It's not just about the gambling - Todd Defeo

The crowd around Kate Eschelbach stood up; the noise level rose as the crowd started cheering for their favorite horses making their way around the final curve and into the homestretch.

"This is so exciting," Eschelbach said, her eyes glued on the scene unfolding in front of her. The field of horses galloped by, unfazed by the roar, and the jockeys put their all into the final few feet of the race. In a matter of seconds it was over and so goes the typical race – the excitement builds as the horses make their way to the finish line.

Just watching the crowd, one can pick out the winners and the losers, simply by their facial expressions. The winners jump for joy and shake their counterparts' hands, while the losers, looking dejected, turn the pages in their programs and again begin the search for a horse that won't disappoint in the next race.

The scene repeats itself throughout the day.

But for many, the trip to the track is more than just an opportunity to gamble – it's an experience. And tracks like Keeneland in Lexington host casual spectators as well as seasoned gamblers.

"Seeing the crowd and enjoying the weather was the biggest draw for me," said Carrboro, N.C., resident John Eschelbach, who went to the track this past weekend with his wife Kate. "It was fun to watch everyone all dressed up for horse racing. The actual races were quite fun as well."

John Eschelbach, who frequents the track about once or twice per year when he meets up with friends, wagered $30 during this weekend's trip to the track, including $20 for a daring pick four, the bet's outcome resting on four separate races. The pick four didn't pan out, but it didn't much matter in the end.

The pick four, masterminded by Ed DeRosa, a staff writer at Thoroughbred Times, follows his philosophy: he makes the wagers that could yield him the biggest payoff.

DeRosa would rather risk a big gamble and lose, taking the chance of a large payoff. As he says, it beats winning $10 every week.

That prospect, and simply the prospect of watching a race with some money riding on it, only adds to the excitement.

"The races were more exciting when you gambled because you had a horse to cheer for or a desired outcome," John Eschelbach said. "It certainly made your heart race to see the horse you chose come off the final turn in the win."

About 10 percent of the people who attend Keeneland only attend the track one or two times annually, Keeneland spokeswoman Julie Balog said. And like the Eschelbachs, 25 percent of those who attend Keeneland are between 18 and 35 years old.

"For any track to survive, it has to cultivate a new fan base and satisfy an existing one," Balog says. That is happening, she adds.

Recent storylines – Smarty Jones and Funny Cide both flirting with a Triple Crown – have created popular heroes, drawing in a new generation of race fans. Likewise, the success of the movie "Seabiscuit" attracted new people to the races.

But at Keeneland, where the money flows, it's not just about the gambling. Tracks, and especially Keeneland, offer something for everyone – the chance to place wagers, the opportunity to socialize and for the photographer like me, an occasion to take hundreds of pictures in a single afternoon.

"The horse is really the focus of what we do here," Balog says about Keeneland. "It's not about the wagering; it's not about the ancillary things. The horse is first."

Spending five minutes standing at the paddock and watching as the horses prepare for a race will prove that true. It's high time you stopped and watched the horses.

Todd DeFeo is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161or via e-mail at tdefeo@henryherald.com .