Blue Grass Stakes, sunshine draw near-record crowd to Keeneland

jpatton1@herald-leader.comApril 12, 2014 

Louisville has the First Saturday in May for the Kentucky Derby. But Lexington has the second Saturday in April, the day when spring really starts, with Blue Grass Stakes Day at Keeneland Race Course.

The forsythias were blooming, sports fans had turned from basketball to horse racing, and college girls spent the afternoon keeping their short skirts down in breezeways around the grandstand.

The official attendance: 39,722, second-highest in Keeneland's history. Unofficially, moving around the track was a terrific crush. Thankfully, Keeneland now has shuttles to run patrons in and out from far-flung parking lots.

The look of the day for men: seersucker pants and bow ties. For women, no pants, as in bare legs or maxi dresses. And hats were everywhere on men and women alike.

University of Kentucky graduate student Paulina Fisher brought friends to the track for the day. They came prepared with champagne and orange juice to make mimosas but went in search of a bow tie for a male friend.

They didn't find one, but both Fisher and Danielle Baker, visiting from Nashville, found great hats at the Keeneland gift shop.

"I said, can I wear it with jeans? And they said, of course," Fisher said, showing off a white topper.

The day also started early for fans on the Hill, Keeneland's tailgating area, where Sara Boden and Damian Pickering were setting up a 40th birthday party for their friend, Jennifer Mink, a counselor at Breckinridge Elementary.

"We invited the whole school," Boden said. So they needed a spot with room for a tent, in front of a big-screen TV, with a betting area, food trucks, and a shuttle to the track. "That's why we picked the Hill!"

It was popular spot: nearby, UK Tri Delts had a buffet set up under a tent for 160 people.

It's Parents Weekend, said Madeline Kaiser, 20, chairwoman of member development. "So we thought we would all go to Keeneland together."

For Caitlin Rexrode, who lives in West Virginia and is getting married June 14, it was the only place she even thought about having her bachelorette party.

"I said, 'Where do you want to have your party — Vegas? Pittsburgh? (She's originally from Pittsburgh),'" her sister Jordan Rexrode said. "And she said Keeneland."

"It's about getting dressed up and wearing a big hat," Caitlin Rexrode said.

So her bridesmaids flew in from Pennsylvania for the day, and it was the first time at the track for several of them.

The bride-to-be's advice for betting: "I've always gone with what horse is the prettiest."

Tough call on Saturday, with some of the most beautiful Thoroughbreds in Kentucky aiming for the winner's circle.

No matter which horse won the big race of the day, Stacey and Scott McCauley of Durham, N.C., and Kristy and James Light of Atlanta were already winners.

James Light won his box seat tickets in a charity auction.

"It wasn't silent; it was really loud. And $5,000 later, we're here," Light said.

By mid-afternoon, the four friends had already cashed four winning tickets. They had never been to the races before in their lives, they swore.

"But it was on my bucket list," Light said.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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