There's nothing better than Keeneland in the spring. The picturesque Lexington countryside is the perfect backdrop to the quality racing on-track. The spring meet may not be particularly warm (as I have been to opening day for both meets and have had to wear a heavy coat even in April), but there's the hint of green everywhere, the buds on the trees and in paddocks all around, the colts and fillies stretching wobbly legs in an energetic celebration of new life.
Add to this the high pitch of Derby Fever. Keeneland hosts one of the more important Kentucky Derby preps on its second weekend, the Blue Grass Stakes. Such luminaries as Alydar, Spectacular Bid and Holy Bull won the race on their way to greater glory. Though those are legends of the past, recent years and a surface change have not dimmed the status of the Blue Grass. Street Sense was a valiant second in the 2007 edition, a gut check that prepared him for victory under the twin spires. Cowboy Cal, Paddy O'Prado, and even First Dude all hit the board in the Blue Grass, a first glimpse of their future talent.
Keeneland also hosts the last-chance Derby prep, the Lexington Stakes. Who can forget Charismatic in 1999, who finally came into his own at Keeneland and carried his talent and heart into two legs of the Triple Crown?
The spring meet is not all about Derby preps, though. Keeneland also cards a host of other graded stakes for the fillies, turf stars and sprinters. On opening weekend, the 3-year-old fillies take center stage in the Ashland, a prestigious Oaks prep that claims such winners as Princess Rooney, Go For Wand and Silverbulletday. In 2010, fans at Keeneland saw Evening Jewel win the Ashland wire to wire, an impressive prep before her thrilling stretch duel in the Oaks with Blind Luck.
The Vinery Madison stakes for older females has only been around since 2002, but it has quickly made a name for itself and snagged Grade 1 status. Ventura, Informed Decision, Madcap Escapade - all top older mares - have won the Madison.
Top sprinters also hit Keeneland in the spring for the Commonwealth stakes. Though it is only a grade 2, it has attracted some pretty nice sprinters - Orientate, Aldebaran and Distorted Humor, who holds the stakes record. Just this year, Aikenite won the Commonwealth and then smoked them on Derby day in the Churchill Downs stakes.
Where Keeneland spring really shines is on the turf. Trainer Jonathan Sheppard is a regular visitor to the winners' circle during the Keeneland spring meet, as well as Bill Mott, both known for their talented turfers. The Maker's Mark Mile is the featured Grade 1 on turf in the spring. Kip Deville won it twice in his championship career, and Miesque's Approval won it in his Breeders' Cup Mile-winning season. The Jenny Wiley, Shakertown and Bewitch stakes showcase horses with speed, stamina and a turf foot. Fans who were at Keeneland this spring got to see the beginnings of the phenom Winter Memories - she made her first start of 2011 in the Appalachian stakes.
While the fall meet has its Breeders' Cup preps set against the gorgeous turning leaves, there's a sad air of finality about the year's end that permeates Keeneland in the fall. The spring, with its promise of new life, the uncertainty and hope of the Derby trail, and those treasured days late in the meet where you can shed your jacket in the sun while watching spirited horses in the paddock, just can't be beat!
Ahh Candice, you are speaking my language. Keeneland is something straight out of a picture postcard. Rolling hills, majestic trees, and a beautiful and historic racetrack in the heart of thoroughbred country, provide a magnificent host for the excellent racing of Keeneland. It’s great to be there anytime of the year, but give me fall when the air is crisp, the trees are changing colors, and the Breeders’ Cup is only a few weeks away.
Years ago I may have agreed with you, but the installation of Polytrack is a big reason why I know longer look at the Blue Grass as my favorite race at Keeneland. The richness of Blue Grass past has been replaced with the uncertainty of the modern day form of the race. Longshots with little chance in the Derby now dominate, and I am afraid it has fallen well down the list of most important preps for me. Meanwhile, year in and year out, the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup draws the best of the 3yo filly turf horses in America, as well as, a number of strong Euros. To me, it is has become the signature race of Keeneland, and beats the Blue Grass by a big margin.
And if the QE II is not good enough how about five other grade 1 races crammed into the short fall meet. Outnumbering the spring 6-4 in the grade 1 category, the fall can also boast the Alcibiades, Breeders’ Futurity, First Lady, Shadwell Turf Mile, and historic Spinster Stakes among the loaded stakes schedule.
The Ashland is fun, but what about the Spinster? Winners include, Gallant Bloom, Susan’s Girl, Bold n’ Determined, Glorious Song, Princess Rooney, Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information, Banshee Breeze, Azeri, etc … I could go on and on.
Two-year-olds. What about the two-year-olds? While the spring unveils a number of future good ones at 4 ½ furlongs, it’s the fall that really shows what they’re made of. The Alcibiades and Breeders’ Futurity are not only important Breeders’ Cup preps, but they can be important races for developing stars of next year’s Triple Crown, such as Street Sense. Keep in mind as well that the Bourbon and Jessamine have proved key BC preps for the grass loving juveniles.
I’ll take your Commonwealth and raise it with a Phoenix Stakes. Not only does the opening day feature have unbelievable history (it dates back to 1831), but it also has excellent horses preparing for the Breeders’ Cup. Recent winners Wise Dan, Fatal Bullet, and Xtra Heat are proof of that.
Good races one and all, but without question, Keeneland has even better turf racing in the fall. You can’t find much better turf racing in America than the QE II, Shadwell Turf Mile, and First Lady. Mostly because of their positioning just weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, these races outshine their spring counterparts because they not only help define the fields for the upcoming World Championships, but they also prove to be important races in deciding eclipse awards. Champions like Ryafan, Perfect Sting, Intercontinental, Forever Together, and Gio Ponti show up to autumn at Keeneland seemingly every year. Throw in the Sycamore, Dowager, Valley View, Bourbon, and Jessamine Stakes, and you can see that turf racing at Keeneland is best in October.
Sad? No, fall is the best time of the year. The air is cool and crisp refreshing us after a hot summer, and the colorful season serves as the perfect and spectacular finale before the harshness of winter rolls around. Keeneland is not the end of fall either; rather it is a wonderful beginning to the best time of the year in thoroughbred racing. Kentucky Derby time is fun, but I will take the variety that only fall racing and the road to the Breeders’ Cup can provide. Nothing wrong with it in the springtime, but there is no place I’d rather be in autumn, than Keeneland.