By Dick Downey There is a certain majesty in simplicity.
A lot of recent public discussion has centered around the amenities, or lack of them, at racetracks. We also hear customers complain that they aren't treated well. But as a fan of Thoroughbred racing, I firmly believe that our focus should always be, first and foremost, on the racing.
I love racing at Kentucky Downs. The racing there is a diamond in the rough. Stars of the future can bloom there. Grammarian broke his maiden there, and so did Kimberlite Pipe, to name a couple.
Tired of short fields? Tune in to--better yet, turn into--Kentucky Downs where, on an average day during its seven days of live racing in September, you'll see fields packed with horses. Horses that want to go on the turf, horses that need to go on the turf, horses that have been on the turf--and some that no one is quite sure about. Last year the average field size was 10.6.
What about the amenities? Well, I'll be the first to admit that Kentucky Downs is not Keeneland. But simple is good, too. Plato said those who wish to sing always find a song. At Kentucky Downs, you find your own amenities. My favorite is the finish line area. Lots of people like the clubhouse. It's a brick structure sitting at the top of the stretch. It houses tons of televisions for simulcasting from across the nation and you can sit in air-conditioned comfort and watch the live races, too.
But I love the finish line at Kentucky Downs. You can park your car about 50 yards from where you'll sit. Then you unpack your tablecloth, your cooler, your picnic basket, and set up shop on a table under the trackside tent. You spread things out with your friends. To sit at the finish line at Kentucky Downs, you pay the admission price we all want: "It's free."
Go ahead, have a piece of fried chicken. You brought it, you might as well eat it. Have a nice beverage while you're at it.
No tote board in the infield? Never mind. The televisions are out there at the finish line too. You can check the numbers at any time, and you can make a side bet on a race at Belmont or Turfway Park or wherever if you want more action than the live product.
Saratoga is universally said to have a country fair atmosphere. Try Kentucky Downs if you really want to get out into the country. This is a rural setting where horses were meant to be. The stable area is grassy and open and quiet. The track undulates over hills and dales; it's unique to the United States: a kidney-shaped, European-style turf course encompassing 1 5/16 miles.
The general manager is Ryan Driscoll, a product of Louisiana. He grew up with racing there. He knows all the players. Driscoll is the most knowledgeable general manager, by far, that this track, formerly known as Dueling Grounds, has ever had. Got a complaint? Better yet, got a suggestion? You'll see Ryan in the clubhouse, you'll see him at the finish line, you'll see him in the paddock, you'll see him up in the judge's stand, and you'll see him on the backside. You can actually talk to Ryan and he will listen.
Some very fine horses show up for the big races. San Dare won the 2002 Kentucky Cup Ladies Turf; Gino's Spirits won it in 2001; the Elliott Walden-trained Silken was a popular winner in 2000; and Pleasant Temper took the race in both 1998 and 1999.
Every racetrack has its own virtues. Last year, trainers like Jonathan Sheppard, Kiaran McLaughlin, Ian Jory, Michael Dickinson, Hal Wiggins, and Niall O'Callaghan (who swept the top positions in the Turf) saw the virtue of Kentucky Downs. Rusty Arnold seems to show up every year with young horses well-bred by G. Watts Humphrey. The jockey colony is pretty respectable, too. You might as well try it yourself.
By the way, could you pass me a pimento cheese sandwich and the program? Dick Downey is an attorney, racing fan, and small-time owner. He lives in Bowling Green, Ky.