Collecting a Breeders' Cup

Going to the Breeder's Cup can be like having a table for one at a popular restaurant.

If you go by yourself, you can feel out of place.

Before the event, horse race handicapping is not a tailgating party-type activity. It's work. Still, anybody serious about the sport has to collect at least one Breeder's Cup site. And this year's site, Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., beats all the other collectable sites, including the Cup's unofficial home, Santa Anita where, the day or two before the first race, the occasion might be mentioned at the bottom of sports page two in "Other news."

Keeneland is to horse racing as the Royal and Ancient is to golf.

It is the birthplace of birth places. It is where the best horses go to enjoy retirement like no other. It is rolling hill country, blue grass and black fences. It's not "Deliverance" Country. It's honorary Colonel country. It seems more southern than even the deep fried Gulf states. It has manners and good food and twisted roads. When last I was there I went to a Shaker restaurant. Technically. The Shakers were strongly religious people who didn't favor sex and shook themselves to death. Perhaps a few couldn't shake strongly enough and survived or at least passed along some recipes. The Shaker restaurant was tremendous, simple food served to perfection. When we sat down the first thing we were served was lemon pie with razor-thin lemon peel shaved and served on top, the point being, the rest of the meal was so good, and filling, few had room for desert served in the conventional sequenced.

Keeneland is one of the few places a person might actually be found going to the horse races to admire the bloodline and musculature of a horse, and enjoy him or herself thoroughly without making a wager. At one time, races were not vocalized by a track announcer so as not to ruffle the viewer. Like Augusta, the high dollar area at Keeneland is where patrons go. Even the railbirds look sharp.

But to some, the Breeder's Cup is like New Year's Eve, in that its crowds and prices are best left to the amateurs. Rooms cost like houses. Getting a bet down can be like dealing with Pamploma and the bulls.

Whereas a day at the races is tailor-made for regulars, or singles, the Breeder's Cup often involves a weekend and company, or socializing. As a top-ten bucket list item, a Breeder's Cup weekend can specify that it is to be a same-sex weekend, a couple of pals hanging out and gambling until the window runs out of cash or ATM says that's enough. But mostly couples attend Breeder's Cup weekend. Husbands and wives. Male and female friends. Tables full of them. Rooms full. Sections full. And losing your backside while having to make small talk is torture.

A bucket list site is the introduction to the event. The key stipulation is with whom this monumental event is to be shared.

If you go to the Breeder's Cup with somebody new to horse racing, even if it's a spouse, you wind up handicapping out of the corner of your eye while exchanging Donald Trump stories. So here's one thing you have to do if a Cup trip is apt to turn at least partly social: Handicap early. Stay up all night the nights before. Write down the bets you plan to make. This beats trying to pick winners with somebody at your table asking what this means and what that means. It means please be quiet two minutes and let me think. How, you might wonder, can somebody live in or around Lexington, Ky., and come to the race track at Keeneland, and still not know how to read a past performance line? They're too busy talking, that's why. A local is apt to say: Here's fifty dollars. You're the expert. Bet if for me. But please don't lose, hear?

If you're at the horse races with somebody who had given you free rein before, you might hear things like:

"So this is where the money went."

"Do you always act like a wild man?"

"How much did you bet on this race?"

"How much longer?"

There's nothing better than a Breeder's Cup weekend with a best friend. If a significant other, or a spouse, is that, consider yourself walk-around lucky.