There's a cool breeze in the air this week in Central Kentucky, and life around Keeneland Race Track is beginning to pick up.
Morning workouts are starting to increase, while more and more horses are arriving every day. Meanwhile, life along the back stretch and the barn areas is also beginning to pick up and more owners, trainers and jockeys are around and going about their daily chores.
Yes, the excitement begins to build this week around Keeneland, as the 2011 Fall Meet in this the 75th Anniversary year of the race track is set to being this Friday, Oct. 7, and run for 17 days, through Saturday, October 29.
In between, there will be lots of racing, including a number of stakes races with Breeders' Cup ramifications.
Here are just a few of the highlights of this year's Keeneland Fall Meet.
With the Breeders' Cup just a month away and being held just 60 miles down I-64 in Louisville, many of the nation's top horses are being stabled at Keeneland. While not all of them will race during the Keeneland meet, they will all most likely workout on the track during morning training hours. So, for diehard race fans who can wake up and get to the track around 5:30 a.m., there's a chance to see some of these great Thoroughbreds prepping for those big races in November.
As for stakes races, Keeneland has 18 slated for the Fall meet, which includes five Grade 1 races on the opening FallStars Weekend, with purse money totaling $4.475 million.
In addition, seven of the stakes races during the meet are part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge, which means the winner gets an automatic qualifying spot in a Breeders’ Cup race
To get things started on Friday, Oct. 7, opening day of FallStars weekend, there are two graded stakes races: the $400,000 Darley Alcibiades (G1) and the $175,000 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix (G3).
On Saturday, Oct. 8, there are five stakes races. The day includes the meeting's richest event, the $600,000 Shadwell Turf Mile (G1). The other stakes races on Saturday include: the $400,000 Dixiana Breeders' Futurity (G1), $350,000 First Lady (G1), $200,000 Thoroughbred Club of America (G2) and the $150,000 Woodford (G3).
Opening FallStars Weekend concludes on Sunday, Oct. 9, with the $500,000 Juddmonte Spinster (G1) and the $150,000 Bourbon (G3).
On Saturday, Oct. 15, there will be two prominent stakes races, led by the $400,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1). The QEII is scheduled to include Winter Memories, who recently won the Garden City Stakes (G1) at Belmont on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, after coming from last place, working her way through a wall of horse in mid-homestretch, then blasting to the front to win by a nose.
Also on that Saturday of racing, in celebration of the 75th anniversary, Keeneland has slated a special six-furlong stakes for two-year-olds – the $125,000 Keeneland 75th Anniversary Stakes.
In addition to the live races, Keeneland, NBC and VERSUS have teamed up to present something new for the fall meet. Titled “Autumn at Keeneland,” there will be live television coverage from Keeneland over two weekends beginning on Friday, October 7, on VERSUS and culminating with a live broadcast of the track's 75th anniversary on Saturday, October 15, on NBC. VERSUS will have hour-long programs on October 7, 8 and 9 from 5-6 p.m. (ET). The October 15 program on NBC is from 5-6 p.m. (ET).
Additionally, the cable network TVG will feature live coverage of Keeneland each race day beginning at 1 p.m. Fans also can watch the live races streamed on Keeneland.com., the track's the track's comprehensive Web site, which offers live streaming of Keeneland races and live chats with expert handicappers.
You can also follow Keeneland on Twitter, with real-time handicapping information at twitter.com/keeneland racing, and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/Keeneland), with updates, special offers, live streaming and live chats. Keeneland recently hit a Facebook milestone when it reached 100,000 fans on its official page.
Keeneland will also host a number of special events during the 17-day race period. One of the biggest of the meet is "Post Time with the Pops," a musical salute to Keeneland, which will be held on Saturday evening, Oct. 15. The event features the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, the world's most popular symphony, with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra in a performance at Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington.
Post Time with the Pops will feature music that references the horse showcased in three distinct performance segments, as well as vignettes related to Keeneland's history. The Boston Pops will perform under the direction of Keith Lockhart, and the UK Symphony Orchestra will perform under the direction of John Nardolillo.
Proceeds from the concert will go to the Lee T. Todd Jr. and Patricia B. Todd Music Outreach Endowment. The endowment was created as part of a three-year commitment made by Maker's Mark and Keeneland to raise money for a unique extension program highlighting music outreach in schools throughout Kentucky.
The concert begins at 8 p.m. at Rupp Arena. Tickets are available by calling (859) 233-3535 or visiting Ticketmaster.com.
Other special events during the fall season, according to the Keeneland press release, include:
* Breakfast with the Works, featuring a Southern-style breakfast and children's activities, at 7 a.m. on Saturdays. The program includes trackside commentary on Thoroughbreds as they train and a show-and-tell by a member of the racing industry. An equine-related demonstration in the paddock follows at 8:45 a.m.
* Make-A-Wish Day on October 12. Local Thoroughbred farms team up with Keeneland to grant wishes for nine children, who will present trophies to the owners of the winning horses of all nine races.
* Appearances by the Budweiser Clydesdales, which is always a fan favorite. Members of the famous team will appear for photographs at Keeneland's South Gate on October 12-14. The full hitch will perform on the main track between races on October 15.
* College Scholarship Day, which draws thousands of students from colleges and universities in Kentucky and in neighboring states, on October 14. In honor of Keeneland’s 75th anniversary, a total of twenty $1,000 scholarships – double the amount awarded in the past – will be presented. Admission is free for full-time students, who can register in the College Zone in the North Terrace to win a $1,000 scholarship. The first 1,000 students to register receive a free T-shirt courtesy of Kennedy Book Store.
* See Blue Day, which kicks off homecoming weekend at the University of Kentucky, on October 21. Admission is free for UK students, alumni and faculty. The event will raise money for UK's DanceBlue fundraiser to benefit UK's Pediatric Oncology Clinic.
* Military Family Day on October 23. All active and inactive members of the military and their families will receive free general admission with a military ID at any pass gate.
Keeneland is a social gathering as much as a day at the races, and residents and race fans living in the area near Keeneland are anxiously counting down the days, hours and minutes to the first day of the fall meet. Other horse racing fans around the nation, and the world, are slowly arriving in anticipation of opening day.
In just a few short days, Keeneland will open and the problems of the nation, the bad economy, and all of that "stuff" will be left behind for 17 glorious days of Thoroughbred horse racing in the Bluegrass state.
It's autumn in Lexington, Ky., the leaves are changing color and all is well with the world. Let the races begin…
(Photo by Rick Capone)