Nicholas Godfrey on the Breeders' Cup

Nicholas Godfrey takes a closer look at Keeneland, the Kentucky track whose Fall Meet gets underway on Friday before playing host to the 37th Breeders’ Cup in November.

  • Tuesday 29 September
  • Blog
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Short, sharp and laden with stakes, Keeneland’s ‘Fall Meet’ always carries significance as far as the Breeders’ Cup is concerned – but given that the Lexington track is this year’s host venue, the 17-day stand qualifies as a ‘must-watch’.

A total of 18 stakes worth a total of $4,775,000 are scheduled to be run at Keeneland from October 2-24, with the quality front-loaded to offer nicely spaced prep races for the 37th Breeders’ Cup on November 6-7.

Watch the 2020 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th November.

There are no fewer than nine ‘Win and You’re In’ races across this weekend’s schedule, seven of them Grade 1 events. Last year they produced three Breeders’ Cup winners in the shape of British Idiom, who won the Darley Alcibiades before the Juvenile Fillies, Blue Prize (Spinster-Distaff) and Uni (First Lady-Mile).

Expect more of the same this weekend, when the official highlight is the $750,000 Shadwell Turf Mile; elsewhere, Uni is set to join her fellow Breeders’ Cup-winning stablemate Newspaperofrecord in the First Lady, while Kentucky Oaks winner Shedaresthedevil runs in the Spinster, though Midnight Bisou is absent. The Saudi Cup runner-up, five times a G1 winner in the past, was “a bit off after cooling out” following a workout on Monday, according to owner Jeffrey Bloom.

Royal Ascot runner-up Sharing, who won last year’s Juvenile Fillies’ Turf, is due up next weekend in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, when the G2 Fayette offers a Classic prep.

Generally speaking, it’s class all the way, as it usually is at Keeneland – which is always shown live on Sky Sports Racing. But what won’t be the same, of course, both during the autumn meeting and the subsequent Breeders’ Cup, is that crowds remain prohibited owing to the COVID-19 crisis. Which, in a sense, is ironic, when you consider that worries about

Keeneland’s capacity to handle a Breeders’ Cup-sized crowd explains why this immensely popular Kentucky venue in the middle of bluegrass country had never been asked to host before the 2015 edition.

In the event, the Keeneland Breeders’ Cup was a massive success story. Sure, there wasn’t much room to get about a charming location, but it was nowhere near as uncomfortable as Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. Or Royal Ascot, whatever the enclosure.

Moreover, the racing was memorable indeed, as Derby winner Golden Horn suffered a valiant defeat to Ballydoyle’s iron filly Found on ground he detested in the Turf before Triple Crown hero American Pharoah completed an unprecedented grand slam with a 6½-length wire-to-wire Classic triumph. Slice of history, innit?

Compact and bijoux as it is, Keeneland’s boutique-style four-storey grandstand – stone and ivy-clad – still attracts some of the biggest daily averages outside on the US circuit, well into five figures for both its spring and autumn meetings. In fact, they even managed to break the attendance record for the Breeders’ Cup Friday card with 44,947 racegoers, though that figure was itself eclipsed 12 months later at Santa Anita with 45,673. Kentucky can provide a surfeit of equine enthusiasm but can’t compete when it comes to the climate. Especially in November.

In a sense, Keeneland’s status as Breeders’ Cup host is entirely appropriate, representing a journey back home as the championship series was founded in Kentucky by leading breeders – hence the name – in the 1980s. The majority of them were based in the vicinity of Lexington, the small city to which Keeneland is attached.

With a population in excess of 300,000, prosperous Lexington is the second-largest city in the state behind Louisville, home to Churchill Downs and recent social unrest. Although they do other things in Lexington – the tobacco trade used to be big news, for instance, and four Fortune 500 companies are based there – horses are the primary business.

The city describes itself as the ‘Horse Capital of the World’; if this sounds a trifle bombastic compared to Newmarket’s understated claims to be ‘Headquarters’, then it isn’t necessarily going too far in terms of hyperbole. After all, there are an estimated 450 farms within a 60-mile radius; it is twinned with Newmarket, Deauville and County Kildare. One of the main downtown drinking holes is McCarthy’s Bar, which virtually appears to function as an unofficial office for Coolmore’s US arm.

As the Rough Guide suggests, Lexington maintains a ‘quasi-rustic’ feel, though literal-minded souls are in for a disappointment because the grass here does not appear to be blue. It might look blue in the spring, owing to the steel-blue sheen of the buds in meadows visible only in April and May, but in October and November the grass is resolutely green. Even the famous white picket fences aren’t all as advertised: lots of them are now creosoted black for economic reasons.

Keeneland itself is just a few miles west of the town centre. Perhaps better known internationally for its lavish sales complex, scene of multi-million-dollar battles between the Maktoums and Sangsters of the world in days of yore, Keeneland is also home to a major training centre on the Rice Road backstretch complex and one of the continent’s most beloved racetracks.

Founded as a non-profit entity in 1936 by Jack Keene, the track is certainly one of the most attractive in the States, taking pride in its adherence to traditions. Keeneland was the last track in North America to broadcast race calls over its public-address system, not doing so until 1997.

Then again, it also led the way with the move to a synthetic surface for equine-welfare reasons, replacing one of the fastest dirt surfaces in the US with Polytrack in 2006. Though the artificial track was accorded a hero’s welcome in some quarters, the move was divisive, and Keeneland clearly lost a bit of its racing lustre for a time, at least on the main track, with some fairly random results.

The Blue Grass Stakes, a major Kentucky Derby trial, was becoming an irrelevance as a Polytrack event; it probably didn’t help that Street Sense, who went on to lands the roses at Churchill Downs, was beaten by unheralded Dominican in 2007, though you could argue that at least running on synthetics certainly didn’t hurt his chances (q.v. Animal Kingdom four years later!). Either way, seven and a half years later, the dirt was back.

Still, the track’s retro feel explains why most of the racing scenes in the 2003 Seabiscuit movie were filmed there, because Keeneland’s appearance has changed relatively little over the decades. Subsequent racing-based films Dreamer (2005) and Secretariat (2010) also went to Keeneland for several key scenes.

In 1986, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Landmark; in 2009, it came first in a poll by the US Horseplayers Association to name the nation’s favourite racecourses.

That’s why people and the horses keep on coming. Well, just the horses in 2020. Mind you, if you want to attend a Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, you’ll have to wait only a couple of years. They’re hosting it again in 2022.

Watch the 2020 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th November.

Nicholas Godfrey on the Breeders' Cup
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