With the leaves still falling from Keeneland's splendid 2004 fall meet, it is appropriate, perhaps obligatory, to offer a fan's salute to the old guard's open minds, adventurous spirits, and free-thinking ways. Yes, I said Keeneland. Who would have thought they could be such radicals?
We have all come to know Keeneland for its staid tradition, pastoral beauty, and stubborn, yet laudable adherence to past glory. "Racing as it was meant to be" is an apt, if self-congratulatory mantra, but the scant two meets I have seen are proof enough--forever spoiled to lesser venues--that Versailles Road is now the standard when once woodsy Saratoga was the living end.
I moved to my new Kentucky home from New England in April. With a pregnant wife, a 100-pound lab, and two full cars we came--aided in direction by Nextel walkie-talkies so we could find each other through the rain. We made it in time to see Keeneland redolent in spring, no moving cars beyond the backstretch, just one of God's many great paintings.
I left sun-splashed Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) weekend with a tan and a hundred extra dollars put away for the Huggies--but a captive from the moment I drove into the petal-strewn parking lot.
So as one who values freethinking, what a pleasant and unexpected irony that a place of such manifest tradition should be on the leading edge of so many interesting and provocative ideas. This disobedience to the order of things should be applauded regardless of the outcome of their experimentations. "Today's original thinking is tomorrow's common sense"--some other freethinker said that.
First, the new Polytrack training surface. Sure it looks and feels a little like cookie batter, but aesthetic concerns notwithstanding, anything that's good for the health of the horses is good for me. "No foot, no horse," someone once said, so by logical construction "no horse, no sport." This one seems a no-brainer, but nonetheless important, and courageous.
Another trial begun amid the foliage: the new "Turf Tracks" electronic tracking system. A four-ounce chip in a saddlecloth and one may soon be able to trace a horse step-by-step through exact fractions, find when they hit their best stride--chart their entire path. The options for its use are limitless, both for fans and horsemen. Very intriguing.
Last, the "Mutuel Fun" wager, designed to give a novice an introduction to betting by playing a number of races for a set value of $20, explaining the reasoning for the picks as they read along. Now the payouts were less than staggering (see: nonexistent), but making someone a horseplayer his or her first trip through the turnstiles is very smart.
A newcomer who bets $2 on the gray because it's pretty may or may not return, but a fan that plays a Bejarano daily double or a Pletcher/Lukas exacta is in for the long haul. The concept is novel and demands some work, starting with some better handicapping. Grandma can't lose her medication money.
Three vital strides ahead--sudden, punctuated change rather than glacial movement and grudging resistance. This doesn't happen often in life, especially in this sport, and when it does it should be noticed.
I did get to one particularly perfect day this fall with my mother-in-law and 90-year-old grandmother-in-law (for whom the Bible forbids gambling and hence just prayed for a German horse) and still managed to have a good time. How did you people manage that?
So thanks, Lexington, for making my wife and Kentucky-bred daughter feel so welcomed, and thanks, Keeneland--to whom I would tip my fedora if I owned one--for sticking with what works and attempting to make it even better.
I haven't lived in Kentucky long enough to know how you got where you are, that I can only guess, but this I do know: using your creativity, original thinking, and yes, your new rebel soul is surely the best way to move--not only your operation, but also the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
So I'll see you all again in the spring, but until then, "you can be in my dream if I can be in yours."
Bob Dylan said that. PETE SPANOS
is a staff writer for The Blood-Horse