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]

Trip to and from a funeral: White knuckle road

We’ve written posts about dastardly roads before. (Martha’s, Justin’s , Willy’s, Mine) Many are windy, narrow ones that snake around mountains. One of my worst stretches of road, I’ve decided is I-75 between Lexington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. I drove along a several mile unlit portion of the highway after dark, not once but twice (!)this past weekend.

A relative of mine died earlier in the week, and with the funeral south of Hazard, I corralled my daughter into this impromptu road trip. With a full day of things that needed to be done on Saturday, we left Columbus at 5:30 PM for a night at my aunt and uncle’s house in Lexington, Kentucky in order to make it to the Sunday funeral. No problems until we reached south of Florence. Northern Kentucky is fairly populated with many exits. There is a sense that people are tucked in their homes not too far away–plus the road is straight and easy to follow. Then, about the I-71, I-75 split with I-71 heading to Louisville and I-75 continuing to Lexington, the scenery changed and I began to wonder where every one went. It didn’t help that it was pouring rain, and the road, from what I could see of it, started to have curves. Each curve seemed to come up at the last second before I needed to turn the wheel to not go careening off into a field or forest. I don’t know which; I couldn’t see.

Without many cars out on a Saturday night, there weren’t any tail lights to use as markers to locate where I was heading. I kept thinking that certainly Kentucky couldn’t be that broke of a state that there weren’t enough funds to do a better job showing the edge of the road. Guard rails were also few and far between. The numerous deer crossing signs reminded me to be on the alert for Bambi or his mother. I kept thinking about the news articles I’ve read lately about the number of cars that hit deer this time of year.

When we finally reached my aunt’s and uncle’s house, after I unclenched my fingers from the steering wheel, I was so happy to drink that glass of wine they offered me, that I had two. The funeral was worth the trip, but when I reached that stretch of road going the opposite direction back to Columbus, in the dark and pouring rain–with some fog mixed in, I envisioned a glass of wine waiting for me at the other end.

If Kentucky, or any other place with unlit roads wants to help drivers feel a bit more relaxed after dark, there is a solution. At Intelligent Traveler there is a story about Astucia SolarLite road studs in Great Britain that are solar powered panels that light up at night. From the picture they look a bit like bicycle reflector lights. It seems to me that on major highways in particular, having some method to light the roads is worth the expense.

The photo of the deer with a red blinking light was taken by Kate Shepard and posted on Flickr. She lives in Austin, Texas where someone was putting Rudolf noses on signs. It kind of fits the season, and the post, so there you have it.