Off To The Races: Kentucky’s Famous Racetracks

Morgan Garrett

And they’re off for the best two minutes in sports! Bluegrass, rolling hills, thoroughbreds, bourbon, and fancy hats are what make Kentucky the place to be every spring. Lexington, Kentucky is home to one of the most stunning racetracks in the United States: Keeneland. Every October and April the nation’s best up and coming thoroughbreds will leave the starting gates and race around the track in hopes of being crowned in the winner’s circle.

Both the spring and fall meets offer four weeks of continuous racing except on Mondays and Tuesdays. Certain days have bigger races such as Grade 1 (G1) scheduled while some days are simply full of maiden or claiming races. When you step foot inside this beautiful concourse the paddock will greet you on your left where the horses will be presented with their trainers and owners before heading for the track. The signature picture spot of this iconic track is the Keeneland clock or the jockey statues that line the wall on the way to the track.

Once the jockeys mount up they will head to either the turf track or the dirt track with their outrider.  Now you’ll have a chance to chat with one of the “bet-ologists” who can help teach you how to place a proper bet instead of just picking your favorite colored silks. You’re always welcome to bet on a horse simply because you like it’s name or color, but there is actually a science behind placing a bet in hopes of winning money. The horses race record, workout times, trainer, pedigree, and starts all make a difference in a winning bet and a losing bet.

Once you’ve placed your bet at the counter fill up on a margarita, champagne, or beer and watch them run! If you are fortunate enough to have box seats or clubhouse seats you’ll be up in the grandstand with an overhead view of the track instead of on the railing, but either view is incredible and both provide for unique experiences. Keeneland is definitely a must see when visiting Lexington. 

If you travel 1-hour northwest of Lexington you’ll arrive in Louisville, Kentucky, home of Churchill Downs racetrack. Most people know Churchill for the Kentucky Derby or the Kentucky Oaks, however Churchill, like Keeneland, does seasonal racing as well as night racing. The first Saturday in May is reserved for the greatest 2 minutes in sports the Kentucky Derby.

This grade 1 stakes race is a dirt race that runs over a mile and a quarter. The Derby is run by 3-year-old horses who have qualified in other races over the past year. Some of the traditions you’ll see when you attend the Derby are the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home”, heavy mint julep consumption, ladies in elaborate hats, celebrities, and the garland of roses draped over the winner’s back. Many great racing stories have come from the Derby including the win by the 50/1 long shot Mine That Bird in 2009 as well as the fastest horse to win the Derby being Secretariat.

The Friday preceding Derby is Kentucky Oaks day at Churchill, which is the day for the fillies. Instead of winning roses the nation’s top fillies will win a garland of tiger lilies, so the day is known as the “run for the lilies.” The race is a grade 1 stakes race for 3-year-old fillies that extends 1 1/8 of a mile. A fun fact about this race is that the widest winning margin for this race is 20 1/4 lengths and Rachel Alexandra achieved it in 2009. The drink of the day on Oaks day is the lily and it has a beautiful magenta color as well as a sweet and fruity taste!

If you have some extra time between watching the races at Churchill it is worth taking a tour of the Derby museum, which is housed here. You will see halters and shoes from famous horses, read the incredible stories from racing history, create your own jockey silk, and see trophies and other relics from Derby’s in the past. It is also worth taking a few minutes to stand at the paddock and see the horses before the race as it looks quite different from what you’ll see at Keeneland. Out front of the main gate definitely take a photo with the statue of Barbaro, the nation’s racing hero as well as the famous spires that give Churchill Downs it’s iconic image.

Be sure to visit one or both of these beautiful tracks while in Kentucky, learn to place a bet, try the mint julep or the lily, and see the nation’s premier horses race for the roses or lilies!