to the important business of the day: picking horses.

“I’ve had a lot of winners today,” said Charlotte Ross of Columbus, Ohio, who sat in an outside grandstand box, fancy green hat and heavy raincoat, absorbed in her Daily Racing Form. “Does the rain bother me? Oh, heavens no! I like the mudders.”


More Derby photos: hunting celebs and dodging rain

May 1, 2010

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Kentucky Derby Day: We can’t rest on our roses

May 1, 2010

The Kentucky Derby struts a fine line between the past and the future.

First run in 1875, it is America’s oldest continuous sporting event. It is the most famous horse race, the one every Thoroughbred owner wants to win. Some horsemen have spent careers, and much more than the $2 million purse, trying.

The Derby has become Kentucky’s global identity — second only to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Several years ago, I went to church with friends in a little town on the southern coast of Australia. As we were introduced to the priest on our way out, he asked where we were from. When I replied, “Kentucky,” his face lit up and he said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

Matt Winn, the P.T. Barnum of early 20th century horse racing, put the Derby on the map. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson helped keep it there with his alcohol-fueled essay about aspects of the Derby that can be “decadent and depraved.”

As we prepare for the 136th running of this two-minute horse race, it is worth pausing to ponder the Kentucky Derby’s mystique and what will keep it alive.

The Derby is, of course, tied to the fortunes of horse racing, whose popularity has been in decline for a generation. Many blame the industry for focusing too much on gambling revenue and too little on attracting new fans to the sport’s excitement and pageantry.

A few years ago, the public seemed to be losing interest in the Derby itself; television ratings hit bottom in 2000. That was a wakeup call for Churchill Downs, which invested big bucks in new facilities and worked harder to attract celebrities who weren’t already has-beens when today’s young potential racing fans were born.

NBC took over the Derby TV contract from ABC in 2001 and ratings began to climb. Last year, ratings were their best since 1992, making the Derby the second-most watched American sporting event after the Super Bowl. This year, Churchill Downs and NBC are trying to build public excitement with “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts of prep races.

NBC realized that nearly half of the Derby’s TV viewers are women, most of whom wouldn’t know a furlong from a trifecta. NBC and its Bravo network feature Derby content aimed at them: fashion, food and celebrities.

Churchill Downs and NBC now understand that the Derby can’t coast on its reputation. Nothing can. The Derby must constantly be renewed and reinvented. It must preserve tradition while at the same time making Southern charm hip and sophisticated. In short, the Derby must be special.

After all, name another sporting event where tens of thousands of male spectators willingly dress up — in pastels! What other event of any kind gives a woman the excuse to buy and wear a big, bodacious hat?

Beyond Churchill Downs’ gates, Derby Day is to Kentucky what St. Patrick’s Day is to Ireland. It is the one day each year when people who ordinarily couldn’t care less about Kentucky or horses look to see who is running, pick a favorite (probably based on its name) and maybe even place a bet.

It is the day when Kentuckians living elsewhere get homesick and throw a party. They cook burgoo and hot Browns and do something they know is just, plain wrong: they contaminate bourbon with sugar and mint.

Derby Day is about keeping a mostly mythical past alive, the present fresh and fun and the future one where people like that priest I met in Australia can hear the word Kentucky and instinctively say, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”


Keeneland’s Nicholson on horse industry’s future

April 3, 2010

As the spring racing meet was about to begin, Keeneland President Nick Nicholson briskly walked the grounds to make sure everything was ready.

At the track’s last turn, he inspected the yellow forsythia hedge and tall magnolia trees. (He knows there are exactly 73 of them.) He pointed out new bushes in the infield that look as if they have always been there, and a maple tree in the paddock that won’t thrive no matter what the groundskeepers do.

Nicholson drove a visitor to the back of the racecourse’s 1,200 acres, to a nursery where trimmed shrubs stand ready should any part of the green hedges that spell “Keeneland” in the infield suddenly turn brown.

“You’re looking at the next generation of the parking lot there,” he said, pointing to a row of tall trees in the nursery. They are gradually being moved out to the parking lot to replace the giant pin oaks as they succumb to age and insects.

What does this obsession with landscaping have to do with horse racing and Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry? Everything, Nicholson believes.

That’s because the future of the horse industry that is so vital to Kentucky’s image and economy depends on developing a larger, younger and more loyal fan base. Nicholson thinks the years-long battle over expanded gambling has distracted the industry from that fundamental issue.

“Expanded gaming has taken on more of a role than I think it should have; I would love to think of a way to get it behind us,” he said. “It will never be a long-term fix or a total solution. It would just provide some capital at a time when the industry needs capital. It’s a means to an end. It’s not the end.”

Horse racing once flourished, in part, because it was the only way many people could gamble legally. Now there are plenty of quicker and cheaper ways, including lotteries, slot machines, Internet betting and casinos. Everyone wants in on the action, including politicians eager to avoid raising taxes.

“I often feel like a ping-pong ball in other people’s ping-pong games,” Nicholson said.

Unlike corporate racetracks, whose ultimate goal is to provide shareholders with a maximum return on investment, Keeneland is a non-profit association. Since its founding in 1936, the mission has been to support Kentucky’s Thoroughbred breeding industry through racing and sales to an increasingly international market.

“It’s the marketplace where the farmers bring their crop to market,” he said. “The reason we race is to determine which horses to breed to which horses.”

The income and jobs the horse industry provides Kentucky — from breeders and blacksmiths to restaurant waiters and equine artists — ultimately depend on the popularity of horses and racing, Nicholson said. That’s why he spends much of his time on efforts to improve racing’s credibility, from the integrity of the betting system to improved safety for horses and riders.

“For the new fan base we’ll build the sport on, safety is a threshold issue,” he said. “You can’t say (frequent death and injury) is part of the sport anymore. You’ve got to be doing everything you can do to prevent it.”

That means cracking down on horse doping and investing in such things as artificial track surfaces that are easier on horses’ legs and high-tech padding in the starting gate.

Growing horse racing’s fan base means providing a total entertainment experience — everything from exciting sport to good food, comfortable seats, beautiful landscaping, easy parking and friendly customer service.

During an orientation last Wednesday for some of the hundreds of green-jacketed retirees who work customer-service jobs at each racing meet, Nicholson told them: “You’re the secret ingredient in the recipe for what makes Keeneland special.”

To appeal to potential young fans, horse racing must market itself more creatively and embrace technology. Keeneland now has new season and annual passes, live online race video, race replays for cell phones and updates for both experienced and novice fans via SMS text, Twitter and Facebook.

Discreet remote-control television cameras have been installed in the paddock, and there’s a new TV camera platform behind the winner’s circle. “We want to create more of a Game Day atmosphere,” Nicholson said. “We’d like each meet to be like an international festival.”

The TVG network will have daily coverage from Keeneland this month. Churchill Downs in Louisville has partnered with NBC Sports for “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts that will include Keeneland’s Bluegrass Stakes on April 10.

The future of the Thoroughbred industry, Nicholson believes, depends on attracting more fans who become passionate about horses, not just about gambling. It’s about the pageantry and excitement of the sport, the intellectual challenge of handicapping, the thrill of betting a winner and the pleasure of an afternoon with friends in a beautiful place that looks as if it has always been there.

“More days of cheap racing won’t do it,” he said. “We must work with like-minded tracks to create an appealing product. We can’t compete with a casino, nor should we want to.”

Keeneland President Nick Nicholson shows a visitor the nursery hidden among the association's 1,200 acres where mature trees and shrubs are grown for the racetrack's well-groomed grounds. Photo by Tom Eblen

Keeneland President Nick Nicholson shows a visitor the nursery where trees and shrubs are grown for the track's manicured landscape. Photo by Tom Eblen


Even ‘signature’ industries must support themselves

November 18, 2009

I’m worried about the financial state of journalism.

Digital technology has given news papers more readers than ever. Ironically, though, that technology means newspapers no longer are the dominant force in advertising, from where the money to support journalism has always come.

To make matters worse, most newspapers are owned by big corporations that went into debt to get bigger. They thought profits from advertising would make the debt affordable. They were wrong.

As a result, newspapers and newsrooms are dwindling in size. Radio and television newsrooms have been hit hard, too; they just don’t talk about it. But I worry most about newspapers, and not just because I work for one.

Newspapers have always done most of journalism’s heavy lifting, from investigations to public affairs reporting.

The Herald-Leader has gotten a lot of attention lately for exposing wasteful spending in some of Kentucky’s quasi- government agencies. But that kind of work is nothing new: Newspapers of all sizes have a long record of giving Kentucky’s powerful people and institutions some much-needed oversight.

Newspapers also play a big role in community-building. They do everything from covering neighborhood zoning disputes to printing wedding announcements.

You could call newspapers one of Kentucky’s “signature” industries. There’s at least one in each of Kentucky’s 120 counties, and almost all of them are struggling.

But I have an idea: What if newspapers could persuade the General Assembly to give them another way to replace the advertising revenue they used to have?

What if newspapers were allowed to put slot machines in some of that empty space where reporters and editors used to work? Big newspapers might even have room for full-blown casinos.

People who went to their local newspapers to gamble wouldn’t go out of state so much, so more of their money would stay in Kentucky.

Truthfully, though, much of that money would have stayed in Kentucky anyway. It just would have been spent on other things. So other than helping newspapers and the people associated with them, gambling revenue wouldn’t do a lot for Kentucky’s economy.

There would be other complications, too. For example, critics of slot machines and casinos say they attract crime and create other social costs.

There’s big money in addictive businesses like gambling, especially when they’re part of a government-sponsored monopoly.

Others would surely complain that it’s not fair for such a monopoly to benefit only one industry, like newspapers. At the least, TV and radio also would want a piece of the action. And it wouldn’t be long before politicians decided that government needed a bigger share of the take. After all, they created the monopoly, and they could just as easily take it away.

Even if newspapers could hang onto most of their new gambling revenue, I’m not sure it would be good for journalism in the long run.

Some media companies would use their cash infusion to invest in journalism — for a while. But corporate executives have a duty to maximize return for investors. If media companies could make big profits with slot machines and casinos, why would they want to subsidize journalism?

Even “signature” industries aren’t exempt from the laws of economics, no matter how special they think they are.

My guess is that journalism must find a way to adapt by attracting more loyal customers, doing a better job of marketing and selling its products, creating new business models and proving its value. It no longer can be totally dependent on something else, even advertising.

So maybe my newsroom gambling idea isn’t so good after all.

Besides, it’s not an original idea.

Another “signature” industry has tried this strategy in other states for years, with little evidence that slot machines and casinos are anything but a short-term fix for deeper economic issues.

Of course, that industry would have us think it’s a horse of a different color.

I wouldn’t bet on it.


Bicycle-racing friends have the Derby of a lifetime

May 4, 2009

Phil Needham didn’t make it to Churchill Downs to see the horse he bred and foaled pull a stunning upset in the Kentucky Derby.

He had his own race to win.

Mine That Bird became the second-biggest long shot ever to win the Derby, covering the 1¼ miles Saturday in a little more than two minutes and two seconds.

A few hours earlier, Needham, 67, rode his bicycle 123 miles in six hours to win his age group in the 18th annual Calvin’s Challenge road race, which drew 210 cyclists to Springfield, Ohio.

Had the Georgetown resident not wanted to be done in time to see the Derby on television, he would have entered the bicycle race’s main event, where he set the record for his age group two years ago by riding 225 miles in 12 hours.

Needham’s racing partner was Bena Halecky, 50, of Lexington, whose 123-mile performance won her age group. She was named the best overall female racer.

“I went up to Louisville last Monday to see the horse work and meet the new owners and trainer, and I was very pleased with what I saw,” Needham said. “But the chances, you know, were very remote, 50-1. So because we had trained and planned for this race, we went to Ohio.”

It wasn’t the first time Needham has been wrong about Mine That Bird.

The Birdstone colt was athletic and strong. Needham’s wife, Judy, thought the yearling was promising. But Needham and his business partners decided to sell him.

“When the partners agreed to sell, we had the right to buy, but we let him go,” Needham said. “He brought $9,500, which was next to nothing. People spend millions trying to create a Derby horse.”

Needham had better instincts about Mine That Bird’s mother.

When Needham and Bill Betz ended their thoroughbred partnership last year, they decided to sell the mare Mining My Own at auction. But when the bids started coming in, Needham thought they were too low. He jumped in and ended up buying her for $8,000.

Needham and Halecky had been friends for years. Halecky, a Procter & Gamble executive, had urged him to buy P&G stock. “He said, ‘If I’m going to invest in your business, you need to invest in mine,” Halecky said. So she kicked in $4,000 for half interest in the mare.

As Needham and Halecky raced Saturday, the Derby was on their minds. They considered it an omen that their race was called Calvin’s Challenge and Mine That Bird was being ridden by jockey Calvin Borel.

“And then we kept seeing birds in front of us on the road and I kept yelling to Bena, ‘Mine That Bird!’” Needham said.

After their race, Needham and Halecky headed back to Lexington, stopping at a sports bar near Cincinnati to eat dinner and watch the Derby. The place was noisy, and the big-screen TV was hard to see. So it took them a few moments to realize that the impossible had happened.

“Finally, Phil looked at me and said, ‘We just won the Kentucky Derby!’” Halecky said. Soon their cell phones were ringing as friends called the congratulate them.

Several of their Bluegrass Cycling Club friends, who gathered to watch the Derby at Keeneland, bet and won big on the horse. But Halecky had put only a $2 bet on him. Needham didn’t bet anything, although his wife, who had always known better, put down $100 to win.

“It was one of the best Saturdays that anyone could ever have,” Needham said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Since ending his partnership with Betz, Needham has formed Needham Thoroughbreds, with interest in about 15 horses, including Mining My Own.

Needham had planned to focus more on his cycling.

He took up the sport a decade ago and has been riding competitively for seven years. He was sixth in his age group in the 24-mile time trial at the 2007 masters nationals. A first-place finish in last year’s Bluegrass State Games made him eligible to compete this August at the Senior Games in San Francisco, where he plans to enter the time trial and the road race.

“My goal is to be number one in my age group in the country,” he said.

But his 40-year career in thoroughbreds seems to have gotten a second wind.

The $8,000 mare he and Halecky own could now be worth millions if they sell her — or even sell part ownership in her — and perhaps even more in the long run if they keep her and breed her well.

Mine That Bird was the mare’s first foal. She also has a 2-year-old in training and a foal by her side, and she is pregnant with another. At age 8, Mining My Own could have 15 more years of productive life ahead, Needham said.

“Bena wants to continue to own her and have the fun; my wife wants to continue to own her and have the fun,” he said. “My best business sense tells me to keep at least 25 percent. I have to review that with my partner. I have to let the dust settle a little.”

As the dust was beginning to settle Monday afternoon, and it was beginning to rain, Halecky and Needham met near Georgetown for a bike ride through the countryside. They said they planned to ride 20-something miles, maybe more. After all, they had a lot to talk about.


From winner to weather, an unpredictable Derby

May 2, 2009

It was a Kentucky Derby as hard to predict as the weather, with a field of long-shots, two high-profile scratches and a sloppy track.

So it seemed only fitting that Calvin Borel would charge to victory on 50-1 longshot Mine that Bird just a day after winning the Oaks aboard Rachel Alexandra by more than 20 lengths. Both were the second-biggest winning margins ever in their 135-year-old races.

Borel, whose childlike glee after winning his first Derby aboard Street Sense in 2007 captured the world’s affection, was an emotional volcano, rocking back and forth on his horse on the way to the winner’s circle and high-fiving everyone in sight.

His bettors were rocking, too: A $2 wager to win on Mine that Bird paid a cool $103.

It was a joyous outcome for a Derby that seemed all day to be dimmed by gloom about the weather, the economy and a recent history of horse breakdown tragedies.

Thankfully, no horses broke down. And despite predictions of a Derby downpour, the overnight rains ended before Churchill Downs’ gates opened. There was no need for the ponchos and plastic many spectators brought to the track. Temperatures remained cool but comfortable under lead-gray skies. There wasn’t even enough afternoon sunshine to burn the ample cleavage in the grandstands.

The only unhappy people seemed to be the drink vendors. Mint juleps were selling better than beer, but even they weren’t selling that well. One vendor’s mid-morning pitch: “Mint juleps! Mint juleps! Breakfast of champions.”

Fans posed for photos in front of the new statue honoring Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner who was euthanized after months of trying to recover from an injury in the Preakness.

Emotions were even more raw as an undercard race for fillies was renamed the Eight Belles, after the courageous filly who broke down and had to be destroyed at the end of last year’s race after running as hard as she could with the big boys. Before that race began, a bell tolled eight times.

Another cloud hanging over the Derby to some extent was the economic recession. The crowd of 153,563 was the seventh-largest, down from 157,700 last year. The previous day’s Oaks day attendance was 104,867, that event’s fourth-largest.

The betting-window lines were almost as long as those at the women’s restrooms, but it was hard to tell if people were betting as much as usual. Some vendors thought fans were cutting back on food and drink.

Nahru Lampkin of Detroit, who over the past 15 years has become something of a Derby celebrity by sitting in the infield playing bongo drums and rapping to passersby, said his tips were off about 20 percent.

He was working hard for every dollar pitched into his plastic bucket, rhyming about the pretty women walking by and offering advice to college students: “Stay in school, don’t be dumb or you could end up playing this drum.”

On the other end of the Derby’s social scale, gourmet smells filled the Jockey Suites, but the crowd seemed a little lighter than usual.  In the halls of rooms with brass door plates identifying them as the venues of banks, railroads and big horse farms, regulars said there was less corporate entertaining than in the recent past.

Still, the Derby attracted its share of the rich and famous. Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum of Dubai was here to see his two entries, Regal Ransom and Desert Party, fail to break his Derby jinx. And billionaire Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, was a guest in the Jockey Suites room of Louisville power couple Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, creators of the 21c Museum Hotel.

The red carpet walk included Motown music greats Aretha Franklin and Mary Wilson, several pro football players and Bobby Flay, the chef made famous by the Food Network.

And if that wasn’t enough celebrity food, two Bravo network Top Chef competitors demonstrated creative hot brown sandwich recipes in the Infield Club. And weight-loss titan Jenny Craig had a horse entered with the ironic name Chocolate Candy.

The Derby fashion parade was as colorful as ever. Some wore seersucker, linen and silk; others denim and khaki. A few showed up in super-hero leotards and tacky hats.

Pete Bush, a Louisville native who now lives in Baton Rouge, La., was decked out in his finest, hoping it wouldn’t rain and ruin his shiny white shoes. “I’d like to wear them more than once,” he said.

The grandstands and luxury suites were filled with shapely women in tight dresses and feathery hats almost big enough for their own Zip Code.

Cynthia Lundeen, who designs hats in Cleveland, Ohio, was in her element, posing for pictures in one of her own creations while her husband followed along in a tuxedo and a big hat of his own.

“On Derby day, everyone is so happy,” Lundeen said. “If the whole world could be like Derby day, the world would be a better place.”

Click on each photo to enlarge:


Would more gambling be good for Kentucky?

April 7, 2009

I’m not much of a gambler, but I don’t have anything against it.

I’ll probably lose a few dollars at Keeneland this month, and a few more dollars at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, and have fun doing it. Plus, I’ll know I did my small part to keep beautiful horses grazing in bluegrass fields.

I buy a lottery ticket every now and then — when the jackpot gets really big — even though I know I probably have a better chance of being struck by lightning than cashing the ticket.

With the economy hurting and state government revenues far below the budget, the governor is likely to call legislators back to Frankfort this summer to consider tax reform. I hope they create real reform, because we badly need a tax system that produces enough reliable revenue to meet Kentucky’s needs.

Odds are, the discussion will lead to more talk about expanded gambling. The drumbeat for slot machines at racetracks and casinos has been getting louder for years, and this economy is causing more people to listen.

I wish I knew the answer to the big question: Would more options for gambling be good or bad for Kentucky?

Let’s look at the pros and cons. We won’t get bogged down in numbers, because I think most of the numbers thrown around are little more than wild guesses. It’s like many forms of economic forecasting: They make weather forecasting look like exact science and voodoo almost seem respectable.

First, let’s take an easy argument: Slot machines or casinos would keep many Kentuckians from driving across the Ohio River to gamble. That’s probably true.

Here’s another argument: Expanded gambling would bring a lot of additional revenue to state government, perhaps reducing other tax burdens. That may be true, although I suspect it would generate a lot less money than supporters claim.

The trouble is that the extra revenue reflects only one side of the ledger. For each million of gambling revenue that comes into state coffers, how many million more must be shifted from the pockets of Kentucky gamblers into the pockets of the gambling industry?

What’s the social cost of expanded gambling? In other words, how many children will go unfed? How much rent and child support will go unpaid? Sure, some of that new state revenue will go to offset gambling’s collateral damage, but it probably won’t be enough. When has Kentucky ever adequately funded social services?

Will expanded gambling grow Kentucky’s economy? We will keep many of our current gamblers from taking their money across the Ohio River. We may even lure some gamblers to Kentucky from neighboring states.

But we won’t be making Kentucky’s economic pie much bigger; we’ll just be slicing it differently. For the most part, new money spent on gambling would be money now spent on something else in Kentucky.

For all of those reasons, I’ve never thought government-assisted gambling was good public policy. Besides, gambling sends taxpayers the same unrealistic message it sends gamblers: You don’t need to work for the success you want, you just need to have Lady Luck on your side every now and then.

The best argument I’ve seen for expanded gambling in Kentucky is that it would help keep those pretty horses in bluegrass fields — and all of the jobs and economic activity they create. Not to mention the positive image the horse industry gives Kentucky. Horses are our international brand — and a good one, at that.

Kentucky’s thoroughbred industry wants racetracks to be allowed to have slot machines to provide more money for higher race purses and breeder incentives. That’s because other states with expanded gambling are doing that, threatening Kentucky’s preeminence.

Anyone who has been the parent of a teenager is suspicious of the “but everyone else is doing it” argument. In this case, though, the problem seems legitimate, even if the proposed solution is, at best, a short-term fix.

For one thing, I think it’s naïve to think Kentucky’s thoroughbred industry will be able to keep gambling to itself. There’s just too much money at stake. Other powerful interests will want slot machines, or full casinos, or some of the gambling money the horse industry hopes to keep for race purses and breeder incentives.

Besides, what’s the long-term future of any industry that depends on something else to prop it up? If thoroughbred racing hopes to survive and thrive in the long term, it must create more fans. Other tracks must cater to fans the way Keeneland and Churchill Downs do. Racing must find a way to support itself, not find something else to support it.

Of course, all of that is easier said than done. And if it can be done, it won’t happen quickly. Racing, like the economy, is where it is. So what should we do now?

Would more options for gambling be good or bad for Kentucky?

It’s a question we all need to ask ourselves, ask each other and ask our elected leaders. Because if there were ever a year it could happen, I’ll bet this is it.


Spring comes to Keeneland early in the morning

April 3, 2009

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.

Click here to watch a video of the sights and sounds of Keeneland by Herald-Leader photojournalist David Stephenson

Click on photos below to enlarge.