Playing the Ponies and the Pure Poetry of the Fall Meet at Keeneland

The experience of having a betting slip in hand at a majestic horse racing track is an experience unlike any other in sports.

Updated: Oct. 2, 2018 • 10:55 AM ET

Keeneland racecourse is one of the most acclaimed venues in horse racing.

Keeneland racecourse in Lexington, Ky. is the setting. You begin your journey like a pilgrim stepping lightly with every movement forward. Nearby, crisp air encapsulates the picturesque paddock with circles of folks investing in high-dollar animals that may or may not feel like running that day. Gazing upward, fall foliage greets the signature grey limestone, as the sun illuminates color, nothing but color.

Racegoers mill about with programs tucked under their armpits, some holding fuzzy drinks, while others don shades and great hats — a haberdasher’s dream. Green, the signature, is everywhere, especially the forest variety. As stoic jocks take their mounts, a mass of human flesh surges, enough to scare the pants off a friend of mine who despises crowds.

Once under the grandstand, the hum of the crowd greets you. Like tightly-packed sardines bathed in olive oil, you bob and weave as you make your way to a line for a window, though not the kind that you look out of; rather, this is an inward-looking one.

I deem five minutes to post as the litmus test for making a wager. Sure, you can go to the betting machines, but that’s a bit like eating one of those hamburgers that you can set on a counter and watch for years as it refuses to change.

As you approach the portal with your head on a swivel, you crane to observe the tote board. Odds change, but trust me, don’t alter your wager mid-flight; it’s poor form. Suddenly, the two minutes to post gong sounds. If I were a horse, I would feel like a foal about to stand for the first time.

Having that ticket in hand validates you. Now you’re part of an exclusive club. You’re virtually rubbing elbows with Bruce Wayne-like multi-billionaires and a global group of punters (that’s track speak for folks that wager on horse races).

As you make your way into the sunlight again, smells attach. Burgoo, the steaming stew, wafts along with hard liquor being poured into plastic cups — odd, but it works. Invariably, you encounter a bunch of males huddled around a form arguing over which horse has a name that most resembles that of an ex-girlfriend.

As you point toward the rail, Keeneland announcer Kurt Becker can be heard over the din of the crowd. He’s the only race caller the track has ever had. Stewards prepare, and the crew loads the horses like torpedoes on a nuclear sub (efficiently mind you), which is always exhilarating. Once they’re off, down the backstretch and return to the wire, it will be time to once again return to the paddock. Racing has a certain metronome-like pace to it.

Maybe you take a race off, head to the bluegrass-clad parking lot to skewer some steaks and listen to the college football game. After all, this is part tailgate, part bazaar and part sociological parlay. If you have a winning ticket, always return to the same betting window and offer a tip — those folks work at a frenzied pace.

By the end of the card, the throngs begin to stir once again, some disappointed with wallets light and eyes as big as saucers. But most, gratified, much like a keffiyeh-clad Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia after downing a lemonade. The hope is always to get the chance to return, to hear that call to the post.

And, if you are truly blessed, then you will get to experience once again, Keeneland.


*Keeneland has live racing every April and October from Tuesday until Sunday, typically; and its Fall Meet opens this Friday, October 5. In operation since 1936, they offer some of the best pools, greatest horses, jockeys and trainers, and one of the most famous horse sales in the world. If you cannot make it for the burgoo and the ambiance, you can stream the live meet. Just click here and listen to Kurt Becker!

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