“Hey John, are you heading to Keeneland?” I’ve been asked that question numerous times over the past five decades. After years of hemming and hawing, it’s time to finally come clean.
For those of you not familiar with this beautiful part of horse country, Keeneland represents everything that is true and noble and right and pure about the bluegrass region. Every April and October, this renowned thoroughbred racecourse welcomes thousands of visitors to its semi-annual meets with a healthy dose of southern hospitality. A national historic landmark, its timeless beauty in an idyllic setting provides for a tantalizing glimpse of heaven on earth.
I’ll confess, I’ve only been to Keeneland a handful of times in my lifetime. My first foray into the hallowed grounds happened when I was ten years old. I tagged along with a friend’s family and we promptly won $22 on a $2 wager on horse #2 in the #2 race of the day. In glorious celebration, we took that winning ticket and splurged on chopped steak dinners at the now defunct Mr. Jim’s Steakhouse on Nicholasville Road later that evening.
Fast forward a decade and I’m in dental school. On Wednesday afternoons, the student clinics were closed and many of my classmates spent that time soaking up the Keeneland sunshine. While I sequestered myself in the dental school laboratory setting denture teeth in wax, they waxed eloquently about exacta wins, bourbon shots, and encounters with fast horses and beautiful women. I vowed that if I ever became a real dentist, I’d spend all my Wednesday afternoons making up for lost time.
Upon finishing my military service, I moved back to Lexington and took my mother-in-law to Keeneland. She’s opposed to large crowds, gambling, traffic, rich people, drunk people, and all forms of animal cruelty so I didn’t think she would enjoy it. To my surprise, she loved it. To this day, the image of Grandma Jenny with my daughter, Katie—perched delicately on her shoulders—dressed to the nines, cheering on their favorites past the finish line, still never fails to bring a broad, joyful smile to my all too brooding lips.
About ten years ago, a good buddy of mine from Georgia came up for a visit and I invited him to Keeneland. He’s kind of a highfalutin big wig with a nose for the finer things in life, and he equated Keeneland with the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National. Now that he mentioned it, I can certainly see the similarity. The graceful elegance, the grand tradition, the regal hospitality, the “je ne sais quoi” of top venues in their respective industries. I’ve witnessed first-hand the beauty of Santa Anita Racetrack in Southern California. Keeneland takes a back seat to no none.
The Keeneland Track Kitchen also has no rival when it comes to sunrise breakfasts. Bacon, eggs, and, hash brown potatoes never tasted so good as on a cool crisp fall morning right as the horses are finishing their early morning workouts. On a related note, I’ve also been to Keeneland many times for my own personal workouts–but participating in the annual Thanksgiving 5K runs held on the racecourse grounds, picnicking with the pops, or attending boring seminars and endless business lunches probably shouldn’t really count when adding up all my true Keeneland experiences.
So that’s it. You’re probably surprised. Even more so when you discover that I only live a stone’s throw away from the track itself. I’ve missed out on all those pari-mutuel winners, derby prep races, Phoenix Room buffets, and On-The-Hill tailgating experiences on the bucket list of native Kentuckians and Saudi sheiks alike. My brother, Michael, has spent more afternoons at Keeneland than you can shake a stick at. He’s even become famous for taking those colorful, jaw-dropping prints of all the racing action.
But not me. As you can see, I’ve rarely made an appearance and I’m trying to figure out why. Perhaps I’m just too darn anti-social. Maybe I don’t like the thought of losing my hard-earned money on the whims of temperamental four-legged hacks. It could be that I’d just prefer to walk my dog. Or it’s possible that I’m just too ignorant, or stupid, or, lazy, or ugly to take advantage of a unique opportunity to enjoy myself and have the time of my life with people I like being with. You tell me. Opening day at Keeneland begins now. Anyone else want to join me?
John Huang is thoroughly enjoying life as a retired orthodontist. He currently works as a columnist for Nolan Media Group and Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.
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