Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

A Horse is a Horse: How to Do Keeneland in Lexington

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Bourbon and horses. Horses and bourbon. These are two industries that anchor Lexington, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors—myself included—to this charming, mid-size Kentucky city year after year, but particularly during Keeneland when you can enjoy the best of both from the comfort of the sprawling racetrack grandstand.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

It’s funny to think that two years ago I’d never been to Lexington; now, I’ve visited four times in the past 18 months and would venture to say it’s one of my favorite Southern cities, completely underrated and full of culture, sass and charm. And though Churchill Downs may be the more well-known of the tracks, Keeneland is every bit as steeped in tradition with a history dating back 80 years.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Seasont
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

On my first trip to Keeneland last April, it rained so hard that Old Frankfort Pike flooded, and not only could we not drive out through Horse Country to see the farms, but we couldn’t even do what we do best on rainy days: drink bourbon at Woodford. This visit, however, couldn’t have been more different: early autumn posing as summer, a sweaty 90 degrees and not a cloud in the sky.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

It was perfect, exactly what you hope your every day at the races might be.

Keeneland’s season happens twice a year: in the spring (April) and in the fall (October). We went on opening day both times, a Friday, so as you can imagine, it was more than a little crowded. I personally like the experience of seeing all those people packed in like sardines, cheering for their horse at the same time, the grandstand pulsing with excited energy for the 90 seconds their swift hooves churn up the track dirt.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

For the crowd-adverse, mid-week is a great time to get your fill of racing as the event runs every Wednesday through Sunday for four weekends straight every October (and again in April).

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

But before you even get to the track, it’s best you learn a bit about how the industry works first, wouldn’t you agree? As horse racing becomes more and more mainstream, so do the neighboring horse farms, opening up their operations for tourists to enjoy.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Last year, we took a tour of WinStar Farm in Versailles; this time around, it was Taylor Made in Nicholasville, which is billed as a sales agency and boarding facility for thoroughbreds. We visited the foaling quarters, the paddock, and the yearling division where the horses transition from weanlings to yearlings.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Not growing up in the horse world, I found so much of it fascinating, such as how they separate the younguns into different paddocks by girls and boys—it’s like the horse version of a high school dance—and how a stallion can have up to three, ahem, dates with different mares per day.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Seasont
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Taylor Made also happens to be the former home of last year’s Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup winner American Pharoah, so we got to meet a few of his children.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

This 1,100-acre farm nearly occupies its own zip code, so you’ll use your car to drive between facilities and learn about the whole process from breeding to showing the horses to future clients.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Racing veteran or track newbie, it doesn’t matter, a Lexington area horse farm tour is an activity that will both educate and entertain anyone passing through northern Kentucky.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

The Backstory of Keeneland

Born in 1936, Keeneland was founded in the middle of the Great Depression as a non-profit and community venture with the intention to create a track unique in structure and also bring racing back to Lexington. The team behind it succeeded spectacularly as Keeneland is now a National Historic Landmark and considered the major prep races for the Derby, which takes place the following month, not to mention an annual tradition for so many Kentuckians.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

What to Wear to the Races

Literally, anything goes at Keeneland. Well, OK, maybe not anything, but I saw everything from Hawaiian shirts to full-on three-piece suits. It’s definitely not as fancy, clothing-wise as Derby is.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

If you’re a guy, a button-down shirt and nice slacks is always a good choice. Some men dress a little more, shall we say, flamboyantly than others, like my color-loving husband.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

But c’mon, isn’t he cute?

If you’re more of a dapper dresser, don’t be shy busting out the sport coat and tie like these handsome gents.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

The ladies seem to mostly dress in what I would consider sorority “game day” apparel: tasteful sundresses and cute flats or boots, or a skirt and nice top. One thing I’d advise is leaving the heels at home—trust me, gals, you do not want to be traipsing about the Paddock in stilettos!

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Do I Need a Hat?

Well, no. Though it’s a lot of fun to try and find one!

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Truth be told, the first time I came to Keeneland, I borrowed a handful of hats from my Kentucky pal Beth, but didn’t wind up wearing them once I saw very few women in them.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

In another life, I feel like I could have been a Kentuckian, don’t you? Also, one day I will go to Derby, just so I have an excuse to own a piece of art like this beaut.
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Clubhouse Attire

For those who get the opportunity to visit the clubhouse, as we did our first Keeneland in spring of 2015, you’ll be required to dress fancy, with men in a coat and women in dresses, tailored pantsuits or dress slacks.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Don’t Miss the Paddock

Between races, you’ll find crowds congregating in the central paddock area. This is not only a great meeting place if you’re doing the races with a group, but it’s also prime horse-watching, as the thoroughbreds are led out and paraded through the grassy fields before they take to the track.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

It’s also great people-watching, as you’ll see many of the horse farm owners, the millionaires behind the industry and the petite jockeys themselves, who are akin to Hollywood stars within their racing world.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Seasont
Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

How to Bet

While I’m no gambler—I’d rather spend that cold, hard cash at the bar!—SVV put his money on a few horses (and lost, oops). You can head to any one of the betting counters where they’ll get you all set up, or you can read up in advance on how to do it.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

There’s also an app for that, unsurprisingly, so the lazy better needn’t even leave his seat to stake his claim.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Getting to the Track

You’ll want a designated driver, obviously, as having a cocktail or three is a prerequisite to joining the race day crowds. The track itself is just 10 minutes from downtown Lexington; once there, you can pay to park close by or do the free parking option, as we did, then take the free shuttle to the entrance.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Where to Stay in Lexington

If you want a traditional Lexington hotel, look no further than the historic Gratz Park Inn, which sits on land that was settled in 1781. You’ll really feel the pomp and circumstance of the horse industry as you sip your bourbon (neat, naturally) down in the opulent library where you’ll feel the need to sport a smoking jacket and light up a fat cigar, even if you don’t smoke.

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

If you’re looking for something a bit more modern, the brand new 21c Museum Hotel has been getting rave reviews. While it was booked solid during our visit, I’ve stayed at the Louisville property, and it’s a fantastic boutique option for those who love design hotels.

What Keeneland Costs

  • Grandstand admission: $5
  • Parking: free
  • Draft beer: $7
  • Premium beer: $9
  • Cocktails: $10 to $15
  • A lunch plate: $10

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

Are you convinced to give horse racing the old college try? Will you join me for opening day of Keeneland next spring?

Visiting Lexington During Keeneland's Racing Season

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How to Plan a Trip to Lexington, Kentucky During the Keeneland Races
How to Plan a Trip to Lexington, Kentucky During the Keeneland Races
How to Plan a Trip to Lexington, Kentucky During the Keeneland Races
I traveled to Kentucky as part of a collaborative campaign with Visit Lex to share the beauty and culture of this amazing city. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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COMMENTS
  • October 18, 2016
    Briel K.

    I love horses and that first pic is awesome! I’ve been to a few racetracks and have decided it’s not for me so I probably won’t be going again.

    • October 19, 2016

      Really, how come? Anything with excess amounts of booze is definitely for me 😉

  • October 19, 2016
    Megan

    As a native Lexingtonian, I appreciate the kind words about my favorite city! Thank you for showcasing Keeneland in all its glory. Churchill gets all the press, but that’s okay – we’d rather keep Keeneland to ourselves. I hope you come back often to visit us! Oh – and I hope you’ve checked out the Distillery District, specifically Pepper Campus, my new favorite Lexington thing. Pepper has a dive bar, an amazing farm-to-table restaurant, a brew-pub AND an ice cream parlor all within screaming distance of one another in a reclaimed area of downtown that was completely abandoned not more than 3 years ago. What’s not to love?

    • October 19, 2016

      Ahhh, Megan, I didn’t know about Pepper Campus! I DID go to the Distillery District to check out Ethereal (and Crank and Boom, obviously) but sounds like I must plan an imminent return and make Pepper Campus my first stop! =)

      • October 19, 2016
        Megan

        That’s it! Where Ethereal and Crank & Boom are is technically Pepper Campus. Middle Fork is the farm-to-table restaurant I was talking about, and you MUST check it out upon return. They are planning to re-open the old James E. Pepper Distillery (hence the name) sometime next year, and that will be awesome.

        PS – I’ve read your blog for years, and I’ve loved every minute of it! Whenever I’m going to a new place I always search your site for tips and recommendations. Thanks for all the great content.

        • October 26, 2016
          Delena

          I’m a part owner in the Pepper Distillery property, Kristin. If you’d like a free tour on your next visit, shoot me an email. Would love to show you behind the scenes.

          • November 1, 2016

            Will do! I feel like I only just scratched the surface of everything going on over there, and I definitely need more time at Ethereal and Crank & Boom 😉

        • November 1, 2016

          Thank you so much for those kind words, Megan! And now I feel like I totally missed out not going to Middle Fork. With just two days of meals (since the third we were at Keeneland and the fourth at Shaker Village), we only really checked off half our list of eats and drinks, which just means all the more reason to go back =)

  • October 19, 2016

    Those umbrellas are SO ADORABLE!

    • November 1, 2016

      Right? I wish I had one, and I’m not even sure where you get them, but they were all matching, so someone there must rent them out (or sell them), right??

  • October 21, 2016

    Nice post! Love the pictures. I need that sticker, “May the Horse be with you”!

    • November 1, 2016

      Such genius branding! Nailed it, Lexington.

      • November 2, 2016

        Absolute genius! I think you should sell ’em on your website. I would buy it, and not just one!

  • October 25, 2016
    grace b

    I definitely need that sticker! I grew up riding and even had my 11th birthday party at a racetrack near where I grew up. It was GREAT. I met a female jockey, had cake and ice cream, brought friends (around 10) and we had our picture taken with the winning jockey in the winner’s circle who gave me his extra pair of goggles! Thankfully you can still do this as an adult and my 30th is only 2 years away!

    Seriously considering a visit to Lexington now also, thanks for showing us around! 🙂

    • November 1, 2016

      That sounds like the best birthday party ever, Grace! And with your love of horses, you would definitely have a blast at Keeneland. I know zilch about racing, and I already want to go back for a third time at the tracks!

  • November 1, 2016

    I’m not sure why, but I was really obsessed with thoroughbreds and horse racing when I was younger. (Then again, I was just obsessed with horses in general.) So it’s safe to say I would LOVE to visit Lexington. I’ve been to Louisville twice and visited Churchill Downs (though not during racing season), but it sounds like Keeneland might be a better place to ease into the actual racing!

    • November 1, 2016

      Maybe it’s where you grew up! I went through a thoroughbred obsession, too—did you happen to read a series of middle grade books all about these girls who went to horse camp and then got into racing (for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was called, nor is Google of any help)—but had never actually been to a real race until Keeneland last year.

      And you should totally go to Lex; I would imagine it’s an easy drive for you (when you’re home!).

  • May 16, 2017

    Great photos, Kristin! Kristin, who was the photographer? I would like to salute him/her. The first photo inspired me a lot to go there in the next year.

    • May 16, 2017

      I took it! Thanks so much. That’s nice of you to say, Linda =)

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