This is a special time of year for sports fans. The morning dew clings to the dogwood trees and the bluebirds chirp and flutter. The forsythia and azaleas bloom everywhere, and the sun gloriously drapes the endless green of rolling hills. More than who wins or loses, and at no other moment in the sports calendar, this is a time to reflect on the sheer loveliness of nature in the context of the sporting world.
Forgive me if you think I’m referring to The Masters, just getting underway in beautiful Augusta. The Masters is a fine little event, and its links justly praised for their natural splendor.
What I actually have in mind, though, is Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. Keeneland isn’t merely the prettiest locale in sports, it might just be the prettiest place in America (hell, the Sycamore-lined parking lot is one of the prettiest spots in America). On top of that, in few places will you find a better example of what is meant by the term Gracious Southern Living.
Thoroughbred horse racing in this country suffers a paradox. We know it as the Sport of Kings, but racetracks as a rule are rundown and seedy, with a clientele that is even seedier. About the only thing smacking of royalty at a racetrack is a well-chewed King Corona Cigar dangling from some railbird’s lower lip. And in a lot of ways, the low-rent atmosphere is much of the charm of going to the track.
There are several mild exceptions to this — Saratoga, Monmouth, Del Mar, and Santa Anita are beautiful, and Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day is a treat (as long as one avoids the notorious infield). But no racetrack comes closer to living up to the Sport of Kings obligation than Keeneland.
Most of the year it lies empty. Keeneland offers live racing for only a few weeks in April and a few more in October. April is the prettier time.
And when the crowds do collect at Keeneland, it is unlike any other racing experience, largely because of the fans who show. Like at football games at the big SEC schools, the crowd for a day at the races generally dresses up —coats and ties for the gentlemen and dresses for the ladies. Just as one wouldn’t attend the opera in cutoffs and a T-shirt, one wouldn’t think of going casual to Keeneland.
The immaculate natural surroundings demand a crowd dressed to the nines. They’ve been racing at Keeneland since 1936 at a cozy little track landscaped to fit inconspicuously into 900 acres of the lush Kentucky countryside. And since that meet more than 65 years ago, they’ve been coming to this track to pay tribute to all that is elegant and noble and stylish in horse racing.
This elegance sets Keeneland apart from the other ovals around which horses run. Sure, the grounds are faultless. Its stone wall clubhouse exterior and the breathtaking tree-shaded paddock are worth making the trip, even if you don’t see a single race. But it’s more than that. In a word, Keeneland has class, which is reflected in the way they do things — understated and refined.
There are some that think even this refinement is under threat at Keeneland, which has been unable to fully resist the currents that over time have worn away a few of the charming eccentricities of this jewel of racing. For decades Keeneland had no winner’s circle, a staple at every other track. The winning horse would be feted in a small ceremony on track, at the finish line. Understated. Then in 1984 Keeneland was paid a visit by the world’s most famous horseplayer and owner — England’s Queen Elizabeth. In her honor, Keeneland carved out a winner’s circle, and in so doing wiped away a small part of what made the place distinct. Most winners are still recognized on track, in the old fashion, but still, there’s no escaping the fact the place had been blemished.
Another feature that once distinguished Keeneland was the absence of a track announcer. Horses would burst from the starting gate unaccompanied by the traditional call, “And they’re off!” Instead of the fast-paced running commentary over the public address system common at all other tracks, the races at Keeneland would be run in a strange silence. Only gradually, as the horses entered the stretch run, would the rising hubbub from the crowd boil into full-throttled cheers. It was peculiar, sure, but it was Keeneland’s peculiarity and as such was grand.
In 1997, however, Keeneland threw out this charming tradition, hiring a track announcer and becoming like every other racecourse in America — that is to say, like nothing special.
Despite such efforts, Keeneland will have to work a lot harder to actually become nothing special. It simply is too sublimely lovely a place, its habitués imbued with all the attributes of good taste and fine breeding (naturally). Keeneland may exude upper-crustiness, but (refreshingly) without the phoniness or haughtiness of, say, New York society. The bluebloods in the Bluegrass State have manners, and their graciousness extends to out-of-staters, be they Saudi princes just in from Riyadh (a considerable power bloc in horseracing circles) or two-dollar-to-show punters from nearby Tennessee or Ohio.
So when the winter yields each year, and you have a mind to breathe deep and glory in the riot of spring, forget those thoughts of scalping tickets to that duffers’ convention down in Augusta. Make your way to Lexington, instead. You might even meet with some success at the betting windows. But even if you don’t, you can’t really lose. Keeneland is one place in America where you can leave without a cent in your pocket but still be up for the day.
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