Keeneland: Thoroughbred Horses, Free Coffee And Kentucky’s Best Cheap Breakfast

keeneland kentuckyIt 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.

Two Reasons to Visit Louisville: The Kentucky Derby Museum And The Muhammad Ali Center

kentucky derby museum churchill downs barbaro statueYou don’t have to be a sports fan or a museum buff to appreciate the fact that Louisville has two of America’s best sports-related museums: the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center. I’m not much of a sightseer, and my wife would sooner clean the toilets than watch a boxing match or a horse race. But we could have easily spent all day in these outstanding museums.

The Kentucky Derby has been held every year since 1875 and the famous twin spires at Churchill Downs are a national landmark. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the grandson of William Clark, of Lewis-Clark expedition fame, founded Churchill Downs after spending two years in Europe where he developed an interest in horse racing. This year more than 160,000 people turned up for the race; only 54,000 of them had seats, while the rest pile into the infield in the center of the track.
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“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the infield see no horse racing at all,” said Tiara, our guide for a walking tour around Churchill Downs. “But 99% of them don’t care. They’re here for the party.”


The derby is held on the first Saturday in May, but if you don’t want to take part in the Derby day madness, definitely hit the museum, and, if you can, take in a race. Churchill Downs plays host to more than 800 horse races per year, so there are ample opportunities to see top-flight thoroughbred racing.


The tour starts with a walk past the headstones of four derby winners that are buried on the grounds. We learned that horses are cremated and normally only the head, heart and hooves are buried, but in the case of truly legendary horses – like Secretariat, who won the Derby in 1973 and still is the only horse to complete the race in less than two minutes – they are buried whole.

kentucky derby museumTwo horses live at Churchill Downs year round – Perfect Drift, who placed third in the 2002 Derby, and Winston, a 19-year-old miniature horse that could be mistaken for a pony – and we had a chance to visit with both before pushing off to see the rest of the grounds.

We strolled past a statue of Pat Day, a jockey who won 2,500 races at Churchill Downs and more than $23 million in prize money during his career, and Tiara asked if we thought the diminutive little statue reflected his actual height.

“He’s actually two inches shorter in real life,” she said. “He’s 4 foot 11, and the statue’s just over 5 feet.”

We passed the betting windows – Tiara said they open some 3,000 of them on Derby day – and made our way toward the track, which was empty and full of puddles on the day we visited.

“The seats in here sell out a year or two in advance,” Tiara said. “And if you want to sit in the best seats, you’d better be a celebrity or have plenty of money.”

We learned about a few of the Derby’s cherished rituals – drinking mint juleps, eating burgoo and singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

kentucky derby museumThe museum itself was just as interesting as the tour. My sons were hooked on an interactive jockey video game where you climb onto a horse and try to ride it to victory, while my wife was fixated on exhibits featuring fancy ladies hats worn on Derby day and another exhibiting jockey silks – the colorful jackets jockeys wear on race days that have evolved since the days when chariot drivers in ancient Rome wore variations of the same thing (there are now 25,000 registered designs).

I was hooked on the video booths, where you can sit and watch replays with commentary of every race dating back to the 1920s. You can sort through the choices by choosing close races, wins by long shots, runaways, and Triple Crown winners. We capped off our visit by checking out “The Greatest Race” a short but intense film about the Derby that is shown in a remarkable 360-degree cinema.

Muhammad Ali – World Class Fighter & Traveler

muhammad ali centerMuhammad Ali is probably the greatest sports personality of the 20th Century and Louisville’s Ali Center, opened in 2005 at a cost of $80 million, does the great man and his fascinating life justice. It’s a huge place that’s informative, interactive and entertaining. I thought I knew everything there was to know about Ali, but I came away with a deeper appreciation for what an interesting and influential personality Ali was.

He was born and raised in Louisville while the city was still segregated. Ali, then Cassius Clay, took up boxing at age 12 after his bike was stolen and a police officer suggested he join a recreational boxing league after he insisted he was going to “whup” the thief once he caught him. He rose through the local ranks, became an Olympic and heavyweight champion, converted to Islam, became a member of the Nation of Islam and then was stripped of his title for refusing to serve in Vietnam during the war.

muhammad ali centerAfter the Supreme Court ruled that his claim as a conscientious objector was legitimate, he was reinstated in 1971, and quickly regained his title. One could write a 1,000-page book on his personal life and not cover it all. Ali married four times (once to a 17-year-old) and had nine children, two from extramarital affairs. He was considered a dangerous rabble-rouser by many in the white establishment and was even under FBI surveillance for a time.

The museum chronicles all of this and more. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome in 1984, but he’s remained remarkably active. I was struck by what a traveler Ali was and is. He fought in Zaire, The Philippines, England, Canada, Italy, Germany and beyond. He visited Ghana in 1964 and was greeted like a conquering hero. He made the hajj to Mecca in ’72 and visited Iraq in 1990 to seek freedom for hostages held by Saddam Hussein.

muhammad ali centerIn 2002, he visited Afghanistan as a U.N. Messenger for Peace, and in 2009, he was again greeted like a rock star in Ireland, where he went to visit the ancestral home of his great-grandfather in County Clare. He’s done charity work in Indonesia, Morocco, and the Ivory Coast, among other places. And this summer, he took part in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London. These days he spends most of his time in Scottsdale, Arizona, but he celebrated his 70th birthday in January at the museum and he still owns a home in Kentucky.

Aside from all the interactive exhibits, the museum also features a boxing ring, and some punching bags for those who want to get their aggression out. But I was hooked on the cinema area, where you can sit down and watch a number of old Ali fights. If you’re too young to have seen him fight or if you aren’t but want to relive the good old days, you’ll love this museum.


Other Ali landmarks in Louisville:

The Clay Home
3302 W. Grand Avenue

Central High School
1130 W. Chestnut St.

Columbia Gym- site where Clay’s bike was stolen and his early workouts
851 S. 4th Street

Presbyterian Community Center- site of the rec program where Clay learned to box
760 S. Hancock Street

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Horse slaughter: the meat of the matter now that Congress has lifted controversial ban

horse meatIf you’re of a certain age, you might recall that until the 1940′s, horse was eaten in the United States–most notably during World War II, when beef prices rose and supply dwindled. By the eighties, dining on Mr. Ed definitely wasn’t culturally acceptable, even if purchased for “pet food,” and in 1998, California Proposition 6 outlawed horse meat and slaughter for human consumption.

Why, when so much of the world–including much of the EU, Central Asia, Polynesia, Latin America, and Japan–routinely dines upon this delicious, lean, low cholesterol, abundant meat, do we shun it? Blame anthropomorphism and our fervent equestrian culture. Like dogs, cats, guinea pig, alpaca, and other cute, furry creatures consumed with gusto by other ethnicities, Americans just aren’t down with eating what we consider pets.

According to The Chicago Tribune, however, it’s likely that at least one national horse abattoir (slaughterhouse) will be opening soon, most likely in the Midwest. As stated in the story, “Congress lifted the ban in a spending bill President Barack Obama signed into law Nov. 18 to keep the government afloat until mid-December.”

Before you get on your high horse (sorry) over this seemingly inhumane turn of events, let’s examine why the ban was passed in the first place, and why reversing it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I should also state that I grew up on a horse ranch, and to me, meat is meat. My issues regarding its consumption have and always will lie with humane treatment of said animals during their life up until what should be a quick, merciful death. Is there such a thing as a humane death? Let’s just say that some methods of livestock slaughter are less traumatic than others. But that’s a separate issue, and not the point of this piece.

Despite our cultural aversion to eating horse, the U.S. still slaughtered old, sick,and injured animals, as well as retired racehorses. Even young healthy animals were sent to slaughter for a variety of reasons including overbreeding, profit, or abandonment. Even wild horses and burros were rounded up for slaughter as part of culling programs; it’s still necessary to thin herds to keep them sustainable, as well as protect their habitat from overgrazing and erosion; starvation and predation are cruel deaths. Fortunately, these animals are now protected species and legally can’t be sent to slaughter, so they’re put up for adoption. The downside? What happens to aging and unsound animals, now that rescues and sanctuaries are at capacity and struggling for funding?

The U.S. exported horse meat to countries that do consume it, although it was also sold domestically to feed zoo animals. In 2007, the last horse slaughterhouse in the U.S., in DeKalb, Illinois, was shut down by court order, and that was that until the ban was lifted last month.

Photo credit: Flicker user Atli Harðarson]

horse meatIs this a good thing? The result of abattoir closures means that there’s no outlet–-humane or otherwise–-for horses that can no longer be used for work or pleasure. Few people can afford to keep horses as pets due to age, illness, or injury, and as previously stated, most horse rescues are at capacity or struggling to find funding. The recession has only increased this problem.

The Tribune cites a federal report from June, 2011, that noted local animal welfare organizations reported a spike in investigations for horse neglect and abandonment since 2007. In Colorado, for example, data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent — from 975 in 2005 to almost 1,600 in 2009. Explains Cheri White Owl, founder of the Oklahoma nonprofit Horse Feathers Equine Rescue, “People [are] deciding to pay their mortgage or keep their horse.”

Adds Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state lawmaker and vice president of the non-profit, pro-slaughter organization United Horsemen, “Ranchers used to be able to sell horses that were too old or unfit for work to slaughterhouses but now they have to ship them to butchers in Canada and Mexico [the latter of which has even more inhumane handling and shipping practices], where they fetch less than half the price.”

The Tribune reports that the U.S. Government Accountability Office also determined that about 138,000 horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010: nearly the same number that were killed in the U.S. before the ban took effect in 2007.

I’m not disputing the lack of humanity previously displayed by U.S. livestock auctions and transport companies taking horses to slaughter (current treatment of other livestock: also fodder for another story). Fortunately, the 1996 federal Farm Bill mandated more humane conditions. Unfortunately, it didn’t go into effect until 2001. And the down side of reinstating horse abattoirs here, according to the Tribune, is that the Obama’s ban-reversal won’t “allocate any new money to pay for horse meat inspections, which opponents claim could cost taxpayers $3 million to $5 million a year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to find the money in its existing budget, which is expected to see more cuts this year as Congress and the White House aim to trim federal spending.”
horse meat
Animal welfare aside, the loss of horse abattoirs is a divisive issue. I’m of the opinion that it’s impractical and wasteful to not have an outlet for surplus animals. This, of course, assuming the transport and facilities abide by regulations. I’m not a supporter of industrial livestock production and thus large abattoirs, which have been documented to cause undue stress to animals. Despite that issue, isn’t it ultimately more kind to put an end to their suffering, and make good use of the meat?

Proponents of horse slaughter frequently make the comparison to the millions of dogs and cats that are euthanized yearly in the U.S., because their owners were too irresponsible to spay or neuter. The cremation of these poor creatures is more than just a senseless loss of life: it’s wasteful.

While I’m sympathetic to recession-impacted horse owners, keeping a horse isn’t cheap no matter what your financial situation. When you buy, adopt, or take in any “pet,” you’re responsible for its welfare. If you can’t commit to providing for that animal for the duration of its life (barring certain illness/injury situations), have the decency to do the necessary research and surrender it to a reputable animal rescue or loving home.

If you’re not capable of that, a.) please don’t ever have children, and b.) never own a pet. It’s a living creature, not a toy, and I have absolutely no tolerance for irresponsible pet owners. There are valid arguments on both sides of the horse slaughter debate, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is the humane treatment of the animals in question.

[Photo credits: cheval, Flicker user noodlepie; sashimi, Flickr user rc!]

Del Mar Turf Club: your chance for access

del mar turf clubHorse racing’s annual Triple Crown may have concluded without a new winner yet again, but that doesn’t mean that racing season has ended. Starting in mid-July, the luxe Park Hyatt Aviara resort is offering an exclusive partnership with the historic Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, a member’s only establishment that’s typically only been accessible to a select few.

Frequented by celebrities of both yore (think Bing Crosby and Ava Gardner) and today (Gwen Stefani, Owen Wilson), the turf club is opening its gates to guests of Park Hyatt Aviara Resort as part of a new overnight package offering.

The tony Turf Club is a genteel place from which to view some of Southern California’s best races. The Club includes amenities like private betting windows, food, and a bar.

Be advised a dress code is strictly enforced, including suits or daytime dresses for ladies a mandatory suit or sport jacket for gentlemen. Collared shirts are required, and short sleeved shirts are permitted only if the shirt is buttoned to the top button.

The Triple Crown races to Baltimore: Preakness 101


triple crown

Saturday, the second “jewel” of the Triple Crown races in to Baltimore with the Preakness Stakes at the historic Pimlico race track. Decidedly more casual than the Kentucky Derby, Preakness is best known for its raucous infield revelers and fun-laid back atmosphere.

Planning a trip to see Animal Kingdom compete for his next win, or simply looking for a reason to spend the weekend in Baltimore? We’ve got some ideas. Of course, our friends over at AOL Travel have an extensive city guide as well.Planning to attend the race? Here’s the 101:
Grandstand attendees still dress up, but don’t bother with the over-the-top hats of the Kentucky Derby. A pretty sundress and hat will do just fine. Dress for comfort in the infield, where traditions generally have included too much drinking, and yes, port-a-potty races. Legal crackdowns have seen significantly mellower crowds in years past, and this year’s race is no exception. Preakness InfieldFest 2011 ($50) will include performances by Bruno Mars, Train and Hotspur on the main stage and the Beer Garden Jägermeister Stage will also feature concerts by Mr Greengenes, Phil Vassar and Puddle of Mudd. Unlimited beer will run you $70 with a wristband, although you can BYO food. No beverages are permitted inside the gates.

Want to skip the race but still see the track?
Try a sunrise tour of “Old Hilltop” at Pimlico. The 20 minute tours run from 6 AM – 9 AM Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Preakness week. After enjoying sunrise on the Grandstand Apron, you will get an insider’s perspective on racing during an escorted tour of the Preakness Stakes Barn. You will have an opportunity to shop for Preakness Souvenirs, stop by the Pimlico Museum and maybe even peek into the jockey’s quarters, then head back outside to watch the horses go through their morning workouts. Reservations are not taken, tours are on a first come, first serve basis. For more information, email Diana Harbaugh.

While you’re in Charm City … be sure to visit:
We know, you’ve seen The Wire and are terrified to visit the drug war-ravaged city that is Baltimore. Don’t be. This scenic and historic town is full of vibrant attractions and great restaurants. Check out the Babe Ruth Museum before catching a baseball game at Orioles Park. Love sea creatures? The Baltimore Aquarium is one of the East Coast’s finest, as is the Walters Art Museum. Afterwards, stroll the Inner Harbor, while a bit touristy, is packed with old sailing ships, restaurants, and shops. Foodies will want to dine at the James Beard-nominated Charleston restaurant. Speaking of shopping, drive to the trendy Hampden neighborhood for cute boutiques and fun restaurants, or hit up Fells Point for an evening of bar-hopping. Day trips include scenic Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, about a 20-minute drive. Washington, DC is approximately an hour by car.

[Flickr via tomsaint]

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