Our hemisphere has begun its annual retreat from the sun; every recoiling minute of light sweeps the splendors of summer into a misty abyss. The trees face their inevitable slumber with a fiery celebration of color for one last brilliant hurrah before the grey quiet. Nature’s annual autumn festival garners seasonal favoritism of admirers across the country. The roots of my partiality towards autumn lay squarely in the lap of Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.
Lovestruck at 9years old, life would never again taste the same. I had fallen madly in love with a 25-year-old great-great grandson of Native Dancer – my beloved Polka. The Grey Ghost quickly became my obsession. He was the crack in the dam, the spark was ignited and there was a strong wind blowing. I was a glutton for all things Thoroughbred horse racing!
Polka and I, summer 2006
A few weeks before Keeneland’s 2009 fall meet, I celebrated my 13thbirthday. My parent’s surprise gift to me was my inaugural trip to the FallStars weekend. During the drive to Lexington, I counted down the mileage for almost eight hours. The proverbial “Are we there yet?” reached a whole new level of parental irritation!
The sun was getting very low as we checked into our hotel on the eve of opening day. It was evident I would never quiet my excitement enough to get a reasonable amount of sleep, so my mother rushed me over to the track to sneak a peek. Passing by the legendary Calumet Farm is a most fitting prelude to Keeneland. Miles of white picket fence rolled past, the collection of the broodmares within reminders of racing history – my imagination was suddenly time-traveling back to a day when Citation or Whirlaway romped through those same fields.
To a horse racing fan, the entrance of the historic track is the fairytale equivalent of Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland – except, where Wonderland makes no sense, Keeneland makes perfect sense. The day implored us to make haste as the sun had dropped so low that it no longer could take claim of the day. Cosmic forces had no influence on us as we drove slowly up the winding road through the expanses of green lawn, and the preserved Keene Farm barns.
There was not a whisper between us - we each understood this was a moment not to be rushed. No other person in sight, we strolled below Keeneland’s signature limestone walls indicative of a gateway to a secret garden. The manicured paddock enclosure is perfectly accessorized by clinging ivy, and fittingly, a grand Sycamore stands tall as a signature monument to times past and future. I walked the circular paths giddy at the thought the horses will be tracing my steps the very next day.
Forcing my eyes from the Sycamore, my gaze fixated on the underbelly of the grandstand. With raised eyebrows and a Cheshire cat grin, I briskly passed by the rows of dormant betting windows lurking in the dark. I emerged from the other side with the realization my imagination had not done Keeneland justice. As I walked through the rows of park benches, I slowly turned 180 degrees. I gazed at the empty grandstand - I felt frozen in time standing at the base of a sixty foot tsunami.
As if they knew I was coming, the tote board was lit. The placid racecourse lie waiting for the wind of hooves to send history-making ripples through the PolyTrack. Looking around cautiously, unsure of my actions, I knelt down and grabbed a handful of the synthetic surface, noticing it looked like cupcake sprinkles!
Heading down the rail towards the clocker’s corner, I saw something silvery lying by the rail. As I got closer, I could see it was a tossed horseshoe with bent nails, and a toe-grab. Could it get any better than this!
PINCH ME … I MUST BE DREAMING!
It’s not an exaggeration to say I didn’t get much sleep that night! My mother and I “woke up” early the next morning and retraced our steps. This time I emerged from beneath the grandstand hearing the sound of galloping horses. The morning works remain to this day my favorite thing to see at the track. Watching the horses, jockeys, and trainers that had become so familiar to me were now feet away. I had to stop myself from approaching everyone proclaiming, “Hey! It’s me! I’m here!”
As the day progressed, so did the cold rains. I sat myself at the finish pole huddled under an umbrella with my program, while the growing crowd sheepishly took shelter beneath the grandstand. I was mesmerized, watching race after race…Aikenite, Forever Together, Informed Decision, Justenuffhumor, Sassy Image, She Be Wild, Silver Timber.
I carried a picture I had drawn of Calvin Borel riding that year’s Kentucky Derby (G1) winner, Mine That Bird. I pushed my way through the large crowd near the jockey’s room. Jockeys Garret Gomez, Kent Desormeaux, Julien Leparoux, Robby Albarado and Calvin Borel stood waiting for the “riders up” call. Large sketch pad tucked under my arm and umbrella in hand, I stayed focused, and moved in for the signature!
“Mr. Borel, would you please sign my picture?” I politely asked.
Without hesitation, he looked down at my drawing, smiled, and asked if I drew the picture.
Grinning ear to ear, I replied, “Yes, I did.”
“Where did you want me to sign, sweetie?” asked Calvin Borel.
The weekend was perfect!
Opening day for Keeneland’s fall meet is this Friday, October 5.
For more information visit: http://www.keeneland.com/