My hometown of Lexington, KY is touted as being the “horse capital of the world.”
I’m sure that some European countries and even cities in the US don’t agree, and I’m not sure who took it upon themselves to count all of the horses, but this time of year it seems rather true. Horse racing is in full swing, I will be out photographing the Kentucky Rolex (horse jumping) this week, and then coming soon is the Derby.
The Spring horse racing session is on at Keeneland so I got out in the drizzly weather to take a look. It is difficult to get good pictures this time of year because it is either raining or getting ready to rain and the sky glows a nuclear white thanks to the sunshine trying to burn a hole through the rampant humidity.
The horse races are a big part of local culture though, and as someone told me a long time ago, always go where the action is.
Keeneland is an interesting race track. The grounds are superbly beautiful, and it is a festive spot. Thousands attend the races, but many never even make it inside, choosing rather to tailgate with friends in the grassy parking areas and bet on beer rather than big, brown unpredictable animals. The crowd that does make it inside is a strange stew from both ends of the human spectrum, making it paradise for a people watcher.
Beautiful women in summer dresses and oversized sunglasses cling to their Miller lites and boyfriends. The local elite and rich smile for the media and coach the jockeys on how to handle these multi-million dollar mammals. Foreign horse owners and trainers are always present, and the air vibrates with an excitement of something about to happen, of money about to exchange hands.
Inevitably, after every race, an average Joe in a golf shirt is jumping up and down kissing strangers because he has just won thousands….while at the same time some bearded guy sitting in a fold-out chair on a field of nervously smoked cigarette butts is weeping and trying to figure out how he will tell his wife that he just gave their grocery money to this fine organization. Behind all the dressage, and show, and brass horns, and expensive decoration, these guys get trampled under the hooves of their addiction – I saw plenty of it when I went for a stroll with my camera.
I managed to loose $6 gambling over the course of the day, but it was worth it to make the races produce a little more adrenaline. Without some sort of stake in the game, it can get pretty dull just watching brown animals run in circles all day.
I had access to the VIP clubhouse, which is tie and jacket only, and requires a hand stamp. The main reason I like the clubhouse is that you get access right on the track, which provides a chance to take pictures without having to dodge people’s heads. It also makes for a more genuine experience. You can hear the weight of the horses and smell the effort on the dirt.
I always grin inside the clubhouse, you can plainly tell the lifers from the ones like myself that had to look for 20 minutes to find their suit. Their one suit.
Most are gray haired, donning bow ties, and the lines on their faces are a road map of how long it took them to get there. Even the young ones share one common attribute – they look miserably rich…and well…miserable. They sit clutching expensive cocktails or wine, not saying much, and staring grumpily at the screens rather than braving the fresh air. In reality, a majority of the people are middle class, got inside because of some connection, and went through a lot of effort to not look middle class. They cluster in groups like gazelles nervously glancing around the room, afraid the rich predators will figure out that they drive Fords.
For me, the most interesting part of this entire endeavor is the jockey. These guys are short, I mean, very short, but I wouldn’t want to make one angry. These guys boldly take command of these huge, frisky thoroughbreds with no fear, despite the bulging brown muscles that tower over them by a full foot or more. I have been on a horse twice in my life, and I think I would feel safer diving into a pool of rattlesnakes. Most are Hispanic, and their leathery faces show thousands of days under the sun and either braving or recovering from injuries – for very little pay.
Since I find myself in Kentucky rather than Indonesia at the moment, things like Keeneland are my savior. Albeit expensive and painfully safe, it provides a distraction so that I don’t think too much about that volcano I should be climbing.