With images of white fences and grazing foals gracing the Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport walls, it’s clear that Kentucky knows what it is best known for. Its horses are fast, its caves are deep, and its bourbon is strong. Thanks to the rich limestone in its soil, the same agricultural underpinnings which created Mammoth Cave are also responsible for developing strong Thoroughbred foals.
On the first Saturday in May, the eyes of the world, not just those interested in horse racing, turn to Churchill Downs in Louisville to watch a major American sporting event, the Kentucky Derby, a cultural touchstone transcends racing itself. For the rest of the year, its bluegrass and proximity to the Midwest and East make for a horseman’s paradise in the state. With its rich breeding history, equine study centers, and role as host of the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup, Kentucky is the face of Thoroughbred racing and training in the United States.
Kentucky Horse Racing
As the line of jockey statues greeting passengers outside Lexington’s major airport will attest, the state of Kentucky is synonymous with Thoroughbreds in America. When tourists visit Kentucky from other areas of the nation or the world, they usually stop in at least one or two of the state’s spectacular horse breeding farms. Others flock to the tracks or Kentucky Horse Park, where past champions rest in retirement, the general public is educated in all things equine, and significant equestrian events occur.
Kentucky’s equine-related tourism is as important as its on-the-ground sales, races, and breeding operations. Stud fees and horse sales represent Kentucky’s second most profitable agriproduct. When Queen Elizabeth II wanted to learn more about Thoroughbred racing, this is where she came. Gentle hills, large expanses of grass, and stunning fall colors make for postcard-perfect moments in the state.
In addition to famous Churchill Downs, home of the nations’ most renowned horse race, and bucolic Breeders’ Cup host Keeneland Race Track, Kentucky is home to three other facilities– Ellis Park in Henderson, Turfway Park in Florence (just south of Cincinnati), and Kentucky Downs in Franklin.
Recently, Keeneland Association and Churchill Downs Incorporated joined forces to break ground on a new venue in Oak Grove, KY, about an hour from Nashville. The facility will include a luxury hotel, restaurants, Las Vegas-style gambling, an equestrian center, and live harness racing when completed. Its inaugural meet took place in 2019. Since Louisville and Lexington are not far from one another in the northern-central part of the state, this exciting development will bring the excitement of live racing to another region of the United States’ ambassador of Thoroughbreds. Harness tracks are also located in Lexington, Paducah, and Prestonburg. The annual National Horse Show takes place at Kentucky Horse Park.
Another significant aspect of the equine industry in Kentucky is its horse sales. Horsemen from around the world attend those run by Fasig-Tipton, which is based in Lexington, and alums from the Keeneland Sales are among the finest in the nation. Weanlings, mares, and retired racers are all sold through these auction houses.
Kentucky Gambling Laws
Many are surprised to learn that for all its fame as the leading light of Thoroughbred racing, Kentucky’s gaming laws are relatively strict. Casino-only establishments are not permitted in the state. “Charitable gambling” such as split the pot raffles, is allowed. Pari-mutual wagering is permitted, of course, but games of chance are not. Kentucky hosts no tribal casinos.
History of Kentucky Horse Racing
Long before there was NASCAR in Kentucky, there were neighs. Many private farms and small tracks dotted the landscape beginning in the 18th century, with racing in Lexington taking place as far back as 1787. Horses are so embedded in the state’s culture that one is pictured on the state’s quarter and license plate. Although many different racing types took place in Kentucky’s early days, by 1828, when the Lexington Association Track was formed, Thoroughbred racing began to edge out the other forms. The trajectory of Kentucky’s industry history then began to unfold on its tracks and in its breeding sheds.
Today, Kentucky is home to approximately 450 farms, many of which turn to tourism as an income stream. The top sires in the nation stand here, and foal after foal becomes the victor in the Triple Crown races, international Grade I events, and the Breeders’ Cup World Championship. Standardbreds, Saddlebreds, and Tennessee Walkers are born, bred, and trained in Kentucky as well. Calumet Farm, Clairborne, and Ashford Stud have all produced multiple Triple Crown winners. The list of champions issuing from these facilities is staggering, and Kentucky’s equine industry supports at least 100,000 jobs in the state.
Best Kentucky Horse Racing Tracks
Churchill Downs Race Track
Recognizable worldwide with its twin spires, whitewashed cupola, and grandstands teeming with outrageous hats and frosted mint juleps, Churchill Downs is the icon of Thoroughbred racing icons. Opened in 1875 and named for a locally famous equine family, the Churchills, the facility can host about 170,000 fans when its infield is open on Derby Day. While other race tracks have also stood in the Louisville area, only Churchill Downs survived the industry’s general decline. Home of the cherished first jewel of the Triple Crown, the track was named a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Churchill Downs covers 147 acres, and its dirt track is a mile in circumference. As in the case at many American tracks, its turf course lies inside the dirt one and runs for 7/8 of a mile. A major renovation took place between 2001 and 2005 to preserve the grandstand and add luxury suites. The facility is also home to the Kentucky Derby Museum and welcomes visitors for tours throughout the year.
In addition to the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Down also hosts the “Kentucky Derby for fillies,” the annual Grade I Kentucky Oaks, which usually takes place the day before the Derby. Other graded events include the Grade I Turf Classic Stakes, the Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap, and the Grade III Cardinal Handicap.
Keeneland Race Track
In Churchill’s shadow, Keeneland is somewhat less well known by the general public but is no less impressive. Keeneland opened in 1936 and very much looks it. Although famously resistant to change, Keeneland is nonetheless beautifully maintained. Its Keeneland Sales division and a world-class equine reference library are also headquartered here.
Stately and historic, Keeneland represents the best of country living tucked into the carefully managed city of Lexington. Seeing urban decay eat into Louisville’s charm, Lexington declared an urban grown boundary, which keeps its density contained and its rural charm not far from its handful of skyscrapers. The decision has allowed Keeneland to retain its historical bona fides, and several movies, including Seabiscuit and Secretariat, have been filmed here. Like Churchill Downs, Keeneland was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Keeneland is also host to the Grade I Turf Mile Stakes and the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes. Its flat turf track is .875 mile, and the dirt track runs for 1 1/16 miles.
Kentucky Downs Race Track
Formerly a dueling grounds, Kentucky Downs, near the Tennessee border, opened in 1990 with a 1 5/16 mile turf track. It is the only course of its type in the United States and hosts the Grade III Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup. Year-round simulcast betting, charity bingo games, and concerts have also taken place at Kentucky Downs.
Although not generally known to those outside the equine world, Kentucky Downs is highly regarded by those within the industry. Steeplechase racing comes and goes, but flat racing is always in style here.
Kentucky Horse Racing Season
Although far north of the tropical weather enjoyed winter racing in Florida and California, Kentucky enjoys near-year round racing. When live racing is not taking place, its tracks are often still busy with trainers and exercise jockeys working with their horses. Of course, the peak of the racing season is Triple Crown racing in the early to mid-spring, which culminates with the Kentucky Derby in early May.
Keeneland hosts a spring meeting in April and a fall meeting in October. Twice so far, and again in 2022, Keeneland’s fall season will end with the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in November.
Although its action can overlap with Keeneland’s, Churchill Downs also hosts spring, summer, and September meet. It has hosted the Breeders’ Cup World Championships nine times.
Live racing happens at Kentucky Downs for just six days in the late summer to early fall, but it does so with $2 million in purses a day. As at other facilities, 2020 racing is closed to the general public at Kentucky Downs due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Final Thoughts on Kentucky Horse Racing
Although California has more glitz and Florida better weather, Kentucky has leaned into its reputation as the world’s leader in Thoroughbred racing. Even though its largest city, Louisville, suffers from every urban problem that other cities do, Kentucky’s public image of green hills and sleek horses is well-earned.