Horse Racing Reflections: How Keeneland Built the Boutique Track

The horse racing industry can take some pointers from the renowned Keeneland racecourse in Lexington, Ky.

Updated: April 11, 2019 • 10:55 AM ET

Keeneland racecourse is one of the majestic in horse racing.

So much of the bloviating, conversing and tweeting about American horse racing seems to be geared toward the impending doom and demise of a sport that is out of touch with the 21st century. The imagery of storm clouds rolling in creates the impression that the industry must be dragged across the wire into a new era or, on the other end of the spectrum, cease to exist.

It reminds of that scene in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 dystopian film “Interstellar,” which is set in the not-so-distant future. As the human race steadily heads towards starvation due to crop failure, some of the main characters attend a baseball game as a diversion. It’s inferred from the banner in center field that this is a traveling show with stops in the Midwest starring the New York Yankees, reminding people of a bygone past that will never return.

John Lithgow’s character bemoans the fact that back in his day, there were real ballplayers, not these bums. As a ball is hit, one of the fielders watches the sky as a massive storm blowing dust engulfs the stadium. Everyone scatters like ants in a rainstorm.

Thinking about the future, I wonder what the horse track will look like in say, 2050 or 2075? Much different from today, or a dystopian nightmare?

Will it all be what they call historical racing, where screens display races that were run back in the 1990s from say, Santa Anita or some other track? Perhaps there will be a scandal where the grandchildren of some millennials build an algorithm that accesses old Equibase files to determine what race is shown. Millions are pilfered, making Biff Tannen’s scheme look like pocket change.

Satire aside, I think this question of what the game will look like is real.

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Most assuredly, we’ll most certainly all hang separately, to quote Benjamin Franklin, if some type of nationalization of this sport does not occur. As I see it, and others might tend to agree, the only model that seems to work in this dust storm is the boutique approach. The word makes me a little uneasy, I must admit. Yet, it’s applicable considering the current and future state of affairs.

Let’s face it horse racing community, if something doesn’t change, tracks will be left with a dwindling fan base. They’ll be left to rely on their individual state governments for handouts. How can they survive?

The only method for sustainability is the model that a place like Keeneland, just outside of Lexington, Ky., has adopted. Their boutique approach is best and the only viable plan moving forward under this decentralized system in America.

In existence since 1936, Keeneland’s horsemen have adopted a trifecta approach to the industry. They’re invested in sales (to keep the fields full), racing (to entice the very best), and have created a venue for events and hospitality (during downtime). It’s right there on what is a superb website.

Keeneland has become a central location for stewardship. That translates to reinvesting in the future of the industry, though, not just in a gambling pavilion or shopping mall. With the help of entities like the University of Kentucky, the focus is on the equine athletes. Thus, they’ve simultaneously envisioned how to honor local, as well as an international set of influences. Keeneland has a well-conceived product that seeks sustainability, coupled with good governance.

Of course, their ideas aren’t all successful — some bemoaned it when, for a time, they switched to Polytrack (man-made surfaces in use at several locations around the world), or when they raised the takeout from the racing till. But, unlike some who are under pressure, they listened and sought compromise because they knew their credibility was at stake — it was all they had.

They don’t need horse racing roulette or 200 race dates; make the racing industry and the horseplayers thirst for more, they realized. Have two separate months be the only ones for racing. Create a brand that lures, but also delivers.

This notion reminds me of Coco Chanel, when she and her partners first hit upon a chemically produced fragrance. She didn’t advertise it, but instead lightly sprayed it in her boutique where she sold primarily hats and dresses. Customers took it in, liked it and asked what it was. It would become known as Chanel No.5.

Creating want and desire based on something tangible and highly likable has legs.

I’m always intrigued when new trainers or jockeys appear on Keeneland race cards. I wait with bated breath for the condition books to roll out. It’s the little things that they do; whether its naming the races or serving local cuisine like burgoo (if you don’t know what this is, you’re missing out!)

Recently, they brought back the two-year-olds in training sale after a nearly four-year hiatus. This signature event showcases some of the best horses in the country that are available; it’s sort of an NFL Combine for babies that are poised to run around the country. A Tapit colt just sold to for $1.3 million; not a bad day for Keeneland.

When I think of those palatial grounds and a paddock filled with spectators, it fills my heart with hope that at least some remnant of this great sport will remain for generations to come.

Doing things properly in the face of great criticism and long odds is difficult. If the state of horse racing is to be saved, the collective “we” must batten the hatches.

In the end, a boutique is the ticket. Whatever the challenges, Keeneland’s system of limited, high-quality racing, coupled with a magnificent venue and funded by an acclaimed sales ring, might be all that will prolong the storm that approaches.

The old adage applies: eat to live, don’t live to eat, American racing industry. In these uncertain times we should thank God for Keeneland.

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