Lexington’s first Breeders’ Cup was a big success; how could the next one be even better?

November 7, 2015
At the Breeders' Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen

At the Breeders’ Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Kip Cornett said he and his wife were at an airport in June when he read on his cellphone a column by Barry Weisbord, president and co-publisher of Thoroughbred Daily News.

Weisbord wrote that he opposed a decision by his fellow Breeders’ Cup board members to bring Thoroughbred racing’s annual world championship here. He thought Keeneland and Lexington were simply too small to handle it.

After he finished reading, Cornett, president of Lexington’s Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, called Weisbord. “Just watch us,” he said.

Weisbord published a follow-up column last Wednesday.

“I have three words to say: I was wrong,” wrote Weisbord, who resigned from the Breeders’ Cup board last summer. “Oh, wait… three more: It was spectacular. In fact, I couldn’t be more impressed with how Keene land, the Breeders’ Cup and Lexington handled the event.”

After lavishing praise on everything about last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup in Lexington, Weisbord ended his column with this: “So… when are we going back?”

The consensus seems to be that Lexington hit a home run last weekend. That doesn’t mean everything went perfectly. Mistakes were made and lessons were learned for next time. But most people assume there will be a next time.

With the exception of a messy logistical screw-up Friday at the Maker’s Mark Bourbon Lounge, Keeneland’s performance was nearly flawless, from the races themselves to traffic management and customer service.

Nobody sweats the small stuff better than Keeneland. For example, by the end of each Kentucky Derby, patrons at Churchill Downs in Louisville are wading through a sea of trash. But throughout each day of Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland’s army of green-uniformed employees quietly walked around cleaning up. “Are you finished with your plate, Sir?”

Even though there were a record 50,155 people on the grounds Saturday and 44,947 Friday, it felt less crowded than a Bluegrass Stakes Day. One reason was that Keeneland spent $5 million adding a lot of temporary seating and hospitality space.

Even though track attendance was down 3,217 from last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, ticket revenue more than doubled because of the demand for high-end accommodations at Keeneland. On-track handle was $20,611,114, up slightly from last year.

For the outside world watching Breeders’ Cup on television, NBC Sports’ gorgeous telecast amounted to a two-hour commercial for Lexington.

“I’m incredibly pleased,” VisitLex President Mary Quinn Ramer said. “I heard from a lot of people that they were blown away by our hospitality. I feel like we have made lifelong friends as a result of this event.”

Some downtown restaurants, bars and food trucks grumbled that they had hoped to do better than they did, but others who planned well were quite pleased.

“We had a great experience,” said Ben Self of West Sixth Brewery, which released a Breeders’ Cup Brown ale and hosted a beer dinner and “Beers and Bets” event.

Deborah Long, who owns Dudley’s on Short, hosted a private event Friday that filled her restaurant. She offered a price fixe menu Saturday night.

“We were very pleased,” Long said. “I think the city did a great job. Keeneland did a spectacular job. From our perspective, I don’t see how it could have been improved.”

Long said her business was slow Monday and Tuesday nights. Rainy weather was partly to blame, she thinks, but a lot of the reason may have been that Breeders’ Cup visitors started arriving later than many people assumed.

Cornett, who chaired the Breeders’ Cup Festival, agrees. They may have planned too many events to try to entertain visitors and involve Lexington residents in Breeders’ Cup. After all, the week also included Halloween and the Wildcats’ football game with Tennessee.

“We maybe over-prepared by about 30 percent,” he said. “It wasn’t as needed as we thought it would be.”

Still, many of those events were well-attended, such as the Feeders’ Cup food truck event, which sold out its 3,000 tickets, and three Lyric Theatre performances of Frank X Walker’s play about the great black jockey Isaac Murphy.

Cornett said organizers also could have spent less time recruiting private homes for visitors, some of which went unused. Many visitors who came on private jets spent less time in Lexington than expected. Others found their own accommodations through Airbnb.com.

As with the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010, the Breeders’ Cup showed that Lexington can host a big international event with aplomb.

“There are a lot of things everyone learned that will make it easier the next time around,” Cornett said. “But everyone in Lexington should be proud of what they did. We did everything we could to show we’re a world-class city, and it worked.”


Faces at the races: photos from Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup

October 31, 2015

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Hitches seem few as Keeneland shines during its first Breeders’ Cup

October 30, 2015
An outrider and police officer exchange glances in the Keeneland paddock before the first race on Breeders' Cup day Friday. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

An outrider and police officer exchange glances in the Keeneland paddock before the first race on Breeders’ Cup day Friday. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

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.”

 

Martha and Tony Rezeli of Saylorsburg, Pa., checked out the program Friday at Keeneland, where they were attending their first Breeders' Cup. "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 maybe we'll do better here." Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Martha and Tony Rezeli of Saylorsburg, Pa., checked out the program Friday at Keeneland, where they were attending their first Breeders’ Cup. “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 maybe we’ll do better here.” 

Margalee Conlee of Lexington, left, takes a selfie of her and Melissa Turner of Prestonsburg at Keeneland on Friday during the first day of Breeders' Cup. The two are hat designers. Their business is called Headturners. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Margalee Conlee of Lexington, left, takes a selfie of her and Melissa Turner of Prestonsburg at Keeneland on Friday during the first day of Breeders’ Cup. The two are hat designers. Their business is called Headturners. 

 

 


Crowds begin pouring into Keeneland for Breeders’ Cup

October 30, 2015
As soon as Keeneland's gates opened Friday morning, fans began posing at the Breeders' Cup statue installed in the paddock for the two-day world championship of Thoroughbred racing. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comSoo

As soon as Keeneland’s gates opened Friday morning, fans began posing at the Breeders’ Cup statue installed in the paddock for the two-day world championship of Thoroughbred racing. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Keeneland usher Ezra Click of Lexington waited the crowds early Friday morning during the first day of the Breeders' Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Keeneland usher Ezra Click of Lexington waited the crowds early Friday morning during the first day of the Breeders’ Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Rob Krebs, left, of Berkeley, Calif., and Peter Valencia of Cleveland, Ohio, snagged a bench in the general admission section of Keeneland from which to watch the first day of Breeders' Cup. The avid horse players have been friends since high school. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Rob Krebs, left, of Berkeley, Calif., and Peter Valencia of Cleveland, Ohio, snagged a bench in the general admission section of Keeneland from which to watch the first day of Breeders’ Cup. The avid horse players have been friends since high school. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com


At the Red Mile, horse racing’s ‘evolution’ looks like a casino

September 26, 2015
Instant racing machines in Lexington's first legal gambling parlor at Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram

Instant racing machines at the Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram

 

I went to the Red Mile last week to check out what the 140-year-old harness track calls “The Evolution of Horse Racing.”

It was sunny and mild, the kind of afternoon I hope for each April and October so I can slip away to Keeneland for a few hours. I love to watch the horses run, place a few bets and soak up the atmosphere.

This afternoon, the weather didn’t matter. Horse racing had evolved indoors. I found a cavernous hall filled with 902 machines that flashed and chimed amid pulsing background music.

The man at the front desk said this $42 million facility had been busy since it opened Sept. 12. I must have caught a lull. There were only a couple of dozen patrons, an even mix of men and women, blacks and whites. Most were older than me. A few had canes; at least two used walkers.

The next thing I noticed was there were no horses. Amazing! Horse racing had evolved to the point that horses were no longer necessary.

When I walked in, the man at the front desk issued me a “rewards” card on a red lanyard, an instruction sheet and a $5 voucher. I chose a machine with a comfy seat near the bar and got started.

That’s when I saw horses, or at least grainy images of them. They were in videos that flashed briefly on the machine’s tiny screen after I placed a bet and pushed a few buttons.

The machines looked like slots. The hall looked like a casino. I had to remind myself that this joint venture of the Red Mile and Keeneland was really The Evolution of Horse Racing, presumably “as it was meant to be.”

What distinguishes these machines from slots, proponents say, is that they are forms of pari-mutuel wagering, and winners are chosen by the outcome of thousands of previously run horse races rather than by random number generators.

I placed a bet on the machine and chose my numbers — the order of finish for three horses that once raced against one another. To help me choose, I could look at charts indicating past performances of the horse, jockey and trainer.

I lost my first couple of free voucher dollars trying to figure out how the machine worked. On my third bet, lights flashed and bells clanged and the machine told me I was a winner. I printed a voucher and discovered I had won $84, although I’m not sure how.

I tried a couple more machines before deciding it was a good time to cash my voucher and call it a day.

The Family Foundation, a conservative activist group, has gone to court to challenge the legality of these “historical racing” machines. The case before Franklin Circuit Court is complex, and it likely will take a couple of years to decide.

The legal question comes down to whether these machines are pari-mutuel wagering, which is legal in Kentucky, or slots, which are not. Can something that looks and quacks like a duck actually be an evolved horse?

If the tracks lose in court, they may have recovered their investment by then. The General Assembly also could change the law. Legislators may not want to give up this new source of tax revenue, not to mention the 200 new jobs at the Red Mile and more at facilities near Henderson and Franklin.

I have nothing against gambling, when it is enjoyed responsibly by people who can afford it. But from a public policy standpoint, gambling encourages a “something for nothing” mentality among politicians and voters that a modern, progressive state can be created without raising anyone’s taxes.

Many horse people argue that expanded gambling revenue is essential to the survival of their industry. I understand their concern. Without the promise of this new facility, the Red Mile probably would have been redeveloped years ago. Neither harness nor Thoroughbred racing are as popular as they once were.

However, the experiences of other states show that when expanded-gambling revenue starts flowing, politicians lose interest in subsidizing the horse industry.

There are no easy answers to preserving Kentucky’s signature horse industry. But horsemen could take pointers from the once-struggling and now-thriving bourbon whiskey industry: Improve your product and do a better job of marketing to make it more popular.

Otherwise, it can be a fine line between evolution and devolution.


Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to Visitlex.com, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park (Kyhorsepark.com) or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information: Keeneland.com.

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information: Kybourbontrail.com.

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar: Bgcycling.net.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (lowerhowardscreek.org), Floracliff Nature Sanctuary (Floracliff.org) and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: Bluegrasswoodland.com or email campmeet@gmail.com.

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information: Venerabletrees.org.

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 


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.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


Winter’s last gasp reinforces the joy of springtime in Kentucky

April 15, 2014

Mahan-KeenelandA horse is exercised at Keeneland after Tuesday’s snow. Photo by Mark Mahan. Below, snow melts off a tulip at Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

 

We should have known this winter would not give up easily. But I just smiled when I woke up Tuesday to that little last gasp of a snow storm.

I smiled because I had already seen, felt and smelled the warm promise of spring. I had a sunburn from the weekend. And I knew that there is no better place to enjoy springtime than in Kentucky.

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the new season arrive on the tiny blooms of Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and rare snow trillium. The rugged creeks that feed into the Kentucky River Palisades harbor a unique array of spring wildflowers, both common and endangered.

Wildflower hikes are offered by such places as the Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve and the Salato Wildlife Education Center. But opportunities are limited, and the flowers are fleeting.

More common wildflowers can be enjoyed on lawns whose owners eschew toxic chemicals. My yard is awash in purple violets. The grassy median that divides my street has patches of white spring beauties. The grounds at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, have been so covered with spring beauties that it looked as if the snow had arrived there early.

TulipThe lilac bushes beside my front porch have made it a fragrant place to relax on warm evenings and watch my neighbors dust off their bicycles and take a spin.

Last weekend was a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with some of my cycling friends. Sunshine and perfect temperatures made it feel like late May, although our out-of-shape bodies kept reminding us that it was only early April.

We rode a 35-mile loop Saturday past manicured horse farms in Fayette, Scott and Bourbon counties, then enjoyed a late lunch at Windy Corner Market, where a steady line of customers stretched out the door for hours.

Sunday’s ride was more ambitious: 50-something hilly miles from our Lexington homes to Berea. A few steep climbs and a constant headwind showed who had and who had not kept in shape over the winter. I had not. As we crossed the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry, a crew member serenaded us with his guitar. Birds took over the musical duties as we pedaled along Tate’s Creek on the other side, admiring redbud trees in full bloom.

We stopped for lunch at Acres of Land winery, the road up to which required climbing acres of steep asphalt. We needed the rest before continuing on to Boone Tavern for a round of iced tea on the veranda.

Madison County showed a visiting friend from Atlanta a more rugged view of Bluegrass beauty than he had seen the day before. Sadly, though, many back roads were littered with plastic bottles and fast-food cups tossed from passing vehicles. As Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

While we were biking, many others were enjoying one of my favorite spring venues, Keeneland Race Course. Saturday’s weather made it no surprise that nearly 40,000 people attended the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the second-largest crowd in history.

I haven’t been to the races yet this season, but I have been to Keeneland. When I can manage to pull myself out of bed an hour before daylight, I like to go out there, walk around the backside and watch exercise riders warm up that day’s competitors on the track. It is one of the best free shows in Lexington.

As the rising sun fully illuminates forsythia and dogwood, and as Keeneland’s equine athletes are being cooled off and groomed, I walk to the Track Kitchen for the sort of delicious breakfast cardiologists disapprove of.

As I finish writing this, the last remnants of the snow have melted off my front yard. The budding leaves on my tulip poplar and the giant sycamore across the street look twice as big as they were yesterday. It will be at least six months before they turn color and fall, big as dinner plates.

So long, winter. Don’t be in any hurry to come back.

 


New Keeneland president wants to strengthen ties to community

October 1, 2012

Bill Thomason in the Keeneland Race Course paddock. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

Bill Thomason was on Keeneland‘s payroll for only a couple of years before he was tapped to become the association’s seventh president. But, without realizing it, he had been training for the job for more than three decades.

After finishing degrees in accounting and business at the University of Kentucky, Thomason went to work for the accounting firm Alexander Grant & Co. Soon, he was spending most of his time working for one client: Mill Ridge Farm.

Thomason left the firm in 1980 to become financial and administrative manager at Mill Ridge, where he worked closely for 28 years with owner Alice Chandler, a Thoroughbred industry leader and a daughter of Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley.

“We just really hit it off,” Thomason said. “What a great way to get involved in the business, to have a mentor like her. The way that she looked at life and the business, so forward-thinking. The way that she looked at the importance of the horse, which was the priority the farm set for everything we did. The way she thought through things, the way we thought through things together.”

Thomason, 56, spent those years racing and consigning horses for sale at Keeneland. But he said it wasn’t until he joined the organization as vice president and chief financial officer in 2010 that he realized how similar Chandler’s values were to Keeneland’s, especially when it came to service in the industry and community.

“I thought I knew Keene land from the outside, but I had no idea until I got in here the pride that everybody takes in this place and the obligation that they feel to this community,” he said.

Thomason has caught some lucky breaks since succeeding Nick Nicholson as president on Sept. 1. The Thoroughbred business is bouncing back after several tough years. Average and median prices were up by double-digit percentages during Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale. Keeneland says the 3,958 horses catalogued for the November Breeding Stock Sale show high quality.

I caught up with Thomason during the busy break between the September sale and the fall racing meet, which begins Friday. I wanted to hear his thoughts about Keeneland as a community institution, a role he said has changed little since Headley and others built the track 75 years ago during the Great Depression.

The founders’ goal was to create one of the world’s best race courses, serving the “horse capital of the world” with both quality entertainment and charitable giving.

The Keeneland Foundation has given more than $18 million in direct contributions to local charities over the years, although contributions have been down in recent years. With the economy improving, Thomason wants to do more, including bringing more segments of the community into Keeneland’s facilities.

“We’ve got 1,100 acres of an arboretum here that’s open 365 days a year; there are no gates and locks,” he said. “It’s a place the community feels an ownership in, and we take great pride in that.”

Keeneland now hosts several community events, including Picnic with the Pops and more than a dozen annual charity runs and walks. One of the biggest ones yet is planned for March 30, when the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon comes to Lexington. Thomason hopes to open the Keeneland Entertainment Center and recently restored Keene Mansion to more local groups.

Keeneland has formed a partnership with Greg Ladd of Cross Gate Gallery to host an annual sporting art auction, beginning in the fall of 2013, Thomason said. Keeneland hopes to leverage its auction staff and well-heeled clientele to eventually make it the world’s premier auction for equine art.

“We think it’s a natural fit for Keeneland,” Thomason said. Keeneland’s share of the profits will go to charity.

There also is a new Keeneland Library and Museum Foundation, created to accept donated collections and raise money to support and increase public access to the Keeneland Library’s vast equine archives. For example, the Daily Racing Form archives are being digitized for easier public access.

“We’re finding a lot of unique ways to use our existing plant for the benefit of community groups, to continue to let them touch this place and to be involved with the horse,” he said. “We are simply the caretakers of this very special place for the community and the industry. That’s how we see our role here.”

Bill Thomason

Background: Born September 1956; raised in London

Education: Bachelor of science in accounting, 1977, and MBA, 1978, both from University of Kentucky

Family: Wife, Barbara, and three daughters, Marcie (1980-2006), Melissa and Laura.

Community involvement: Former chairman, Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce (now Commerce Lexington) and First United Methodist Church board. Board service has included Bluegrass Tomorrow, Volunteer Center of the Bluegrass, Greenspace Commission, Lexington Philharmonic.

 

 


Keeneland shows the value of good planning, design

October 11, 2011

Keeneland is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, a colorful pageant of fast horses and the people who come from everywhere to watch them run.

Keeneland also is a place that can teach many lessons about success. Now celebrating its 75th year, the organization is a model of excellence in racing, hospitality, marketing, community investment, strategic vision, long-range planning and good design.

Those last three lessons were on my mind over the weekend, as Keeneland began its fall racing meet. Perhaps that was because I was there with a group of architects and planners brought together by the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Among them was Henk Ovink, a top planner for the government of the Netherlands, a compact nation that does urban planning as well as any on Earth. Ovink has visited Lexington many times, but this was his first time at Keeneland.

He was impressed.

“It is so well done,” Ovink said as he gazed at the track and the farmland beyond. “They have integrated a very big facility beautifully into the landscape.

“If you can do it with this, you can do it with a residential development,” he said. “It isn’t that hard. You just have to pay attention to what you are doing.”

That got me to thinking about one of Lexington’s ironies.

Keeneland might be the ultimate expression of Lexington’s most famous attribute: a uniquely beautiful landscape of horse farms, bounded by stacked-stone and wood-plank fences and dotted with elegant mansions and handsome barns. It is an environment that makes the most of Central Kentucky’s natural beauty.

But it is a built environment — no more natural or accidental than the colorful chaos of an English garden.

The irony is that Lexingtonians, surrounded by this well-designed rural landscape, have paid so little attention to the design and quality of their urban landscape. Unlike Louisville or Cincinnati, this city has little history of appreciating good, innovative architecture, and it has a hit-and-miss record of urban planning.

Since the 1940s, dozens of beautiful downtown buildings have been torn down for parking lots, or replaced by bland boxes of concrete and glass. Lexington has some lovely suburban neighborhoods — but many more cookie-cutter subdivisions of vinyl-clad boxes and cheaply built apartments, some of which quickly became slums.

Local developers have often seen design professionals as costs to be cut rather than as resources to be used to improve functionality and create both beauty and long-term value. Until recently, few residents or politicians objected when Lexington’s landscape was littered with generic junk. “Oh, well, it’s their property,” people would say, rather than, “Is this how we want our city to look?”

As Ovink was admiring Keeneland, I told him some of what track president Nick Nicholson has told me about the thought, planning and attention to detail that his organization puts into the design and care of the buildings and grounds.

Nothing about Keeneland’s look happens by accident, whether it is the architecture of a building, the placement of a bush or the trimming of a tree. Visitors might not realize it, but design excellence is at the heart of the Keeneland experience.

Of course, Keeneland has a lot of money to work with. But that hasn’t always been the case. When the founders turned Jack Keene’s stables into a racetrack, they did it on a shoestring budget during the Great Depression. Still, from the beginning, Keeneland’s leaders focused on excellence and long-term value.

This is a good time to think about Keeneland’s example. One Urban County Council task force is studying opportunities for urban infill and redevelopment, and another is looking at incorporating “design excellence” into the city’s planning and zoning laws and processes.

Meanwhile, a community task force is creating a master plan for the redevelopment of 46 underused acres of city-owned property downtown that includes Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. It is a thoughtful process, and the task force has engaged some world-class design professionals to consider the possibilities.

Quality costs more than junk, but good design doesn’t have to be expensive. As much as anything, it is the result of careful thought and good planning. Will Lexingtonians finally insist on an urban landscape worthy of the rural one that surrounds it?


Founder’s daughters recall Keeneland’s early years

March 29, 2011

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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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.”


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


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.