Updated: May 24
Ok, let us preface this by saying: We are not horse people! As North Mississippians, we’ve had plenty of, um, “horse exposure.” Riding horses at camp, the occasional rodeo, the Budweiser horses at the local Christmas parade — we’re cool with horses.
But let me tell you, the world of thoroughbred racehorses is a whole different universe. It wasn’t even on our radar until a work trip took us to Lexington, Kentucky, last year. We’d been working with Mill Ridge for several months, and they invited us down to see the farm and catch some races.
Now, when you think of thoroughbred horse racing, you probably think of the boujee pageantry of the Kentucky Derby. Make no mistake, Mill Ridge and the Keeneland racetrack are horse racing royalty, but we found that you can have any kind of experience you want at the track.
Whether you dress up or dress down, root from the chair backs or stand in general admission, if you don’t have fun on race day, it’s your own fault.
Horse racing basics
Ok, so here’s the lay of the land.
Races take place at Keeneland in April and October. During those months, you can catch races on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of every weekend. This gives you a ton of flexibility in planning other activities.
Each race day, there are about a dozen races. This might be a no-duh, but we didn’t know there are lots of races on any given race day. Tailgating starts midmorning and races last through the early evening.
Going to the races costs less than going to a movie. No, for real, a general admission ticket to a Keeneland race day is just $7, and a grandstand ticket costs a mere $15. Of course, box seats and other specialty seating options cost more, but even those won’t break the bank.
Keeneland is so legit.
In horse racing, there’s levels to this game! The biggest, most competitive races are called “graded stakes.” A graded stakes race features the top horses in a particular group (like age).
Grade 1 races are the top tier, but grade 2 and 3 horses are no slouch. Horses have to meet certain criteria and perform well in several preliminary non-stakes races to even qualify for a shot at the stakes level.
Keeneland only holds graded stakes races, so excitement is pretty much guaranteed.
Originally, we bought tickets to the grandstands, but we ventured down to general admission for a more close-up view of the action. There’s no seating in the GA area, but you can get right up to the rails of the track. As the jockeys lead the horses to the starting line, you can almost reach out and touch them.
The lush grass, the immaculate condition of the grounds and facilities, and of course, the majesty of the animals and jockeys themselves—it’s just all so cool and beautiful and exciting. The drama and mystery of it is so palpable, and you can’t fully imagine it until you’ve been in it.
The odds of winning are so slim that if a horse wins just 25% of the time, it’s hall-of-fame worthy. It’s unpredictable, and the next champion can come out of nowhere. Thoroughbred horse racing is often referred to as “the sport of kings,” because of the immense fortunes that change hands in just a few seconds.
You really get the sense of that at Keeneland.
Hospitality, pageantry, and betting.
Horse racing comes with just as many ins and outs as any other sport, but I can’t imagine a more newbie-friendly experience than we had at Keeneland. Everyone — bartenders, bet-takers, race day regulars — were incredibly generous with their explanations and directions.
At Keeneland, they’re glad you’re there.
Outside of the actual race, the pageantry of the event is something to behold.
Before each race, the horses are walked through a lush courtyard adjacent to the track. They go through twice—once without the jockey and once with the jockey. This is so race fans can get a feel for the horse’s vibe before going inside to place their bets.
Each race day comes with a program that breaks down the horses, jockeys, and coaches in each race. There’s tons of data in the program, and even as a beginner, it’s fun to try and triangulate which horse seems like the best bet.
Of course, you don’t have to bet, but horse racing and betting go hand in hand. There are tons of ways to bet (all detailed in the program), and from what I could tell, you could bet as much or as little as you want to. For me, a $5 bet here and there made the races that much more exciting.
Did I win? Not even close! When I bet a trifecta, one of my horses finished in the top three, another finished right in the middle, and the third finished dead last. But I kept my betting slips as a souvenir and taped them to my computer back home.
Before hitting the track, we took a tour of the storied Mill Ridge farm. Mill Ridge raises thoroughbreds from birth until around age 2, when they are sent off to be trained to race. The farm’s founder, Alice Chandler, was the first American woman to breed an Epsom Derby winner, which brought Mill Ridge international fame.
Across the pond, Queen Elizabeth II took note of Mill Ridge’s success. When she first visited Kentucky in 1984 to attend Keeneland’s inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, she struck up a friendship with the Chandler family. She eventually sent several horses to be boarded and bred at Mill Ridge and visited the farm on later trips to the Bluegrass state.
There’s tons of fascinating history around Mill Ridge and the sport’s journey from the Middle East to England to America. But they tell it better than I can. To pique your interest, the farm next door is owned by the Sheikh of Dubai, who’s a horse racing fanatic, and there’s a reason the best horses and the best bourbon come from Kentucky.
Today, Mill Ridge produces Grade 1 winners at a rate five times the industry average, including three Kentucky Derby winners. Alice’s son and grandchildren run the farm, proudly carrying on the legacy and bringing more folks into the world of horse racing. Follow Mill Ridge on Facebook, and you can ride along with Price Bell as he cruises the farm, checking in on the horses and telling stories.
A tour of Mill Ridge is a must if you visit Lexington.
The farm itself is beautiful, with endless rolling hills, black fences, and packs of young horses, well, horsing around. Mill Ridge was designed so the only road you can see is the road you’re on, which adds to the surreal quality of the place.
Our tour guide was sweet and knowledgeable, happy to explain the intricacies of caring for the horses and breeding the next winner.
The tour really gives insight into what all goes into it between race days — a perfect primer before heading over to Keeneland.
What else do you need to know?
Mill Ridge, Keeneland, and the Lexington airport are practically right next to each other, so it’s super easy to get from one to the other. Point being, the entire city is very Uber-able, so you can enjoy the bourbon.
Looking for other things to do in Lexington Kentucky? Lexington’s urban center is on the rise. Explore, eat, and shop at Grayline Station, catch live music at the Burl, or take a stroll through Lexington’s many parks and green spaces.
Dining and accommodations
We mostly ate at our AirBnB, group cooking with our crew of friends, but we had incredible meals at Malone’s, a local favorite, and Honeywood, which is helmed by James Beard award nominee Ouita Michel.
There are tons of neat places to stay. The Campbell House, a converted horse farm right next to Keeneland, practically begs for a seersucker suit. A new boutique hotel, The Elmwood, puts you closer to the city center. You can even glamp or stay in a tiny house at the Kentucky castle (if you do this, please reach out and tell us about it!). Plenty of AirBnBs, too, but these fees, my LORD.
Who is this trip for?
Anyone open to being immersed in something entirely unique and new.
Anyone who likes tailgating. Seriously, anyone who likes grazing, sipping, meandering, meeting new people, and generally chilling would love a day at Keeneland. Who knows, you might end up at a post-race barn party with some of the locals, like we did.
If you’re not into camping, hiking, or other forms of roughing it, but you want more than the usual eat, sit, and shop, Lexington is where it’s at.
Multi-gen trips, friend group trips, couples getaways. Honestly, this trip was so versatile. It’s neither boring, nor exhausting. There’s something to do for everyone. Everything is close enough that everyone can vacation at their own speed while still being part of the group.
Is this a kids-friendly trip? It’s hard to say. It’s not not kid-friendly, especially if kids are old enough that you don’t have to “babysit” them. We’d guess 10 and up would be your best shot.
Budget-conscious. Again, the variability is a huge plus here. You can do Lexington as lux or as lax as you want.
Let Alyssa plan your trip.
If you barely have time to take a vacation, much less plan one, Alyssa has you covered. As a certified FORA Travel Advisor, Alyssa can hook you up with perks, upgrades, and exclusive deals if you let her book your accommodations. For a little more, she’ll get to know you and your vacation style to build a perfect itinerary for your visit to Lexington.