By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Fans come to Keeneland Race Course for more than world-class racing. Tailgating is as much a part of the scene as gleaming Thoroughbreds and the bright colors of the jockeys’ silks as they come flashing by.
“It’s huge. My goodness, it seems like people have been in the parking lot at Keeneland since the beginning,” said Christa Marrillia, the track’s director of marketing. “One of the visions of our founders was to have a park-like setting where people could picnic.”
The site is so idyllic that Brian Cobb of Union, Ky., decided to celebrate his 47th birthday here on Friday. He was accompanied by his father, Ben, and his father-in-law, Tom.
“We come at least once in the fall and once in the spring,” Cobb said. “Half of the fun is being here, people watching and seeing the sights.”
They favor a large takeout order of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken. Beverages of choice? “We have some pop and beer and water, not necessarily in that order,” Cobb said.
Geoff Stevens and Ken Petty, friends from Louisville, saw the pastoral setting at Keeneland as the perfect place to unwind and get away from it all.
“Everyone loves to come up here. It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Stevens said, sipping a rum and coke. “It does help you separate from everything else and have a good time and relax.”
Ben Kadrlik, John Hamer and Mike Bultman, friends since their high school days in Minnesota who are now in their late 20s, began a tour of major tracks by visiting Del Mar last year. Not surprisingly, Keeneland became a must-see second stop.
“It’s just gorgeous,” said Hamer, munching sunflower seeds during a sun-splashed afternoon. “Back in Minnesota, it’s in the high 40s today.”
For Chris Scates, John Gray and Doug Strange, who formed an unbreakable bond when they attended the same kindergarten class in their hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., what happens outside the entrance is every bit as delightful as what occurs inside.
“How do you not come here on Opening Day?” said Scates. “We don’t miss it for anything.”
For them, it’s about beer and babes. Their stated goal: To take the edge off by consuming a six-pack apiece in 90 minutes. For Gray, the scenery had nothing to do with lush grass or majestic trees. “Women in their hats and dresses,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many beautiful women.”
Tailgating is not always without its travails. In Gray’s case, he was pulled away from the scenery of the female sort by a phone call from an accountant who was reminding him that he still needed to do that week’s payroll. He whipped out a calculator and some paperwork while Scates launched into a discussion of his approach to handicapping.
Scates plays a trifecta box of 1-3-7 with no science involved. They are his favorite numbers. He also is fond of exactas and recalled one rollercoaster afternoon last year when he built $1,200 in winnings only to lose it all on overwhelming favorite Uncle Mo in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G1) at Aqueduct.
Even as Scates spoke of that day of highs and lows, his eyes never stopped wandering. At last, he spotted a beautiful blonde in the distance. “There you go, John, down by that tree,” Scates said.
Clearly, pursuing winners is only part of the Keeneland experience.
TAILGATING SCENES FROM FRIDAY'S OPENING DAY AT KEENELAND