As Keeneland is about to start another spring meeting with more fans returning, I want to share my good fortune in working as a “Green Coat” during the 2020 Keeneland fall meet and the 2020 Breeders’ Cup World Championships during the height of COVID-19.
The racing industry was very creative during COVID-19. Racing dates had to be changed including the Triple Crown series, on-site crowds were limited or even eliminated and tracks had to be flexible with protocols for jockeys, trainers and backstretch workers. Like all of us, I was limited by COVID-19.
It was a pleasant surprise to receive a call from Jimmy Jackson from guest services at Keeneland asking if I would be interested in working during the fall meet. I was excited to say the least. Keeneland took COVID-19 precautions serious. All workers were required to be tested and provide results. Employees had to check in with an app daily and have their temperatures taken – a new normal in many workplaces.
There were many differences about being at Keeneland this past fall but one thing that did not change was the high-quality racing in a beautiful setting with colleagues who in all jobs at Keeneland would rather be nowhere else.
During the first few days, I was assigned to the box seats. Since there were hardly any fans in attendance, Jackson asked if I would be interested in working downstairs with the crew responsible for the winner’s circle and the paddock. For a racing fan it would be like being on an NFL sideline or the on-deck circle at Yankee Stadium. My post at the top of the tunnel where the horses enter the track from the paddock was a superb perch. There was a rhythm when we informed the outriders that jockeys were in the paddock and then the horses entered the track to the sound of the bugle call.
I also worked in the winner’s circle, which limited the number of attendees for the winning photograph – not an easy message to convey or to receive. Another challenge that employees faced in the winner’s circle was enforcing mask requirements on muddy exhausted jockeys who had trouble breathing with a mask on after their rigorous and exhausting 2-minute rides. It is tough to reprimand a Hall of Fame jockey for a mask protocol violation. Thankfully, Bob Elliston, Keeneland’s former vice president of racing, worked with representatives of The Jockeys’ Guild on a common-sense solution that allowed jockeys to have their masks down immediately after their races.
Working so close to trackside I saw up close the hard work and professionalism of the Keeneland broadcasting team and the TVG team. Both worked throughout the Keeneland meet to broadcast top-notch shows for fans. Witnessing Scott Hazleton and Gabby Gaudet, the children of trainers, provide ubiquitous pre-race analysis and interviews with various racing connections was a fringe benefit of working trackside. During the Breeders’ Cup, I also saw first-hand the hard work that Jill Byrne and Jim Gluckson put in with post-race interviews of winning connections.
The time between races gave me time to reflect on some great of the storylines at Keeneland. From watching trainers on hot streaks to those in the midst of crushing losing streaks to watching Mike Sisk of M &M racing win the owners’ title with jockey David Cohen, who has overcome injuries, was truly inspirational. It made me reflect on how the life of trainers, jockeys and owners, and their teams, often have many disappointments that make the wins that much sweeter. There is a mental toughness in the Thoroughbred industry that is worthy of emulation.
A race meet cannot be discussed without talk of a bad betting beat. For me, it occurred on Sunday, Oct. 11, I was alive to the pick 4 with two horses including the Chad Brown-trained favorite Sound Money ridden by jockey Tyler Gaffalione. The Equibase chart comments stated, “gate defect, rallied 5w.” Sound Money got a late start out of the gate and was declared a non-starter despite coming in second after spotting the field many lengths. The winning horse, Saffa’s Day, was not the post-time favorite. Therefore, my pick 4 ticket came up empty. The grandstand of any racetrack is filled with scores of bad beats.
Admittedly a bit self-serving, but one of my favorite aspects of my workday was to see my Twitter followers (@kokhorseracing) in person and those that I follow in the racing world. It was great to interact in person with people who share the common bond of loving and promoting Thoroughbred racing. Twitter and its use is generating great controversy but since my joining 2016 it has been a source of positive information sharing source for me to individuals who care about racing.
One casualty of COVID-19 was not going to the track kitchen and spending time at morning workouts. Ask any racing fan, jockey, owner or trainer and they will tell you they miss the large enthusiastic crowds at Keeneland. Racing is a community event after all.
If racing fans are itching for a post COVID-19 destination trip I have a suggestion for them – put Keeneland at the top of their list. They will not be disappointed.
Keeneland is a destination that encompasses all that Thoroughbred racing has to offer and brings to life the “Sport of Kings.”
The 2020 Keeneland fall meet saw the seamless passing of the torch from Bill Thomason as president and CEO to the historic selection of Shannon Arvin, whose efforts are ensuring that Keeneland will remain a destination for horse owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys and fans.
My time working at Keeneland during the COVID-19 pandemic was much appreciated and truly unforgettable. I hope to return and if I do, I look forward to meeting you.