By Amanda Duckworth
Few are as direct and honest as children. Whispers of “It smells like horses,” “Whoa, that's a lot of money,” and “What is this place?” have been exchanged in Keeneland's sales pavilion this week as fifth graders take part in a field trip arranged by the Lexington organization.
Every day this week, Keeneland is teaming up with industry partners and opening up its doors to a total of almost 3,000 school children as a joint effort to educate them on the importance of the Thoroughbred industry in the local community.
In all, kids from 31 area public and private schools are taking part in the initiative, which Keeneland started seven years ago.
“When we started this program about Keeneland, we quickly realized that these children growing up in our community didn't know we were in their backyard, ” said Kara Heissenbuttel, Keeneland's director of employee and patron experience. “We have continued to develop the program, and a couple of years ago we decided to broaden the scope and bring in industry partners.
“It's been phenomenal because while Keeneland plays a vital role in our community, it takes all different organizations to make the Thoroughbred industry thrive.”
After Wednesday's group watched a short educational video about all Keeneland does, from racing to sales, they were given a four-question pop quiz by Brad Lovell, Keeneland's vice president and chief information officer.
Keeping their hands raised equaled yes when asked: Are you a fifth grader, have you ever petted a horse, have you ever been to Keeneland, and have you attended a horse auction?
The number of hands in the air dwindled as the quiz went on, but Lovell was quick to reassure the children.
“The reason you are all here today is to learn about the horse industry and how important the industry is to Kentucky and to Lexington,” he said. “The good news is by the end of today, you can say you have done all of those things. It's going to be a fun, exciting, and educational day.”
Then, although no real horses were sold, a mock Thoroughbred auction was held for a colt by Bodemeister out of Above Perfection. If buyers at the upcoming Keeneland September yearling sale are half as enthusiastic as the school children were when it came time to bid, the market will be in a very healthy place.
Upon learning the horse that they “bought” was none other than the 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) winner, a fair number of children were able to supply his name: Always Dreaming.
In reality, the colt was sold at Keeneland as a yearling, and that factoid was one of many included in a special Thoroughbred racing and sales educational workbook put together for the event, which was filled with photos and information about Thoroughbred training and care, jockey equipment, racing surfaces, a glossary of equine terms, and statistics on the industry's economic impact in Kentucky.
After the mock auction, the children began the walking portion of the tour which included stops at a variety of educational-themed stations that were scattered throughout the track and sales pavilion.
While in the tunnel that leads to the track, the children seemed suitably impressed to learn they were standing in the same spot and breathing the same air as Triple Crown winner American Pharoah did when he ran for the final time, which came when he romped in the 2015 GI Breeders' Cup Classic and won racing's Grand Slam.
Tour stops included history lessons about Keeneland, possible Thoroughbred industry careers, general racing information, the safety of the sport's human and equine athletes, and important landmarks at the track.
“I like horses because they are soft, and they can run really fast,” said Aven, a fifth grader at Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School taking part in Wednesday's tour. “They are just really nice and cute.”
Partners participating in the initiative included Godolphin, Kentucky Derby Museum, Locust Trace AgriScience Center, North American Racing Academy, and Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, which each had booths set up along the tour.
“Our museum is a non-profit and our goal, our mission is education,” said the Kentucky Derby Museum's Ronnie Dreistadt, who taught the children about the economic impact of the Kentucky Derby. “This is our third year participating with Keeneland. We want to reach as many kids as we can and be a part of it. I think it is really strong that we get to work together for a common goal.”
A Rood & Riddle lesson on what veterinarians have to do because horses can't throw up proved disgustingly fascinating to the youngsters, while perhaps the most eagerly anticipated stop came at Godolphin's setup courtesy of Nancy and Rosie, two mares who are professional babysitters at nearby Darley.
“We bring horses in and give the children the opportunity to pet and touch them,” said Katie LaMonica, the charitable donations manager for Godolphin USA. “While they are doing that, we are talking to them about the horses and what their jobs are, who takes care of them, and all of the people associated with them. We just know how amazing and therapeutic petting a horse is.
“Godolphin is supportive of educating school-aged children about the Thoroughbred industry and the impact of it in their local communities. We do this worldwide. We are in six countries, and we have educational programs that Godolphin supports in all six countries. It's very important to Sheikh Mohammed.”
Over the years, the initiative at Keeneland has brought more than 18,000 local students onto the property and given them a chance to see the inner workings of the racetrack, the sales company and the Thoroughbred industry at large. Organizers are always shaping the curriculum to make it more impactful and anticipate welcoming school children for years to come.
“We learned pretty fast that if we give them the best day ever but they don't get to pet a horse, they don't see that as a good day,” said Heissenbuttel. “As long as our schools are willing to participate, this program is something that we would love to keep doing.
“You can go to a classroom and talk to children about what we do, but actually bringing them out here and letting them experience it is something totally different.”