Racing As It Was Meant to Be
It all began on October 15, 1936, when Keeneland hosted its first day of live Thoroughbred racing.
However, a sequence of events years earlier actually set the stage for the founding of Keeneland — beginning with the closing of the historic Kentucky Association track near downtown Lexington in 1933 — leaving the Horse Capital of the World without a race track for the first time in more than 100 years.
Two years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, a volunteer committee comprising 10 men and led by respected horsemen Hal Price Headley and Major Louis Beard began their quest to bring racing back to Lexington.
Their goal was to create a race track unique in structure. It would be a community project, a nonprofit venture in which proceeds would be returned to the racing purse money for horsemen and improvements to the facility, with any remaining profits to be donated to local charities. Most importantly, they wanted to create a race track that would carry on Kentucky’s Thoroughbred tradition for future generations.
From among 20 locations, they selected Jack Keene’s property. It was selected first and foremost because Keene was willing to part with the property for much less than its fair market value. Plus the land included a mile and a furlong private track, combination stone castle and barn, a 100,000-gallon water tank, a roadway and land for future stables and parking.
Keene was an internationally known Thoroughbred trainer who started the ambitious project of building his own private racing and training facility during the 1920s on a tract of land that belonged to Keene ancestors long before Kentucky became a commonwealth in 1792. Keeneland’s sprawling stone clubhouse, grandstand and other original structures were quarried from native Kentucky limestone. These beginnings gave Keeneland’s planners a foundation for constructing a new facility.
The facility, while a good start, still required much work to welcome racing’s finest. Headley, Beard and others worked feverishly around the clock, and a mere 15 months later, Keeneland opened its gates and became one of the world’s first and only not-for-profit tracks. It was managed by the Keeneland Association, which consisted of a team of volunteers under the direction of Beard and Headley, Keeneland’s first president.
On opening day of the nine-day season, more than 8,000 fans came to the races — ranging from locals who simply wanted to see racing in their hometown for the first time in years to titans of business who brought some of their best bloodstock to compete. Lexington, a town of 46,000, had supported racing’s comeback as the meet posted attendance of 25,337. And even with 15 million Americans out of work, those fans had taken a gamble or two, wagering more than $500,000. By the end of the year, Keeneland had scraped by, losing just $3.47 in its first year.
As Headley said, “We want a place where those who love horses can come and picnic with us and thrill to the sport of the Bluegrass. We are not running a race plant to hear the click of the mutuel machines. We want them to come out here to enjoy God’s sunshine, fresh air and to watch horses race.”