Joe Palmer on Jack Keene, the man behind Keeneland

Oct 12th 2011 10:00 pm |

Joe Palmer

I was inspired over the weekend reading Glenye Cain Oakford’s outstanding piece for the Daily Racing Form about the history of Keeneland. In fact, it might be the best history piece I have ever read in the DRF. It is a meticulously researched with an incredibly thoughtful selection of quotes from a variety of primary sources.

As I was reading Oakford’s Keeneland history, I remembered a piece from one of my all-time favorite race writers and thought it would be appropriate to post this week.

The piece I would like to share is from the great Joe Palmer, newly inducted member to the Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor. The article comes from This Was Racing the compilation of Palmer’s writing put together after his untimely death in October 1952.

The article is undated but the date of its publication isn’t  important.  The important thing to know is that Palmer had been in Kentucky working at the Bloodhorse for about one year when Keeneland opened its doors in 1935. He was there from the beginning. He knew the character Jack Keene and the men who made Keeneland a reality. His recollections of Keene and the track that bears his name are an absolute treasure.

Here is the late, great Joe Palmer’s “Keeneland, With Keene” in its entirety:

After Bowie and Jamaica, and even Havre de Grace which has kept some of its original friendly tone, it was like old slippers and a last cigarette before the fire to have a day’s racing at Keeneland. It may be just because of a sentimental recollection, for when this onlooker drank his first julep in the big stone clubhouse there it was still the property of John Oliver Keene, a man with a peculiar vision, who, nevertheless, did not anticipate the monument to his memory that Keeneland had become.

Jack Keene, as he was called all over the country — what the Russians called him when he trained there I cannot say, but it was unprintable because he won so many races — was a blunt, sincere, gruff, and fundamentally kind man, with a high standard of perfection. If he had engineered the Pyramid of Ceops he would have decided that two or three more twenty-foot layers of stone would have made it better, and he would have got them too whatever objections the Egyptian treasurer might have made.

He built a track at Ashland in the early twenties which may stir a few vague memories with the name of Raceland. It was to cost about $350,000 — dollars were dollars in those days — by the original plans, but when Keene got through the bill was nearer $750,000, because he kept on seeing ways he could make it better and he kept on riding over the stockholders, who could see red ink in every sunset. The stockholders were right too; Raceland did not even leave a ghost.

The point is that when Jack Keene started to build, it was the thing to be done, or perhaps just the slow and satisfying dream of doing it, which outweighed the material considerations. So when he set about building Keeneland – as a private training track and a place to entertain his friends, mind you – it was fairly obvious to these same friends that the vision would outpace construction.

Henry Kaiser couldn’t build as fast as Keene could dream. Why he wanted a mile and a sixteenth track instead of the conventional mile this onlooker couldn’t say. Why he wanted a clubhouse which now houses the office of Keeneland, a library, a couple of dining rooms, an apartment or so, and still leaves spaces for some 800 people to see the races, isn’t quite clear, either; nor why he wanted stalls for a hundred horses in training.

In the nature of things he ran out of money — of building money, that is, though he still held the track of land that Patrick Henry had granted to his ancestors in the days when Kentucky was part of the Old Dominion [Virginia] and he still could maintain his stud and racing stable. But matters were easier all around when he sold off the section which is now Keeneland, for approximately $100,000 to the group of men who founded the present Keeneland track.

These men — Hal Price Headley, Major Louie A. Beard, and others — had a vision, too, but theirs took in things like bank balances and tangible assets, and they built a racetrack solid and four-square and satisfactorily financed, and essayed the first venture in the fall of 1935.

This tourist does not customarily pay much attention to the totalisator but [in 1935] we watched that one like a flock of cats around a mouse hole, though I am aware that this simile is both ill-chosen and somewhat mixed. It ran-up, in ten days of racing, approximately what is bet on the last race at Jamaica any Saturday. The average was $56,000 a day, and you will get some idea of the husbandry of the Keeneland organization when I say that was enough.

Well, things have come on since, and no one has to watch the totalisator any more. The big stables gave generously of their horses, even when they ran for peanuts. The officers not merely served without salary; they paid their way in. They put the thing on a non-profit basis when it seemed the non-profit angle would take care of itself, and universities and foundations have reaped the returns which came later.

What a beautiful thing that all these many years later, Keeneland continues as it did when Palmer wrote these words. I, like Palmer, have a real appreciation for Keeneland’s operation. As it says on their website “Keeneland operates as a for-profit with a non-profit mission.” This philosophy is how many successful non-profits work and one that seems perfect for racing. It’s amazing what can be done when a race track doesn’t have to answer to shareholders and sees its role as community sustaining instead of simply bottom line profit driven. Certainly, not every track can be Keeneland but it would behoove all those involved in racing to see its operating model, where profits are reinvested back into the community, as the ideal.

Sources, News, and Notes

Joe Palmer, This Was Racing, edited by Red Smith (1953)

Here is the link to Glenye Cain Oakford’s tremendous Keeneland history in the Daily Racing Form. Needless to say, it is well worth a read or two.

Read more about Joe Palmer in an article from Bloodhorse about his recent honor from the Racing Hall of Fame

Brief history of Keeneland from their press office

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Keene, James,Keeneland Race Course,Palmer, Joe



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