Early morning workouts at Keeneland a community and a comfort

Horses run down the track during morning workouts on Saturday, April 10, 2021, at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

Anything that could be called morning chill has entirely burned off by just after sunrise on Saturday morning. I am not as cold as I might be, and not as tired as I should be, despite this time being a full four hours before I usually wake But Keeneland is already a buzz of activity and has been for hours.

We arrive at Keeneland after a short drive, during which the tinge of morning faded from a lingering purple night to a bright blue. I am writing about morning workouts, and Michael Clubb is photographing morning workouts. The first thing we do at the track is sit down.

We think we have missed the conclusion of the most recent set of workouts. The early morning hours at Keeneland are dedicated to horses going through their paces in anticipation of race day, but at the moment the track is occupied solely by tractors raking over the surface. After a few quiet minutes in which I mistake two tractors on the far side of the track for horses, we get up to see where the action is.

“These things run like a well-oiled factory because you’ve got 30 minutes for each set, and you’ve got to get them out and then cool down and wash down and saddle for the next one,” said Amanda Luby, a horse owner based in Saratoga. “It’s fascinating to me, you have to have some seriously good organizational skills to run a good barn.”

On the backside of the race stands, the paddock where horses are led to the track, three horses are being led through a gate, so we head in that direction to find the next set of horses prepping for their turn on the track. Jockeys, trainers, exercise riders, stable hands and of course horses go back and forth between the main track and the stables. Michael hovers in front of the stable entrance waiting for “this shot [he] wants.”

Left to my own devices, I quickly wander to the viewer side of the fence where these horses (they’re very tall) wait to be released onto the track. One horse with some obvious nervous energy, practically chomping at the bit (the bit is the mouth part right?) trots around in a circle for at least seven minutes in a row (relatable).

In the backstory I made up in my head, this horse – which is somewhere between brown and dark brown, for people who know about these things – was high-strung as a foal and it took far longer than it did to train him than it did for the other yearlings because he had an unbridled need to free that was incompatible with human schedules, but through a series of circumstances a lá an episode of Canadian soap opera Heartland came to have a deep, abiding respect and partnership with mankind, with whom he will now embark on a racing journey for the ages. But probably that’s not what happened.

The other half of my mind is calculating the likelihood that one of these horses will wander just close enough for me to reach through the fence and touch it and the subsequent likelihood of that leading to Something Really Bad Happening and immediately ditching the idea because I do not have the equity to sustain that kind of lawsuit. (Lovely Keeneland people, please know that I would never actually do this). Anyway, basic thoughts thus far: horses nice. Horses pretty.

This batch of horses is soon released onto the track, where they go through a series of runs at different speeds, which I hear are called gallops, trots and canters. I also hear jockeys and exercise riders calling to each other in multiple languages, proof of the kind of community people in the horse industry say can be found at morning workouts in particular.

“You get to reconnect with people here in a less pressured environment. Obviously, if you’ve got a horse working, there’s a lot of pressure that the horse works, because you’re obviously training for a race,” Luby said of morning workouts. “But at the end of the day, it’s just a really special place where you can share some camaraderie with folks or just come out here by yourself or just revel in the moment.”

Or, you can be a nosy reporter scouting out non-intimidating people to interview. I thought about talking to a man in an official looking vest, but he had a clipboard so he was clearly busy. But that’s another special part of morning workouts – everyone has time for a chat.

“You can be standing next to Barbara Banke, the chairman of the largest privately-held wine company in the world. You could be hanging out with a Hall of Fame trainer. You never know where you’re going to be rubbing shoulders with at Keeneland,” Luby said. (Later, I saw the man with the clipboard chatting with fans at the same coffee shop Luby named as a social spot).

Luby, who lived in Lexington for seven years, is here on business – checking on her mares and trying to buy a racing horse (“That didn’t work out. But that’s the that’s the racing game, right?”). She came to Keeneland just to enjoy the beauty of the horses and the morning.

“There’s such a small microcosm of the world at the racetrack this time of day. There’s a stillness to it. But also, when you hear the horses galloping over the track, it’s something that is exciting as well,” Luby said. She likes getting to witness the hard work that goes into race day.

Some of that hard work is done by Paul Boylan, an exercise rider for Brian Cox. Boylan rides seven or eight horses a morning, putting them through whatever is assigned to their set list.

“Every horse is different. Every horse has a different attitude, every horse has a different character,” Boylan said. “It’s just what we love about it. You know, it’s just a nice job. I’d rather do this than anything else.”

Everyone I spoke to at Keeneland had a different take on why humans are so fascinated by horses – but all agreed that the attraction is in no small part due to the animal’s sheer beauty.

“There’s nothing more majestic and awe- inspiring than seeing a Thoroughbred gallop,” said Luby, who thinks horses are the most beautiful creature in the

world. Conlee Zonio said horses have an elegance that makes them special. Jim Chambers said it’s the personality of horses.

“There’s also a centuries-old partnership between man and horse and we have continued to refine various breeds for different purposes. And obviously, the Thoroughbred was bred for racing, to be the most athletic horse out there,” Luby said. Boylan said though people like animals in general, they like horses because they can be ridden.

“The thing about horses is you can get on them. You can’t get on your dog or you can’t get on your cat. Horses are just amazing animals,” Boylan said. “You can ride them and you can gallop fast, it’s great. What’s not to like about it?”

Though speed is the name of the game in races, morning workouts have a different, more relaxed tone.

“You get to see the animals in their element and they’re happy and they’re out running that’s what they do. And just watching, the whole atmosphere is relaxed. They’re professionals at work, the horses, it’s just a great place to be,” said Chambers, who told me he “had ties” in the industry in a tone of voice that made me think he’s a super mega famous horse owner that I’m a fool for not recognizing (Google somewhat affirms this).

But for people with the races in mind, morning workouts are a good place to come to get insight into a horse’s performance.

“You can watch a horse’s body language in the morning, you can see even who’s maybe a little muscle sore, who’s maybe just taking a little bit of time, a little bit longer time to warm up, to see who’s peaking or who’s coming off of a peak,” Luby said. She added that for those looking to put a few dollars down on the ponies, morning workouts are a great place to do some homework.

That’s essentially what 15-year-old Zonio was doing at Keeneland, but not for placing bets. Zonio wants to be an exercise rider and came to learn from the best.

“This is my second time this week,” Zonio said, and she’s been able to speak to jockeys about their warm-up techniques. Chambers prefers the mornings to races because of that same idea.

“The animals are relaxed and you also learn a lot in the morning,” Chambers said. “You’re around a lot of the professionals in the industry and most of them are very happy to teach you.”

And if you’re lucky, you may even get to pet a horse (joy of joys!). A Keeneland employee brought her horse, Jonas, over to the railing for children attending the morning workouts to pet. Several families were among Saturday’s crowd of around 100 people, pointing to the track and sayng things like “see that? That’s a pretty horsey.”

A small line soon formed to pet Jonas, who seemed born for these clumsy interactions. “I love his blue eyes,” one girl said shyly. “Same colors as yours,” the rider replied.

This benevolence is clearly intended for the children. I am no child. Still, I absolutely waited my turn to pet this horse. And it was great.

Boylan also likes the relaxed atmosphere of morning workouts.

“At the races they’re all, the horses are very alert, they just want to just go out there and do it. But here in the morning that’s just chilled out the horses,” Boylan said. “This is what they love to do.”

Part of the appeal of morning workouts is the time, the sky sliding from dark to dawn, birds chirping and a new day rising. But some of it also has to do with a connection to nature – both horses and the green hills of Keeneland itself.

“I’ve been in tracks all over America, all over the world, and this is a nice place,” Boyland said. “This place does not feel crowded.”

For Chambers, Keeneland in the morning is his favorite place to be. Part of that is a lifelong love of horses.

“Once you get around them, you can’t get away from them,” Chambers said. The romance of racing is also an appeal.

“I’m not going to say it’s a great American story, where we love the underdog, and racing is one of the great leveling, leveling playing fields out there, where a good horseman, a good horse can come from anywhere,” Luby said.

And though the high stakes adrenaline of an afternoon at the racing are unmatched, there is something to be said for the slow turn around the track, for coffee shared with friends new and old, for watching the morning rise through the mist.