There are 2 major thoroughbred racing tracks in Kentucky: Churchill Downs in Louisville and Keeneland in Lexington.
While the two tracks are only about 70 miles apart, they are very different. Churchill is located in the heart of Louisville in a somewhat blighted area, whereas Keeneland is nestled on the outskirts of town among white fence lined horse farms.
The Show Bet: Churchill Downs – Louisville, KY
The iconic Twin Spires and intense media attention the first Saturday of May instills Churchill as the better known of the two tracks.
I may be a little partial to my home track in Lexington, but to be fair, I’ve only been to Churchill on big, crazy, crowded race days. The derby a couple of times and sadly to watch the little filly Zenyattas‘ winning streak come to an end.
I’ve seen plenty of horse races and they can be fun. I prefer, however, to find attractions away from the home stretch and that can be enjoyed outside the short racing seasons.
Kentucky Derby Museum
Adjacent to Churchill Downs is the Kentucky Derby Museum. There are many informative exhibits to peruse here. As a Kentucky native, I thought I knew horse racing. However, there are many nuances to the sport to be learned today. I have way too much fun being silly and engaging with the many child oriented interactive displays, but nobody seems to mind. In fact, the museum staff help with some of the “must have” photo ops.
With two floors of interactive, family friendly exhibits, the Kentucky Derby Museum takes visitors through every stage of a Thoroughbred’s life, from birth to the First Saturday in May. The main exhibit in the museum is “The Greatest Race,” a 360° 18-minute media experience that will “make your heart race and emotions soar.” It offers a unique, panoramic ,inside view of horse racing.
The Place Bet: Keeneland – Lexington, KY
The racing season at Keeneland is relatively short; a few weeks in April and in October. But that doesn’t keep me from enjoying the track during off times.
Morning Workouts – Keeneland
The grandstand is open to the public year round and early morning is a great time to enjoy horses breezing some workouts without the usual crowds. The track takes on a whole new persona when its just me and the horses. Watching the horses break from the morning fog, I can hear the breathing, the leather saddles straps and stirrups creaking as they try to contain the power they harness. Feeling the rumble as they run and cantor by is a magical feeling.
Track Kitchen – Keeneland
The track kitchen is a favorite stop too. This little, mostly unknown, cafe is not just for the trainers, owners, handicappers and jockeys that use the track year round, but is also open to the public. It is a nondescript cinder block building on the backside of the track (look for the black water tower). It has simple tables and padded metal chairs. The walls are lined with photos of the famous horses and jockeys who have raced here. The food is simple, fast and affordable.
I look for a famous jockey or owner but there are only a few handlers here today. I do, however, enjoy my “Unbridled” pancakes and bacon.
The Winning Bet: Old Friends Equine Retirement Farm – Georgetown, KY
The thrill of a 2 minute horse race is undeniable. But to really appreciate these beautiful animals, my favorite stop is Old Friends, a thoroughbred retirement farm in Georgetown, KY. Founded in 2003 by former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen, the organization has grown from a leased paddock and one horse to a 136-acre farm, a herd of over 175 rescued and retired horses.
This visit, as usual, begins with a greeting from the farms miniature spokehorse and mascot, Little Silver Charm. Little Silver Charm, is named for his larger idol and name sake, Silver Charm. This little guy is full of personality and has adorned many of the counties travel brochures. He is also quick to take a carrot from me, and noses the bucket for more.
Out to Pasture
Michael greets me and is overly excited to share with me the numerous retirees he has taken under his care. He is a walking encyclopedia of the horses careers, detailing their harrowing wins and their heartbreaking loses. He enthusiastically recounts their grade stakes entries and earnings. Most interestingly, he can explain and predict each horses’ unique personality.
With much delight, I surprisingly come face to snout with Silver Charm. He was The 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Winner; as well as Racing Hall of Fame inductee. He had just arrived at the farm from standing stud in Japan. It excites me more to see this guy that it would any other modern day human pro athlete. He is beautiful and stately. Like most thoroughbreds, he is a bit anxious but quickly succumbs to a little coaxing, and a carrot.
The tour continues when Michael wants to show me that Special Ring could show off is tattoo. Sure enough, on command a proud pony greets us “laughing” and displaying his required tattoo. This tattoo is inside the upper lip and links the racing registration papers to the horse and owner.
The love and compassion Michael shows for these retired athletes is outstanding. They are beautiful animals that deserve to rest, play and retire in comfort and dignity.
Hot Tip: Surefire Winning Trifecta
Make an early morning trip (6-7 am) to Keeneland and have breakfast at the Track Kitchen. Head over to the Grandstand early so as not to miss the workouts of some future stars.
Continue with a walking tour of the grounds: Keeneland Walking Tour Map. Swing back by the kitchen and have them pack you a lunch to go. Make the 1/2 hour drive to Old Friends for a tour of the retirement farm and enjoy a picnic with the former stars of the sport. (and take some carrots).