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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It was the first Sunday of a Keeneland fall meeting for both parties -- she a freshman coed at the University of Kentucky interested in becoming a thoroughbred farm manager and me a semi-retired sportswriter impassioned with college football, horse racing and Turner Classic Movies.

Learning she is from Georgia, I asked if she is a Dawgs fan, her home state's Southeastern Conference football team ranked No. 3 in the country. "I'm not into football," she said, thus steering the discussion away from the coming weekend's Arkansas-Kentucky game at Kroger Field downtown. "But I like basketball," she said, and it is good, I said, that a Kentucky native or a sports-minded visitor be conversational in the Bluegrass State's two favorite sports -- horse racing being the other.

Thumbing through her program, my new friend asked, "When are the bigger races?" although it might have been "when's the big race?" Guessing that she didn't mean the graded Dixiana Bourbon or supporting Indian Summer, I said excitement should reach a peak in the Grade 1 $500,000 Juddmonte Spinster, a "win and you're in" race to the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

"The ninth," I said, adding a word about Elate, the only filly or mare in the five-horse field that I knew much about. That I had covered Oaklawn Park stakes races won by Elate's sire and dam (Medaglia d'Oro was bred to Cheery at Claiborne Farm, up on Paris Pike north of Lexington), and it had been Elate's misfortune not to win at Oaklawn. Then came a personal handicapping tip: Elate runs better at longer distances than Oaklawn provides and that the Spinster's nine furlongs should be ideal for this pace presser, who might be better suited for a mile and a quarter, once considered the classic American distance.

Elate, breaking from outside, turned for home with a good chance but checked in second behind the veteran Pure Prize. None of the five impressed me as a Distaff challenger to Midnight Bisou, twice Elate's conqueror at Oaklawn this year; don't be surprised if Elate meets males in the $6 million BC Classic, a mile and a quarter to the Distaff's mile and an eighth.

The handicapping seminar concluded, the Georgian asked, "Are there any American Pharoahs running today?" I found this commendable, asking about the 2015 Triple Crown winner's first crop of race-age foals, but also a little odd in that with program in hand, she could turn to any race for 2-year-olds and look for sons or daughters of AP.

Then again, this might be her first racetrack visit, being from a state that lacks thoroughbred racing. I thought of a young woman from Tennessee, another state without racing, and that her love for the sport led her from Memphis to the University of Arizona's racetrack-industry program and ultimately to a media position in Kentucky. The two young ladies, I learned, have common ground, both adoring two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome, he of four white stockings and Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories.

The history lesson might have continued had not the Georgian's boy friend, whom she met at UK, showed up. At first glance, he appeared not to know his way around but looked eager to enjoy the afternoon with a special friend.

That exchange got me in the mood to visit Keeneland's press box, where no baseball playoff or NFL games were watched on wide-screen TVs but activities slowed for the Belmont Park screenings of the Grade 1 Flower Bowl and Frizette.

They squeezed more than 26,000 into the horseyard on Versailles Road for opening Saturday, a card with five consecutive stakes races but basically known as Shadwell Day because of the $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile. Sunday, with the crowd thinned out to slightly more than 10,000, proved more manageable for sightseeing and catching up with old friends.

One of the first people I noticed in the press box, punching out a story on his laptap computer, was veteran turfwriter Marty McGee, with whom I once covered Oaklawn races. One day at Oaklawn almost 30 years ago, Marty received a fax message that he was out of a job, his publication having folded. Few love the sport more than Marty, brother of horse trainer Paul McGee, and fortunately he remains employed. Daily Racing Form has laid off some of his coworkers, and I felt compelled to ask how things were going. Marty said, "All I know is that they pay me every two weeks," and kept typing.

I shook hands with Hot Springs native Taylor Radimer, son of Mike and Jamie and nephew of Nancy Muncrief and the late Donna Trant. Legend has it that Donna's position in the Oaklawn family was so secure that, as Charles J. Cella's secretary, she could tell the track president where to get off -- he would, too -- and have a job the next day.

Behind a counter were two more friends, neither of whom I had seen in years. Amy Owens was my assignment editor at the since-defunct Thoroughbred Times after I succeeded Randy Moss as the Lexington-based magazine's Oaklawn correspondent in 1995 (Randy followed the late Chick Lang Jr. as Oaklawn's operations manager, giving me a great opportunity). Liane Crossley once worked in Oaklawn's media relations department (she holds the same position now at Keeneland); my time with Liane over the weekend was brief, and next time I pledge to mention the aspiring career of trainer Kelsey Danner, daughter of Mark and Kelly (he a trainer, she a former Oaklawn and Churchill Downs fixture).

Greetings also were extended to fellow media members Jennie Rees and Greg Hall, both formerly of the Louisville-based Courier-Journal newspaper; magazine writer Claire (Novak) Cosby, who like Jennie is an occasional Oaklawn visitor; Lexington Herald-Leader columnist John Clay, on hand for the Shadwell but to miss the Spinster when covering the Cardinals-Bengals NFL game in Cincinnati; and Gary Yunt, who worked for Edgar Allen in publicity at Churchill Downs when I covered my first Kentucky Derby (won by Sunny's Halo in 1983). Plus a photographer or two I know from Facebook posts.

I cannot be sure if my late mom, a devoutly religious person who lived until age 84, approved of me writing about horses. But attending church is all about mingling with like-minded individuals whom one considers brothers and sisters, and as a church-going turf writer, I find that racetracks offer the same solitude.

"That's your fun place," says a nice woman at my local congregation who has a standing invitation to spend a day at the races.

Sports on 10/10/2019

Print Headline: Lovely day at races; are there any others?

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