So It Begins
Keeneland, one of the most beautiful racecourses in the world, came into being after the historic Kentucky Association track disbanded in 1933.
A volunteer committee led by Maj. Louis A Beard, proceeded to hunt for the ideal location for a new track. In its decisions, the committee kept returning to the land of J.O. “Jack” Keene.
Keene had spent many years building his own private track on his farm named Keeneland. Keene’s dream was to have his own private race track — a place where, he said, “my friends can bring their horses and live in the clubhouse themselves and have fun racing for the sport.” Keene spent nearly a half-million dollars on the development of his track and clubhouse, but the Great Depression was too much for him. In spite of his dream, he accepted the committee’s offer to buy his farm.
On April 17, 1933 articles of incorporation were filed for the Keeneland Association and in late August, the Keeneland Association purchased 147½ acres of Keene’s property for $130,000 in cash and $10,000 in preferred stock at par value. Hal Price Headley was elected President of the Keeneland Association, a position he would hold until 1951.
The First Meet
October 15, 1936
On October 11, 1936, the Keeneland Association hosted an open house to introduce the public to the new Totalizator® tote board first of such machines to be installed in Kentucky. More than 15,000 people attended.
On October 14, 1936, the Keeneland Association ratified an agreement with Turf Catering Company of Chicago to operate its concessions.
On October 15, 1936, Keeneland opened for its first day of racing. Paid attendance for that first nine-day Fall Meet totaled 25,337. The first year was a moderate success for the Keeneland Association. The financial statement for the year, however, revealed a net loss of $3.47.
Keeneland Begins to Change
During the years between 1949 and 1960 Keeneland went through many changes to its track and buildings.
In 1949 Keeneland installed an inside aluminum rail for its spring meeting, replacing the old wooden one. The new rail — which was considered safer — cost $5,000, and was the first of its kind to be used at an American racetrack.
For the 1950 Spring Meet the box seat area was rebuilt. The original wooden structure was replaced by steel, aluminum, and concrete. For the 1953 Fall Meet management decided to enlarge and extend the grandstand. Fifteen hundred forty-two seats were added, increasing the structure’s capacity to 3,849. A new dining room was built that seated 384. The finish line was repositioned, stretching the course length from 990 feet to 1,174 feet, adding the Beard Course of seven furlongs and 184 feet. That course is named to honor Louis Beard.
In 1954-1955 Keeneland built a five-furlong training track, which opened in September 1955. In 1956 the main track was completely overhauled at a cost of $150,000 to improve surface and sub-surface drainage.
The purpose of these renovations over two decades was to make Keeneland a safer and more enjoyable place for both the horse and spectator. At their completion, Keeneland emerges much as the track we know today.
Keeneland Changes Again
Several minor changes were made to Keeneland’s structures during this era. In time for the 1961 Spring Meet an alpha- numeric message board was added at ground level in front of the infield tote board. For the 1961 Fall Meet Keeneland added a Visumatic® Timer. This machine posted the fractions and final clocking on the tote board. Keeneland was the first track in America to use the Visumatic.
For the 1963 Spring Meet an alternate finish line was installed at the sixteenth pole. This allowed for the return of 11/16-mile races, which had not been run at Keeneland since the finish line was relocated in the fall of 1953. In addition, work began to link the clubhouse and the grandstand.
In 1973 Keeneland added four 40-stall barns to the backside. For the 1976 Fall Meet a new section of concert and steel replaced the historic wooden grandstand that had stood since the track opened. The now-famous Keeneland hedges were added to the infield in 1979. In addition, the terrace that overlooks the paddock was enclosed and five 32-stall barns were erected.
Royal for a Day
October 11, 1984, was a very special day in Keeneland history. This is the date that Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom came to Keeneland to watch the races. The Queen had just completed an official state visit in Canada. Her visit to Kentucky was unofficial and informal.
The idea of having the Queen visit Keeneland was proposed more than two years before the visit when an English journalist asked the chief executive officer of Keeneland, James E. “Ted” Bassett III what he thought about a visit by the Queen. Bassett remembers that his reaction was one of surprise: “I felt it was an excellent idea, would be a tremendous boost for Keeneland and the Thoroughbred industry, especially in central Kentucky, but I felt there was very little chance that such an event could ever be pulled off”.
The Queen had never visited an American racetrack and her travel schedule is planned out months and even years in advance.
During her stay in central Kentucky, her primary hosts were Mr. and Mrs. William S. Farrish, III. The Queen and her party stayed at their Land’s End farm near Lexington and visited several other storied farms including Claiborne, Spendthrift, Gainesway, and Calumet. Mr. Farrish was later appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James.
To honor her visit Keeneland founded a new stakes race, the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, for fillies and mares. The race was inaugurated on Thursday, October 11, 1984, with a purse of more than $75,000. The Queen’s Challenge Cup was scheduled as the fourth race. Queen Elizabeth inspected the horses and jockeys in the English tradition prior to the race. After the race she went to the newly constructed Winner’s Circle to present the trophy to the winning owner, Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm. The race is held annually during the Fall Meet.
After the presentation, the Queen and her guests assembled at the nearby sales pavilion. She had made a special request to see an American Thoroughbred horse auction. Because the sales were not scheduled during her stay, Keeneland staged a simulation sale. Key personnel including the auctioneer, the announcer, bid spotters, and grooms all played their roles. The Queen marveled at the speed and aggressiveness of the auctioneer, as compared to the British auction practice.
At the conclusion of the mock sale the Queen left Keeneland and Lexington, headed to her next stop Wyoming.
National Historic Landmark
In 1986 Keeneland was designated a National Historic Landmark. Sixth District Congressman Larry Hopkins requested the designation in December 1984. The U.S. Department of the Interior determined that the track “possesses exceptional value in illustrating the historical heritage of the United States.” Keeneland is only the second racecourse in the nation to receive landmark status.
Keeneland was honored with this status during its 50th Anniversary celebration. According to The Lexington Herald Leader, James E. “Ted” Bassett III, board chairman of the Keeneland Association, said, “Keeneland is both honored and privileged to be associated along with the two previously designated National Historic Landmarks in Lexington – Ashland, home of Henry Clay, and Transylvania University’s Old Morrison…[It] is a tribute to our architects and the unselfish efforts of our founders and the board of directors.”
Never on a Sunday
In the spring of 1991, for the first time in Keeneland history, races where held on Sundays.
In June 1990 Keeneland submitted an amended application for dates to the Kentucky State Racing Commission asking for racing on Wednesdays through Sundays. Keeneland had traditionally raced Tuesdays though Saturdays. Motivation for the change was that more people could attend on Sundays than on Tuesdays, as well as competition from other tracks and other entertainment venues. Increased attendance would increase betting and shore up horseman’s purses and help the track maintain a competitive edge with racing in other states. Keeneland was one of the last racetracks in the nation to not race on Sundays.
The greatest resistance to Sunday racing came for local churches. They were concerned with traffic conditions to the state of Keeneland’s employees’ spiritual welfare. Keeneland responded to the spiritual issue by continuing their daily devotions, and by adding a Sunday service in both English and Spanish during the meets.
The first Sunday attendance was 12,298, slightly more than the opening Friday. Attendance for the first three days of the meet was up almost 10,000 people over spring 1990. Sunday racing also appeared to attract more families than on other race days.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Keeneland underwent a great deal of expansion.
In 1980 a walking ring was added to the Sales Pavilion to permit buyers to inspect the horses before they entered the auction ring.
In 1982 a 4,000 square-foot addition was added to the Sales Pavilion. The addition contained a large bar, a food service counter, a lounge, and 18 additional telephones.
In 1983 a new Versailles road entrance was added, the Fontana® Safety Rail was erected replacing the aluminum rail installed in 1949, and many improvements were made to the clubhouse.
In 1984 Keeneland underwent a huge construction project. Sixteen new saddling stalls were built in the paddock, work began on the 40,000-square-foot addition to the rear of the grandstand, grandstand additions provided a view of the paddock from all three levels, two elevators where installed connected all three floor.
In 1985 a new grandstand entrance adjacent to the paddock and walking ring was opened. In addition, the physical plant underwent a new phase of expansion with the addition of a 12,000 square-foot administration building, new jockey’s quarters, new grandstand entrance, and expanded library.
In 1991 one of the largest construction projects in Keeneland history was undertaken: a fourth floor expansion that included 22 corporate boxes, the Phoenix Room, and the Lafayette Room.
In 1995 the new entrance at Versailles Road and Man O’ War Boulevard was opened.
1997 saw a multi-million dollar, multi-year project begin that would improve the racing, sales, and simulcast facilities. The grandstand’s northwest section was completely renovated, and a new state-of-the-art Sales Pavilion was under construction. Inside the grandstand, the first and second floor were enclosed, storage areas on the second floor were converted to a public area with pari-mutual windows, concessions, and restrooms, the Sports Bar doubled in size, and the Paddock Shop opened a satellite location.
Keeneland Gets an Announcer
In the spring of 1997, ending a long-standing tradition of no public-address system, Keeneland employs a track announcer to call the races for the first time.
The philosophy at Keeneland for many years held that an announcer was unnecessary. In 1937 Hal Price Headley said, “We don’t care whether people who come here bet or not, but we want them to come out here to enjoy God’s sunshine, the fresh air, and watch horses race.”
The tradition-bound track had never had an on-track announcer to call the races over a public- address system. For decades, it had been the only track in the country without one. Naturally, when it came time for a change, Keeneland installed a state-of-the-art sound system and announcer’s booth high above the finish line.
Reaction to the addition of a track announcer was mixed. Many patrons had long wished for an announcer, as it can be hard to tell what is happening in the race without the call. Others, however, hated to see Keeneland change its unique tradition.
On October 31, 1996, Kurt Becker, a 27-year-old native of Illinois who had been calling races since he was a teenager, was chosen to be Keeneland’s first announcer. Becker is the son of a track announcer.
Keeneland in the Movies
In the fall of 2002 Keeneland played a role in a major motion picture. Seabiscuit, a feature-length movie produced by Universal Studios and based on the hugely successful book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, used the racecourse as a “stand in” for Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore.
The infield, track, grandstand, clubhouse and lawn were retrofitted to look like Pimlico circa 1938. Dummies were placed in the grandstand to fill out the crowd. A day or so before filming started, a fierce storm blew the dummies all over the track.
On Sunday, November 17, More than 4,000 unpaid extras form Lexington and Central Kentucky braved the cold to sit in the stands and stand in the infield. They portrayed the crowd that watched an extraordinary match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. Both horses claimed to be the best in the nation, Seabiscut representing the West, War Admiral the East. War Admiral was the son of Man O’ War, Seabiscuit the grandson of Man O’ War. Seabiscuit won the race, which was broadcast nationwide on radio.
Shortly after Seabiscuit was filmed another movie was filmed in part at Keeneland. This time, the racecourse played itself. Dreamer, starring Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning, filmed the Breeder’s Cup race featured in the movie at Keeneland.
The well-groomed shrubbery spelling out “Keeneland” is easily visible as Sonador, the main character, approaches the finish line. Though plenty of extras showed up on filming days, some “spectators” were in fact the same inflatable dummies developed by Joe Biggins that debuted during the filming of Seabiscuit at Keeneland in 2003. Keeneland has never actually hosted a Breeder’s Cup; the grandstand simply is not large enough.
Seabiscuit and Dreamer were not the only films shot at Keeneland. In 1954 a Walt Disney Productions featurette titled Stormy, the Thoroughbred with an Inferiority Complex had several scenes shot in the sales pavilion. Auctioneer George Swinebroad played himself — the only Keeneland employ to be featured in a Hollywood film.
Keeneland’s Library Grows
On July 15, 2002, Keeneland its new 10,000 square-foot library. Keeneland has been archiving race-related publications for research and study since 1939 when William Arnold Hanger made his first donation of books and stipulated the collection be open to the public.
The new building — with the distinctive Keeneland limestone pattern — offers two conference rooms and 24 reading areas, 12 of which have internet service. The library also has three computers with internet access available to the public, two microfiche machines, a copier, and 8, 000 square-feet of space in which visitors can browse artifacts from 1802 to the present.
The basement level of the library features a spacious temperature- and humidity-controlled room, which holds The Daily Racing Form collection from 1898 to the present. The Daily Racing Form donated these volumes in 2000, prompting the building of the new library. Dubbed the “bubble room” by Cathy Schenck, Keeneland’s librarian and Lexington History Museum trustee, it also holds some 200,000 glass plates and film negatives from photographers Charles Christian Cook, J.C. “Skeets” Meadors, and Bert Morgan. Another downstairs storage room holds programs from nearly every day Keeneland has raced since 1936.