Wisener: On opening weekend, Keeneland's this writer's 'fun place'

By Bob Wisener/Special to HRN
October 08, 2019 06:26pm

It was the first Sunday of a Keeneland fall meeting for both parties -- she a freshman at the University of Kentucky interested in becoming a thoroughbred farm manager, and me a semi-retired sportswriter impassioned with college football, horse racing and Turner Classic Movies.

Learning she was from Georgia, I asked if she pledges allegiance to her home state's Southeastern Conference football team, ranked No. 3 in the country.

"I'm not into football," she said. "But I like basketball," to which I nodded favorably. Any Kentucky native or sports-minded visitor to the state must be conversational in hoops and horses.

Thumbing through her program, she asked about "the bigger races,” or perhaps it was only “the big race.” Guessing that she didn't mean the graded Bourbon (G3) or supporting Indian Summer, I said excitement should reach a peak in the Spinster (G1), a "Win and You're iIn" race to the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

"The ninth," I said, adding a word about Elate, the only filly or mare in the five-horse field that I knew much about. That I had covered Oaklawn Park stakes races won by Elate's sire and dam (Medaglia d'Oro was bred to Cheery at Claiborne Farm, up on Paris Pike north of Lexington) and it had been Elate's misfortune not to win at Oaklawn, which cards filly-and-mare stakes only up to 1 1/16 miles.

And that the Spinster's nine furlongs should be ideal for this pace presser, who might be better suited for a mile and a quarter, once considered the classic American distance.

Elate, breaking from outside, turned for home with a good chance but checked in second behind the veteran Pure Prize. None of the five impressed me as a Distaff challenger to Midnight Bisou, twice Elate's conqueror at Oaklawn this year; and next, Elate meets males in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a mile and a quarter to the Distaff’s mile and an eighth.

The handicapping seminar concluded, and the young lady asked, "Are there any American Pharoahs running today?" I found this commendable, asking about the 2015 Triple Crown winner’s first crop of race-age foals, but also a little odd that with program in hand, she could turn to any race for 2-year-olds and look for sons or daughters of the champ.

Then again, this might be her first racetrack visit, being from a state that lacks thoroughbred racing. I thought of a Tennessee native, another state without racing, whose love for the sport took her from Memphis to the University of Arizona's racetrack-industry program and ultimately to a media position in Kentucky. From two states that football is king, the young ladies have common ground, both adoring two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome, he of four white stockings and Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories.

That exchange got me in the mood to visit Keeneland's press box, where no baseball playoff or NFL games are likely to be watched on wide-screen TVs but cheering was heard after Arkansas Derby winner Omaha Beach scored a thrilling Grade 1 victory at Santa Anita on Saturday night.

More than 26,000 squeezed into Keeneland on Saturday for the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) and other major races. Sunday, with the crowd thinned out to slightly more than 10,000, proved more manageable for sightseeing and catching up with old friends.

One of the first people I noticed in the press box, punching out a story on his laptop computer, was veteran Daily Racing Form turfwriter Marty McGee, a friend from the Oaklawn days. Few love the sport more than Marty, brother of horse trainer Paul McGee.

Behind a counter were many more longtime friends. Amy Owens was my assignment editor at the since-defunct Thoroughbred Times after I succeeded Randy Moss as the Lexington-based magazine's Oaklawn correspondent in 1995. Liane Crossley worked in Oaklawn's media-relations department when I had a full head of black hair; next time we meet, I pledge to mention the aspiring career of trainer Kelsey Danner, daughter of Mark and Kelly (he a trainer, she a former Oaklawn and Churchill Downs worker).

Greetings also were extended to fellow media members Jennie Rees and Greg Hall, both formerly of the Louisville-based Courier-Journal newspaper; Claire (Novak) Crosby, who like Jennie is an occasional Oaklawn visitor; Lexington Herald-Leader columnist John Clay, on hand for the Shadwell but to miss the Spinster when covering the Cardinals-Bengals NFL game in Cincinnati; and Gary Yunt, who worked for Edgar Allen in publicity at Churchill Downs when I covered my first Kentucky Derby (won by Sunny's Halo in 1983). 

I cannot be sure if my late mom, a devoutly religious person who lived until age 84, approved of me writing about horses. But attending church allows one to associate with like-minded individuals one considers brothers and sisters, and as a church-going turf writer, I find that racetracks offer the same solitude. 

"That's your fun place," says a nice woman at my local congregation who has a standing invitation to spend a day at the races.

Bob Wisener covers horse racing for The Sentinel-Record of Hot Springs, Ark., where he was sports editor for 37 years.


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