A hundred years ago, when America’s obsessions were baseball, boxing, and thoroughbreds, and Man O’ War was nearly as big a name as Babe Ruth, knowing how to play the ponies was an essential social skill. Now, horse racing is a much more niche interest across most of the United States. Except, of course, when the masses bring out their seersucker suits and outlandish hats for the Kentucky Derby.
But there is one place in the country where everyone learns how to do math on the odds board and knows the feeling of heartbreak on the homestretch. A place where casual conversations are about winning tickets and daily doubles, and horse racing is still the sport of kings. That place is Lexington, Kentucky, the center of horse racing in the country and a pilgrimage all self-identified horse racing people must make at least once. It’s an immersion in like-mindedness the way you might find on a Bon Jovi cruise or a religious revival. Though non-horse people will love it too, if for no other reason than to understand why horse racing people love the sport so much.
“If you want to see horse racing in its absolute purest state, it’s in Lexington,” says Tom Rooney, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and a horse racing guy who’s spent considerable time in the city. “From Keeneland to all the farms, the entire infrastructure in and around the city is based around the horse.”
How Lexington, and Kentucky in general, became the American capital of horse racing isn’t exactly clear. According to Rooney, it began over 150 years ago, when large families moved west from Virginia into Kentucky and found the soil’s limestone deposits helped build healthy bones for their horses. They also discovered an abundance of old tobacco barns with good circulation, which lent themselves perfectly to housing horses.
Over the decades, Lexington and the surrounding region became ground zero for the thoroughbred racing industry. Though the breeding farms fueled its economy, what put Lexington squarely on top of the horse racing world was Keeneland Racecourse, which opened in 1936. The track isn’t as famous as Churchill Downs or as scenic as San Diego’s seaside Delmar. But to horse racing people, Keeneland is horse racing.
“It’s the Augusta of racing,” Rooney says. “It’s the feeling you get when you’re there. The purity of the sport, the magic of the sport, really manifests itself there more than anywhere.”
The course only runs for six weeks a year – three weeks in April and another three in October. That scarcity is part of what makes it so magical, a fleeting few weeks when America’s best thoroughbreds come home and everyone comes out to watch them.
That magic begins as you wind up the road into the track, which in spring has cherry blossoms, magnolias, and tulips contrasting against a warm blue sky. In fall, the cool gray mist acts as a perfect backdrop for red and golden leaves that seem almost painted on the trees. Patrons in their finest mill around the storied clubhouse, a gray stone structure that almost looks like an Irish castle. Even students from nearby University of Kentucky are dapper, dolled out like they’re going to a fraternity formal.
Everyone in Lexington is a racing expert, and people you talk to probably learned how to read a racing form before they learned to drive. The track offers onsite “Betologists” who’ll help you through the complicated process of wagering, but it’s rare that you meet someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
Race days are events much like football game days in places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Lincoln, Nebraska. Except here, instead of booze-soaked tailgates and Saturday night lights, you find the genteel sport of kings. And for a horse racing person, it feels like you’ve arrived on your mother ship.
Meet Triple Crown winners among pastoral breeding farms
Holy as Keeneland’s six weeks of racing are, Lexington is a horse-centric destination year-round. The scenic farms that surround the city are home to some of the most legendary horses in history, and they’re surprisingly accessible.
“Fly into Lexington and it almost looks like Ireland with the farms and all the green around the city,” Rooney says. “Horse racing in Lexington is buttressed with these huge farms that are breeding and boarding farms owned by the who’s who of American success who’ve fallen in love with racing.”
Wealthy people love the sport for the prestige, sure. But the breeding side of horse racing can be immensely profitable, if you luck upon the right horse. Justify, the 2018 triple crown winner, for example, can command upwards of $100,000 per breeding with a broodmare. He can breed with anywhere from 30 to 40 mares per year, which if you do the math is a lot of cash for getting your horse some action.
The stallions live like kings, too, spending their days roaming freely through the Kentucky hillsides until it’s time to either breed or retire to their luxe stables. Take out the hay and dirt floors, and these grand resort barns could be country ballrooms, with stalls so spacious they’d be better described as hotel suites–or, as Rooney puts it, the stallion stalls are “nicer than my bedroom.”
Touring the breeding farms is fairly easy for visitors, provided you make an appointment in advance. That means you can come face-to-nose with champion athletes easier than you can in any other sport. Ashford Stud, for example, is home to Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh, Tiz the Law, and the aforementioned Justify. There’s no guarantee they’ll be there when you visit, but odds are there’ll be a horse you saw on TV ready to receive a carrot.
Lexington also holds two annual yearling sales, when the super-wealthy from around the world descend on Lexington to buy the most celebrated baby horses on the planet. Rooney likens it to the NFL combine of horse racing, but even harder to get into.
Horse racing is always top of mind in Lexington
Return from the countryside, and you’ll find horses are still ever present. Yes, Lexington is home to the basketball-mad University of Kentucky. And from November to March — the months between Keeneland meets — you’ll also find plenty of hoops talk. But where in some cities casual encounters at the gas station or grocery store are an exchange of polite hellos, in Lexington you may well be asked how you did at the track.
“People in Lexington are as nice and friendly as can be,” Rooney says. “They understand their economy revolves around the horse. Everyone knows the sport and they want people to come back.”
Horses adorn everything, from hotel lobbies to restaurant menus. Bellying up to a bar can have you talking stud feeds with breeders, or running times with trainers and jockeys. It’s a little like being in LA with showbiz, except nobody in Lexington will try and sell you a screenplay.
“I like to go to this bar called McCarthy’s,” Rooney says. “You go in there and a lot of people are speaking with an Irish accent, because a lot of people in Lexington work with Coolmore (who owns Ashford Stud) and come here from Ireland.”
Over dinner at Dudley’s on Short, a restaurant that feels like dining in a living room lined with family horse racing photos, distillers Sean and Tia Edwards don’t much seem to want to talk about their bourbon, even though I’m there to tour their Fresh Bourbon tasting room after we eat.
“How’d you do today?” Sean asks immediately after I introduce myself. I tell him I lost every race. “Yeah, I’ve had a few days like that,” he laughs. “But you had fun, right?”
I tell him I did. And that is precisely the point of going to Lexington. Win or lose, if you love horse racing you won’t leave anything less than happy. Because in Lexington you are surrounded by your people. And for a few days in the fall, everyone else shares your passion, and everyone is “Horse Racing Guy.” So no matter if you cash a ticket or go 0-fer the day, Lexington always feels like home.