Photo: All photos, Bryan Dearsley / LuxuryKentucky
Luxury Lifestyles writer Bryan Dearsley recently visited Lexington, Kentucky for a tour of the iconic Keeneland race track… here’s what he experienced.
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Entering the grounds of the fabled Keeneland is like entering another world entirely. Spread over 1,200 acres and only a 20-minute drive west of downtown Lexington, here you’ll find some of the most picturesque countryside in Kentucky, all of it home to this sprawling facility that’s not only the world’s largest and most important thoroughbred auction house but also hosts to the USA’s richest race meets each spring and fall.
While its races have attracted crowds of as many as 30,000 race fans, owners, trainers, and riders, the September morning I arrived for my Keeneland tour experience, these hallowed grounds were all but devoid of anyone who wasn’t staff or, like me, here to sample breakfast at the Keeneland Track Kitchen.
Like most of the park-like grounds here, this fun dining spot is open year-round to the public, and as I soon discovered is something of a hidden gem of a restaurant in Lexington. Not only was my counter-served breakfast first-rate and fresh, I found myself seated amongst a mix of staff and visitors curious enough about Keeneland to want to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the property.
I was told later by my guide that the restaurant is also an excellent place for serious race enthusiasts to visit as it’s also frequented by those in the industry. In addition to the “back-end” support staff of trainers and grooms, famous jockeys and owners are known to visit, as well as the occasional celebrity, too, some of them thoroughbred owners.
The Keeneland Tour Experience Begins
With Keeneland’s much-anticipated fall meet still a few weeks away, the lack of a crowd made finding my tour guide, Mike Galanis, an easy task. The ensuing 90-minute Keeneland tour he gave was not only extremely informative, it was also entertaining, with no end of anecdotes and stories backing up the fascinating facts and figures he provided.
The racecourse was in fact started by renowned thoroughbred trainer Jack Keene in 1916, who originally planned on building a private racetrack and training center. However, by the early 1930s Keene had run into financial difficulties and was forced to sell the property.
Keene’s misfortune, though, was to prove a godsend to the racing world after the property was taken over by local businessmen and race enthusiasts determined to cement Lexington’s growing reputation as the “horse capital of the world.” The “new” Keeneland’s first races took place in 1936, and today it’s ranked as one of the best racetracks in the USA.
Innovation and Architecture
From its inception, Keeneland’s founders paid a lot of attention to the design not just of the race track, but also to the many structures built here. As Mike led me around its most important buildings, I marvelled at its architectural brilliance.
With an impressive stone clubhouse and grandstand designed by Lexington architect Robert McMeekin, Keeneland emanates a unique blend of historical charm and state-of-the-art functionality. Built primarily of local Kentucky limestone, the result is a robust yet refined appearance that certainly impresses, and which blends seamlessly with the surrounding landscape.
My favorite views of this stunning architecture were from the Paddock. Really the heart of Keeneland, it’s here on race days that the horses are saddled and viewed prior to racing. Really two separate areas consisting of a saddling paddock and walking ring, I learned that this area, too, is open to the public on race days, providing a unique chance to get a glimpse of the horses before race time.
Mike also pointed out a fascinating and brightly painted display of statues, each representing the colors worn by jockeys on their winning thoroughbreds. Two other notable features here are the beautiful, white-barked tree in the middle of the Paddock, a tall sycamore planted in 1936, and a stunning bronze Breeders’ Cup statue showing a thoroughbred’s muscular structure.
The Keeneland Racetrack and Grandstand
Keeneland today supports a state-of-the-art dirt racing surface that uses a unique vertical drainage system on its main track. The best views of the track can be enjoyed from the grandstands, an area included in the tour.
A highlight is having the chance to pop into the Corporate Boxes, a collection of 22 rooms that can be entirely closed off for privacy or opened up to adjoining rooms for a little interaction. The views from these suites are superb, especially if you’re visiting when horses are being trained on the track.
The Sales Pavilion
From the grandstand, we made our way to the heart of the property’s auction area, the Sales Pavilion. Here, the famous Keeneland Sales, the biggest sale of thoroughbreds in the world, are held three times a year. Attracting buyers and sellers from across the globe, large sums of money are exchanged with many horses selling for prices well in excess of a million dollars or more.
“It’s a little like the Royalty of the thoroughbred world,” says Mike of the majestic animals offered up for sale at these fast-paced and exciting events. “You really do see the cream of American horses here, both in the Sales Pavilion and out on the racetrack. Keeneland really is a global powerhouse in terms of thoroughbred sales.”
In addition to its beautiful wood-finished walls, the Sales Pavilion is also used to showcase a fascinating collection of racing-related artwork by locals and internationally renowned artists that Mike informed me are also up for auction.
The Keeneland Library
Hopping in a golf cart for the last part of the tour, Mike drives us up to the Keeneland Library. Founded in 1939, this modern building set overlooking the property is today the world’s largest collection of information related to the thoroughbred industry.
In addition to its vast collection of books, the library serves as a repository for other related materials including photographs (it has a million negatives), films, videos, and periodicals, and is a treasure trove of information for researchers. It, too, is open to the public (weekdays only).
Having toured the fabulous Keeneland facility myself, it’s easy to see how Lexington can lay claim to being the “horse capital of the world.” Horse race fan or not, if you’re looking to gain a better understanding of its importance in the world of racing, this authentic Kentucky experience comes highly recommended.
Prefer to go it alone? A great self-guided tour option is available from the Keeneland website. Those wanting to take a piece of racing heaven home with them should pay a visit to the Keeneland Shop.
Other fun things to do in Keeneland include exploring the grounds, which are open to the public free of charge for picnics and walks. Travelling with your pooch? While the grounds are pet-friendly, please be aware that dogs should be leashed and aren’t permitted in areas where horses are stabled or exercised.
Here for the Holidays? As a special treat, consider booking one of Keeneland’s luxurious Holiday Tea experiences. Held in the elegant members-only Clubhouse, it’s one of the rare occasions the public can see inside this lovely historic building. Reservations are needed and can be booked online here.
Keeneland tickets for race days are available from their website at https://tickets.keeneland.com.
Looking to make a weekend of your fun Keeneland tour experience? If so, check out LuxuryKentucky‘s feature article about the best luxury hotels in Lexington for ideas and inspiration.
Bryan Dearsley is Editor-in-chief of Riley and its subsidiary luxury lifestyle websites, including LuxuryKentucky.
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