I'd been in college for about a month when the first weekend of October rolled around. I was surprised when I went to class that Friday morning -- suddenly, tons of guys were in coat and tie and girls were in the finest dresses that Laura Ashley had to offer. I knew it wasn't a particular fraternity or sorority event at 11 a.m., so I sheepishly asked why everyone was so gussied up. "It's Opening Day at Keeneland
," someone responded. "People are going straight on to the track."
I grew up in a small Eastern Kentucky town -- one that adheres to pretty strict Baptist values. I knew that Lexington was famous for its horses, and I even watched the Derby on television every year. But, there was still a little piece of my upbringing that told me that racetracks are for gambling. And drinking. And, likely, cavorting. Things that we just didn't do back home. Soon, I wound up going for a day at the track with my sorority sisters, and found that it wasn't an unsavory enterprise at all. In fact, it was one of the more civilized enterprises which I'd ever undertaken. The beautifully manicured track, the call to post -- it was all so meticulous. There were even attendants in the bathroom! It was as though I'd entered a portal to a more sophisticated time somewhere along Versailles Road.
Lexington is the Horse Capital of the World*. The fragile, temperamental racehorses comprise the city's signature industry, and notoriously live more pampered, sheltered lives than most Lexingtonians. City streets are named for the most famous horses, as are cocktails, restaurants, and anything else you can think of. It's a far cry from my hometown, where, although you heard of the occasional pet pony, most horses were farm animals. Horses plowed fields and occasionally entertained the kids; they certainly didn't have HVAC systems in their barns, nor their own pets. But, the day I stood in the paddock and looked in the eyes of a competitive racehorse, I knew that racing was the horse's true calling.
After a year or so in Lexington, I began to take the track for granted as well. I went to many Opening Days of my own. I learned that I loved to take in the track on rainy weekdays, when the crowds were sparse and the jockeys compensated for sloppy tracks with more strategic riding. Over the years, I've attended countless professional events in the dining rooms and meeting rooms. I've introduced members of my family to the track. And, yes, I've engaged in a little cavorting of my own. But, no matter how often I visit the track, I always take one moment to remember my initial reaction. Things just always seem a little nostalgic and a lot more sophisticated at Keeneland. It's as though you're traveling through the track's 75 year history every time you walk into the Clubhouse or down to the rail. And that is, indeed, a magical journey.
* Get over yourself, Ocala.