Stranger in a strange land

As we pulled into Keeneland early Thursday afternoon on a glorious spring day, I was fretting. Having been in the car since dawn, I had dressed for comfort, a wise decision at 6 am, but on the hallowed grounds of Keeneland, perhaps a dubious one. I contemplated my jeans (pretty nice by jeans standards, if I say so myself), boots, and sleeveless, dressy sweater (not a tank top, no spaghetti straps), compared my attire to that of other women in the parking lot (heavy on the sundresses), and wondered whether I should change.

“Nonsense!” I told myself. “It might be Keeneland, but it’s still a race track.”

I made my way to the main building and got in the elevator to head to the press box, located on the fourth floor of the clubhouse, the entry of which is guarded as zealously as a Triple Crown contender. Emerging from the elevator with those headed to the fancy dining rooms, I headed to the press box…and was stopped. More powerful than the words was the disapproving look.

“Excuse me, miss, can I help you?” (Read: “You clearly don’t belong here, and I’m not letting you go any further.”)

“I’m going to the press box.”

He looked at my pants (I am not making this up, I swear), and asked, “Are those dungarees, or are they jeans?”

Stymied, nervous, I just stared. Dungarees or jeans? There’s a difference? Is this a quiz? Should I guess? Suppose I’m wrong?

In the face of my confusion, he made the determination himself. “Those are jeans.”

Deciding that humor and cooperation were my best allies, I made some comment about taking the back stairway to the press box and making sure that no one would see me, and reluctantly, he let me pass, with the air of someone who has let a New York-bred claimer into the Kentucky Derby.

We were invited to watch the next race from the box of a friend of a friend who had a horse racing. “But I have jeans on,” I said. The box’s owner dismissed my concern, saying, “That doesn’t matter. Come on up.”

We were joined by two very proper Kentucky gentlemen, one of whom was of—or perhaps beyond—a certain age. All around us, scantily if elegantly clad women took advantage of the sort of spring day that has made far too few appearances so far this year. We made small talk; we talked Saratoga; we watched the race, in which our rooting interest did not fare well; we said our thank-yous and prepared to leave. As I began to leave the box, the Very Proper Gentleman beckoned me for a sotto voce and quite pointed comment, looking at my bare arms: “You can buy a sweater in the gift shop.” I responded, oh so graciously, “Thank you so much, but I’m really quite warm, thank you.”

Welcome to Keeneland.

Sartorial inadequacies aside, the rest of our afternoon passed in a delightful glow—the first race we watched resulted in a double dead-heat for second and fourth, offering so many payout combinations that the track announcer told the crowd simply to look at the board, rather than going through each one.

And a few races later, we got to see the magnificent Ventura get nipped at the wire in the Vinery Madison (someone in the Backstretch household thinks that that’s a GREAT name for a race) by Informed Decision.

More than satisfied by the first day of our visit, we headed to the parking lot. “Wasn’t the car right here?” my friend asked. “I think so,” I replied. “Maybe it was over there?” she said hopefully.

It was nowhere. Our car had been towed. But why? There were no signs forbidding parking; we parked in line with another car; three parking attendants had watched us exit the car and head to the track. In the face of rising panic and impending financial despair, we found what had to be the most helpful and friendliest policeman in Lexington. He made a number of phone calls and determined that while Keeneland does remove cars it deems incorrectly parked, it doesn’t have them towed away—they are simply moved elsewhere on the grounds, out of the way (kind of like the people who wear jeans?). But he didn’t know where.

Back up to the building we went, in search of a Keeneland security guard. Avuncular, gracious, he told us with some merriment that we’d find the car on the Keeneland “back forty,” on the hill beyond the track kitchen, and that there would be no fee for retrieving it; we could just walk back there and get it.

The backstretch was quiet as we made our way eastward, and the panic having suspended, we rather enjoyed a pastoral stroll among the horses. Our VW was the only car there; “Guess you girls are the only ones who got towed today,” a nearby observer remarked. Lucky us.

Yesterday’s glorious weather will be nowhere in evidence today, with cloudy skies and rain forecast for much of today. We’ll be meticulous in our parking choices, and now, I’m off to iron a skirt…

26 thoughts on “Stranger in a strange land

  1. Hysterical! A great post and a very welcome one to me. I hope I can get back there next spring if I can’t make the fall meet this year. Keep ’em coming!

  2. Great story! What a place that moves your car if improperly parked. A totally foreign concept to an Easterner.

  3. Yikes! I’d have been thrown out on my ear for sure. Jeans (dungarees – what’s the difference?) and sneakers would have been my choice of attire. But probably not bare arms ;)The horror of it all!

  4. Great story. As one disinclined to dresses but determined to get some of my friends who live in Lexington to Keeneland at some point, I will take heed…

  5. He looked at my pants (I am not making this up, I swear), and asked, “Are those dungarees, or are they jeans?”_________Must have been Sassoncirca 1979 ;-)I enjoyed reading that. Thank you.

  6. “…with the air of someone who has let a New York-bred claimer into the Kentucky Derby.Nice.Their arrogance is annoying, though. They can be, like their surface, highly artificial.

  7. And people think New Yorkers are a tough bunch, pfffft. Did you find out what it was about your parking job that was deemed “incorrect”? Can you imagine if that happened in New York? Hilarious, no one would ever be able to find their car!

  8. Wonderful Teresa and told as only you can. I am assuming you have hit the kitchen by the time I have typed this. You must tell us about your impressions of the kitchen, especially the biscuits and gravy, I love the biscuits and gravy !!!

  9. What a fun read!! Remember when they used to require long pants in the Belmont clubhouse? I ran afoul of that rule a few times. It could be ninety-five degrees, but no shorts allowed. Grandstand or bust.Now, all you need is pants – – they don’t care what kind. But I think there’s still a sign on the fence along the clubhouse perimeter saying “no short pants” or words to that effect. I kind of hope it hasn’t been taken down. Makes me smile every time.

  10. I have often felt that way at Keeneland… for most of the people who attend, it is more about who dressed the best and flirted the most than it is the horses. It is still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen though!

  11. Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting. A few responses: Knight Sky: In 1979, I was wearing Sergio Valente. Dana: was THRILLED to see Mushka win. I don’t think that my photos came out because of the rain, but I’ll go through them when I get back. John: had breakfast at the track kitchen this morning–Good Friday, no meat! But you can bet that I’ll be loading up on bacon Saturday morning. And as you can’t fathom my affection for Gulfstream, your penchant for gravy is comprehensible to me!Anon 8:11: the sign is still there, and last summer, a friend of mine was denied access to the clubhouse boxes on a Friday afternoon because she was wearing shorts.

  12. “Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith …”The term “dungaree” originally was associated with a coarse undyed calico fabric that was produced and sold in a region near Dongari Killa in India. In time, the name of the cloth came to mean an item of clothing made out of it. In the U.S., carpenter jeans are often referred to as dungarees.The word “jeans” comes from the French phrase bleu de Gênes, literally the blue of Genoa. Denim orginated in the French town of Nîmes (hence, de Nimes, or “of Nimes”) Corduroy or canvas trousers are sometimes called “jeans”. However, by definition the word “jeans” strictly refers to trousers made out of denim.

  13. Nice story. I too was struck by the differences with my trip there last year (first trip ever). But I liked it, since it was a slice of Americana, and different than any track I had ever been to. I actually got thanked and wished good luck (this happened without fail) after purchasing a ticket from the tellers. That was worth the price of admission.Enjoy the rest of the trip T.

  14. Are jeans and a T-shirt acceptable attire for the common folk areas at Keeneland???I’d like to attend at some point in my life but don’t want to waste a trip or wagering money on clothes I’d wear just once ;-)!!!

  15. As long as you’re not in the clubhouse (members and guests only), jeans and T-shirts are OK. I think you can even get away with shorts in the grandstand seats.In the clubhouse or the Phoenix room, guys are required to wear a jacket, but ties are optional except in the Lexington/Kentucky Rooms. For ladies, clubhouse attire is dresses, skirts or slacks. Denim is not permitted.***Teresa, you have no idea how worried I was that I was going to get towed today after your story. Mercifully, the car was still where I left it near Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn.

  16. Loved this piece Teresa! Even more, I enjoyed meeting you (albeit briefly) at the races on the Friday you were there.

    Like you, I will never equate going to a race track with ‘dressing up’. Royal Ascot maybe…

    I have my own, similar story: one particular day I wore a skirt to Keeneland (rare occasion indeed). The skirt was denim in color but not fabric. I was standing in the aisle way between boxes (kind of near where I met you) outside on the second floor, but on the clubhouse side. It was a weekday. One of the “well past her prime” ushers looked at me and very condescendingly asked me how I got in to the clubhouse! Was my skirt not denim? Who let me in? How dare they!!!

    I went from being quite pleased with my outfit to wishing I had my jeans on, beer in one hand, form in the other…about as perfect an outfit for the track as I can imagine.

    • Thanks, Anne–great to meet you, too! I tell that story with much love–it’s one of my favorite Keeneland memories.

      Hope to see you in the fall, in jeans, beer (or bourbon?) in hand —

  17. Enjoyed reading your story. I’m having no luck finding humor in a similar experience that occurred yesterday . I was the intended guest of a Keeneland race sponsor who has been a clubhouse member since 1978. We were to meet for lunch in the clubhouse third floor paddock area and then make our way to the winners’ circle for photos at the appropriate time. I am a Kentuckian and have been to Keeneland numerous times, primarily as a clubhouse guest of this same lady friend. Needless to say, I dressed smartly for our luncheon and photo opportunity…..black “skinny-legged”pants, knee high black leather boots, white long-sleeved blouse, black leather jacket , and a colorful scarf. I was denied access as I entered the foyer of the clubhouse by no less than SIX docents who grouped judgmentally to evaluate my pants, claiming they were “denim”. This was not even close to being accurate in style, fabric or color. The discovery of one tiny rivet on a front pocket was my doom. I was unable to persuade any one of the female docents to venture a tactile test of the fabric…..no one wanted to touch me. In a final attempt to make entry, I telephoned my friend who was waiting upstairs for my arrival. In this very “proper” setting, I was very improperly questioned by a Keeneland associate regarding “who” I was calling and who I was meeting with. Should this make a difference and is it anyone’s business other than my own? My friend joined me in the foyer to assist, whereupon yet another higher ranked “gentleman” of management was called in to discuss the problem. My lady friend was forced to “beg” for forgiveness for me….reminding him it was the last day of Fall racing, that we were sponsoring and presenting a race that day, and that this clothing problem would never again be repeated. Finally I was allowed to stay, and make my way upstairs for lunch with my friend. We were informed by the gentleman, however, that he needed to call upstairs to “give them a heads-up that I would be coming”….as if I had a disease.

    I can’t begin to describe how unfortunate this experience was for me. I hated the fact that my friend was inconvenienced and possibly embarrassed by this occurrence. I wondered if I might have done better to feign a flat tire and excuse myself from our lunch together. In my world, no gentleman or lady would dream of publicly causing such a fuss. Fine manners should take precedence….always. This was lacking at Keeneland.

    • I can relate! As I stood there in front of a man scrutinizing my pants, I felt like I was back in Catholic school and Father Jones was determining whether I was in dress code or not. What a shame…glad it eventually worked out and I hope that it didn’t ruin what looked like a wonderful day at Keeneland.

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