CRAWFORD | A Classic tale: At Keeneland, American Pharoah comes - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | A Classic tale: At Keeneland, American Pharoah comes home

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American Pharoah at Keeneland. AP photo. American Pharoah at Keeneland. AP photo.
American Pharoah gallops at Keeneland. AP photo. American Pharoah gallops at Keeneland. AP photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — Fast horses. A piece of land. A crisp day. Give us these. Kentucky will add the magic.

Today at Keeneland, the Breeders’ Cup returns to the breeders’ heartland. The race belongs here. There are bigger venues. There is no bigger setting. There could be no deeper connection.

Keeneland has strained its infrastructure to hold the crowds for thoroughbred racing’s biggest day. But it is the backdrop that frames the event, the rolling hills, the autumn trees, the sprawling horse farms, the small breeding farms. The street signs whispering the names of ghostly greats, Man o’ War, Aristides.

I wonder if the animals, as they stepped out of vans and off of planes, so many of them, had any inkling of coming home?

American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, the first ever to compete in this event, has spent most of his racing life in California, but was born 15 miles east of his Keeneland stall, at Stockplace Farm. He will retire to Coolmore Ashford Stud, just 12 miles west, sometime in December. He will remain in trainer Bob Baffert’s care through November, The New York Times reported this week, and may have a final farewell event at Churchill Downs.

He isn’t the only one coming to a place of origin. Of 2,571 American-bred Breeders’ Cup starters, 1,863 were bred in Kentucky. Many ran in these adjacent fields before they ever wore a saddle, when the only ones watching were a few people standing at the fence, dreaming.

The event could not escape the shadows of this place if it wanted to, its auction house, its farms, its people.

It has always been so. It was this way when Sports Illustrated magazine brought the great writer William Faulkner to the event, drove him into the Bluegrass, showed him around Claiborne Farm, C.V. Whitney’s farm, and more in the pristine countryside of the region. He fell asleep in the car on the way home, but bolted upright near Frankfort, rolling down the window, “I thought so!” he said. “I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.”

So there was. Kentucky’s native spirit entered his nostrils, and perhaps his blood. He wrote his first words, a three note phrase (editors would later add a time element), like the opening of a symphony: “This saw Boone.”

He was onto something. It was this way from the beginning, from the beginnings of the earth, from 450 million years ago, when Ordovican waters left vast deposits of limestone that still influence the land from below the surface. Maybe its impact on Kentucky’s land and livestock is part folklore, but the rise of the racehorse in this place more than any other is fact.

And the reverence for those fastest of horses here is like no place else. There is a farm here that will go to the ends of the earth to bring old racehorses home. And there are people who will visit, just to see horses who maybe won a handful of big races 20 years ago, or not even that, maybe are the offspring of horses who won great races 30 years ago.

It is here where people saw so many of these horses come into the world, here were so many were bred. These people saw from the beginning, watched them rise and take their fist steps, saw them begin to run in the fields. You don’t know their names, but they loved many of these horses before you did. And will after their names fade from memory.

This land, the Keeneland property, already held a race track, and a stone barn, which was incorporated into a grandstand, when organizers bought the 147 acres from Jack Keene. They celebrate “racing as it was meant to be,” at Keeneland. They hold to the history of the breed, and the sport. Among the track’s holdings  is one of the world’s largest repositories of information on thoroughbreds and racing, 30,000 books, 400,000 photographs or negatives, thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, and the papers of some of the sport’s well-known writers. The track did not add a public address announcer for its races until 1997. Until then, it was the sounds of people and hoofbeats that rang in the races.

American Pharoah arrived at Keeneland this week, winner of the Triple Crown. One day, one of those Lexington streets will be named for him. Soon, he will be one of those retired racehorses that people want to visit.

This week, the first chance for a Triple Crown winner to be part of a Breeders’ Cup, and the first chance for Keeneland to host a Breeders’ Cup, have intersected.

It is fitting.

The sport has changed. People here have not. They want to be here for the moment, whether he wins or loses. They want to watch him walk onto the track for the last time. They want to be a part of history, in a place that is history itself.

“He grabbed me differently than any horse ever has,” Baffert said this week.

Letting go will be hard, for Baffert and the entire team that has followed American Pharoah on his ride. But this place will welcome him home, both today, and for good.

A piece of land. A fast horse. It has been good to see that the magic still exists.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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