Planning Your Trip to Keeneland
While horse farms and distilleries dot the hills across Kentucky and form the crown of the Commonwealth, the premier jewel in that crown might just be Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, Kentucky. Check out our tips to plan a visit to this historic racetrack in style where you can enjoy fast horses, southern hospitality, and great bourbon.
Steeped in History
If you're a Kentucky Derby fan, you may be more familiar with loud and raucous Churchill Downs and less familiar with this smaller track. Keeneland Race Track opened in October 1936 as somewhat of a novelty as a non-profit racetrack under The Keeneland Association (which is still in place today). The racetrack sits upon land that was settled in the late 1700s by John and Mary (also known as Polly) Keene. It has been visited by kings and queens (Queen Elizabeth II visited in October 1984) and served as a filming location for the 2010 movie Secretariat.
The Calendar Matters
Racing is not a year-round event at Keeneland. While tours of the track are available and you can watch horses work out in the early mornings, you'll only find horse racing there on a limited number of dates during the Spring Meet (in April) and during the Fall Meet (in October). Recently, the season was extended into November with the hosting of the Breeders' Cup - the true "Super Bowl" of horse racing. Keep an eye on opening dates for ticket sales a couple months ahead of racing dates, as popular days will sell out quickly.
Seats are Optional
A variety of seating options are available, depending on your likes. You're welcome to stand along the rail and cheer horses onto the finish line, or enjoy a comfortable seat in the covered stands, boxes, or one of the dining rooms. Either way, you'll save money, and won't be disappointed, by reserving them in advance, opposed to purchasing the day of the race. You can even bring a folding chair if you'd like to sit trackside, and there are a limited number of benches available for seating. Personally, I enjoy the covered seating area in the stands, with a guaranteed seat - and one I don't have to lug around.
Take it ALL In
Speaking of moving around, even with a reserved seat, be sure to move around. Take in a race or two from the stands, and then move down trackside to get a close view of the action as horses and jockeys start or finish. Be sure to check out the paddock area where you can see the magnificent equestrian athletes, as well as riders, owners, and trainers up close. Keep your eyes peeled, as you'll likely see some of the top jockeys and trainers at the various Keeneland races. While in the paddock, be sure to take in the tall, white-barked sycamore tree that provides shade in the area. It was planted when the track opened in 1936.
You will see all kinds of attire for men, women, and children (yes, children are welcome) of all ages. You'll see some in shorts and a t-shirt when the weather is warmer, as well as those dressed-to-the-nines in dresses and hats for women, and a preppy collection of slacks, button-down shirts, bow ties, and a blazer for men. While you won't be doing any extensive hiking (see our next tip on parking), you may be standing or could walk a fair distance. Your momma was right in this instance - wear comfortable footwear. In addition, the racing season is April and October in Kentucky, so expect changing weather conditions. If your seat is in the stands, it could be cooler in the shade, vs. standing down at the rail in the sun. For ladies, while the cutest little dress is great for warm weather racing or a cocktail party, you'll fit in just as well (and be warmer) with a blazer and riding-style boots.
Parking and Traffic
Unless you're part of the Keeneland Club or have a friend with inside connections, plan on parking in the general parking area (there is no charge for parking). This could be a good distance from the gates, especially on busy weekends, though there are shuttle buses that pick up and drop off at the front gate as well as make several stops around the parking area.
Fridays and Saturdays are popular days for many of the locals to attend Keeneland. In fact, the month-long meets almost qualify as "official state holidays" in the Commonwealth. If you are planning to attend on a Friday or Saturday, plan on large crowds and very heavy traffic. In fact, many attendees never make it inside the racetrack, and instead, enjoy festivities on "The Hill" in a tailgate-like fashion. As the race lets out, traffic on Versailles Road (Route 60), the adjacent New Circle Road (Route 4), and Man of War Boulevard will be very heavy, as these are also main thoroughfares for the evening rush hour.
Crowded or Quiet
Your Keeneland experience will depend a lot on the dates you choose to attend. Attending a Wednesday or Thursday, expect a busy, but definitely not crazy packed venue. Fridays and Saturdays, though, especially if the weather is nice, expect the track and surrounding parking areas to be intensely busy. It really depends on what you like. If you like the thrill of thronging crowds in an almost Derby-like setting, attending a Friday or Saturday may be to your liking. If, on the other hand, you're wanting a somewhat quieter setting, catching something earlier in the week may be a better choice.
A Foodie and Drinker's Paradise
You'll find a wide variety of drink and dining options on the grounds. For food, there's everything from hot dogs, burgers and typical sports food (e.g. popcorn and pretzels) to Kentucky favorites, like bourbon bread pudding (made with signature Maker's Mark) and burgoo (a cross between a stew and chili).
You'll also find a myriad of non-alcohol options as well as a wide selection of popular and craft wines, beers, whiskeys, and signature cocktails. Each racing season is marked by seasonal beers that carry the Keeneland name from the local Kentucky Brewing & Distilling Company. If bourbon is on your mind, you'll find a solid range of choices from the major distilleries, as well as a stand or two that have exclusive and rare bourbons, including the Pappy VanWinkles. Remember this is a sports event, and food and beverages are priced accordingly. Luckily, nearly all take plastic as well as cash.
If you want to know what's happening, be sure to grab a program when you enter the gates. This will provide a rundown of each race, when it starts, the horses and jockeys, the length, where they'll be starting and finishing (so you can get your best view), and what kind of race it is (will they be racing on the dirt track or on the turf). There's also a ton of information that you can use if you're placing a bet.
Safety and Security
Note that you will be passing through a metal detector prior to entering the admission gates. Checks may be made on purses and bags. While you may bring a chair with you, they are only allowed in limited areas. Strollers, diapers, and camera bags are allowed, along with purses; traditional backpacks and book bags are not.
This is, after all, horse racing, and while some go to watch the people and the horses, others go to watch and bet on the racing. You'll find terminals and ticket counters to place your bets, as well as information on phone apps you can use, as well. You'll also find a booth on the first floor under the grandstand manned by a BETologist who can help you make heads or tails of the program, types of bets, and so on.
You'll find several options for purchasing a souvenir of your visit. There are pop-up shops in the Paddock and the first floor under the Grandstand. The impeccable Keeneland Shop is located right off the Paddock area. In addition to artwork and home accessories, you'll find a large collection of signature apparel from some of the top garment makers for men and women, including Barbour, Peter Millar, Vineyard Vines, and others that all bear the Keeneland logo. The gift shop is open most days, regardless of the racing season. There's also a Keeneland Mercantile available in downtown Lexington at City Center.
Post Racing Activities
It can be fun to spend the entire day at this historic racetrack. As mentioned earlier, traffic will likely be heavy when you go to leave, especially if it is late in the day and/or coincides with the evening commute. If you were thinking of going to dinner in the downtown Lexington area, reservations are highly recommended, especially during some of the more popular racing days. If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the downtown urban area, check out downtown Midway, a short drive from the racetrack, with several unique and delicious dining options.
What if I Can't Make it During a Meet?
The last couple years, we've made it a point to spend a day each Spring and Fall to enjoy the race day activities. If your schedule doesn't allow you to visit during April or October, there is still plenty to take in. Tours are available that showcase the facility and take you behind the scenes. Checking the website, there are a number of sales events you're welcome to attend and watch - just watch your hands as you don't want to end up purchasing a multi-million dollar yearling. You're also welcome to come view the early morning workouts of the horses and jockeys. And if you're up early watching the workouts, be sure to take in the Track Kitchen, where you can enjoy a hearty breakfast surrounded by some of the top trainers in the country.