Family and Lifelong Friends in the Bluegrass — by Leah Brandon

I made it to Keeneland for the Toyota Blue Grass stakes…finally. What’s more important is that I was able to put aside the rest of my life for a weekend at the track with my dad,  TJ Moran. We have never been to a race together in all these years but we share a love for Secretariat. I try to call him every Sunday night and for almost two years, I force-fed him information about California Chrome until he loved him too.

Keeneland 6
Leah and TJ at Keeneland.
TJ and my stepmother, Lydia,  live in Carmel, CA and I am making my home in Alabama these days. We are worlds away from each other but this weekend was not to be missed.
My Dad is not a race fan per se, but he and Lydia have friends that are knee-deep in it.  I drove to Kentucky to hang out with their group.
Mike and Mary live down the road from the beautiful Ramsey farm in Nicholasville. Mikes family at one time owned Domino Stud. Nowadays, they have a smaller farm with an OTTB and a mini-donkey as the lone residents. Both the horse and the donk are meticulously cared for even though they will never be income earners. I love that. The world needs more Mike and Marys.
Photo Mike and Mary
The other couple along for the Keeneland ride is Al and Mel. These two met decades ago at Stanford and have been together ever since. Al is the one in the group that got my attention immediately because of his knowledge about racing. We talked nonstop about handicapping and Derby prospects, and what a crazy road to Churchill we are traveling on.
Keeneland 1
Al the Handicapper at Keeneland on Blue Grass day.
So this is the group that I got to hang with on my first trip to Keeneland Racetrack. “THE SIX” are lifelong friends sharing special events as they travel through the years together. They have run the New York Marathon more than 20 times, and are world class globetrotters, always sampling food and wine meant for the Gods. Next month, the SIX are heading to Italy for more food, drink and merriment. Thank God they are marathoners because the amount of calories they consume multiple times each day is the equivalent to 3 year olds on the Triple Crown Trail.
Keeneland 2
“The Six” enjoying Blue Grass day.
We arrived early on Blue Grass day and the track was spectacular. Nothing but sunshine with temperatures in the mid-60s. The green grass surrounds the track as far as the eye can see. Everything I have heard about the majesty of Keeneland can not compare to seeing it in person.
Mike and Mary led the way with valet parking, perfect clubhouse seating, and box seats just past the finish line. When at Keeneland, having different vantage points is always a plus!  Mikes’ father purchased this box years ago and the family will never give it up.
The card for the day was impressive. 11 races including multiple graded stakes. So much handicapping to do! Al sat down with the PPs right away and went to work with his head down, grinding out the exactas in all the races. Mary and Mel seemed much less intense using the program only, but had hit after hit! Very unassuming those two….until they returned from cashing their tickets with a wad that was hard to fold.
I can’t seem to get this handicapping thing down. My biggest wins have come from the heart…Creator at the Belmont made me throw down 50 to win. I picked up 870 for that one since that crazy lunatic rider-tosser ended up being 33 to 1 or something like that. But I loved him.
As I glanced at the first race on the card at Keeneland, one named jumped out at me. CHIEF KNOW IT ALL. In December, I lost my beloved horse of 20 years…his name was Chief. No way I’m not betting that horse to win! 5 dollars turned into 15 as Chief Know It All crossed the finish line first. What a great start to Blue Grass day.
Keeneland 3
Chief Know it All crosses the wire first at Keeneland!
We spent much of our time in the clubhouse, because of the close proximity to the track. Everything at Keeneland seems so much closer than the treks at Santa Anita or even Del Mar. The paddock is just right out the door from the clubhouse and as the horses make their way to the track, you walk the few steps back into the clubhouse, exit through the bank of glass doors and viola, you are trackside at the rail.
We came for the Blue Grass Stakes, but the horse I wanted most to see was in the Grade 2 Commonwealth: A.P. Indian. His duels with Limousine Liberal always have me on the edge of my seat. By the time this race was halfway over, the SIX were in the process of moving to the box seats and I could only see the end of the action. Awesome Slew got em all at the wire. I remembered, as my A.P. tried valiantly to pull off the win, that since the return to dirt at Keeneland, Awesome Again and Giants Causeway babies have had great success. None of the SIX seemed phased by my devastating loss and in fact, Mel was ecstatic because,  of course, she had bet on Slew.
I wonder if being emotionally invested in a horse is killing my chances of ever becoming a successful handicapper. Is it head over heart? Is it better to use heart and intuition? Is it a combination of both? Whatever it is, I’m not sure any skill set couldve predicted the outcome of the Bluegrass Stakes.
Keeneland 4
McCraken on the track prior to the Blue Grass Stakes.
Making my way to the rail for the big race was a little more difficult than it had been all day.  I had to weave through what had suddenly become a sea of drunken hipsters slinging booze and waving stogies. The guys, all in suits and bow ties, were becoming more disheveled by the second, but that was nothing compared to their once “well put together” girlfriends. You have seen these girls at every track, and Keeneland is no different. They are stunningly perfect from their flawless skin to their bodies with all the add-ons. They look as if they have stepped out of a magazine as a fantasy come to life. But the kicker is that, as a group, they can not hold their liquor. I call them “Barfie Dolls” and you need to pay special attention to them as you walk by.
The horses were in the post parade for the Bluegrass and I’m thinking about which horses I need to try and photograph for the readers. Of course…McCraken, Tapwrit and my favorite Practical Joke. But the hipsters and Barfie Dolls are pressing in so tight that I can only really capture McCracken. Whomever is ponying this horse named IRAP is blocking my view of TAPWRIT!  I think I actually said at one point, WHEN THIS IRAP HORSE MOVES, I CAN PHOTOGRAPH THE WINNER. Lesson learned.
After the longshot won his way into the Kentucky Derby, but before he stepped foot into the winners circle, the SIX had expertly evacuated the grounds and were speeding to Malone’s. We celebrated our wins and our losses. We chatted about the Derby Trail and how it was littered with favorites. We talked about how both our Pick 3 and our Pick 4 had been destroyed. But we talked as happily about our losses as our wins.
Keeneland 5
Going to the races is first and foremost about the experience. Its about good friends and new acquaintances. Its about the horses that try so hard to reach that wire first. Keeneland’s up close experience makes you realize that every horse in the race is special, and that even if yours didn’t win, your heart goes out to him for an excellent effort from gate to wire.

Leave a Reply