For those who have never been to Lexington, Kentucky, it might be hard to understand why so much is being made of the Breeders' Cup World Championships coming to its iconic racecourse, Keeneland, for the first time in its history.
The short answer is that while the track in the heart of horse country is smaller than most previous hosts for the two-day racing extravaganza, what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer passion. In fact, the entire city has been invested in making this a Breeders' Cup to remember.
Kentucky prides itself on its basketball, bourbon and horses. The vast majority of runners entered in the Breeders' Cup were born and raised within a 50 mile radius of Keeneland, and as the property is also home to some of the top horse sales in the world, many of them were sold there in their younger days as well. Louisville is home to America's most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby, but it is Lexington that is the cradle of the industry.
People flying into the Lexington's small airport, which is located just across the street from the racetrack, are being greeted with free bourbon balls, a favorite local chocolate treat. Hotels have been booked for months, dinner reservations are a must, and there has been some Breeders' Cup event going on somewhere in the city since the week started. It is borderline impossible to be in town and not know that the Breeders' Cup is about to take place.
Of course with a smaller venue comes the added stress of logistical things like parking and feeding the masses, and there are sure to be things that don't go as smoothly as they might at a larger track, but every effort is being made to make this a success.
Even a heavy bout of rain couldn't keep people away from gathering before sunrise to watch the Breeders' Cup contenders be put through their paces earlier in the week. On Thursday morning, with the sun finally returning to the bluegrass, fans lined up at the training track just to catch a glimpse of Triple Crown hero American Pharoah. Some parents even kept their children out of school so they could say they got to see him with their own eyes.
It would be easy to chalk up the excitement around the Breeders' Cup to American Pharoah's presence, and it certainly is adding to it, but the truth is most tickets were sold out months before his historic triumph in the Belmont.
Lexington is a place that loves it horses, and Keeneland is a track that people love. The most common complaint about it is that too many people go, especially younger ones just looking to have a good time. Take that already established enthusiasm and add to it the sheer quantity of top horses the Breeders' Cup draws, and it begins to make a little more sense.
"Throughout its storied history, Keeneland has developed an extraordinary reputation for delivering a first-class racing and hospitality product," said Breeders' Cup Chairman Bill Farish when it was announced the track would host the 2015 event. "We are excited to bring the Breeders' Cup home to Lexington and are energized by the support from the local community and the breeders of Central Kentucky who have been such a vital part of our program since its inception."
The strength of the Breeders' Cup varies from year to year, and the racing gods have smiled favorably upon Lexington. American Pharoah will be making the final start of his career, as will Europe's best colt, Golden Horn, who races in the Turf. The Classic lost a bit of its luster when it was announced champion mare Beholder would be scratched, but there are still plenty of incredible racehorses set to compete over the course of the two days of racing.
The Breeders' Cup was the brainchild of the late John Gaines, who was the original owner of Gainesway Farm in Lexington, and 31 years after his concept first became a reality, it is finally coming home to racing's heartland.
It's up to Keeneland to make the most of the opportunity, but if ever a track deserved the chance, it is this one.