This is the third installment of The New Normal, a series about the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on Kentucky businesses and organizations. Check out the previous installments here.
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I remember the day, almost five years ago now, that I got a call from Keeneland saying that I had been chosen as their next Marketing Intern. I was so excited that I didn’t really know what to say, I just stuttered and said thank you and that I’d get back to them. In reality I was just playing hard to get for some reason because of course I was going to accept the position. Why the hell would I not? A college student at Kentucky, working in the corporate office of Keeneland, helping create the messaging for the state’s premiere thoroughbred races and sales? Can you think of a bigger opportunity! The next year saw me all over the place doing things from designing social media graphics to printing program pamphlets to escorting VIPs on the racetrack grounds.
It was an amazing internship and it really gave me an unfiltered, inside look at the company. I say all this for two reasons. First, simply to state my bias. I think we all love Keeneland and obviously want to see it flourish, but I definitely have a bit of rose-colored glasses on when I think about the track. I’ll try not to let that impact my writing here. Secondly, and maybe slightly contrarily, I share my story to demystify the organization. I remember growing up and visiting Lexington with my Mom who grew up here. The way she talked about the track, about how her father brought her there just like she was bringing me, was almost religious. We would go look at the horses and study the way they walked and the way they interacted, we would put $2 down (which was a fortune for 5 year old me) based on our expert opinions and analysis. I remember how she would scream for our horse and how the thousands of people around us were just as invested in whichever contender they picked. It was overwhelming in the best way, and the place was magical. It commanded respect and demanded a reverence that, on some level, I still hold to this day. But, fast forward 15 years, when I was in the break room and people didn’t empty the dishwasher or I’d have to call maintenance for the Xerox machine that broke down yet again, some of that luster wore off. Keeneland is a business just like any other business, and of course it’s been impacted by COVID.
While that office runs year round, Keeneland’s main racing and sales events are of course seasonal. This put the track in an interesting spot when the pandemic really started to pick up in late February and early March as the flagship Spring Meet was still a month away. We sat down with Christa Marillia, Keeneland’s Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, to learn about the pandemic’s impact. We asked her about those “crazy times” deciding what to do for the Spring Meet and she ran with it.
“Crazy is a great word to describe that. And I think that all of us could probably pinpoint where they were,” Christa begins to describe the picture. “It was Monday, March 16th when we canceled the April race meeting. We knew that we have this responsibility to do everything possible to safely conduct racing for our sport, but we knew with looking at the spread of the virus that we could not safely do so in April.”
That responsibility is one that Keeneland does not take lightly. Keeneland is a very mission driven organization, and as Christa says the organization was created for two reasons: “to do whatever we could do in our power to protect and advance the sport of racing and to also protect and invest in our community.” Because of that, they did everything they could to try to put on a meeting. The initial adjustments that were announced on March 12th were to kickoff on April 2nd as planned but without spectators for two weeks. The official statement was that the track would “work with government officials and relevant health authorities to consider re-opening to spectators on April 15.” Those plans clearly were not long lived as a national state of emergency was declared, stay at home orders were issued, and CDC guidance was released against any gatherings over the next few days. That following Monday the reality of the situation set in as Lexington realized that, for the first time since World War II, Keeneland would have to cancel a race meet.
“Individuals in the community, in our horse racing community, rely upon it. Our grooms and our stable workers, the breeders who were, you know, their entire livelihood relies upon having racing. These horses need to be running. So taking care of the individuals that care for those horses [is important]. Even in a pandemic horses need to be watered and walked and cared for and fed,” Christa says.
So Keeneland decided to carry out its mission in the face of an unprecedented challenge in two ways. The first, as you’d expect, is by hosting racing. The five day, first-ever Keeneland Summer Meet was a massive pivot from the Keeneland we know and love. Only essential personnel were on-site for the races, but the Keeneland at Home campaign offered new delivery methods including streaming, online betology, and digital program downloads to help fans host watch parties, cook their own bread pudding, and make their own Keeneland Breezes.
“The viewership for horse racing in general was just off the charts strong,” Christa says with a smile, “and wagering through digital platforms and apps like Keeneland Select were also heavily adopted because people wanted to find a way to experience that.”
But Keeneland took more action than simply hosting a race without fans and streaming it online. Referencing back to that mission, the company knew it had to do something to benefit the countless horse industry workers who were so deeply impacted by the pandemic. In Kentucky alone it’s estimated the horse industry creates over 41,000 jobs, and many of those are hourly gigs filled by some of the region’s most underserved communities. Many of them were in an extremely tight spot due to the adjusted operations, and Keeneland couldn’t let that go unnoticed for both the good of the workers and the good of the sport.
“On April the first, Keeneland, along with Visit Lex, Wes Murry, the Matthew Mitchell Family Foundation, FoodChain Lexington and a number of community partners came together and created Nourish Lexington. And that has been a monumental effort and strategic collaboration to provide meals to people in our community who needed it,” Christa explains. The model of Nourish Lexington is super interesting in that not only does it provide meals to individuals at risk, but it also provides jobs to hospitality industry workers that were out of them and without income. “So the model for Nourish Lexington takes those individuals from those hospitality positions and pays them a fee to prepare food for people who need it. So we immediately put that process into action and we’ve served over, I think it was 130,000 meals.” As you might notice Christa is using the present tense for the meal serving, and that’s because the demand for Nourish Lex services has not stopped. The partners are still committed as ever and continue to invest to help the local community in this “for workers, by workers” manner.
So that brings us to this Fall, and having run only a five day Summer Meet the track was tasked with hosting a slew of back to back events: “Our fall season actually kicks off here in the next couple of weeks,” Christa said back in August, “You would think it’s this the October Race Meet, but it’s actually the September Yearling Sale. So that actually begins on September the 13th, and it feels a lot different than a race meet, but still electric. Very exciting, buyers typically come from thirty plus countries to attend the sale. We offer around 4,000 horses. And to give you an idea of just the, the volume and the significance of it last year, we sold 22 horses for over a million dollars… So from the September Yearling Sale, we will ride into the October Race Meet. And this is where the pageantry of the sport is on full parade. We have the best horses and jockeys, trainers, owners in the world come to Keeneland to compete in the best racing in the country. So from the race meet, we are all right into the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. I mean, over the course of two days, the Breeders’ Cup will award $35 million in prize money to these champions. I mean, that’s pretty spectacular. So then following the Breeders’ Cup, we roll into the November Breeding Stock Sale. So that’ll start on Monday, November the 9th.” It’s a marathon for sure. “And so after [that], that’s when I take a vacation.”
Fall at Keeneland, and especially this year, is a flurry, and none of these events are going to look normal. The September sale already happened, and it operated pretty well: “All of our consignors and the individuals that Keeneleand employees, media, they were required to have a negative COVID test just to get a credential onto the property.” In addition, the track made everyone on property do daily health checks and temperature screenings, with social distancing and masks in place of course. “We had the nicest mask police that you can imagine, like our tour guides and guest services employees, the sweet people during the race meet who were opening up the doors, they’re like, ‘Please, you know, take your mask out an put it on.’”
If you’ve ever been to the track for a race meet and had your door opened by some sweet lady in a green jacket named Ruth who clearly was proud to show her granddaughter the outfit before driving over at 6am, you know you wouldn’t ever be able to say no to her.
And so, as the September sale wrapped up sights were set on the rest of the season’s events. With past experience to reference and direct lines of communication with other tracks around the country open to create learning lessons collaboratively, Keeneland set policies for the Fall Meet and Breeder’s Cup. More participants and connections will be allowed on property, but the meets are, unfortunately still closed to the general public and fans: “I think it wasn’t a shock to anyone, but it was just, it was just kind of one more, you know, you almost get numb to it.”
To replace the on-track experience Keeneland is partnering with a bunch of local bars and venues to host watch parties and spread their Betologists across town. But no fans this fall also means no pageantry around the Breeder’s Cup, a week long event that in 2015 brought $65 million to the city, but the organization already announced a return to the Horse Capital of the World in two years to make up for it. “You’re going to get to roll it out and we’re going to do it in 2022. And that, that was a testimony to the hard work and the experience that this community delivered… Be ready. Cause when they come back, we’re going to bring it. We’re going to roll out that purple carpet and it’s going to be the best ever. So that’s, that’s something that we’re all excited about.”
We ended our conversation with Christa by asking for a slice of optimism, for a quote to make us excited about the eventual return to the Keeneland we all know and love, and boy did she deliver:
“I was actually giving a talk not too long ago to a PR group. And I think the last slide of my presentation in the PowerPoint was a picture of the packed fans in the grandstand and horses running across to the finish line. You can almost hear the thundering of the hoofs and the roar of the crowd.
And I left the group with: ‘We’ll be back.’ It’s such a special part of Central Kentucky and people’s traditions. And you know, I feel like everybody needs a little bit of that. As we’re watching racing from home or from your favorite restaurant or bar, you know, go on your phone and look at some of those old photos and maybe post them on Instagram or tag us. And, and we’re thinking about our fans and we’re, we’re looking forward to the days where we’re full of hats and bow ties and people are picnicking in our parking lots and drinking bloody mary’s and winning and celebrating with friends and family. And it’s going to be okay, and Keeneland’s going to be right here and we’re going to be ready for you, whatever it looks like.”