By Kelsey Riley
With a wealth of on-track events and top class races like the Toyota Blue grass Stakes (gr. I) and Central Bank Ashland Stakes (gr. I) included in their 15-day racing calendar, Keeneland officials are optimistic that the historic racetrack’s 71st spring meeting, which opens April 2, will be lucrative for both horsemen and horseplayers.
In a March 30 press conference, Keeneland president and chief executive officer Nick Nicholson and director of racing Rogers Beasley discussed the upcoming spring meeting, which will feature a rich racing calendar complimented by a variety of events for those in attendance.
“When we put on one of these spring meets, what we’re trying to do is create a festival,” said Nicholson. “So it’s a package, it’s a mixture, it’s a recipe. There’s a horse part of it, there’s a people part of it, and there’s also a fan part of it. We want this to be fun for people.”
The Keeneland stakes schedule is highlighted by the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes for 3-year-olds. Set for April 10, the Bluegrass is one of the final major stepping stones toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). It will be aired nationwide on NBC as part of the ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ program. The three additional grade I races slated for the spring meeting are the Ashland Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on opening weekend, an important prep race for the April 30 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I); the April 8 Vinery Madison (gr. I) for fillies and mares 4-years-old and up, and the April 9 Maker’s Mark Mile (gr. I) for 4-year-olds and up on the turf. In total, Keeneland will offer $3.65 million for 16 stakes races.
“We have 15 days of racing and we have a lot of great stakes,” said Beasley. “It’s one of those race meets that’s very rare, because it’s a confluence of a lot of different people coming from everywhere. You have the people who have been in Florida all winter, you’ve got people that have been in Fair Grounds all winter, you have people coming from California getting ready for the Derby, so it makes it a great race meet and you get to see how good these horses really are that have been competing in Florida, Fair Grounds, and California; now they have to compete against other horses.”
In addition to its usual attractions, Keeneland is making additional efforts to reach out to fans. Nicholson detailed new initiatives planned for the spring meeting, including a new 50 cent pick three wager and increased social media marketing efforts.
“We’re trying to reach out and try new things and not be afraid to try things,” said Nicholson. “We’re going to do a 50 cent pick three. It will be the first time we’ve done that. We think that will be a nice addition to our wagering menu. We have a lot of casual fans so we’re always looking for ways to make it easier to participate in the game.”
The new social media initiatives include daily live chats at Keeneland.com with handicapper Jeremy Plonk; up-to-the-minute updates on the races via Twitter and text message, and general information on the Keeneland meet through Facebook.
“Our staff has spent a lot of time this winter thinking about how we can use social media,” said Nicholson. “We’re anxious to do this and to get feedback from people on whether we’re giving them what they want with this as well. What we’re hoping to do is use every means of communication we can think of, all the traditional means, but also all the modern means, to reach out and give fans the level of information they want.”
Keeneland will host a number of on-track events during the spring meeting. Opening day April 2 is the annual College Scholarship Day, where college students receive free admission and a chance to win numerous prizes, including one of ten $1,000 scholarships.
April 9 will feature a Maker’s Mark bottle signing session by University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari, with proceeds going to the UK symphony orchestra’s musical outreach program, aimed at getting musical programs in elementary schools.
The jockeys will take center stage April 16, with an autograph session in the morning and a karaoke event to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund in the evening.
April 18 has been billed Military Day at the Races; all active and inactive members of the military and their families will receive free general admission. Each Saturday Keeneland will offer Breakfast with the Works, where patrons can enjoy breakfast at the track while watching the morning workouts.
According to Nicholson, one of the key sources for optimism is Keeneland’s Polytrack surface, which he described as a “raging success.”
“We’ve been thrilled at the size of our fields, we’ve been thrilled with the number of workouts,” said Nicholson. “That tells us that there are more horse here working, but it also tells us they’re staying healthier longer. (Reducing catastrophic injuries) is absolutely our number one priority.
“I hope we’ve shown that we’re bound and determined not to sit on our laurels,” said Nicholson. “We want to push ourselves to get even better and continue to improve the things that make fans want to come here to Keeneland.”
The 2010 Keeneland spring meeting runs from April 2 to April 23, with racing Wednesday through Sunday with the exception of April 4. Post time for the first race each day will be 1:05 p.m. EST. Gates open at 11 a.m.