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.


Lexington’s bones may return to Kentucky

March 14, 2009

Why did Central Kentucky become the center of thoroughbred breeding? One reason was Lexington — not the city, the horse.

Lexington was a big bay stallion, the best racer of his time and perhaps the best sire of all time. He was born here and spent most of his life here. But he has spent most of his death in storage at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and, well, Kentucky wants him back.

Lengthy negotiations are about complete to put Lexington’s reconstructed skeleton on display at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“It looks pretty good right now,” said museum curator Bill Cooke, who is expecting a call any day from Smithsonian conservators who must release Lexington’s skeleton, officially known as Catalogue No. 16020.

The effort began more than two years ago when the horse museum became a Smithsonian associate, which allows it to borrow artifacts. “The first thing I said was we want to bring Lexington back to Lexington,” Cooke said.

“I’ve always wanted to have (an exhibit) that traces the history of the thoroughbred in Kentucky,” he said. “How did we get to be the thoroughbred capital instead of Nashville or New Orleans or New York? To a large extent, Lexington determined that we did.”

Borrowing horse bones — even famous horse bones — wouldn’t seem that complicated. But bureaucracy is bureaucracy.

At the time, Lexington was on rare public display as part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. Then, that museum closed for lengthy renovations, and nobody seemed to know if Lexington would be needed when it reopened. Just a couple of months ago, officials decided he wouldn’t.

“They have been very supportive all the way along,” Cooke said of Smithsonian officials. “They believe in the project.”

The timing is good because on Tuesday — the horse Lexington’s 159th birthday — the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau will kick off a marketing campaign built around a famous painting of Lexington — with the great horse recolored Wildcat blue.

The horse-of-a-different-color idea is an eye-catching gimmick. But using the horse Lexington to promote the city Lexington is a natural, said Ellen Gregory, a public relations executive who helped develop the campaign.

Gregory said the more she researched the great horse the more obsessed she became with him, because he had connections to so many famous people and events.

Lexington was born in 1850 at the farm of Dr. Elisha Warfield, a prominent physician, horseman and entrepreneur who treated Mary Todd Lincoln’s mother, was a friend of Henry Clay and became known as “the father of the Kentucky turf.”

Lexington, originally named Darley, won six of his seven starts, becoming the third-leading money-winner up to that time. He was retired to stud in 1855 because he was going blind and stood for 20 years at Nantura and Woodburn farms near Midway.

As a stud, Lexington was taken out of Kentucky only twice — to St. Louis for an exhibition in 1859 and to Illinois for safe-keeping in 1865, when Confederates were raiding Kentucky horse farms.

Lexington was the nation’s leading sire for a record 16 years, and many of his offspring became top sires. The blind horse fathered 600 foals, more than 200 of whom became winners. His descendants included Aristides, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.

Another famous Lexington offspring was Cincinnati, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite horse. Grant rode Cincinnati to accept Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and let President Abraham Lincoln ride him several times.

Lexington was such a celebrity that people came to Woodburn Farm from all over the world just to see him. One was Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who later wrote that visiting the horse was like being “in the sacred presence of royalty.”

When Lexington died, the New York Times published a lengthy obituary. “He was probably more famous in his day than even Man O’ War and Secretariat were in their days,” Cooke said.

Smithsonian representatives came to Woodburn Farm on July 1, 1875, not knowing Lexington had died earlier in the day. A few months later, they arranged for his remains to be exhumed and shipped to Washington, where they have been ever since.

Once he gets the word, Cooke said he will raise the private money needed to move Lexington’s skeleton and build a special glass case for it. The Smithsonian generally makes such loans on a five-year renewing basis.

“Hopefully this is going to be a long-term deal,” Cooke said of Lexington’s homecoming. “As long as we’ve worked on it, it’s already a long-term deal.”