The horses in Thursday's Blue Grass Stakes will be saddles under trees in the paddock, where fans can stand an arm's length from them. They will race around a track that borders on the rolling pastures of a breeding farm.
Intimate and picturesque, Keeneland is one of the last race tracks on earth that places more emphasis on the thoroughbred that it does on the pari-mutuel dollar. It occupies a special place in the heart of anyone who loves this sport and reveres its traditions.
I hate it. I hate it more than any race track outside of Bowie, Md. If I were forced to spend the rest of my life in the bluegrass country, I would take up shuffleboard as a hobby rather than try to play the horses at Keeneland.
I hate this place partly because it upholds traditions for their own sake, even if they happen to be asinine. Keeneland is proud to be the only track in America without a public-address system, even if its absence means that the typical railbird has no idea what is going on. The crowd at Keeneland roars not when a horse surges to the lead, but when the numbers on the infield tote board are changed to indicate who is in front. Perhaps the people with binoculars in the box-seat area can appreciate the excitement of the races, but nobody else does.
And if something unusual happens at Keeneland -- such as the scratch of a favorite shortly before post time -- there is chaos. A horseplayer here could easily be holding a ticket on a horse who didn't run and throw it away after the race, unless he is lucky enough to hear about the scratch by word of mouth.
Of course, a track that reveres tradition would not permit exacta of triple wagering just because bettors at virtually every track in America have shown that they love exotic bets. The rationale is that good old-fashioned win, place and show wagering is less of an invitation to larceny, an argument that could be persuasive to people who have never witnessed racing at Keeneland.
The principal tradition that Keeneland upholds is a philosophy that probably prevailed in the earliest day of the sport on Newmarket Heath: racing is a sport conducted by the elite for the amusement of the elite.
The elite at Keeneland are, of course, the members of the Kentucky horsy set, the thoroughbred breeding establishment. And the snobbism of people who spend much of the day with manure on their shoes can be astonishing to an outsider. A message on the bulletin board of the Keeneland press box decrees that MEMBERS OF THE PRESS MAY NOT ENTER THE LEXINGTON ROOM, so that they may not accidentally rub elbows with their social superiors.
This shouldn't bother any horseplayer, of course. At the New York tracks, degenerates don't fret that they can't sip tea with Cynthia Phipps between the races. We're too busy gambling. But the cronyism at Keeneland dissuades a rational man from trying to play the horses at all.
"The thing I like about Keeneland," one well-bred, tweedy trainer remarked, "is that you can get so much information. You don't look at The Racing Form. You can just walk around the paddock and ask all your friends if they like their horses."
That's fine if you're a well-bred tweedy trainer, but the poor souls who try to handicap from The Racing Form don't have much of a chance. Keeneland racing is epitomized by the frequent events for 2-year-old maidens, consisting almost entirely of horses who never have raced and have no published workouts. Naturally, Kentucky has no rule demanding that unraced horses show workouts, since such a rule would infringe on the rights of the insiders.
Many other races seem to defy handicapping logic, too, although smart money often does appear for the right horse. Presumably, the way to handicap at Keeneland is to ask your pals in the Lexington Room who they like. Perhaps after I buy my next breeding farm they'll let me in.