Lexington, Kentucky: Bourbon, Betting & Breeding

The author's daughter looks for liekly picks. Photos by Tim Leffel.
The author’s daughter looks for likely picks at Keeneland Racetrack. Photos by Tim Leffel.

New to Horse Racing? Visit Lexington and See How It All Works!

By Tim Leffel

Lexington, Kentucky is the land of great bourbon and great horse breeding. This time it really is “something in the water.” The limestone in the soil and the spring water make for good horses and good whiskey. You can experience both at Keeneland race track, and do some betting to give you a reason to cheer and shout.

Race Day in Bluegrass Country

Before the first race, we wandered through the gift shop. “Mommy, can you buy this toy pony for me?” the little one asks. Louisville’s Churchill Downs is more famous because of the Kentucky Derby, but Keeneland is more magical.

It is located on extensive acreage six miles outside of town, in a sublime setting. It held its first race in 1936. Training and horse sales go on throughout the year, but races only take place in April and October. You have to well to hit town at the right time.

“Only if your horse wins,” Mommy replies, without even blinking.

So there we are, before the races even started, committed to betting on behalf of a girl in kindergarten. I’m not sure a five-year-old can pick up on the subtleties of risk analysis yet, but she seems to do fine picking horses by the color the jockey is wearing or whether the horse has “princess” in its name. Here I am poring over race odds and jockey history, but she wins just as often by going for pink or purple.

The kids with betting slips cheer hard all day, without whining about how many races are going on. Our little one walks home with a pink toy pony that makes magical sounds when you squeeze it, so the horse track now qualifies for her list of top-ten fun places.

Starting early
Starting early as a racetrack handicapper!

The slight tinge of guilt I have in the beginning for introducing a toddler to gambling fades after the horses started thundering down the track, with everyone yelling for their hopeful champ. The guilt blows away for good in a cloud of dust when three elementary school girls in front of us jump up and scream, “We won! Daddy we won!”

It’s hard to view gambling as much of a decadent affair at Keeneland anyway, despite the recent appearance of a drive-through betting window. Most punters are placing small bets just to add a stake to the outcome.

You can bet horses to win, place or show for as little as two dollars, so even if your luck is terrible you can escape losing less than the price of your bar tab. We are three clueless newbies betting on every single race, but we manage to come out even in the end, cashing in after the last set of hooves has left the track.

Clairborne Farm
Clairborne Farm

Keeneland is set up well for family budgets. General admission is three bucks and parking is free. You can feed everyone and buy some drinks without taking out a second mortgage — unlike the scene at the average professional sporting event. Of course if you want to you can go plenty upscale. There are fancy restaurants, reserved box seats filled by ladies with fancy hats, betting windows that will take very large wagers and lots of great small-batch bourbon on offer. But spending a wad is an option rather than a requirement.

With the Horses Where They Live and Breed

For the story behind the horses and a chance to get up close, it’s hard to beat the Kentucky Horse Park. You can spend hours experiencing a well-done museum with lots of horse history and take in prancing horse shows. Kids can take a pony ride, older people can ride a horse, or the whole family can take a spin on a carriage ride. It’s a working farm though: fifty different breeds live on the park’s 1,200 acres. If you want to plan ahead, the 2010 World Equestrian Games will be held here — the horse world’s version of the Olympics.

The resting place of Scretariat at Clarborne Farm (Lexington)
The resting place of Scretariat at Clarborne Farm

To get a more intimate view of thoroughbreds and the life they lead, take a tour to a working horse farm. Terre Crider of Tours of Tradition took us to one of the greats: Claiborne Farm. This is where Bold Ruler sired Secretariat and where both are now buried. The farm has produced six of the eleven Triple Crown winners and if visitors are lucky they’ll see former Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, who is a popular stud.

What drives the Lexington economy is sex, lots of it. Expensive sex between expensive animals. The mares in these parts are perhaps the highest-net-worth prostitutes in the world. The local saying is, “Breed the best with the best and hope for the best.”

It’s the gigolos that earn the real money though. An ad in the Keeneland program for one horse farm says, “Ten red hot, blue-chip stallions. From $10,000 to $100,000.” At Claiborne Farm, the horse Pulpit gets a stud fee of $80,000 each time. Seeking the Gold gets $125,000.

No Viagra is needed for these guys: they can do it four times a day during the breeding season. So it is common for one with a good bloodline to earn more from following nature’s instincts than he did from racing. Some bring in a cool $10 million or more a year for just doing what feels good.

James C. "Jimmy" Russell, master distiller at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, reviews a sample.
James C. “Jimmy” Russell, master distiller at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, reviews a sample.

“A horse is a living, breathing thing,” says Terre Crider, “but a good one is like a company on the New York Stock Exchange.”

Putting males and females together to make magic isn’t all that easy, however. It takes five men working in a coordinated fashion around a padded stall to corral the couple together just right. Getting kicked in a bad way is just another workplace risk.

“There are inherent risks of injury that you voluntarily accept if you work with farm animals,” says our guide Jerry, who works with Claiborne’s horses.

Where America’s Whiskey is Born

When you’ve had your fill of horses, it’s time for a drink. Kentucky’s other international claim to fame is bourbon. Legend has it that the whiskey used to be just standard “white lightning,” until at some point a cheapskate from Bourbon County stored it in some barrels that had been charred on the inside and shipped it off to New Orleans. By the time it got down there it had aged a bit and people liked it enough to start asking for more of that “Bourbon County whiskey.”

The distinctive taste of bourbon comes from the mix of whiskey (made from corn, rye, and malted barley) and charred oak barrels. The barrels go through years of aging, but they don’t have to age as long as Scotch since the Kentucky climate causes the liquid to move in and out of the wood more rapidly.

There’s a wee bit of Scotland though in the beautiful Woodford Reserve Distillery, just outside Lexington in Versailles. (Around these parts, that’s pronounced “Ver-SAY-uls”). You drive through picture-perfect horse farm scenery to get there, then arrive at a small bourbon production facility that feels like it has been here for hundreds of years. The stone buildings by a lake have been, in fact, and the site is a National Historic Landmark.

Anyone who has done whiskey tours in Scotland will feel transported: this is the only distillery in Kentucky making Bourbon using traditional copper pot stills. The quiet serenity belies the big-money commerce involved: Woodford Reserve is one of the finest bourbons on the market and 750 ml bottles usually retail for around $30. The tour is $5, but that’s because you can now do a tasting at the end.

You can compare the taste to Four Roses, which also has a distillery open to the public nearby, visit the home of Wild Turkey, or ride a little further to Frankfort and visit Buffalo Trace. In each case you get a good sense of how the whole process works.

A whole day of this may not be a child’s best idea of fun, but a visit to one will be tolerable: there are usually rocking chairs, steps to climb, barrels to roll, and plenty of space for running around. Plus you’re bound to pass plenty of farms on the drive.

A city that thrives on breeding, bourbon, and betting may not look, on paper, like the best place for a family vacation. You have to dig into the limestone to find the real story.

The winning ticket
The winning ticket

If You Go

Lexington is a small city and it’s easy to get around. Some of the best hotels for families are north of the ring road, less than 15 minutes away from Keeneland, and close to the Kentucky Horse Park. There’s a Holiday Inn with a big indoor pool complex and a Residence Inn with extra room to stretch out.

We stayed at a nice Courtyard Marriott right next door that uses extra-comfy mattresses from a local Lexington company, Tempur-pedic. You can double your space in a suite for only $30-$40 extra. A campground next to the Kentucky Horse Park is $13 to $30 per site depending on season and site facilities.

Keeneland hosts a nice $5 “Breakfast with the Works” buffet on Saturday mornings that combines hearty food, a chance to see the horses train, and some kids’ activities (complete with dress-up jockey Polaroid!) Good kid-friendly restaurants in Lexington include the Caribbean-themed Atomic Café and the pizza institution Joe Bologna’s.

Admission to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington between March 15 and October 31 is $15 for adults and $8.00 for children. Kids 6 & under are free. In the winter there is less going on and rates are lower.

For more information on Lexington, go to the Lexington Convention and Visitors’ Bureau website

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