Many children grow up playing on jungle gym sets in their backyards, very few on the wide green expanse of grass of Keeneland Race Course.
But most children don’t grow up in Versailles, a city of less than 9,000 people, where Thoroughbred horse farms stretch for miles, and the ideal extracurricular activity is being a college ambassador to one of the most popular racetracks in the country.
Victoria Ocampo grew up on Rose Hill Farm, where her parents raised Thoroughbred racehorses. They moved their farmto Rice Road directly behind Keeneland in 2003, and Ocampo said the proximity and relationship her father had with the track turned it into her own little playground.
“I grew up running around there in the sales pavilion and going to the races and participating in most Kid’s Club events for as long as I can remember,” Ocampo said. “I remember going out with my dad and my parents to watch the horses warm up in the morning and then they always put on a big breakfast for the kids with games. Keeneland has always been a place where I’ve felt at home.”
Now she helps organize and work track events such as Kid’s Club activities as a member of Keeneland’s College Ambassadors Program.
She said she loves seeing the excitement in kid’s eyes when they get to experience something at Keeneland for the first time, like seeing the horses or the massive track at events like Sunrise Trackside breakfast with the kids, the Kid’s Club Christmas Party and the Easter Egg hunt.
Quin Welch, a junior majoring in communications at Bellarmine University in Louisville, saw the advertisement for the ambassador program in his college newsletter as a freshman, and he has come back to the program every semester since.
“This state, it’s the horse capital of the world and you grow up here and it’s just kind of infectious,” Welch said, who is from Lexington and went to the track since he was a young boy, dressed in his Sunday best. “You grow to love it, even if you’re from out of town. We have a couple of ambassadors who are from out of state, and they’ve just grown to love Keeneland, or racing in general, just as much as I do.”
This spring there are 28 ambassadors from 11 colleges. They organized Campus Invasion, where they gave away goodie bags from some of Keeneland’s sponsors in the week leading up to the track’s College Scholarship Day, which was April 8. Keeneland and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association fund 10 $1,000 scholarships to give tocollege students on the big day.
Meredith Trent, who came to Keeneland for the first time as an out-of-state freshman at the University of Kentucky, oversees a lot of the fun as a Keeneland Promotions intern . She was encouraged by friends, Lexington natives who bragged about their hometown’s advantage, to come to the races. She said she was enthralled by the perfectly kept grounds, the atmosphere and fancy styles amid traditional tailgating at The Hill, and the powerful horses on the track.
Kentucky’s Thoroughbred racing industry turned betting into a classically southern affair for college students dressed to the nines in Southern Proper and Lily Pulitzer outfits when they began College Scholarship Day more than 10 years ago.
“Many tracks would love to attract the college-age crowd the way that Keeneland does,” said Kara Heissenbuttel, the director of patron experience at Keeneland. “Our students, it becomes part of their college tradition to get dressed up and come to the races, and then you see them come back years after graduation because that’s a tradition that they built.”
Trent said the relationship between Keeneland and UK has promoted charity events such as Dance Blue, which Keeneland usually donates to, and events for Trent’s sorority.
For college students in Kentucky, heading to the racetrack — whether they make it to the grandstands, or they stick back at The Hill to tailgate — is a tradition they continue well after they get their degrees or their parents visit.
“I’m not afraid to talk to anybody (now),” Trent said. “I feel like I know how to not just promote an event … but a lifestyle.”