On October 15, 1936, Keeneland racetrack near Lexington, Kentucky, ran its first card. The venerable racetrack is celebrating its 75th anniversary on October 15, 2011 with an afternoon at the races. NBC will telecast a one-hour program called “Autumn at Keeneland.” That evening a concert at Rupp Arena honoring Keeneland will feature the Boston Pops and the University of Kentucky Orchestra.

The Lexington History Museum provides the following description of the founding of Keeneland in the wake of the closing of the Kentucky Association Racetrack after 128 years in business in downtown Lexington.

“Keeneland, one of the most beautiful racecourses in the world, came into being after the historic Kentucky Association track disbanded in 1933. A volunteer committee led by Maj. Louis A Beard proceeded to hunt for the ideal location for a new track. In its decisions, the committee kept returning to the land of J.O. “Jack” Keene.

Keene had spent many years building his own private track on his farm named Keeneland. Keene’s dream was to have his own private race track–a place where, he said, ‘my friends can bring their horses and live in the clubhouse themselves and have fun racing for the sport.’ Keene spent nearly a half-million dollars on the development of his track and clubhouse, but the Great Depression was too much for him. In spite of his dream, he accepted the committee’s offer to buy his farm.

On April 17, 1933 articles of incorporation were filed for the Keeneland Association and in late August, the Keeneland Association purchased 147½ acres of Keene’s property for $130,000 in cash and $10,000 in preferred stock at par value. Hal Price Headley was elected President of the Keeneland Association, a position he would hold until 1951. Keeneland’s passion has always been to blend the traditions of the past with the technology of the future.”

In 1943, Keeneland held its first yearling sale, which was a three-day event conducted by Fasig-Tipton in a tent. Out of this inaugural sale came Hoop Jr., the winner of the 1945 Kentucky Derby. Because of gasoline and rubber shortages during World War II, Keeneland’s 1943 spring meet was relocated to Churchill Downs, where customers could arrive by street cars instead of automobiles.

Through the years, the Keeneland racetrack has hosted human and equine luminaries, from Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and then-governor Ronald Reagan to famous racehorses too numerous to single out. The Keeneland auctions have sold low-price future greats like John Henry for $1,100 and high-price duds like Seattle Dancer for $13.1 million in 1985.

The Keeneland Association, a nonprofit, has supported a wide array of Lexington-area organizations with its philanthropy–made possible by profits from its racing and sales operations. Keeneland has been fortunate to have been guided by capable chief executives who revered the place, from its first president Hal Price Headley to its incumbent CEO Nick Nicholson.

In my mind, Keeneland is the closest experience one can find in the United States to some of the elegant racetracks in Europe. The architecture, setting, and ambience is unique on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

My memories of Keeneland go back a long way—to when I was a boy and accompanied my father for a much-anticipated day at the races in the bluegrass countryside. Greater Lexington had not encroached on Keeneland and a highway had not been cut through the nearby legendary Calumet Farm. Keeneland did not even have a track announcer and a public address system until 1997.

A day at the Keeneland races has a singular quality. One comes away tired but renewed.

Thanks for the memories, Keeneland.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


  1. In tandem here is this weeks copy of the Blood Horse. It has a really nice, laden with great pictures, very thorough feature on Keeneland. I very much enjoyed it, and thought that it was one of the best exposes’ from the Blood Horse in a very long time. Pick it up if you see it.

  2. I watched the Keeneland Races on TV Today. I have never been there but I hope to soon. Its not just the track but the tradition. Enjoyed the article