LEXINGTON, Ky. — While the path to the Kentucky Derby has wound through Florida, New York, California and other places, some hopefuls have found a quiet little stopover down the road from Churchill Downs at Keeneland.
No matter what happens in the 142nd Run for the Roses on May 7, some trainers have found a comfort zone for preparation at the picturesque little track in Bluegrass country.
Keeneland has stabled four of 20 Derby qualifiers for various stints this month and even more filly hopefuls in the Oaks on May 6. The Blue Grass Stakes produced a possible Derby contender in winner Brody’s Cause, who has another Grade 1 victory along with a third in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile here.
A peaceful setting including lush, rolling meadows might explain his love of the track.
“It’s laid out for horses,” said trainer Dale Romans, who quickly moved Brody’s Cause and Cherry Wine, who finished third in the Blue Grass, to Churchill Downs.
“It’s big and nice, almost like a park environment. I think the horses enjoy being there.”
RELATED: How to watch the Kentucky Derby
Many have returned this spring.
Keeneland welcomed 45 horses who competed in the Breeders’ Cup last October, including four winners who raced during the spring meet that concludes on Friday.
Blue Grass runner-up My Man Sam has also trained at Keeneland before moving to Churchill a couple of weeks ago.
One notable Breeders’ Cup champion at Keeneland has been Juvenile winner Nyquist, who has trained here since winning the Florida Derby on April 2. The unbeaten colt figures to draw a sizable crowd for Friday’s final workout on the main track before heading to Louisville, and trainer Doug O’Neill is eager see him take another big step toward the Derby.
O’Neill has an Oaks hopeful in Land Over Sea here as well and has been pleased with all of his horses’ workouts and temperament. He credits being at Keeneland for providing a friendly training atmosphere.
Bad weather hasn’t been a deterrent thanks to a training track with a synthetic surface that sits just below the main track that switched to dirt nearly two years ago. The view is pretty good, too.
“It’s the best of both worlds here,” O’Neill said of Keeneland. “If every race track had enough real estate to add a synthetic track as a training track, it’s really gold. It has a big barn area, a full barn area, yet it’s spread out. It’s a place where horses are happy.”
Though Nyquist didn’t race at Keeneland, O’Neill praised track officials for making him and his horses welcome and comfortable during their extended visit. Those qualities didn’t surprise him nor Romans, who added that horsemen have always received “first class treatment” there.
Whether Nyquist’s comfort level helps him earn the garland of roses in eight days remains to be seen. O’Neill certainly believes being here trumped the logistics of trying to ship the horse back to his California base.
Keeneland vice president of racing W.B. Rogers Beasley said creating that option was part of the plan. The goal was bringing the track in line with the industry in hopes of attracting top-flight competitors, trainers and events such as the Breeders’ Cup.
Keeneland’s plan came to fruition with the track’s first Breeders’ Cup and paid off with the presence of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, who capped his stellar career by dominating the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The subsequent return of past competitors and Derby contenders suggest good feelings remain.
“Having all those horses come and run here, especially for a lot of people from California who would not come in very often, I think it was a big boost for us,” Beasley said. “That tells you several things: how much they liked racing here and how much they liked the services.”
Beasley is hopeful that horsemen will spread the word and help lure others to Keeneland in prepping for the first jewel in racing’s Triple Crown. For now it’s just a matter of whether training here produces a Derby champion, a prospect Romans feels good about.
“It’s by far the best choice I’ve had there,” he said. “I like prepping at Keeneland and doing all my work in Kentucky.”