10/07/2012 10:01PM

Visiting The Red Mile and Keeneland

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On Sunday I spent an hour walking the track and barn area of The Red Mile. It was the early morning hours and only grooms and horses adorned the many barns that spread from the middle of the stretch through the far turn.

The Red Mile is what you make of it. It really depends on where you look and what you choose to see.

From the track apron, looking over the red-tinted surface and across the span of the mile oval, you cannot help but be in awe. The track is well manicured and the sight lines are second to none. There are no obstacles or large infield displays. From any vantage point you can watch the horses travel from start to finish; a true pleasure.

The beauty continues off to the side of the grandstand where barn after barn are occupied by some of the top trainers in the sport. Jimmy Takter, Ray Schnittker, Tony Alagna and Erv Miller are some of the names on the plaques in front of each barn.

The stable area makes you think back to what it was like 30 and 40 years ago. I’m told the barn area used to extend much further down onto the current main thoroughfare. Back before the days of constant contact with mobile phone and the internet, the backstretch buzz must have been quite a scene.

The grandstand also makes you look to the past. The aged building which was probably quite a spectacle many moons ago has clearly seen better days. The stands are old and most people spend more time on the track apron, where seating boxes adorn the outer rail and you can smell some wonderful pulled pork and other barbecue delights being slow-cooked to perfection on either side of the grandstand.

The number of betting windows was satisfactory, as I never saw a line with more than four people.  The crowd was quite industry-filled. One would estimate that half of the people who walked through the turnstiles had some working alliance to standardbred racing. However, that allowed the “Everyday Joe” a chance to hobnob with some of racing’s elite.

Building aside, The Red Mile is a wonderful place for racing. The track plays fairly. In an age where speed dominates across the country, the surface at The Red Mile gives each horse a chance. I saw horses close from the back and win on the lead. There was no clear bias.

My lasting impression of The Red Mile is how great the racing is at the Lexington, Kentucky track and what it could be like in the future. Perhaps if the racing industry in Kentucky was able to benefit from casino gambling revenue like so many surrounding states, The Red Mile could truly be transformed into something special. Imagine the same perfect track accompanied by a new state-of-the-art grandstand; a marriage of the old and the new.

A new structure could help bring some special events. What about racing the Breeders Crown each year at The Red Mile? Could there be a better venue to conduct the season-ending series for our sport?

Perhaps the two weeks of Grand Circuit action which typically conclude on the first Sunday in October are followed by Friday and Saturday Breeders Crown elimination cards, with the finals on the third Saturday of the month.

Or, to build hype for the Breeders Crown and give the horses time to recover, maybe there is a week off between the eliminations and the finals.

With all due respect to other tracks which have hosted the Crown, I would love to head out to The Red Mile, make a wager in a brand new grandstand and venture out onto the track apron to watch the action.

I’ll be dreaming about that tonight.

Keeneland steals the show

One thing I noticed is that The Red Mile gets no local attention. When attending the Little Brown Jug in Ohio, the race was a featured attraction in the mainstream media. In Lexington, any chance of getting attention for the major Grand Circuit races seems to be destroyed by the opening weekend of Keeneland just a short drive down the road.

I took a brief trip to Keeneland and could not help but become mesmerized by the scene and the beauty. Right from the start upon arrival I saw a first. Young people were tailgating in the parking lots. I have been to plenty of tracks but never recall seeing busloads of what looked like college students hanging out in preparation for a day at the races.

I walked into the grandstand and immediately noticed two things. One was architecture. Brick pillars gave the place an interesting feel and a similar brick structure which serves as the clubhouse really caught my eye. The second standout feature was the perfectly manicured facilities and the unbelievable miles of gorgeous grass-filled scenery. For a guy born and raised in Brooklyn, it is hard to believe that much grass even exists.

I was lucky enough to run into Howard McKenzie from the Guest Services department. Working his 51st season at Keeneland, McKenzie knew everyone at the track and went out of his way to give me a guided tour. I believe I experienced what Southern Hospitality means.

The excursion included the press box, the announcer’s booth, the video department, and the opportunity to view the 1033 acres of land on which the track resides. The total acreage is more than double Belmont Park, which covers 430 acres.

Simply put, Keeneland may be the most beautiful track I have ever seen (and I’ve been to quite a few). Saratoga has its charm, Del Mar is great, the Delaware County Fairgrounds is a special place, but Keeneland definitely caught my eye.

If you have the time, I highly recommend a trip to Lexington next October to see The Red Mile and Keeneland (and the Kentucky Horse Park is great, too; even for children). Come on a Friday, spend Saturday at Keeneland and Sunday at The Red Mile. You will be glad you did it. I know I am.