(Keeneland Race Course, when fans were allowed to attend / Photos by Holly M. Smith)
For the longest time this Fall, we have all been waiting and wishing.
Waiting and wishing that this darn COVID-19 would subside, or just plain go away.
Waiting and wishing that our medical experts could find a vaccine or just agree on some way and some protocols that would some how allow us all to go back into public.
Waiting and wishing that Kentucky’s racetracks could do what college football is already doing, at the very least. Just a block from Churchill Downs, the University of Louisville has been allowing fans attend their football games. This Saturday, the University of Kentucky will do the very same thing. If they could do it, surely to goodness we could at Kentucky’s racetracks. Right?
Keep on wishing.
Keep on waiting.
Waiting and wishing that we all could go back to watching our horses run around the racetrack in person;
Waiting and wishing that we all could return to Keeneland’s most beautiful hillside and watch the Fall’s colors turn rustic and our pari-mutuel tickets turn to ash;
Waiting and wishing that we could drink a cold beverage and stand by the rail and watch the greatest and most glorious sport unfold. Right before our very eyes. Again.
Ellis Park figured out a way to do it this summer. Thank goodness for Ellis Park.
Indiana Grand has figured out a way to do it this summer, too. Thank goodness for Indiana Grand.
Churchill Downs tried. Made proposal after proposal after proposal to Gov. Andy Beshear to allow fans for this year’s remodeled Kentucky Derby. The Governor — who stayed at home, too, and did a home video presentation for the winners — rejected every one of them. Thank goodness for Churchill Downs, which is making plans to have fans in their seats for the upcoming November race meeting. Can’t get here fast enough, mind you.
But for the rest of the Kentucky racetracks?
Waiting and wishing for Kentucky Downs to reopen and allow us to sit on the grass and watch the horses run.
That didn’t happen.
Waiting and wishing for Keeneland to do exactly what it did just a week or so ago — when it found a way to allow hundreds of visitors onto the majestic grounds and amble from barn to barn; consignor to consignor and inspect horse after horse at the annual Keeneland September Yearling Sales.
Now, that did happen. Was there. Saw it. Participated in it. Loved it.
Surely, the track could do the same thing for this great Fall race meeting.
Surely, the track could find the will and the way to open a few doors; allow a few us a peek inside; welcome us back home. Especially considering the history of this grand racing institution — which was built by horse people for horse people.
That, my friends, is not going to happen. Again.
Don’t let your mind run as fast as those horses.
It is not going to happen for the masses.
And, it sure ain’t going to happen for me. Not after this.
If you are rich and lucky enough to be a member of the prestigious Keeneland Club and able to wander around the plush Clubhouse accommodations built for a King or a Queen Elizabeth II?
If you have the right last name and the cash to prove it?
If you are one of the chosen few, and ordained good enough, rich enough, powerful enough, or have the potential to buy enough at the horse sales?
This truly could be your lucky day.
Step right up.
Come on in.
Just like the late, great George Jones would sing about. You can get the Grand Tour.
According to multiple sources, Keeneland has miraculously found one collection of rooms on the grounds that is completely ridden of COVID-19 and virus-proof. And, if you have the right decoder ring, you can go to the races. Today. Tomorrow. For the Fall Race Meet.
It’s not the Equestrian Room, mind you. That one is located on the bottom floor and open to the public. Ugh.
It’s not the Bluegrass Room, either. That one is located upstairs and open to some members of the general populace. Ugh.
It just so happens to be the Clubhouse.
Apparently, the dreaded virus has yet to find a way to penetrate these hallowed halls which are reserved only for “Keeneland Club Members” and those that are accepted in and can afford the tab.
Apparently, Keeneland has found a magical hand sanitizer and wash dispenser to cleanse away all the coodies.
Apparently, only the Keeneland Clubhouse was anointed by the good folks in the Governor’s office as being “blessed,” too.
That is such good news.
If you are a Keeneland Turf Club Member.
Or, if you know someone who is a Keeneland Turf Club Member and they would be so kind as to invite you.
Or, if you are Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Laurence Van Meter, who just ruled against the Kentucky racetracks and held that the Historical Horseracing Machines manufactured by Exacta Systems do not meet the requirements of pari-mutuel betting. After all, he is a member of the Keeneland Club and is still able to access the racetrack this meet for live racing.
Other than that?
You are out of luck.
You are on the outside looking in.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been in the Keeneland Clubhouse before. Ate there. Enjoyed good times there. Loved watching the races from there. It’s nice. Really nice. Had a great time. Loved it.
And, we are building a “private club” for the horse enthusiast in Louisville, too. It is the Louisville Thoroughbred Society. I am proud to say that it is coming along very nicely and should be open once we have the ability to give access to more than just a mere 50% occupancy, which is now the order of the day, per Gov. Andy Beshear. It is plush. It is extravagant. And, it costs to get in.
I would argue that there is a place for private clubs, where people can enjoy a premium setting with a degree of luxury. We can promote that — as long as membership is open to all; and free of any hit of discrimination or exclusion. People should have the right to pay more and get more.
But please don’t mistake, either.
I can and will argue that this policy of allowing only Keeneland Turf Club members — and a few others — to gain access to live racing this meet is wrong.
(Editor’s Note: In fairness, Keeneland did announce on Sept. 15 that it would be allowing “participants” at the track and that they include “…those with a competing horse, including a limited number of owners and trainers. Keeneland also will allow limited access to sponsors, box holders and Club Members.”
(In all fairness, I should have read the Sept. 15 press release. If I got it, and I am sure that I did, I should have delved more closely into the facts and details. And, I should have opined right then and there. But I did not. That is on me.
(And, in all fairness, Keeneland does have a sense of responsibility to track and trace all persons that do attend, in case there is a reported case of COVID-19 from someone who has attended the races. That is quite the ordeal, to be sure, and I am convinced that Keeneland can do that more accurately with a customer base they are more familiar with and have details on — like Club members.)
Still…I remain convinced and convicted…
This plan is not open to all. It is a policy bent on discrimination. It is an idea built on exclusion. It is only for those that can pay more. Certainly, it is not racing as it was meant to be.
And, in my opinion It is just wrong.
First of all, it sends the wrong message. More importantly, it is the wrong message. A message that should be squashed. Stepped on. Put out of its’ misery. A message that is no longer accepted or tolerated.
Racing is not just for the rich and famous. There can be nice places for those who want to pay more. But there should not be a place in this society where we conduct horse racing for only for those people.
In this day and time, when sensitivity training should be mandatory, we are going to exclude the vast majority of people, but give special accommodations to the wealthy?
In this month, and in this Commonwealth, when we have had to deal with so many social issues with both angst and anxiety, we are going to do this?
In this moment where discrimination does not discriminate, we are going to promote this plan?
I don’t know the makeup of the Keeneland Turf Club membership. Can’t tell you how many of them are above the Mason-Dixon Line on the poverty scale. Can’t tell you how many are minorities. Can’t tell you how many are women? Can’t tell you.
But I can guess. And, many of the critics will, too.
It sends a horrible message. It is a bad optic. And, more importantly than that, it is just plain wrong. We are better than that. At the very least, most of us are.
Secondly, this policy is an absolute slap in the face of all racing fans that simply enjoy basking in the sun; standing on the apron; splashing down a peeping hot cup of burgoo with a cold beverage.
We may wear our jeans a little too tight, and our boots may have a bit of horse manure still on the brim, but we are the ones that make racing’s turnstiles and betting windows churn.
We may cuss a bit too much when our horse doesn’t fire, and a few of us may toss our losing tickets on the ground rather than the trash bin, but we are the ones that buy those high-dollar beers, and pay too much for a ballpark frank.
We may chew tobacco, and spit on the ground.
We may talk too loud after we win a race; or brag too much when we hit an exacta, but we are the ones that stand at attention during the playing of the National Anthem and cry a tear or too when we recognize “Military Day” — like we did when James E. “Ted” Bassett ran the place.
We may not know how to tie a bow tie from scratch. We may not have a pair of penny loafers. We may be a bit more like “Rip” on the hit TV show “Yellowstone,” than, say, those rich bastards that won’t to turn Montana into another ski resort.
Racetracks need us.
All of us.
And, if you are going to throw a party, then we deserve an invitation, too. We don’t need a seat at the big table, but we would like a seat.
Third, how did you expect us to react when we found out? Didn’t you think we were smart enough to figure it out? (Again, Keenleand first made this plan public on Sept. 15. I missed it.)
May not believe it, but we can social distance, too.
May not want to recognize us, but we can wash our hands and use hand sanitizer, too.
May not want to invite us, but we bet more than those with button-down, starch shirts who don the Brooks’ Brothers jackets to match. And, we can do it while wearing a damn mask, if that is what it requires.
We may look a little roguish, but we can clean-up when we have to.
(Editor’s Note: Just a few minutes after this “OPINION” was first posted, Keeneland’s Christa Marrillia — whom I have known far longer than either one of us would like to admit and a young lady whom I have great admiration and respect for — reached out to me. I have known Christa McAlpin Marrillia since she was a mere child. Her mother and father have been long-time friends of me and my family and I treasure them all. Have for years. Will always.
(Christa reminded me that Keeneland first issued this statement on Sept. 15. I apologize that I did not see it at that time, or read it carefully enough. My mistake and fault. And, I will talk to Christa about this more in a private conversation.
(And, now, Christa and I have had that conversation. I will delve more into this subject matter tomorrow.)
At this time, I remain convinced that…if Keeneland does not do the right thing and either expand the stands and the invitation to all folks or cancels the “private party only” routine, then the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission should intervene.
Either let there be fans or not.
But not just for some that can afford a membership to the Turf Club. Or sponsors. Or box holders.
Granted, you can track those people easier. But we need to figure out a way to allow all the track’s people come back to the track. Easy or not. It is the only fair — and equitable — thing to do, in my opinion.
Or, perhaps, if we can’t get that?
Maybe Kentucky Supreme Court Justice and current Keeneland Turf Club member Larry Van Meter could offer us his opinion.
It can’t be any worse for racing than Larry’s last one.