As the elegant thoroughbreds were brought onto the historic grounds of Keeneland Race Course in the heart of the Bluegrass Region, the well-heeled crowd moved around the paddock oohing and aahing at their beauty and sleek configuration. It's no secret that Lexington, Ky., is considered the horse capital of the world, but these thoroughbreds were of the four-wheeled rather than four-legged variety, and their horsepower came not from flying hoofs, but from mega-powerful engines.
It wasn't a black stallion creating a stir but a black Packard with a Lalique hood ornament, not a chestnut filly with a lustrous patrimony but a 2000 canary yellow Alfa Romeo 8C Spider with a limited production. This wasn't Keeneland's spring or fall race meet but the Concours d'Elegance, a four-day classic car event held every July on the track's manicured grounds.
When I found out I was going to the Concours and accompanying Tour d'Elegance, a driving tour of the beautiful countryside, my imagination went into overdrive (pun definitely intended) . I conjured up images of myself in oversized sunglasses and head scarf a la Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief," taking the twists and turns of a bluegrass back road much as she and Cary Grant had done on the winding stretches of Monaco's cliff-hugging Grand Corniche.
Or maybe I would be the bluegrass version of a Bond girl — sitting beside a dashing British spy in an Aston-Martin while we eluded dangerous criminal types. Throughout my fantasies, the Cary Grants and James Bonds came and went, but the sleek, sexy, speedy car was a constant.
When I arrived at Keeneland for the Tour d'Elegance, I found a parking lot that would have sent celebrity car collector Jay Leno into raptures. Which one was mine, I wondered? Was it the silver Porsche or the pearl-gray British Sterling or the bottle-green Jaguar? Whichever one it was, how could I go wrong with the dazzling array of Cobras and Corvettes, Maseratis, Mustangs and Mercedes awaiting their drivers?
My euphoria was short-lived, however. Instead of being the driver, I found I would be the passenger. I had been trumped by a writer for a car magazine who would be behind the wheel.
Making a good show of hiding my disappointment, I chirpily asked him which car was ours — the tomato-red Ferrari or maybe the jet-black Lamborghini? With a sheepish look, he confessed he had registered late and was therefore ineligible for one of the hip roadsters.
Our car, it turned out, was a muddy brown sedan of who-knew-what automotive pedigree. With another sheepish look, he shrugged and said, "Sorry, it's an airport rental."
Just that fast, I went from being a Bond girl to a soccer mom.
Concours d'Elegance literally translated means "a competition of elegance," and while history tells us the first one may have started as far back as the Romans — who enjoyed showing off the decorative aspects of their chariots and the speed of their horses — it is more generally thought to have originated in 17th-century Paris. The early concours event saw French aristocrats parade through the Bois de Boulogne and the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens in their handsome carriages on summer weekends, leaving the hoi-polloi slack-jawed with awe and envy.
Over the centuries, horsepower replaced horses as luxury car owners began to show off their automobiles — not just to wow the populace, but also to vie for prizes and recognition. In France, the concours reached its zenith during the Roaring '20s, and no social season on the Cote d'Azur was complete without one.
The U.S. version of the concours continues to attract the admiration of the populace and recognizes luxury car ownership, but it serves a higher purpose, as well. Some 40 such events across the country — from the oldest and most prestigious in Pebble Beach, Calif., to others in Amelia Island, Fla.; Rochester Hills, Mich.; and the one in Lexington — allow luxury car owners not only to show off their classic models but also to support charitable endeavors.
In Lexington the funds generated by ticket sales are earmarked for the Kentucky Children's Hospital. Since its inception in 2004, the Keeneland Concours d'Elegance has donated profits from the weekend totaling $547,000 to benefit the state's smallest, most vulnerable patients .
While the Sunday Tour d'Elegance had fueled all my fantasies, it is the actual competition held on Saturday of the four-day event that is the main draw, attracting some 5,000 spectators to Keeneland's Car Club Paddock. As dawn broke, the early morning mist swirled, and dewy beads sparkled on the grass, some 150 of the finest and rarest cars in the world — estimated value in excess of $50 million — accompanied by their enthusiastic owners got ready for their close-ups.
Buffed and polished until their metal chassis gleamed like satin, the cars received the same intense scrutiny from the judges that a Miss Universe contestant or a Westminster Kennel Club entrant would undergo. At stake were trophies in 18 different categories, each sponsored by a different thoroughbred horse farm.
Tom Jones, who along with his wife, Connie, chairs the Concours d' Elegance, has been a lover of classic cars for as long as he can remember, having attended his first concours in 1975 in Cottage Grove, Ore. He's amazed at how far the Lexington event has come in nine years.
"If you do a Google search on Concours d'Elegance, Pebble Beach is the first one that comes up, which isn't surprising since it's been running for more than 50 years," he said. "After that, Amelia Island is No. 2 and we're No. 3."
Jones might come across sounding like a proud parent, but Bill Sporele, curator of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who knows a thing or two about cars, agreed, describing the Lexington event as "the pre-eminent concours in the Midwest."
Part of the reason lies in its exclusivity. Whereas some concours have no particular criteria for participation, Jones and his wife believe in quality over quantity, hence the limited number of cars in competition.
"We will always keep it at around 150 entries, with no cars being allowed to participate more than twice in a five-year period," he said.
That brought up the inevitable question: Of the hundreds of cars that have competed over the years, which was your favorite?
With no hesitation, Jones answered, "The Figani Filashi Talbot Lago."
Come again? At my quizzical look, he shot back, "You know, the car in the movie 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit.'"
Immediately my fantasies returned. Not Grace Kelly or a Bond girl this time. Instead, I was Jessica Rabbit, in a clingy red satin gown, flashing through the bluegrass in a Figani Filashi. It worked for me.