Kentucky is the undisputed mecca of the thoroughbred industry in the U.S., both for breeding and racing. Each year since 1875 this truth has been reaffirmed on the first Saturday in May, when sport’s brightest spotlight turns toward Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Its reputation as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports” is well-deserved. The same goes for the race’s record attendance numbers, which eclipse both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. But those who follow the sport beyond the Julep-fueled weekend of seersuckers and sundresses know that much of the prestigious race’s success is owed to another place a mere 80 miles east.
Keeneland, located in Lexington, is a fundamentally different kind of race track, purposefully conceived to serve as a lasting monument to the sport’s heritage and tradition. As the story goes, after the closing of the Kentucky Association Track in 1933 during the thick of the Great Depression, “Thoroughbred city” was suddenly trackless for the first time in a century. While much of the country wandered adrift in search of food, shelter and work, a committee of 10 local industry veterans hatched a plan to create America’s first not-for-profit track, one that would serve the community and reinvest proceeds into improving the grounds and fattening race purses.
If you’ve ever seen 2003’s Seabiscuit, you’ve seen the pristine setting firsthand, in addition to The Dude in period costume, as most of the racing scenes were filmed there.
While few business moves set in the backdrop of the Great Depression could ever claim perfect timing, the decision to act during such a period of economic chaos proved fruitful for the group. Jack Keene, a world-renowned breeder who had kicked off his goal to build a private racing and training facility during the high of the roaring 20’s before things went sour, was willing to part with his stillborn dream for a bargain. He had already constructed a foundation with potential in the form of a mile-and-a-furlong track and a stone castle and barn built from limestone mined in Kentucky, but work was still required to get the track up and running in 1936. Keeneland’s role as a beacon for the sport soon expanded in 1939, thanks to the donation of over 2,300 volumes on the sport of horse racing by Lexington businessman William Arnold Hangar, who sowed the seed for the Keeneland library, which today stands as one of the world’s largest research and reference repositories on thoroughbreds.
The next time hormones call foul play on your impeccable dating manners, put yourself in the unfortunate equine shoes of the lowly Teaser Stallion. In the blood-based caste system of the horse racing world, Teaser Stallions, lacking the genes and physical prowess of the thoroughbred elite, are put to work in the breeding process as cat-callers of sorts, gauging a mare’s breeding readiness. This practice was developed as a form of investment protection, since unreceptive mares can deal serious damage to prized studs in the form of bites and kicks if love isn’t in the air. So, from behind their locked pens, teasers horses can only see eligible mares — but never touch. The real performance is left to the studs, who can be put into service as many as three times a day in prime season. Still feel like whining?
Though the track has received its fair share of updates and improvements over the decades, little has changed aesthetically. Keeneland was officially designated a national historic landmark in 1986, and if you’ve ever seen 2003’s Seabiscuit, you’ve seen the pristine setting firsthand, in addition to The Dude in period costume, as most of the racing scenes were filmed there. And while other venues funnel fame vicariously from the prestige of their races, in 2009 the Horseplayers Association of North America introduced a rating system of all of the country’s 65 Thoroughbred tracks, and ranked Keeneland at the very top.
As the home today for 11 grade one races, with the $750,000-purse Toyota Blue Grass Stakes being the most well-known of the bunch, Keeneland is responsible for its fair share of fortune making. Experienced handicappers wisely mull over its Polytrack surface, added in 2006, since comparing any horse’s past success on other tracks is much less of a success indicator here. If you ever find yourself at a Keeneland betting terminal ready to wager on a horse racing the main track for the first time, experts recommend looking at previous performances on other synthetic surfaces or turf as a last resort for one gauge of how they might fair. There’s plenty more pointers to be found on the Jockey Club’s sponsored website, Followhorseracing..
But the money exchanged from the track’s two month-long sessions of races in April and October pales in comparison to the global wealth attracted to its four major horse auctions each year. Its signature events include the September Yearling sales and the November Breeding Stock Sale; it is in this capacity as the world’s largest thoroughbred auction house that Keeneland’s hands can be spied plotting the course of the entire industry’s future. Like migrant workers heading to Napa Valley’s grape harvest, horse handlers, showers and various industry specialists flock to Lexington on the coattails of speculative buyers and sellers, such as Sheik Mo (a.k.a Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai), before disappearing just as quickly to the next job. History has proved Keeneland’s unparalleled role in the blood stock arbitrage of horse racing, as the venue that’s sold more champions and stake winners than any other company — and accounted for nearly half of all winners of Triple Crown classic racers during the past decade, including 2012 Derby winner I’ll Have Another as well as 2011’s Animal Kingdom.
Horse sales were considered by Keeneland’s founders during its inception, but like landing the grounds from Jack Keene, it was a stroke of luck, in the form of a wartime restriction on transport by rail in 1943, that forced Kentucky-based breeders to look for an alternative showcase for their yearlings beside Saratoga New York. The fact that the inaugural Keeneland sale produced the 1945 Kentucky Derby winner, Hoop Jr., didn’t hurt either.
Passionate billionaires and blue bloods from around the globe are natural fixtures in this particular slice of the 1% scene, but there’s an entire ecosystem surrounding the sport as well that few outsiders understand.
Keeneland’s repeated success as a track and marketplace is owed to its fortunate position in the heart of “the horse capital of the world”. From Calumet Farms in the 1940s to more modern breeding powerhouse farms, which include names like Stonestreet, Overbrook, Winstar, Spendthift as well as relative newcomer Darley (one of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s various horse farms around the world), Lexington and its surrounding lands are truly the birthplace of champions.
Passionate billionaires and blue bloods from around the globe are natural fixtures in this particular slice of the 1% scene, but there’s an entire ecosystem surrounding the sport as well that few outsiders understand. During our time in Lexington, we had the privilege to learn some of the ins and out of the industry from Price and Headley Bell, Bloodstock agents at Nicoma Bloodstock and owners of Mill Ridge farm (shown in photos 13-19 in the slideshow above), whose family also helped originally found Keeneland. As farm owners, bloodstock agents and longtime horsemen, the team at Nicoma is involved in nearly every aspect of the business, including breeding, raising, training, boarding and selling horses. For those looking to enter the complex world of horse ownership, teams like the Bell’s serve as steady and experienced hands for hire — helping to grow the industry beyond the well worn tracks established by its high profile stars.
Despite the advances in science, breeding and technology that have transformed the sport over time, there is still an elusive element to success in this industry that cannot be formulated or bought. It’s likely this hunt for the intangible that fuels personas such as Sheik Mohammed to continue to invest hundreds of millions without a Derby winner yet to show for it. After spending a weekend investigating the mysteries, quirks and eccentricities of the Bluegrass state’s storied pastime, one truth is perfectly clear: the Derby may be the face of American horse racing, but Keeneland is its heart.