It's been 28 years since I spit in the eye of Horace Greeley, packed up the covered wagon, and headed east from Los Angeles, Calif., to Lexington, Ky.
It was a different century, and in horse racing, a different world.
The only thing you heard at Keeneland upon my arrival in 1988 was the imaginative strains of Simon and Garfunkel's “The Sound of Silence.” That's right – no track announcer to tell you “They're off … it's over … you lose.” If you were a true horse racing devotee, you didn't need to be told what was going on.
Degenerate gamblers (yes, they were tolerated at Keeneland) lived for inquiries and disqualifications, since they knew to keep a close eye on the tote board – a flashing number was the only way to tell if an official review was under way. They would scoop up discarded tickets, hoping the stewards would transform them into winners. The mad scramble was always fun to watch.
Keeneland was about elegance and tradition. “Racing as it was meant to be” was the advertising mantra driven into the psyche of Central Kentuckians. It was where the Queen of England came and felt comfortable holding one of those little tea cups in hand, her pinky waving to the masses. Regular Janes and Joes were never really meant to feel special.
Back then, Keeneland held its biggest race, the Blue Grass Stakes, on a Thursday, when most of the world was working.
Thank goodness, those days are over.
Somewhere between today and the time back in the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Hal Price Headley and Major Louie A. Beard came up with the idea to “create a model racetrack to perpetuate and improve the sport,” the words “innovation” and “leadership” entered the vocabulary of Keeneland management.
What caused the transformation of an elitist organization into an industry leader?
It's just a hunch (this is racing after all, where hunches are part of the game), but it may have come when James E. “Ted” Bassett, Keeneland's longtime president and then chairman, attended the Disney Institute in Orlando, Fla., to get a better understanding that customers (or guests) are No. 1.
I recall, many years ago, when the trade association of racetracks, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, held its annual meeting in Los Angeles and invited a speaker from the Walt Disney Company to make a presentation about customer service. This was back in the day – pre-casinos outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, no simulcasting – when racing held a virtual monopoly on gambling. Customer service amounted to unlocking the admission gates.
When the Disney presentation ended, you would have thought by the look on the faces of many of the racetrack managers that a Martian spaceship had landed at the front of the room and a little green fellow began to make indecipherable sounds. The idea of customer service at most racetracks really was alien. Bassett, however, through his remarkable life and career, apparently had learned to speak Martian. He understood what was being said and decided to take the bait to learn more about this newfangled term, customer service.
From that time forward, under Bassett's leadership and that of track presidents William Greely, Nick Nicholson and now Bill Thomason, Keeneland has innovated and led the racing industry with a commitment to customer service in many areas, including high-definition television and a superior simulcast product, safety standards for horses and riders, fair pricing for the horseplayer and fan education and development. No one does it better. Along the way, Keeneland also strengthened its place in the local and regional community. Instead of simply donating to charities as it has done for decades, Keeneland and its employees work with them. Special events such as Military Day and Make A Wish Day truly are memorable for the participants and the fans in attendance.
Not everything has worked. The focus on equine safety led to a synthetic racing surface that didn't make everyone happy and rendered the Blue Grass Stakes a relatively meaningless Grade 1 prep for the Kentucky Derby. A dirt track once again is in place as the main racing surface, though it is engineered to be as safe as humanly possible. A synthetic training track remains for those horsemen wishing to use it, the primary reason Kentucky Derby favorite Nyquist will do all of his serious training at Keeneland between now and the Run for the Roses on May 7.
Keeneland, which opens its 16-day spring meeting on Friday, has long since dropped the “racing as it was meant to be” advertising slogan. Today, however, it really is true.
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