OPINION: Keeneland Is “Home Sweet Home” & No Matter What, Here I Come

(It is time for Keeneland. It is time to go home. It is time to have fun. It is time to celebrate. It is time for Keeneland. / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

It may be a Christmas song, or, at the very least, a group of lyrics that is sung far and wide only during the holidays. It may be too soon for you to think about mistletoe, egg nog and stockings hanging from the fireplace mantel with care. It may be three months away from when the Jolly ole’ elf blesses us with his annual nighttime appearance, sporting silks of red and white. It may not feel just right. Just yet.

After all, it was 98 degrees on Monday, for goodness sakes.

Can’t be that time of year, right?

But, no matter, at least to me, every April and October is just like the holidays.

Just like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.

My favorite times of year.

A time to celebrate.

A time for cheer.

So, as I drive down the road to the beautiful green, green grass of home, I find myself humming the melody that is bouncing around in my head every April and each October. As I pull off that dreaded concrete maze of an interstate, and hit that lovely stretch of Hwys. 421 and 62 that merge into heaven that is known as Midway, KY, I suddenly hear myself singing those words. Over and over.

Out of tune, no doubt.

Still music to my ears.

“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays…
“‘Cause no matter how far away you roam…
“When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze…
“For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home!”

It is not December. It is not Christmas time. It is not time for Santa.

And, it does not matter.

It is October.

It is time for Keeneland.

It is time to go home.

Home sweet home.

For these holidays.

On Friday, Keeneland will open its’ historic gates and welcome back friends and family that come to Central Kentucky each and every year to watch the leaves turn from Keeneland green to toasty yellow.

On Friday, Keeneland will open its’ grand ole’ grandstand and its’ collective arms to hug the fans that roll into one of the most majestic horse racing venues in the entire free world, and sit to watch the sweat glisten on the neck of some of the world’s greatest and most accomplished Thoroughbreds.

(The beautiful sycamore tree stands stately by the Keeneland paddock / Photo by Gene McLean)

On Friday, the giant Sycamore tree — the stands guard over the paddock garden — will sway like a ballroom dancer to the mellow tunes of a wind orchestra, and give ample shade to the hundreds of fans that come to hear the whinny of a young horse ready to perform.

On Friday, the sound of the bugler will interrupt the conversation over what horse you like and are prepared to support with your hard-earned Washingtons. Quiet. It is the “Call to the Post.” And, in these parts it is akin to the National Anthem. We stand. At attention.

On Friday, the smell of fresh burgoo will beckon like a fresh apple pie left on the window sill.

On Friday, the race program will get rolled into a baton and serve as my very own riding crop, just in case my rider needs a little extra motivation and my steed needs a little more encouragement.

On Friday, the corned beef sandwich tastes just a little better than ever.

(Keeneland fans and jockeys interact / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

On Friday, the jockeys will exit their quarters with a new set of silks and with visions of grandeur (if not sugarplums) dancing in their heads.

(Starting gate / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

And, on Friday? Those brilliant Thoroughbreds will be loaded into the starting gate and set loose on a flight of fury and fancy that will sparkle like gold at the end of the most brilliant rainbow.

They will do exactly what they were born to do.

Not what we mere humans tell them to do, mind you.

What God Almighty taught them to do on the hills of Zion before they ever tread one day on God’s green Earth or in a paddock of Kentucky dirt and sod.

They will run.

Like a panther in pursuit of prey.

Like a rabbit over snares and thickets.

Like a gazelle glides in the wildness.

They will run.

Unlike any other living thing.

Unlike any other breathing competitor.

Unlike anything you have ever seen before or will ever witness again.

(Horse love / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

They will run.

Some faster than others, for sure.

Some smarter than others, perhaps.

Some quicker. Some latter. Some better.

But they will run.

Just like they were born to do.

Naturally. Spiritually. As if ordained by the Almighty.

They will run.

Right before and in front of those goggles we call eyes.

Right into your heart, we sometimes call callous.

Right into your soul that you cannot hide.

Forever.

Leaving only an impression and a memory.

Of grandeur.

Of athleticism, unmatched.

Of sport, unequalled.

A splash of muscle.

A dash of might.

A hint of glitter.

A pint of all things right.

Oh, what a beautiful sight.

(Fans adore the horses and Keeneland. Both young and old. / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

And, then and there, you will know why there is Thoroughbred racing.

Not a sport of kings — mind you.

Not even close. Even though some of the rich and powerful may want to make it that way.

Instead, it is a sport of great things.

A sport that Thoroughbreds absolutely love to play.

A sport that Thoroughbred fans absolutely love to play, too.

A sport worth watching.

For the first time.

For the 1,000,000th time.

For each and every time.

A sport worth celebrating.

With a toast of a victory cheer.

With a toast, even after a deflating head-bob loss, with a beer.

A sport worth improving.

Without a single doubt.

We should strive every single day to make it better. For all.

Yet…

A sport worth protecting, preserving, and enhancing.

No matter what it takes.

No matter the costs it takes.

No matter what the skeptics say or write.

No matter the hate and spite.

Because little do those people know, understand, or simply can’t comprehend?

We love our horses.

(Keeneland outrider and horse / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

Love.

And, our horses love us.

Love.

With every single ounce of energy that bounces inside our bodies, and out of our hearts and souls.

With every single grunt and groan and surge of muscle and might that bounces out of our horse’s bodies, hearts and souls.

Despite what those people think they know?

We were both born to run.

After each other.

Towards each other.

With each other.

In the past.

In the present.

And, in the future.

My great friend and mentor, Johnny T.L. Jones, Jr., once told me that you can’t love the horse business until you first learn to love the horse.

“Walk up to a horse sometime and just stand there and look him in the eye,” he said.

“If you stare into his eye, you will see a reflection of yourself,” he continued.

“If you are not smiling, then you need to go find something else to do,” he offered.

“Because that horse can see right through you and into your soul. And, he knows right then and there if he can trust you. He knows right then and there if you are friend,” he went on.

“And, friends? Real friends? Real friends will always give you their all. Might not be much. But they will give you their all. Even when things look dark and bleak. They will give you their all.”

I have remembered Johnny T.L. Jones for many things that he gave me through the years, God rest his soul.

What a man.

But I remember his words most often. He gave them freely. Sometimes with a tinge of sarcasm and fun. Most of the time, at my expense. Yet, he only gave them to those he thought could and would listen. Both with the ear, and with the soul. How I wish he was still here. I think he could help so very much in these days.

All I can say, or write is this:

To some, these times may look “dark and bleak.” To some, these days may be filled with troubles and questions. To some, these times may be tough.

But on Friday, I will go to Keeneland.

On Friday, I will go “Home.”

On Friday,  I will go see my “friends.” Both the human ones, and the horse ones.

And, we will celebrate the greatest sport ever invented.

Together.

Why don’t you come along.

It is great.

And, after just one day, you might understand why.

Why horses are special.

Why Keeneland is special.

Why we will never quit.

Not ever.

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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