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.

Adventure Guide 2013: Lexington

Often referred to as the Horse Capital of the World, Lexington, Kentucky, lures in visitors for its horses, yes, but also for the incomparable surrounding landscape and the adventures that await within. The city itself is historic – it was founded in 1775 when it was still a part of the state of Virginia. Lexington was booming and cosmopolitan by 1820, and it impresses to this day.

With gentle hills and the surrounding Bluegrass Region, much of Lexington stands erect on limestone, which births the famous poa pratensis grass, more commonly known as bluegrass, and helps to carve the world-renowned caves of Kentucky below. Travelers in Lexington enjoy the Kentucky River, a thriving landscape cushioning the city, abounding horse farms and enough bourbon for everyone. Since Lexington was named the fourth best city for “Businesses and Careers” by Forbes in 2011 and sixth in “Best Value Cities” in 2011 by Kiplinger, the city is expanding with the adventure community in tow. Before it gets too big, visit Lexington with a certainty that you’ll experience the charming downtown area and the unscathed natural beauty that made the city grand.

Hotels

Gratz Park Inn: Centrally located and more charming than your run-of-the-mill corporate chain, Gratz Park Inn gives you easy access to vibrant Lexington and just a short drive from the countryside. In true bed-and-breakfast style, the rooms and suites are all decorated tastefully but differently, yielding a unique experience for each guest. One of the packages at Gratz Park Inn includes a picnic in the park, which you can follow up with a bike ride through the trails of Lexington. From $179.
gratzparkinn.com 120 West 2nd Street

Essence of The Bluegrass: This elegant bed-and-breakfast hides within a large brick house in the country outside of Lexington’s center. A double-grand staircase hovers over a grand player piano – the whole place is grand. Just minutes away are some of the best bourbon distilleries and the Kentucky Horse Park, where you can spend the day riding. From $149.
essenceofthebluegrass.com 343 Mt Horeb Pike

Three Tress Campground: If you’re looking for an accommodations adventure and would rather sleep beneath the stars than a ceiling, check out the Three Trees Campground. Just 16 miles southeast of Lexington, this campground is just across the road from Fort Boonesborough State Park. Three Trees offers canoeing and kayaking, primitive sites, water and showers. The campground is beautifully situated along the Kentucky River. From $28.
threetreeskayak.com 300 Athens Boonsboro Road

Eat and Drink

Sahara Mediterranean Cuisine: For a Mediterranean food adventure, check out the lauded Sahara Mediterranean Cuisine, where well-executed staples are served at an affordable price. Grab stuffed grape leaves, falafel or Tabooli to start and finish off with lamb, beef or chicken sandwiches ($5) or dinner plates ($11). Whatever you get from Sahara will be good, but be sure you can get it when you want by checking the restaurant’s hours before you go (they’re closed on Sundays and open 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. all other days while hours in December vary). Stop in on your way south out of town toward the deepest lake in Kentucky, Herrington Lake.
sahara-lex.com 3061 Fieldstone Way, Suite #1200

Ramsey’s Diner: If you want southern food done right during your stay in Lexington, make sure to visit Ramsey’s Diner. The unsuspecting white building on the corner serves up dishes on mismatched plates in a room that will make you feel like you’re grabbing a bite to eat in your uncle’s house – the uncle who hangs American flags indoors. Whether you want the Catfish Sandwich, BBQ, Country Fried Pork Chops or one of the most decent selections of vegetarian options you could ask for at a comfort food joint, this is the place for you. Have a meal before or after spending the morning or afternoon at Jacobson Park fishing or kayaking.
ramseysdiners.com 500 East High Street

Bourbon n’ Toulouse: You can’t visit Lexington without exploring the area’s bourbon culture. Make a plan to have a meal at Bourbon n’ Toulouse and indulge in some great Creole/Cajon food while you’re sipping your whiskey. Jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish and other southern favorites help complete a menu here that also offers gluten-free and vegetarian options. Since the restaurant is located near downtown, dine before you dash off beyond the city center for fun.
bntlexington.com 829 East Euclid Avenue

Adventure Activities

Red River Gorge: Just about an hour outside of Lexington is the Daniel Boone National Forest, which features infinite opportunities for adventure. Red River Gorge, which lies within the park, is a canyon system known for its phenomenal climbs. The area offers sandstone cliffs, natural bridges, rock shelters and waterfalls, ranging in difficulties from the casual to the professional. Zip-lining and hiking are also available within the RRG. Meanwhile, the forest offers hiking, camping, boating and various water activities. redrivergorge.com

Herrington Lake: Whether you’re looking for a place to fish, wakeboard, waterski, tube or boat, Herrington Lake is a perfect day trip. Herrington Lake is the deepest lake in the state of Kentucky, and it’s also just 25 miles outside of Lexington. If you like to golf, try the Peninsula Golf Resort or if you just want to play in and near the water, there are several marinas near the Peninsula Golf Resort for entry. kentuckytourism.com/lakes_rivers/herrington-lake/12/

McConnell Springs Park: Home of the county’s only known sinking springs, McConnell Springs Park is a 26-acre lush and well-preserved natural area within Lexington. Spend the day exploring the trails that run through the park or participating in one of the many educational and community-centric events that take place at McConnell. mcconnellsprings.org 416 Rebmann Lane

Get Around

Fly into the Blue Grass Airport and get into Lexington’s downtown area by renting a car, taking a taxi or hopping on a LexTran bus, which offers express transportation from the airport to downtown. There’s a curbside designated pickup waiting area for the bus right outside of the Blue Grass Airport – follow the signs. You can also utilize the LexTran buses while navigating your way around town, and Google transit integrates well with the network. A $3 day pass will give you unlimited rides for the day. You can also rent a bike from Scheller’s Fitness & Cycles downtown for as low as $29 per day.

Adventure Tip

There are great biking trails running through Lexington and the county, but Legacy Trail is one of the most notable. The 12-mile trail runs from downtown to the Kentucky Horse Park. Other than crossing the busy Newtown Pike, you don’t have to worry about traffic while on this trail, but make sure you take note of this intersection before you begin your journey.

[Photo credit: J.M. Giordano]

Frank James and the Civil War Battle of the Hemp Bales

Frank James, Jesse James, Civil War
Jesse James must have been jealous of his older brother Frank. Jesse was only 13 when the Civil War started. Frank was 18, the perfect age to go off to war. Coming from a slave-owning farm family Frank naturally joined the Confederate army.

Many Missourians, especially city dwellers and the large German immigrant community, remained loyal to the North, while the majority of rural farmers supported the South. Most people actually wanted peace, but attitudes hardened as events spiraled out of control in the spring and summer of 1861. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion, Missouri’s governor defiantly refused. Then the Unionist General Nathaniel Lyon captured a group of state guardsmen camped near St. Louis, fearing they planned to capture the city’s federal arsenal. The capture went off without a hitch (except for Lyon being kicked in the stomach by his own horse) but when Lyon’s troops marched their prisoners back into town they got attacked by a secessionist mob. A soldier and about twenty civilians died in the ensuing riot.

The secessionist government fled, soon replaced by a loyal state government, and the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price declared their loyalty for the South. Lyon led his Union forces from St. Louis west along the Missouri River valley, took the state capital of Jefferson City, and defeated a small State Guard force at the Battle of Boonville, one of the first battles of the Civil War. Price retreated with the State Guard to the southwestern part of the state to organize and train his green troops.

One of his new recruits was Frank James. He arrived with a group of Clay County boys, some armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, others with nothing. They all itched for a chance to fight the Yankees. They didn’t have to wait long. On August 10, 1861, Lyons’ Union forces attacked Price’s Confederate camp at Wilson’s Creek. The Union soldiers came in from two sides, and as cannonballs flew through the State Guard tents, Frank James and his companions marched off to face the enemy.

%Gallery-108346%He and his unit charged up a hill overlooking their camp on which Lyon had placed the bulk of his force. Almost immediately the position earned the name “Bloody Hill”. Missourians fought each other through thick underbrush, attacking and counterattacking for hours. Meanwhile the second pincer of the Union attack was being wiped out to the south of camp. The battle tipped in the rebels’ favor, Lyon fell dead from a bullet, and the Union army retreated.

The fight left more than 1,200 casualties on each side, but the rebels exulted in their victory and marched into the center of the state towards the Missouri River port of Lexington. If they could take it, they’d control the river and the most populous pro-secession region in Missouri.

Col. James Mulligan, a tough Irish-American, had 3,500 Union soldiers at Lexington. While Price’s Confederates numbered more than 12,000, Mulligan decided to fight anyway. He dug trenches and earthworks atop a hill with a commanding view of the town. A stone building that served as a Masonic College added extra protection. The rebels arrived on September 13 and immediately surrounded the position. For a week they sniped at the Union troops on the hill. Volunteers swarmed in from the countryside to join Price. An account tells of how one local, an old man, arrived every morning with an antiquated flintlock rifle and a packed lunch, spent the day blasting away at the Yankees, and went home every evening.

Inside the fort Mulligan and his men grimly held on. No help came, and after a few days the rebels cut off their water supply. They threw back several determined attacks, and when the rebels heated up their cannonballs in an attempt to set the Masonic College on fire, Mulligan sent a boy with a shovel running around inside the college building, picking up the red-hot iron balls and chucking them out the window.

Frank James must have been getting nervous by this point. It had been a week and the fort still hadn’t fallen. Sooner or later a Union relief force would show up and there’d be real trouble. Then someone hit upon a clever idea. Missouri was one of the nation’s largest hemp regions. The cannabis plant was used for rope, paper, cloth, and many other purposes besides the recreational smoking that eventually got it banned. The harvest had just been brought in and the river port was filled with heavy bales of hemp. The rebels made a wall of these bales, soaked them with water so they wouldn’t be set on fire by hot lead, and started moving this wall up the hill.

Mulligan’s Union soldiers soon discovered these bales were bulletproof. Even cannonballs only rocked them. From behind the wall of hemp Frank James and his friends were able to get better shots at the defenders and the Union casualties began to mount. The noose tightened. Cut off, low on water, and with no help in sight, the defenders finally surrendered. Marijuana had won a victory for the Confederacy.

It wouldn’t last long. General Price realized his position was too exposed and headed back south. Frank fell sick with measles, a potentially fatal illness in those day, and got left behind. He was captured, gave an oath of loyalty to the Union, and returned home. Soon he was back in the saddle, however, joining William Quantrill’s guerrillas. Later he followed one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, Bloody Bill Anderson, and his younger brother Jesse joined him.

Frank and Jesse James’ war years were the beginning of their training as America’s most famous outlaws. They learned to ride, shoot, and hide out in the woods. Fellow members of Bloody Bill’s group formed the core of their bandit gang. With these experienced warriors they’d blaze across half a dozen states and into American folklore.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield has a museum and tours. The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site also has a museum (with a hemp bale they had to get special permission to import) and is in the center of a fine old town with lots of historic buildings. Check them out for more information about two Civil War battles that aren’t very well known outside of Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James’ greatest escape

[Image of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek courtesy user Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons]

Five hotel holiday deals in New England

Are you looking for a winter wonderland for the Christmas season? New England is a natural destination. There are plenty of deals to be found, with packages that won’t force you to choose between your trip and the number of presents under the tree. Check out the inns below from New England Inns and Resorts to see for yourself what await!

1. The Stepping Stone Spa, Lyndonville, VT
The Kingdom Trails Winter Adventure package at The Stepping Stone includes two nights at this bed and breakfast, daily breakfast, two adult tickets for snowshoeing or cross country skiing at Kingdom Trails and a $50 voucher for dinner at Jupiter’s Restaurant. Rates start at $157 per person, based on double occupancy, and the deal runs from December 17, 2010 to March 20, 2011.

2. The Wentworth, Jackson, NH
Take a look at this property for the Jingle Bells Chocolate Tour. For a rate that starts at $208, you’ll pick up a night at the Wentworth, an hour-long sleigh ride through Jackson Village (with actual jingle bells and chocolate snacks), a four-course candlelit dinner for two and a full breakfast the next morning. The deal runs from November 27, 2010 to December 18, 2010.3. Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club, Lexington, MA Feeling the urge to hit the slopes before the end of the year? Check out the Berkshire Ski package at this property. For $140 per person midweek or $185 on the weekends, you can score a night at Cranwell Resort, unlimited cross country skiing, a $20 credit at any Cranwell restaurant and full use of the spa. The deal runs from December 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011.

4. The Beachmere Inn, Ogunquit, ME
Ring in the new year at the Beachmere. The New Year’s Eve by the Sea package is pulled together to make the last night of 2010 memorable. The last dinner you’ll have this year includes appetizers, buffet and dessert, not to mention dancing and party favors. Start fresh with a lavish breakfast the next morning. Two-night packages range from $530 to $595, with three nights ranging from $625 to $675.

5. Inn at Ormsby Hill, Manchester, VT
Visit the Inn at Ormsby Hill on the first two Saturdays in December for open tours of the inns in the Manchester area. Stay either the night of December 3, 2010 or December 10, 2010, and receive dinner in the evening, followed by a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at The Dorset Theatre. Open house tours run from noon to 4 PM the next day, with the $15 ticket price going to Habitat for Humanity. On your way home, you’ll have the chance to stop by a local nursery and pick up a Vermont Christmas tree to bring home!

Top five cities for travel spending … and the bottom of the barrel, too

Hey, Arlington, Virginia residents, why are you spending so much on travel? Do you really want to get out that badly? According to a report by Bundle.com, the folks who live in Arlington spent twice the national average on travel last year: a whopping $3,534 per household. Nationwide, the norm came in at $1,571 for 2009. Meanwhile, Detroit residents spent a meager $1,158 per household on travel last year due largely to the dismal economic conditions there.

The top five cities for travel spending last year (i.e., people who live there paid to go elsewhere) aren’t terribly surprising, in that they tend to be affluent and close to major airports.

1. Arlington, VA – $3,534
2. San Francisco, CA – $3,460
3. Washington, DC – $3,409
4. Scottsdale, AZ – $3,372
5. New York, NY – $3,274
And if there’s a top five list, there must be one for the bottom, right? Garland, Texas residents either love the place so much they don’t like to leave or simply have little appreciation for the outside world: they spent an average of $647 per household on travel last year.

5. Greensboro, NC – $820
4. Lexington, KY – $809
3. Memphis, TN – $683
2. Chula Vista, CA – $676
1. Garland, TX – $647

[photo by Beverly & Pack via Flickr]