When Keeneland announced in January that it was taking the reins of the track's food service, the one thing everyone wanted to know was: What about the bourbon bread pudding?
It's still there — unchanged — along with the burgoo and the corned beef.
"They're sacred cows. You cannot touch them," said Ed Boutilier, chef and operations director. "People come in year in, year out ... and want exactly the same thing."
In fact, very little will have changed for most race fans this spring.
"They are going to see a lot of the same faces," said Kate McLean, who is in charge of special events. Most of the hospitality staff, including every maître d, stayed on.
But a few things will be better: Concession stands will open as soon as the track opens, and those stands on the second floor will now take credit and debit cards.
You might see a special champagne cart: Moët & Chandon is a new sponsor, so they have added a special cart beside the paddock so you can celebrate your big wins with a glass of champagne. Moët & Chandon also is launching a new product — Ice Imperial, designed to be served over ice — at Keeneland on Friday.
The craft beer tent, added a few years ago, keeps expanding.
And in the dining room you might spot some new dishes like the hummus sampler or bourbon pecan chicken salad, and even gourmet ice cream from Crank & Boom, making three ice creams including new raspberry sorbet for the menu.
There also will be lots of little surprises, like pop-up sundae stations, Boutilier said. And favorites like the kobe beef sliders on pretzel buns and shrimp cocktail are still there.
"We're not changing anything. We're really going to enhance things, and make things as good as we've ever been and better than your last experience," said Bryan O'Shields, new managing director of hospitality. "The food is an amenity, and we want it to be as exciting as the horses."
One thing they are particularly proud of: a new Angus beef hot dog that's rolling out for the meet. The winner beat out about 10 competitors.
"It went through an intense tasting process," Boutilier said.
"I'm not even a hot dog fan, and I fell in love with one," McLean said.
The staff plans to evaluate everything this spring, and then tweak things over the summer before the fall sales season and race meet and then Keeneland's debut Breeders' Cup world Thoroughbred championships.
While food and beverages for the outside tents and special ticketed areas will be handled by Prom Catering, in the grandstand the Keeneland staff still will handle everything. And they want all the track patrons to have an unforgettable experience.
"We have a reputation to live up to. Anything that we do new will be because it's better, not just because it's different," O'Shields said. Coming to Keeneland is "an iconic experience and we want the food to be like that, too. ... We want it to be memorable."
And they hope to draw in more of the local food culture, O'Shields said.
As a veteran of Las Vegas' Bellagio and the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach, O'Shields knows food and service. Since he arrived in Lexington, he has been scouting local eateries and likes what he sees.
"I was in National Provisions, and having had some great French pastry chefs work for me in the past, I look at the quality of the finish on their product and it's quite good," he said.
"Lexington is a vibrant food town. ... The expectation level of patrons is high. Our goal is to keep up with that and exceed it."
Keeneland also caters events year-round, everything from weddings to meetings, as well as holding huge horse sales in the pavilion in September, November and January.
Already, Keeneland is planning to bring back one of the big sellers from last fall: Keeneland Sale Ale, produced by Country Boy Brewing. This time they hope to have enough to last for the entire meet.