Keeneland is not the oldest racetrack in America, nor does it boast the most famous races or historic moments in horse racing history.
However, it holds a special place in the hearts of many racing fans and those in the business. It is a beautiful track that hosts the most prestigious horse auctions and houses a unique and substantial library of industry tomes.
Furthermore, Keeneland does host renowned races, like the Blue Grass Stakes, and has a vibrant racing season each year.
Thoroughbred horse auctions were at the roots of Keeneland’s opening, and acres of lush bluegrass have lured horse fans throughout its history.
Races remain to be a draw to this day; however, the overall celebration of horses and ode to horse racing comprise the core of the property’s value.
Now designated as a National Historic Landmark, the landscaped grounds welcome the public to celebrate the industry and the horses. There are free self-guided walking tours, auction facilities, stables and even behind-the-scenes tours that go beyond the track.
In addition to nearly 150 acres of ground and horse farms, the primary attraction is the racetrack, along with the five-level grandstand and clubhouse. The paddock area is a sight to see in itself, complete with a show ring and pedigree research area.
There are numerous restaurants and bars, shops and the standalone Keeneland Library.
The latter is a public research and reference library containing nearly 30,000 books, approximately 1 million photographs and negatives, and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles.
Race and horse enthusiasts will find race charts dating back to the mid-1800s and books about everything from the history of racing and horse culture to related fiction and poetry.
Betting at Keeneland is also encouraged, complete with website and in-person tools to educate bettors about handicapping. There are betting windows and machines around the track facility, but betting is also allowed via mobile devices and online.
There are even weekly handicapping contests.
The main oval track at Keeneland is 1 1/16 miles in length and 75-80 feet wide. The stretch length of the oval dirt track is 1,236 feet.
There are 4 1/2-furlong and seven-furlong chutes, and it has a temporary rail set 15 feet out.
The Beard Course, named for founding member Major Louis Beard, begins in a chute on the backstretch and continues for seven furlongs and 184 feet.
The Headley Course, named after first Keeneland President Hal Price Headley, begins in a chute on the final turn and is primarily used for 4 1/2-furlong races for 2-year-old horses.
The oval turf course is 7 1/2 furlongs and 1,190 feet down the stretch. The width is 58 feet at the mile pole and 70 feet at the finish line. This course is named the Haggin Course after Keeneland President Louis Lee Haggin, who served from 1940-56.
There is also an all-weather training track that is five furlongs in length.
The most famous race held each year at Keeneland is the Blue Grass Stakes.
The thoroughbred race for 3-year-olds is held each April, currently as a Grade 2 event and a Grade 1 in past years. Introduced in 1974, the Blue Grass Stakes runs at 1 1/8 mile on the dirt track and boasts a $1 million purse. It is also a well-known preparatory race for the Kentucky Derby.
Originally, the race was run at the Kentucky Association track in Lexington beginning in 1911 but didn’t run each year.
Keeneland reintroduced it in 1974, and it has become a staple of the spring meet. It was also traditionally run on a dirt surface. It was tried on a synthetic surface from 2007 to 2014 to avoid weather issues, but it returned to the dirt track in recent years.
The Ashland Stakes is also an important part of the spring meet at Keeneland each year. Once called the Ashland Oaks after Henry Clay’s homestead and breeding farm called Ashland, the Ashland Stakes was a part of the inaugural events at Keeneland in 1936. Some years, its popularity required two heats, but it has been steady since 1980.
The Grade 1 race is reserved for 3-year-old fillies only, and it runs 1 1/16 miles on the dirt track. It offers a purse of $500,000.
It is widely regarded as a preparatory race for the three races of the Triple Tiara of Thoroughbred Racing — the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and Mother Goose Stakes.
The Turf Mile Stakes, also known as the Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes, began in 1986 and has run each year since. The mile-long turf race is for 3 years-and-older thoroughbreds and offers a $1 million purse.
The October Grade 1 race is a part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge series.
Grade I Grade II Grade III
Alcibiades Stakes Blue Grass Stakes Appalachian Stakes
Ashland Stakes Elkhorn Stakes Adena Springs Beaumont Stakes
Breeders’ Futurity Stakes Fayette Stakes Ben Ali Stakes
First Lady Stakes Marathon Stakes Bewitch Stakes
Jenny Wiley Stakes Phoenix Stakes Bourbon Stakes
Madison Stakes Raven Run Stakes Commonwealth Stakes
Maker’s 46 Mile Stakes Shakertown Stakes Doubledogdare Stakes
Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes Lexington Stakes
Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes Woodford Stakes Sycamore Stakes
Spinster Stakes Transylvania Stakes
Valley View Stakes
The founders of Keeneland banded together to build a racetrack in the central part of Kentucky, to
“create a model race track to perpetuate and improve the sport and to provide a course that is intended to serve as a symbol of the fine traditions of thoroughbred racing.”
They took Keeneland, which was originally a nonprofit racing/auction facility, and its 147 acres and transformed it into a racetrack. Much of the land was owned by Jack Keene, who fully supported the intent of the founders.
It hosted its first meeting in October 1936.
A few days before the meet, Keeneland opened its doors to the public to introduce the property and the first new totalizator to be installed in Kentucky. More than 15,000 people attended the open house.
The first meet then began on Oct. 15, 1936, with seven races on the first day and a total of nine days of racing.
The total attendance for the meet was 25,337, and the cumulative handle was $534,497.
The first major thoroughbred auction was held in the spring of 1938, complete with 31 lots for $24,885. The property began to expand in 1939 with a new 32-stall barn to give it a total of 530.
The Keeneland Library began later that year when Keeneland Association Director W. Arnold Hanger donated 2,300 rare books about thoroughbreds.
Key dates in the next few decades include:
As the 1970s came to a close and the 1980s began, a $1.5 million renovation took place. The track also expanded to build the Keeneland Training Center, a new sales pavilion, new restaurant options, new ticket booths and additional parking.
By 1997, total wagering for the Spring Meet topped $100 million, and a $5.8 million renovation of the grandstand kicked off the following year.
Keeneland has not always been at the forefront of technology, as it was the last to use a public-address system to broadcast race calls.
But the track has taken pride in its adherence to traditions. It made it ideal for several film location shoots for movies like Seabiscuit, Dreamer and Secretariat.
The facility is now a National Historic Landmark, embracing that designation in 1986.