07/10/2002 12:00AM

Racing's big house of knowledge


LEXINGTON, Ky. - What was the purse for the 1842 Phoenix Handicap? How did horse breeders in the Civil War era treat animals with colic? What was the richest race carded in England in 1752? Which silversmith designed the Carlotta Bowl?

Starting July 15, when the Keeneland library moves from a corner of the clubhouse to its own 10,000-square-foot building, researchers will have plenty of room to dig into everything from racing history to current pedigree theory.

The new facility does more than offer 4,300 feet of shelving to store 10,000 volumes and periodicals, a collection that traces the Thoroughbred sport and equine husbandry back as far as 1678. It also places new prominence on one of Keeneland's most intriguing, and least publicized, resources.

The Keeneland library has served as a museum and a resource for researchers from around the country and the world. The library houses 19th-century trophies and contemporary sporting art. It was a central source for author Laura Hillenbrand's research for the best-selling book Seabiscuit. Its photo files, containing about 200,000 negatives, have illustrated countless articles and books. Thoroughbred buyers and breeders are among the library's most frequent visitors, sifting through pedigrees and 85 years' worth of auction catalogs.

Few could have predicted how large the library's resources would grow back in 1939, when Keeneland director William Arnold Hanger donated his 2,300-volume library to the track.

The most recent addition - and one of the elements that spurred Keeneland president Nick Nicholson to propose construction of a new library building in 2000 - is the complete archives of the Daily Racing Form dating back to 1896. An agreement struck two years ago between Daily Racing Form president Charlie Hayward and Nicholson will bring an additional 5,000 volumes to Keeneland.

"Keeneland already was the pre-eminent research library for the Thoroughbred industry, and we had this archive that the public didn't have access to," Hayward said recently. "Keeneland's real strength was in breeding information, and ours was in racing information."

"The commitment to a library has been part of Keeneland's mission since the association was founded," Nicholson said. "This is a complex industry that is based at its core on the foundation of pedigree and performance. So accurate record-keeping in both of those areas is critical for making business decisions, as well as in all other aspects, from racing fans to journalists. This combination of pedigree and performance records being based in one place and available from the historical archive point of view, all the way back 108 years, is something no other sport has to the degree we can provide it with this new facility."

The Form archives include bound volumes of newspapers, American Racing Manuals, and chart books, among other publications. The Form collection will be housed in its own temperature- and humidity-controlled room below the library's main floor. The public will not have open access to the newspapers in the archive room but can request that they be brought up for research purposes.

"The newspapers are fragile, and you can't replace them," librarian Cathy Schenck said. "They're originals."

Everything in its place, a place for everything

Until this month, Keeneland's library clung to the edge of the administrative building, where the Thoroughbred world's cognoscenti came to ponder every imaginable question about the Sport of Kings. The 1,500-square-foot room was something of a secret that researchers often discovered after other libraries failed to find requested information. But it could only hold a fraction of the library's volumes.

"Now, there's a shelf for everything," Schenck said of the new building. "We won't have anything in storage anymore, so all of the resources are here in one building. That makes retrieval faster. There's room for people to spread out and do research."

The building has two conference rooms, three public computers with Internet access, and eight reading tables that are wired to allow researchers to plug in their laptops. But the building's technical attributes don't detract from its traditional design. The library was built out of Kentucky limestone to reflect the design of Keeneland's grandstand and the adjacent Keene barn and Keene home.

Library still evolving

Schenck estimates that the library handles visits or phone queries from about 3,500 people annually.

Now that Schenck and her assistant Phyllis Rogers have more room to display the hidden treasures, the Keeneland library may get more visitors. Those who come will find a rich trove of racing history, statistics, art, and lore.

And the library is still evolving, Schenck says. Currently, she is working to catalog and index the Daily Racing Form archives, and, ultimately, Keeneland would like to create a digital version of the archive.

"For the first step, we would at least like to get the book titles up on the Internet on the Keeneland website so that people could check to see if we have a source they're looking for," Schenck said. "That's one of the next things to work on."

Until then, the new building will provide a larger and better home for some of the sport's most treasured documents. That's a relief to Hayward, Nicholson, and racing historians everywhere.

"Our concern was that so much of our sport's history could just disappear, and scholars wouldn't have a place to go to read the original words that were written about the great horses and races," Hayward said.

Now everyone can share in that history more easily.

"It's here for you and for everyone who comes after you," Schenck said of the library. "It's here for everybody, for generations to come."