Sep 5 2015

Kentucky Downs – A Pastoral and Primal Experience

Kentucky Downs

LIVE Racing in 2018 on September 1,6,8,9,13.

I recently returned to Kentucky Downs for the 2nd consecutive year, and I’m happy to report my experience was exhilarating. At one point I said to my wife, “This is becoming my favorite racetrack to visit.” Without missing a beat, she replied, “You say that about EVERY racetrack that we visit.” Touché.

We do visit a lot of racetracks. Just in the past year, I counted ten altogether. From Saratoga, down to Gulfstream, and all the way up to Emerald Downs in the Pacific Northwest. But Kentucky Downs is different, and in this case I mean “different” in a good way.

As a regular and lifelong horseplayer, I confess that I’m attracted to the simple pleasures of the sport. Seeing and hearing horses in full gallop, listening to the chatter of jockeys, being close to the trainers, horses, and grooms. Kentucky Downs offers this opportunity in spades. At one point a very famous trainer was standing on the rail during the post parade and bantering with the jockeys and outriders passing by. Another time I was discussing the contentious stretch run that resulted in a 3-way photo and a jockey’s objection. Just so happens, my conversation was with the trainer for one of the horses involved in the blanket finish. Where else does that kind of thing happen?

Kentucky Downs Viewing Area

Viewing Area, John Lies in Green Building on Right

In every race at Kentucky Downs the simple pleasures begin with a preamble by track announcer John Lies (pronounced Lees) that leads to a discussion with paddock commentator Gary West. Listening to these two gentlemen is comforting to the ear.

As a lifelong fan, there weren’t too many things they said that I didn’t already know. But it was just how they said them that kept my attention. It was so much nicer than listening to some public handicapper prattle on about “This horse won on a golden rail last time,” or “That trainer has won 17% of these races on a drop down for a tag.” John and Gary purposely avoid the jargon that turns off many fans.

John Lies

John Lies

In my opinion, John Lies is exactly what racetracks need to appeal to new and young fans. He possesses a natural “teaching” quality that makes him both fun to listen to and educational. Prior to a maiden claiming race he explained the nature of this “class” of race and the type of horse that he is looking for when evaluating the contenders.

Regarding how John calls the races, I appreciate the details he provides in his race calls that helps fans decipher exactly how a race was run with regards to pace, trips, jockey movements, etc. He also seems to have an innate ability to pick up on horses making winning moves during a race and bringing attention to them at the earliest possible point.

Gary West is a writer for ESPN most of the year, but during the five days of live racing at Kentucky Downs he provides commentary in the paddock. Gary is like a walking racing encyclopedia, with anecdotes that ranged from the origin of the term “purse” to an explanation of the original name of Kentucky Downs, which was “Dueling Grounds.”

Lawn Ranger

Aptly named horse, “Lawn Ranger” on the lead.

It seems that back in the 19th century, it was lawful in Kentucky to settle differences by way of a pistol duel and the 260-acre grounds that is now Kentucky Downs was a very popular destination. Apparently famous figures such as Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston visited the “dueling grounds” to witness such duels.

In a conversation with Gary, I explained how I was captivated by the whole experience at Kentucky Downs. He replied, “You know, horse racing began in pastoral settings. And I don’t know why more places don’t try to recreate that experience.” I often tell people that Kentucky Downs is what I imagine racing was like 150 years ago. Plunk some chairs down in a field. Mark out a course that goes around that oak tree in the far corner, up the hill on the backside, down and around that pond full of geese, and then back up the hill to end where we started.

KD Post Parade

Kentucky Downs Post Parade

From the moment the horses enter the track after leaving the paddock, you feel connected to them. If you are the type of person who benefits from seeing the horses in the flesh before a race, then there is no place like Kentucky Downs to have that experience.

I do not exaggerate when I say you can reach out and touch the horses. I don’t advise it, because moments before a race is not the best time to pet a horse on the nose.

You can hear them breathe. You can see their skin, muscle, hooves, ears, and eyes. Those enormous and beautiful eyes that have a way of finding you and reflecting back your image. You watch as they parade by you, loosening up their limbs, stepping lightly over the green surface, sometimes bouncing as though the grass were made of rubber. If you allow it, the whole experience can be truly surreal.


Aldara Heading Home

And then, during the race, when the horses make their run up the gradual incline towards the finish line, you are again only a few feet away from them. You see and hear their effort, as they give everything in their being to run as fast as they can, to get to that finish line ahead of the other horses.

I often wonder; do horses actually know whether or not they won the race? Then you see them return after their gallop out, and you can almost spot the winner even if you hadn’t seen the race. There’s a look, a feeling, a sense of accomplishment. They often stand a bit taller, and implicitly suggest, “Oh yea … I’m the winner.”

So that’s what Kentucky Downs is all about. It’s simple. It’s pastoral. It’s primal. If more racetracks could recreate this experience, I believe there would be no end to the fans that might fall in love with this sport.

 Click here to learn more about Kentucky Downs and the truly unique course layout from my 2013 visit.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

14 comments on “Kentucky Downs – A Pastoral and Primal Experience

  1. Thanks for the article, Neal. My wife and I have been watching the races from Kentucky Downs on Racetrack TV, and it looks like a fun place to watch the races. And you’re spot on with John Lies. We heard a lot of his paddock commentary during the recent Del Mar meet and he really is a pleasure to listen to. He also calls a nice race. Hopefully, we can make a trip to K-Downs in the near future!

  2. Echo comment made by Deron, John Lies is terrific. No pretense, no attitude, no ego. Sets a great example for other on-air commentators. In fact, he might be better commenting than calling races, though he is very good doing that too. Hope he gets more recognition for his solid work in the future.

    • Manny … me too. John Lies is basically unknown on the East coast, but with his work at Kentucky Downs, I hope he will start to get recognized. If racetracks want to draw in new fans, they need engaging, pleasant mannered, young, enthusiastic, and education-minded individuals. John Lies is all of that.

  3. Neal just wanted to let u know I have learned a lot from you have taken 101-401 and it was quite informative noticed now u have mentioned twice now about time form and have seen there selections on tvg and they seem pretty good my problem is when I get to the track I get so nervous and forget what I read my age does not help but would you recommend timeform for a once in a while horse player I am confused by there ad does it mean that for 2.99 u can get selections for any one track really trying to add some supplemental money to just have a good time at the track and make some money. From all the info and watching your entries I find u to be a respectful person and love your stories, please advise.
    Thanks jim

    • Jim, I’m glad to hear you’ve benefited from the Racing 101 through Racing 401 sections of the website under the “Get Started” tab. Regarding TimeformUS, I do recommend it for the “once in awhile” horseplayer. I think it has much to offer and the learning curve is much less than with the Daily Racing Form. I have only scratched the surface in the two articles I’ve written about the program so far. I intend to cover much more in future articles as I become more familiar with the product myself. Regarding pricing, I believe the standard price is $3 for one track on one race day. I think you can pay $5.99 to get multiple tracks on the same day. Also, I see discounted offers for package deals in some of their e-mails, so keep an eye open for that. Lastly, thank you for the compliments, much appreciated.

  4. Neal,

    Once again you perfectly combine the horseplayer angle with the horse lover/ fan viewpoint.

    Generally it’s assumed by other sports fans that the horseplayer who grouses when they get beat has no affection for the horses and their effort. The horse lover/fan is regarded by the horseplayer as the person who isn’t serious about handicapping and simply has some leftover childhood interest in the pretty horses. The reality is that a lot of serious handicappers are drawn to the sport because they love the horses and many horse lovers like the added excitement of a $2 wager and the possibility of winning a few bucks.

    You have illumimated why fans should embrace all that horse racing has to offer and why Kentucky Downs is a great way to experience it all. I can’t wait to make my first visit!

    Great article!

  5. Thanks for reprinting this article, Neal. I have been waiting eagerly for the meet to start for the great wagering opportunities. Your description of the experience of being there has moved the track to the top of my “must visit” list.

  6. I look forward to visiting Kentucky Downs and I can tell it’s my kind of track especially with my friend Gary West holding court. He is not only one of the brightest turf writers in the country but a truly old school soul who loves the horses as much as the sport. And he also has a fondness for the “characters” at the track. This place really sounds and looks awesome, kind of like Keeneland maybe 50 or 60 years ago. Next time you see Gary, ask him how “Razoo” is doing and tell him staunch steve said helllo.

    staunch steve on
    • I had a chance to meet Gary a couple of years ago and he seemed like everything you describe him to be. I hope to make it back to Kentucky Downs soon and I will be sure to say hi to Gary for you. Thanks for your comment.

      • You might try to find a book titled “Razoo At The Races” written by Gary about “characters” at a “fictional track” that was really Trinity Meadows in Willow Park, TX early-mid 90s. Very entertaining.

        staunch steve on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *