An Invitation To Keeneland Opening Day

Everyone’s invited, as 2023 Opening Day at Keeneland has arrived. Certainly, there are swollen pools for wagering, the canorous voice of track announcer Kurt Becker, the fine warp and weft of Sunday’s best worn mid-week and enough to feast on, even if you don’t have the foggiest what’s in burgoo.

We already know that the Spring meet at the old Keene Farm, hosted by the Association will card its share of tough, competitive fields. Before the 86th running of the $600,000 GI Central Bank Ashland S., spring has not officially ‘sprung’ until the 15-day season opens Friday, Apr. 7 with that feature. To say that this year’s edition is stakes-laden would be a massive understatement, as it will present 19 black-type races, including five Grade I events, worth a season record $8.05 million.

“For Central Kentucky and fans of Thoroughbred racing around the world, April means Keeneland,” said the track’s President and CEO, Shannon Arvin. “We are excited once again to offer world-class racing to horsemen, horsewomen, horseplayers and fans and to present a fantastic experience for our guests that is centered around outstanding hospitality and the best in Thoroughbred racing.”

Keeneland Spring meet | Keeneland

Keeneland is all about being ‘world class’ and there is a reason that the best come to participate. Trainers like Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Brad Cox will look to topple the hegemony of Wesley Ward, who has held the top spot these past few years. Speaking to TDN’s Writers’ Room this week, Cox said he held the meet in high regard and earning the top prize would be yet another feather in his cap.

“Yeah, there’s no doubt. I mean, obviously I’m from Kentucky,” he said during the podcast. “It means a tremendous amount to me. We try to come out and with some of our better horses and we point for the meet. Listen, Turfway has really gotten good in the winter, but I mean, it’s almost like it’s the start of the spring, basically, for racing.”

Cox added, “Obviously you’ve got Chad [Brown] and Todd [Pletcher] who play huge roles in that meet [Keeneland]. They’re two of the best there are and they bring their best for that meet. So, the spring and fall meet are extremely tough to win at and we definitely try to be competitive and one of the players there for sure.”

One of those players for Cox is Punch Bowl (Uncle Mo), who is entered in the Ashland against a pair of Pletcher trainees in Wonder Wheel (Into Mischief) and Julia Shining (Curlin). He also has undefeated Wonderful Justice (GB) (Justify) in the $600,000 GIII Kentucky Utilities Transylvania S. going a mile and sixteenth on the Haggin Turf Course. The 3-year-old colt will face Carl Spackler (Ire) (Lope de Vega {Ire}), a ‘TDN Rising Star’ trained by Brown.

As for others with high hopes, you do not have to crane your neck through the double doors marked Jockey’s Quarters just off the palatial paddock at Keeneland to know that there is much on the line when it comes to this title. It might be a short meet compared to others, but with Irad Ortiz Jr., the reigning Eclipse Award winner who just wrapped up another leading rider ribbon at Gulfstream Park in attendance for the duration, plus with last year’s victor Tyler Gaffalione, we know it’s going to be another rumble.

One of the many jockeys who is looking to put his own stamp on the meet is Reylu Gutierrez. The 27-year-old from New York had a banner year in 2022, which included time at Keeneland in both the fall and the spring. He recently won the riding title at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans over the winter, which was a milestone first. Coming back to Lexington with confidence packed neatly in his suitcase, he is looking to sharpen his skills and prove something.

Reylu Gutierrez | Nicole Thomas

“When you are at the top of the standings like I was at the Fair Grounds, it pushes you further to maintain that steadiness,” he said by phone. “That’s when you have to be at your best and I’m very confident in my program.”

Gutierrez will face the likes of Ortiz and Gaffalione, but also Hall of Famers like John Velazquez, Javier Castellano and Frankie Dettori, plus a host of other seasoned pilots, including Luis Saez, Joel Rosario, Flavien Prat and Florent Geroux. The pressure is real.

“It’s a fun pressure,” Gutierrez was quick to point out. “I’ve had the opportunity to ride for a number of different trainers at the Fair Grounds this past year, so that’s given me a great base and coming to Keeneland, where you know everyone wants to win, is a blessing to have.”

While the trainer and jockey standings will be closely watched on Opening Day, something the multitude can trust is that Keeneland will continue its devotion to the health of the horse. When it comes to safety and security, Keeneland is one of the leaders.

Dr. Stuart Brown, Vice President of Equine Safety, is full of gusto on the subject and he backs it up with a positive message about the plan. “Foundationally for the horse, previous experience tells us that it is in their best interest to have lots of surveillance, and that’s where our vet cameras that look at all angles become an important tool for us, but that’s not all.” said Dr. Brown.

Keeneland assails the prosaic and builds its own culture from the bottom up, brick-by-brick. “Everyone that works here knows we prepare and prepare by training ourselves to watch for what might happen,” he said. “Whether you are the head of equine safety or a crossing guard, we are always looking in our rearview mirrors to be an advocate for the horse.”

Dr. Stuart Brown | Keeneland

While Keeneland is racing this month, the track will employ three full-time ambulances with state-of-the-art equipment, which can whisk Thoroughbreds to nearby equine hospitals that are only minutes away. That is how Epicenter, who was injured in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic last November, received the effective treatment that he needed. “Our risk strategies help guide us, but we also stay nimble by being intentional with everything we do,” Dr. Brown said. “This isn’t about striving to be the best, it’s about driving to be the best, and the horses are worth it.”

Opening Day will offer a unique challenge to the trainers and the jockeys when the Spring meet gets underway Friday. However, Keeneland is also much more when it comes to honoring the sport of Thoroughbred racing. It’s a place where the cutting edge is drawn comfortably alongside a timeless tradition. April means Keeneland, as Shannon Arvin put it so succinctly.

Your invitation is issued.

Keeneland’s Spring meet races for 15 days from Apr. 7-28. No racing Mondays, Tuesdays and Easter Sunday, Apr. 9. Click here for more information.


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