After a soggy first day in Lexington, we woke up at 7am on Saturday to find downtown bathed in the light of a crisp spring sunrise. It would turn out to be a brisk day not topping 55, but at least the sun had made an appearance and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky over that wide, open racetrack.
Bryan was picking us up to go to Sunrise Trackside, the early morning track workouts that are open to the public. The beauty of a place like Keeneland is that there is minimal security, so you can stroll the grounds and see the horses in their element without guards or barriers.
There’s also a pretty damn good breakfast available in the cafe for those who can roll out of bed in time. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
After we spent a couple hours watching the warmups, it was back to the hotel to freshen up for the actual races (and take a quick catnap). After all, we’d be back at the track from noon to 7pm—and wanted to look (and feel) our best.
With 11 races ahead of us that day, I got a crash course to the world of thoroughbred racing in a very short amount of time. Some things I learned from my first time at Keeneland:
Jockeys are itty-bitty. I wound up standing next to a handful of them and felt like could have crushed one with my thumb. They couldn’t weigh more than 100 pounds. How you can be that muscular and so tiny is beyond me. (Tell me your secrets, jockeys, oh please!)
It’s never a bad idea to befriend someone with a clubhouse membership. It sure was nice having valet parking and access to that club restaurant. I murdered some bellinis early on in the day, and we fueled up with Reubens and Cobb salads before the first gun sounded.
Read up on how the stats work. The most confusing part of the whole ordeal is how the horse and jockey stats are listed in the program, spelling out past races they’ve competed in, different times, how they placed, the turf, etc. Lucky for us, we had Bryan to hand-hold us all day long. I do think it’s a much more enjoyable experience if you actually understand what’s going on!
Visit the paddock before at least one race. There’s a bit of pomp and circumstance surrounding each of the races, and it’s a spectacle to see all the horses as they’re being led from the stables to the paddock prior to taking to the track. Anyone can go and watch, and even if you don’t opt to do that prior to every race, I’d recommend a little sightseeing before one or two in the very least.
Keep your eyes peeled for stars. Among sports greats and racing industry “celebrities,” we saw a number of political figures such as the sheikh of Qatar. While the King of Dubai does indeed own a horse farm in town, he wasn’t around for this particular weekend, though I hear he often is.
Tailgating is a popular race day activity. Having been raised in a college football society in the deep South, there’s rarely anything we do down in these parts that doesn’t involve a little (er, a lot) of all-day drinking. Racing is no different. We weren’t with a big group, but if I were to come back with friends, I’d totally nab a spot on the Hill and tailgate my little heart out.
Dress fancy. This isn’t a must unless you’re in the Clubhouse—in which case, a suit and tie are necessary for the men; a skirt/dress or dressy slacks for the gals—but the majority of folks in the grandstand were wearing their Sunday best, so I’d err on the side of caution and do the same. SVV donned his wedding suit, I wore a long-sleeve dress from Nordstrom but last minute swapped out my heels for metallic flats (and was later very glad I had with all the walking we did).
Hats are not standard. Whereas with the Derby, every female for 100 miles is donning her biggest, boldest hat, this is not the case at Keeneland. In fact, I could count on both hands the number of hats I saw in the 12 hours we were there. I had brought three options, all on loan from a Kentucky native friend, and left them behind in our hotel room. I was glad I didn’t bother, as I would have been in the minority.
Drinks are reasonably priced. There are a number of bars scattered about the grounds, many of which have loooooong lines (take heed and stock up with what you need on the first visit). I was expecting cocktails to be outrageous, but they were $8 apiece—and premium liquor at that—which is less than I’d pay in a bar in Nashville. I didn’t hate it.
Learn how to use the betting machine. You don’t want to be that bumbling idiot who doesn’t know how the electronic bidding machine works—it’s cash only, for example, so don’t go up there with only a credit card—and holds up the line when you get to the front. You’d be wise to pull aside a friend (or stranger) ahead of time to show you the ropes.
While I definitely don’t have the wealth to live in that world full time, I was charmed by Keeneland nonetheless and the horse racing industry as a whole—so much so that SVV and I are strongly contemplating returning in October for the Breeders’ Cup. Who’s in?