The Surest Sign of Spring: Keeneland’s Spring Thoroughbred Racing Opens Today in Kentucky

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Watch the 2012 television commercial for the brief spring race meet at beautiful Keeneland outside Lexington, Kentucky. Racing begins today!

No one was surprised last week when The Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA) announced that, for the fourth consecutive year, Keeneland in Kentucky is the number-one-rated Thoroughbred racetrack in North America.

Keeneland is one of North America’s “boutique” racing meets. Across a manicured landscape that looks like it could only exist in a painting, some of America’s finest trainers and horses enjoy just three weeks of racing each spring and fall. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy a day of racing in a setting like Keeneland?

Keeneland is located on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky. Many people find it an easy landmark to find, since it is right across the street from Lexington’s Bluegrass Airport and next to the beautiful barns of Calumet Farm, with their famous red trim suggestive of Calumet baking powder tins.

You don’t need many reminders of where you are when you’re visiting Keeneland. It’s like no other racetrack. You’ll feel like you’re in a park. Or a post card. Last year the track celebrated its 75th anniversary.

Today’s the day in Kentucky: the first day of racing at Keeneland.

Can’t make it to Keeneland? Keep your eye on the track via the Keeneland live web cam! The sun is shining in the Bluegrass today and you can (sort of) be there! When racing actually begins in the afternoon, each race is livestreamed on the web site.

The biggest race–among many big races–will be next weekend’s $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (Grade 1), one of the major prep races for next month’s $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). This year’s Derby warmup has a crowd-favorite in last year’s Eclipse Award-winning juvenile champion Hansen, an almost-white colt who won the Gotham at Aqueduct easily and is currently the favorite for the Derby. He’s already stabled at Churchill Downs, but will van up the highway to Keeneland to race on the Polytrack surface there.

Hansen beat the not-always-invincible but intriguingly talented Union Rags in the 2011 Breeders Cup Juvenile. If everyone stays healthy and sound, the two will meet again in the Derby, along with California star Creative Cause (who is also a gray) and several other promising colts. This weekend’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct should add some more factors to the Derby watch.

Maybe we can’t all be at Keeneland, but we can watch from home this year. Keeneland’s two signature races for three-year-olds in 2012 – the $500,000 Central Bank Ashland (G1) for three-year-old fillies on April 7 and the Blue Grass on April 14 – will be televised live on the NBC Sports Group, thanks to a collaboration between NBC, The Jockey Club, Keeneland and five other racetracks.

The program, called “Road to the Kentucky Derby,” features six major prep races leading up to the Derby on May 5.

There are so many must-do things on a horse lover’s list. Whether you are a racing fan, a history fan, or just a horse fan, put visiting Keeneland in the spring on your list. There’s a “breakfast at the track” program, track tours, a magnificent library and a gift shop of horse-related gifts and clothing that will burn right through your credit card.

Most of all, Keeneland burns right through your memories of winter. The place is alive with new blossoms, new fashions and most of all, new hope. May your route through life always pass through places like Keeneland, even if all you do is watch it on tv.

I wish every Thoroughbred in the country could be treated as if it was one of the lucky ones enjoying this spring meet at Keeneland: they may not all be showered in apple blossoms and serenaded by songbirds, but racing needs to look to Keeneland for a re-infusion of hope and a realization that people do love to go to the races and be around Thoroughbreds.

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If it looks like it’s snowing in these vignettes of early morning at Keeneland it’s just apple or cherry tree blossoms floating through the air. Listen to the birds! Keeneland is a magical place.

Photo credits: Keeneland topiary by Lisa Koocheekoo, racing fans on apron by Abhijit Patil, Polytrack surface closeup by Dan Hancock, saddle cloth and bay with flowering trees by David Ohmer. Thank you!

Note: HANA standings for racetracks for 2012: 1. Keeneland (last year 1st); 2.Tampa Bay Downs (last year 3rd); 3. Gulfstream Park (last year 5th); 4. Churchill Downs (last year 2nd); and 5. Oaklawn Park (last year 9th).

My favorites are Saratoga, Keeneland, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs and Belmont…although I’d like to visit them all.? Oaklawn is high on my list of places to go!




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