Becky Ryder leaned over a 1599 book from England on how to choose, ride, train and feed horses.
It is an amazing volume, its sturdy cotton-and-linen pages still clear and legible after 440 years.
Ryder, who has both worked extensively in and taught preservation, is director of the Keeneland Library. In her office are the rarest of rare volumes on horses. On the wall is a color photo of Man o' War taken days before the death of that legendary horse in 1947.
Downstairs, Ryder shows off a find from a banker's box of donations: two photos of Man o' War in 1922, one of them with the horse taking a bit of exercise, during which the horse, even at a distance of nearly a century, is a creature of jaw-dropping beauty.
One of the other rare books in Ryder's office is the three-volume collection that includes Hippiater Expertus, which dates from the 17th century and is lushly illustrated. It begins with straightforward information about veterinary needs and dressage technique, then branches into fancy, including alleged breeding errors such as the horse-human hybrid and a horse supposedly born dressed in a carnival outfit. The Keeneland Library is the only one in the United States that has all three volumes, bound between wooden covers.
"Part of the reason things get into special collections is because they're scarce, they're rare, they're beautiful," Ryder said.
The Keeneland Library is one of the largest equine libraries in the world and the largest devoted to the Thoroughbred — everything from the history of racing to stud books and pedigrees to small collections of racing silks and horseshoes.
There's even a collection donated by former Herald-Leader turf writer Maryjean Wall of horse industry ephemera including press pins and event souvenirs, including the elaborately designed and written invitations from Preston and Anita Madden to their legendary pre-Derby parties, which ended in 1998. Horseman Tom Gentry is also represented with a series of humorous event invitations, one of which playfully asks partygoers to help find Gentry's lost youth.
The invitations are "emblematic of the large market of the '80s," Ryder said, referring to the era's booming horse industry.
Keeneland's library was established in 1939 with a 2,300-book donation of racing-related books from New York attorney Robert James Turnbull. The library was housed in the clubhouse and then in the administrative building.
But 12 years ago the track splashed out $4.5 million for 10,000 square feet of floor space, a separate temple of Thoroughbred-related learning. The library now houses horse industry writing and statistics as well as horse sculptures and photos and extensive digitized holdings of the Daily Racing Form.
The Keeneland Library is non-circulating and for reference only: If you want to see its treasures, you need to sign in and ask (community groups are welcome to schedule tours). But once inside the lavishly appointed library, you can see horsey treasures that you will not see anywhere else in a clubhouse environment with vaulted ceilings, luxuriously-stuffed upholstery and huge ceiling-mounted light fixtures. The building was designed by San Francisco architect Morio Kow, who has worked extensively with Keeneland.
Former Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett wrote in his autobiography that stepping through the doors of the Keeneland library was "a treat." He described the hand-chiseled stone exterior, black walnut cabinetry, hone-finished granite and paneled cathedral ceilings and praised the special system preventing fire damage in the periodicals room — which forces out the oxygen, leaving the material dry and undamaged.
In the basement, librarians can also work in a "conservation lab," where Ryder recently washed a program from Raceland, the Kentucky track that operated from 1924 until 1928 and was founded by Jack O. Keene, who also helped develop Keeneland. The program was affixed to a special fiber mat that anchored it and kept it from curling up in water.
The library also houses unexpected non-equine treasures: It has one of the largest photographic collections of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. They were donated as part of the collection of racetrack photographer Charles Christian Cook.
Author Laura Hildebrand used the Keeneland library for researching her hugely successful Seabiscuit: An American Legend book, about a champion Thoroughbred horse in the 1930s; the library is cited in her acknowledgements for that book.
"For research in the Thoroughbred industry, this is gold mine with infinite veins," said Bill Mooney, a multiple Eclipse-winning racing writer and historian who was working in the Keeneland library last week.
"There are many small colleges in the United States that do not have a library as nice as this one," said Mooney, who is a former academic. "You stumble across treasures accidentally all the time around here."