I have been working as a turf writer for a few years now, but long before my days at the keyboard, I was a horse-crazy kid growing up in a land of ardent college football fans. The few times I went to the racetrack were hours spent taking all of it in, absorbing every detail – the sights, the sounds, even the smells – for later, when it was all done, memories to sustain me until the next time.
As an adult, I have had the great fortune of going places I dreamed of as that young girl on the rail: the run for the roses under the historic twin spires, the party at Pimlico on Preakness day, and tracks like Saratoga, Keeneland, and more. Among the experiences I had promised myself was a trip to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. This year, I was able to tick that off my bucket list.
What I found at Keeneland over two days of watching the best in the world race against each other was not just the glory of the sport. I found something else that makes it great: the bonds between the people who love it.
Once Again at Home
My first visit to Keeneland Race Course in Lexington came nearly a decade ago, when I was writing my first book, Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. The space has quickly become one of my favorite places to be, with its massive white sycamore tree towering over the paddock and the stonework that creates an intimacy akin to that of Saratoga. Its proximity to our home in Alabama made it the ideal spot to attend the Breeders’ Cup when it came back in 2020, but the pandemic pushed that dream back to 2022. The weekend was worth the wait.
I arrived Friday to the familiar setting and found it transformed into a purple and gold temple to the horse. As we walked around, I ran into familiar faces. My husband and I could hardly move five feet before seeing another friend to catch up with. The early part of the day was quiet as fans trickled in throughout the hours leading to the first races for Future Stars Friday. I took advantage of the smaller crowd and headed to the paddock in between each race.
Under the autumn colors in the saddling enclosure, we watched the horses saddle, reading names that I had watched on television throughout the season and appreciating the stars in front of us. I have spent my share of hours standing in the paddock before races of all stripes and have seen many a horse in my time. Yet these colts and geldings and fillies were something else. All shined with the expected excellence that their breeding and care promised. How could any of us pick just one to win? Betting is much tougher when they all look like winners!
Before the Juvenile, as I watched Cave Rock and Forte and Curly Jack parade through the walking ring, I saw thousands of faces taking in the sight of the field and showing the appreciation any racing fan has for good horses. Their intent gazes studied the graceful strides, the game-faced jockeys, and the pensive connections considering what the next few minutes were to bring. After the finish line, when the winner strode back toward the grandstand, the gathered crowd would cheer, their raucous greeting prompting fist pumps and waves from the victorious riders.
As precious as these moments watching these high-class Thoroughbreds were, being a part of the crowd and seeing the fans around me taking it all in made me realize something: I was home.
New Memories on Familiar Ground
We arose early on Breeders’ Cup Saturday, earlier even than my usual weekday routine of preparing our children for school. The thrill of the day ahead kept me moving despite the hour because I knew that we would see something special. The funny thing is, I was wrong. We were not going to see one something special, but many. Favorite names, close finishes, and the thrills of lifetimes awaited us.
Trackside, we walked the paddock and the apron, taking in the sights more than an hour before the day’s first race. I saw benches moved and grouped as friends gathered for the festivities ahead. Familiar faces once again stopped us as we walked, and I asked each what they were looking forward to most. The list of names were ones that we all had seen on our television screens winning the races that the sport values most: Malathaat, Golden Pal, Epicenter, Flightline. Clutching warm cups of coffee, with the long day ahead, we shared memories of performances past and the anticipation what lay ahead.
Standing in the paddock for both the Dirt Mile and the Distaff, I thrilled at the sight of horses I had come to love as much as names of the past. I finally got to see the handsome Cyberknife in the flesh and gushed at the sight of Malathaat and Secret Oath. The best part, though, was the communal milieu of anticipation. The bright outfits and the low hum of chatter everywhere I went spoke to the same feeling of home I had a day earlier. We were all there for the same reason, to watch the best of the best and to marvel at the show.
This was my first time at the Breeders’ Cup after watching at home over the last three decades. The historic performances of Arrogate over California Chrome and Personal Ensign gutting it out over Winning Colors had played out on my television screen, but, here, at Keeneland, I was a part of the magic. As we all collected in the grandstand for the Classic, the thousands on hand held their breath for the final act. It was time for Flightline.
I have been among the cacophony as the field enters the stretch at Churchill Downs. More than once I have stood at the rail for the break at Preakness. I have visited American Pharoah, Justify, Arrogate, and Authentic, have seen what greatness looks like in the flesh. Little prepares you for history in real time. As Flightline flew down the stretch, it was impossible to take it all in and hold it in a way that allowed me to capture the moment. The grandstand vibrated with the cheers, the kinetic excitement of thousands of fans witnessing the Classic. This was a snippet of time that encapsulated the best of racing and I do not mean just the horses on the track.
From the rail to the rafters, this was what racing means to the people present and those watching at home. The shared thrill made the race as memorable as the performance itself.
Keeneland slowly emptied after the Classic, with a smattering of people lingering to take in the sunset reflecting off the clouds. As the day wound down, we exhaled, gratified by what we had seen but also reveling in the relief of a day well spent. Around us, the 2022 Breeders’ Cup World Championships concluded with our final steps out of the historic racetrack and the long walk back to our car.
In the few days since, I knew I would feel the same sadness that follows any trip to the races. I miss the horses, the sound of their thundering hooves, and the camaraderie of the fans we had shared the days with. But I know that I will come home again one day soon.
Maybe I will see you on the rail next time.
As a turf writer, I know the sport in different ways than I did as a fan, yet in those two days and 14 races that comprise the Breeders’ Cup I felt more connected to what made me fall in love with racing all those years ago. The horses, whether they are claimers or champions, bring me there, but the people make the day. From shared memories of great performances to the scores that inspire a story or two, a conversation with those by the paddock or in the grandstand are among my favorite ways to spend a day at the races. Set all of that in Keeneland’s great stone walls draped in purple and gold, and Breeders’ Cup becomes a snapshot of home away from home, the memories inviting us back again and again to connect and celebrate.