The arrival of spring means a few things: longer days, blossoming maple buds and the start of horse racing season. And while the Kentucky Derby may be one of the biggest events of the racing world, it isn’t the state’s only pride and joy. Since its founding in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression, Lexington’s Keeneland Race Course has hosted two racing seasons annually — in April and October — and has featured many Derby competitors, past and present.
If you’re coming to Lexington and have never been to the races, fear not: We’ve covered everything you need to know to survive your first Keeneland.
Dress the Part
First things first: You need a costume with Kentucky swagger that doesn’t immediately give away the fact that you’re a rookie (appropriate: anything floral, brightly-colored, seersucker or gingham).
Sure, you’re going to the racetrack, but in true Southern fashion, track-goers in Kentucky like to dress to the nines. If you have clubhouse access or reservations in one of the dining rooms, you’ll need to wear a sport coat if you’re a man, a dress or nice slacks and a blouse if you’re a woman.
And though hats aren’t technically mandatory, you won’t be in the minority should you choose to don one.
Place Your Bet
Even if you’re no gambler, placing a small bet is part of the fun of going to the races. Keeneland has “betologists” on hand to walk you through the process of throwing down some cold hard cash on the filly you just saw prancing around in the viewing area.
Don’t feel like getting up from your seat to wager your bet? There’s an app for that (of course there is); download it before going and you needn’t leave your chair to join the betting pool once the fun has begun.
The Early Bird Catches the Worm
Not an early riser? You’ll want to be for this occasion in order to catch Sunrise Trackside. Held every Saturday at 7 a.m. during the race season, this family-friendly activity allows visitors to get a sneak peek of the horses as they warm up on the racetrack; there’s also a designated Kids Club Corner and guided tours of the paddock.
Bonus: Sunrise Trackside is paired with a delicious, free breakfast spread that will fuel you for the long day ahead.
Check Out the Paddock
The social gathering spot during and between the races, the paddock is where the jockeys escort the horses for the betting public to view. It’s also a nice spot to people-watch as millionaire owners are sometimes milling about in the exclusive VIP area.
Sample the Local Culinary Culture
This isn’t your typical sporting event where food options are limited to concession food. The dining rooms and food stands are stuffed with fan favorites such as Keeneland’s signature stew, burgoo, as well as corned beef, bread pudding and much, much more. You definitely won’t leave hungry.
Bourbon and juleps are plentiful, of course, as is beer and wine — but use this as an excuse to try out the local breweries and pick up a can of Country Boy’s Shotgun Wedding. If you have clubhouse access, you might even get lucky and find that Kentucky favorite, the hot brown, on the menu.
Tour a Horse Farm
Many of the Thoroughbred farms like WinStar and Taylor Made offer regular tours to visitors. You’ll learn everything about a racing horse’s trajectory: training, rehab, breeding and more. Who knows? You may even get to meet a future champion while he’s chilling in his stall!