A Visit to Keeneland, the Lexington Race Course You Can Tour Any Day of the Year

Race days are great, but the real magic happens off the track

Photo: © Scott Serio/CSM via ZUMA Press Wire

Outside of the Keeneland race course.

Beginning with opening weekend on October 6 and running for three weeks, Keeneland race course will thrum with activity for its annual Fall Meet. The scene will likely feel familiar to even first-time visitors to the historic track, which opened in 1936 as a locus for Thoroughbred racing in Lexington, Kentucky. But it looks something like this: Fans arrive well before the afternoon’s first race to tailgate in the parking lots and grassy hills. Keeneland’s limestone-clad facilities fill with an increasingly animated stream of colorfully dressed guests moving among the grandstands, clubhouse, dining rooms, and hospitality areas. The day slips into a predictable rhythm as hotwalkers lead immaculately groomed racehorses around the grassy paddock and jockeys meet their mounts and receive a quick leg-up into the saddle before parading onto the track and loading into the starting gate. For a minute or two, everyone is in rapt attention as the horses thunder around the track; a crescendo of excitement builds as they jockey for position down the stretch and cross the finish line. The chatter soon resumes and between races, there’s just enough time to grab a beer, a bowl of burgoo, or a scoop of bread pudding and perhaps place a few bets before the tightly orchestrated pageant plays out again.

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“There’s an electricity in the air,” says Shannon Arvin, who became Keeneland’s eighth president (and the first woman to hold the position) in 2020, “and great people watching in addition to great horse racing.” During the Fall Meet, Keeneland will award a track record of $9.5 million in purses divided among the twenty-two prestigious stakes races run over seventeen days. But as exciting as race days are at Keeneland, it’s the rest of the year that’s uniquely special here—and not just for the trainers, riders, owners, breeders, track workers, and many other people consumed with the hands-on daily work of caring for these equine athletes and staging these grand events.

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Keeneland is the only racetrack in North America whose grounds are publicly open to guests every day of the year. There are several ways to see them for yourself, including a self-guided walking tour. Regularly scheduled guided tours offer insight into the track’s history and a behind-the-scenes look at the stables, jockey’s quarters, horse sales pavilion, and other areas. A “Secret Chef Dinner Series” features a multi-course meal at sometimes-unexpected locations around the track.

The Keeneland Library was established in 1939—just a few years after the track itself—and today is the world’s largest repository of information and artifacts about Thoroughbred racing. Its Heart of the Turf exhibit, which runs through December 8, interprets African Americans’ foundational yet largely unsung contributions to the sport. Both the library and its exhibits are free to the public.

A hearty breakfast at the Track Kitchen, where many trainers, workers, and Keeneland employees start their day, followed by a trackside perch to watch morning workouts is perhaps the most underrated experience at Keeneland, says vice president of sales Tony Lacy. “I don’t think there’s anything better than standing out at the rail early in the morning with a cup of coffee in hand and watching horses exercising on the track,” he says.

photo: © Matt Wooley/CSM via ZUMA Press Wire
The 2022 Turf Mile Stakes.

Keeneland is also home to the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction house and the only track with an on-site sales facility. Many of the world’s top racehorses, sires, and dams have come through Keeneland’s ring during one of the five sales it hosts each year, including Triple Crown winner Justify; Flightline, the Longines World’s Best Racehorse in 2022; and hall-of-famer Zenyatta, who won nineteen races in a row during her legendary racing career. The September Yearling Sale, when the world’s prominent buyers, sellers, and trainers gather at Keeneland to try and identify the next crop of top performers from among thousands of young prospects, is a particularly exciting time to visit the track.

The opening of the eightieth annual September sale, held this past Monday, had a celebratory, almost race-day feel as horsemen and women moved among the barns evaluating potential contenders. A bluegrass band picked spirited tunes as guests ate and drank in the sales pavilion’s hospitality area. Fine art from historic and modern artists lined the walls in a preview of the upcoming Sporting Art Auction

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A highlight of the day came when Hip 92, a filly sired by Into Mischief, entered the sales ring. After several minutes of bidding in which the crowd’s hushed attention turned to the steadily rising total on the display boards and barely perceptible finger wags and nods signaled each bidder’s intent, the gavel finally dropped at $2.3 million. The chatter resumed, only to dim again when a colt sired by Uncle Mo went for $1.35 million. (The sales continue through September 23.)

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One more reason Keeneland is special? Revenue from the roughly $800 million in sales generated throughout the year allows the track to fund purses for its racing meets, maintain its grounds, and pursue charitable contributions and community programs. “When we were formed in 1936, our founders determined that no profits would ever be paid,” Arvin says. “Every penny we earn goes back into our facilities and industry initiatives, including advancements in equine welfare, and into our community.”

photo: © Matt Wooley/CSM via ZUMA Press Wire
The 2022 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland.