Keeneland Closes Door on Successful Spring Meet

Keeneland Closes Door on Successful Spring Meet

Keeneland closed its 2021 spring meet April 23, which featured the return of a limited number of fans to the track, and strong all-sources wagering fueled by quality racing led by champion Essential Quality ’s win in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2).

“We thank our fans, both near and far, the Central Kentucky community, our horseplayers, our corporate partners, and our loyal horsemen for a fantastic racing season,” Keeneland president and CEO Shannon Arvin said in a Friday release. “Keeneland’s continued success is built on the contributions of many, and we extend our appreciation to all those who make racing at Keeneland such a memorable experience.”  

In accordance with COVID-19 restrictions, only a limited number of fans were permitted to attend the races at Keeneland this spring. Attendance totaled 96,243, for an average daily crowd of 6,416.

Despite the limited capacity, fans on track and remotely enthusiastically wagered on the spring meet. All-sources wagering for the 15-day stand, held April 2-23, increased 7.55% to $164,680,229 versus the 16-day spring meet in 2019, when all-sources wagering totaled $153,116,119. Keeneland canceled its 2020 spring meet due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Average daily wagering of $10,978,682 was up 14.72% compared to $9,569,757 during the 2019 spring meet.

April 3, 2021: Essential Quality, Luis Saez up, holds off Highly Motivated to win the 97th running of the Gr.2 Blue Grass Stakes
Photo: Rick Samuels

Essential Quality (blue silks) wins the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland

Boosting total wagering was robust April 3 Blue Grass Day handle, which featured six stakes worth $2.1 million on the 11-race card. All-sources wagering that day totaled $22,723,197 to rank as the third-highest single-day handle in Keeneland history. The Pick 5 handled a record $1,485,090, eclipsing the previous mark of $1,395,051 set on Toyota Blue Grass Day during the 2020 summer meet.

Limited attendance this spring resulted in total on-track handle of $9,224,273, for average daily on-track handle of $614,952. In comparison, on-track handle totaled $16,490,636 for the 2019 spring meet.

Spring Meet Racing Moments and Milestones

Average daily purses of $739,902 at Keeneland this spring ranked among the richest in North America and attracted the sport’s top trainers and jockeys.

Competitive racing was showcased in 18 stakes worth $4.1 million in purse money. Six graded stakes were carded for opening Saturday, anchored by the $800,000 Blue Grass and $400,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1), major preps on the Road to the Kentucky Derby and Road to the Kentucky Oaks, respectively.

Champion Essential Quality kept his undefeated record intact in winning the Blue Grass, earning 100 points to establish himself as the top point earner and early favorite for the May 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). With the victory, he became the fifth horse to win Keeneland’s Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at 2 and the Blue Grass at 3.

Undefeated Malathaat  won the Ashland to rank among the top point earners on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard. The victory marked owner Shadwell Stable’s eighth graded stakes win here to earn a Keeneland Tray as part of Keeneland’s signature Milestone Trophy Program. Only 20 other owners have such an accomplishment at Keeneland. Juddmonte also joined a unique level of the track’s Milestone program when Juliet Foxtrot  led from gate to wire to win the Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1T), Juddmonte’s 16th graded stakes win at Keeneland. For the accomplishment, Juddmonte received a Keeneland Pitcher, which only three other owners have earned: Claiborne Farm (fall 1968), Bwamazon Farm (spring 1983), and William S. Farish (spring 2003).

“Keeneland sincerely appreciates the loyalty and support of our horsemen, not only this spring but throughout the challenging past year,” Keeneland vice president of racing Gatewood Bell said. “Our goal is to offer the opportunity for the best to compete against the best, which continues to produce thrilling performances and memorable accomplishments.”

Keeneland noted that the spring meet, under the leadership of Equine Safety Director Dr. Stuart Brown, continues to deploy rigorous safety protocols and measures to protect its horses and riders. There were no racing incidents this spring.    

“We are proud of the collaborative effort between our horsemen, their attending veterinarians, and the regulatory team that works with Keeneland to deliver on our time-honored promise of service to the horse in the area of safety,” Brown said.

Spring Meet Leaders

Keeneland-based Wesley Ward dominated the trainer standings, tallying 20 wins to secure his seventh leading trainer title to tie Henry Forrest for third place on the list of leading trainers by meet titles. Now with 201 career victories, Ward ranks seventh all time at Keeneland in the win category.

Ward’s four wins on closing day ties him with Kiaran McLaughlin, Bill Mott, and Todd Pletcher for most victories for a trainer on a single day during the spring meet.

Bound for Nowhere wins the 2021 Shakertown Stakes
Photo: Keeneland/Coady Photography

Wesley Ward congratulates Luis Saez aboard Bound for Nowhere after winning the Shakertown Stakes at Keeneland

Ward won four 2021 spring meet stakes: the Madison Stakes (G1) with Kimari , the Shakertown Stakes (G2T) with Bound for Nowhere , the Beaumont Stakes Presented by Keeneland Select (G3) with Twenty Carat , and the Palisades Turf Sprint Stakes with Chasing Artie . That total equals the record for most spring meet stakes victories shared by Ben Jones (1948), Todd Pletcher (2011), and Chad Brown (2018).

With 19 career stakes wins at Keeneland, Ward is tied with Hall of Famers Carl Nafzger and Woody Stephens for 13th place on the list of the track’s leading trainers by stakes wins.

Among jockeys, Luis Saez recorded six multiple-win days during the meet to amass 29 wins and earn his first Keeneland riding title. Joel Rosario ranked second with 22 wins, riding three winners on closing day.

Saez and Rosario combined to win all nine stakes on opening weekend of the spring meet. On Friday, Saez rode Twenty Carat to win the Beaumont. On Saturday, he won four races topped by the Blue Grass on Essential Quality and the Appalachian Stakes Presented by Japan Racing Association (G2T) on Jouster .

Rosario rode five winners on Blue Grass Day, including four consecutive stakes: the Commonwealth Stakes (G3) on Flagstaff , the Shakertown on Bound for Nowhere, the Ashland on Malathaat, and the Madison on Kimari. On opening Friday, he captured two stakes: the Palisades Turf Sprint with Chasing Artie and the Kentucky Utilities Transylvania Stakes (G3T) on Scarlett Sky .

Rosario joins Jerry Bailey (1999) and Javier Castellano (2016) as riders with a record six stakes victories during a spring meet.

Juddmonte locked up their second Keeneland leading owner title with six wins, including the Baird Doubledogdare Stakes (G3) with Bonny South .

Spring Meet Celebrates Philanthropic Mission

Keeneland continued to honor its mission this spring by teaming with sponsors and industry partners to support the community and the Thoroughbred industry.

Race 2 with Rising Seas on the lead in the stretch.<br>
Scenes from opening day at Keeneland near Lexington, Ky., on April 2, 2021.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Racing at Keeneland

Keeneland designated the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden as its featured charity for the spring meet. Located in Lexington’s historic East End, the garden is on property owned by the legendary 19th century jockey. It is the first park in the U.S. to honor the earliest African American professional athletes: Thoroughbred jockeys. Proceeds from sales of the 2021 commemorative Maker’s Mark Bourbon® bottle in partnership with Keeneland were earmarked to benefit LexArts and for the placement of a permanent art installation by artist LaVon Van Williams Jr. and for future programming within the park.

Keeneland celebrated the 25th running of the prestigious Maker’s Mark Mile under the sponsorship of the world-famous bourbon distillery. Maker’s Mark also made a $10,000 contribution to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.

Toyota, sponsor of the Blue Grass, and Keeneland made a $10,000 donation in support of Nourish Lexington, founded in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic to use displaced hospitality and food service employees to provide more than 160,000 nutritious meals for community members in need.

On closing day, Keeneland honored track announcer Kurt Becker, who this spring reached a unique milestone as the only track announcer in Keeneland’s history. For 60 years prior to Becker’s appointment, Keeneland did not have an on-track race caller. Then-president Bill Greely hired Becker from more than 40 applicants, and he began calling the races on April 4, 1997. This season marked Becker’s 25th spring meet at Keeneland.

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