04.11.21: Racing past a crowd

Almost 25,000 spectators watch the start of the third race, Keeneland spring 2010 opening day, Lexington, Ky. Photograph by Pat Hemlepp, a photography hobbyist with a vast collection of bird, wildlife, sports and travel photographs.

Almost 25,000 spectators watch the start of the third race, Keeneland spring 2010 opening day, Lexington, Ky.

People were packed shoulder to shoulder. There were no masks. It makes me miss the good ol’ days.

Sports in the good ol’ days: Crowds, no masks

There’s nothing better than spending a sunny day at the races.

It has beauty and color, with magnificent thoroughbreds in the paddock or on the track and jockeys wearing bright silks. It has excitement and drama, watching the horses fly toward the finish line in hopes that your horse arrives first. It has the thrill of victory (cashing a winning ticket) and the agony of defeat (throwing away a losing ticket). There’s food. There’s drink.

It’s all part of a recipe for a fun day.

And I’m hoping that recipe can be used again soon.

The coronavirus pandemic gutted horse racing, just as it did other sports. Racing became a made-for-television event with horses running past empty stands.

For well over a decade my wife and I have visited Keeneland, the historic race track in Lexington, Ky., twice a year to enjoy some racing. It’s also an opportunity for me to grab some new racing photos (the track is very camera friendly).

But the pandemic scrapped Keeneland’s April spring meet in 2020. Instead, the track hosted a few days of racing — with no spectators — in late summer to run the major stakes races usually held in April. The October 2020 fall meet was held as scheduled, but again with no spectators. And Keeneland hosted the prestigious Breeders Cup races in November. No spectators.

This month Keeneland is hosting its spring meet, but only a limited number of tickets are available to the public and tickets must be purchased in advance.

I shot this photo on opening day of Keeneland’s 2010 spring meet. Since Keeneland is only open for three weeks in April and three weeks in October, the crowds are large for opening day, weekend days and just about any day the horses are running. 

People were packed shoulder to shoulder. There were no masks. It makes me miss the good ol’ days.

My goal was to get a photo showing the massive crowd, almost 25,000 that day, with the horses running down the stretch in the background. The starting gate was probably 30 yards behind me to my left, so I put on a wide angle lens, stopped down to a small aperture to increase depth of field (the area of the photo in focus), set the focus for about 10 feet in front of me and held the camera above my head. When I heard the race start, I counted to three and started clicking off shots.

I knew I would get the horses in the background. What I couldn’t guarantee was what the crowd would be doing. But I got lucky. Everyone was watching the horses speed down the stretch. Some had cameras or phones above their heads to get shots. And the photo showed the carpet of colors formed by the crowd of spectators.

I said that my wife and I have been going to Keeneland for well over a decade, but I’ve spent spring and fall days at the track for years before that. My father took me when I was young, beginning before I could read. I took him as he got older.  Win or lose, it was always a fun day.

Keeneland has hosted races since it opened in 1936. It’s one of the nation’s most “traditional” race tracks, retaining the same look and feel through the years while still adopting new technologies (even though it was the last race track in North America to broadcast race calls over a public-address system, adopting that practice in 1997). Keeneland was used for most of the racing scenes in the 2003 movie Seabiscuit because its appearance has changed little in decades.

Keeneland is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986.In 2009, Keeneland was ranked as the number one track in America by the Horseplayers Association of North America.

Tech specs

  • Date/time: Apr 2, 2010 2:06 PM   
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D
  • Lens: EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM 
  • Focal length: 16mm
  • Aperture: f/10
  • Shutter: 1/640 second
  • ISO: 400