It was a rainy Monday, just after 7 a.m., when I pulled into the parking lot at Keeneland, one of the nation’s most venerable thoroughbred racetracks. I had read that watching the horses morning workout was one of the best free things to do in Lexington, Kentucky, but on a dreary, wet day, I figured the horses would probably be lounging in their stables, nibbling on carrots or catching up on their sleep.
But before I even made my way into the beautiful, old track, which is a National Historic Landmark, I could see the horses gracefully galloping through the mud, impervious to the rain. I walked up into the track past rows of wet, empty benches and positioned myself against the rail. There were about a dozen horses and jockeys out on the track working out. I looked around the empty grandstands and realized that I was the only spectator.
As the jockeys trotted past me on horseback, each said, “Good morning” to me on their way by, but other than that the only noise in the place was the oddly soothing sound of the horses’ hooves clip-clopping in and out of the mud. But as the rain intensified, I made a rookie mistake in popping open my umbrella.
“No umbrellas!” barked one of the jockeys.
“They scare the horses,” called out another, perhaps noticing my perplexed expression.
I had no idea. Seeking shelter from the rain, I walked down toward a little building next to the track, and realized there was one other spectator in the house, a Latino in his 60s who introduced himself as James.
“I’m surprised they’re still working out in the rain,” I said to him.
“They work out every morning,” he said. “Doesn’t matter what the weather is.”
James told me that he had spent his entire life around horses and had moved to the area from New Mexico because he wanted to live in Lexington, a hotbed for thoroughbred racing. He said that he spent every morning at Keeneland, watching the horses.
“It’s not a bad way to spend your retirement,” he said. “You know there’s free coffee right down the way inside that building over there.”
Sure enough, there was free coffee, along with two track employees, one watching a horse race from Churchill Downs from the previous day, and another having a cup of coffee.
“So they really do this every day?” I asked the coffee drinker.
“We work every day except for Christmas,” he said.
The man confirmed that the horses work out on two tracks, on the big track from 5:30 until 10, and on a smaller one from 5:30 until 11. It’s always free, and anyone can roam around the grounds to check out the horses in their stables.
I made my way over to the smaller track, where a dozen or so jockeys and their magnificent horses were trotting about in a light, early morning drizzle. The only spectator was a trainer named Stephen Lyster, who told me that there were some 500-600 thoroughbred horses living in 72 barns at Keeneland. Stephen trains 22 horses and travels around the region with them for races.
He said that wealthy people hire trainers like him to care for their horses, and it’s an expensive endeavor- it costs about $3,000 per month to board a horse at Keeneland. Only a few very successful horses can actually turn a profit for the owner. He said that the high stakes caused some small tracks to fix races, but asserted that in Kentucky and other big-time horse racing states like New York, Florida and Arkansas, the races are clean.
The rain eventually tapered off and my wife and kids met me at the track. Stephen invited us back to their barn after the workout and gave us an opportunity to feed some of the ponies carrots. I loved having a chance to see these beautiful creatures – horses with names like Bold North, Seattle Devil, Run Marvin Run and Two Ferdy Somewhere – up close but the most serendipitous experience of the morning was still to come. Stephen mentioned that we should try the track kitchen, a cafeteria-style restaurant behind the stables.
“It’s cheap and really good,” he said.
Everyone has a different definition of “cheap” but in this case, Stephen wasn’t kidding. I looked up at the menu and thought I’d died and gone to cheapskate heaven. Here are a few examples of the cheap grub on offer.
Egg and cheese breakfast sandwich- $1.70
Bacon, egg and cheese biscuit sandwich- $3.25
Sausage, egg and cheese breakfast burrito- $3.25
Four pancakes: $2.50
Two biscuits and gravy: $2.40
One egg: 90 cents
Breakfast special: scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, toast or biscuit, plus two of the following- potatoes, spiced apples, grits or gravy- $5.00
And things got even better when a gray-haired lady wearing a hat filled with racing pins said to me, “Hey, honey, wacha gunna have?” I don’t know why, but I like it when female servers address me as “honey,” and if I’m in the South, even better.
I ordered the breakfast burrito and assumed that, for the price, it would be puny or pre-made, but it was neither. The thing weighed about 4 pounds and was freshly made and superb. Manna from heaven at $3.25. As a variety of stable workers and trainers filed in and out of the place, I realized that the prices are low because they are catering to the people who work there every day, not tourists.
I know very little about horses and thoroughbred racing but I learned that Keeneland has sold more champions and stakes winners than any other company, including 78 Breeders’ Cup World Championship winners, 19 Kentucky Derby winners; 21 Preakness winners and 17 Belmont winners. In April and October, Keeneland hosts elite caliber races and everyone – even college students – get all dressed up for the occasions.
It’s a beautiful place and if you’re a frugal traveler, like me, there is no better place to while away a morning.