The Keeneland Shop is a slice of retail heaven for horse lovers.
First-time shoppers are sometimes unprepared for the array of beautiful clothes and high-end home accessories when they walk into the oak-paneled store near the paddock at Keeneland Race Course, which opens Friday for its Spring Meet.
This is not a tourist shop stocked with pencils and refrigerator magnets — although plenty of tourists visit, store manager Amber Arnold said.
No, this shop has that touch of class that permeates Keeneland.
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"We are a full operating retail establishment," said director of retail Jolene Dawkins, whose job includes buying merchandise, and overseeing the online site, five kiosks on the Keeneland grounds during race meets and The Keene land Shop at the Lexus Store of Lexington. "Everything in this store is representative of the Keeneland brand — the best quality, the finest service."
The merchandise focus is equestrian-themed.
"We co-brand with a lot of high-visibility brands like Vineyard Vines and Ralph Lauren Polo, Waterford and Tiffany," Dawkins said. "They do special items for us with the Keeneland logo."
The shop also carries such items as Longchamp handbags and the French apparel line Saint James (not Saint John — that's another company) for women. Other clothing brands, for men and women, include Johnnie-O, Barbour and Peter Millar. There is a selection of jewelry, lamps, dinnerware, baby gifts, crystal, porcelain dinnerware by Julie Wear of Midway, and original art by Peter Williams and Teresa Duke.
"We have something for every pocketbook, from a 15-cent postcard to a $15,000 gold necklace by Carrera y Carrera," said Arnold, store manager.
The shop has become a popular destination for women looking for Derby hats. It has been voted the "best place to buy a Derby hat" by Best of Lexington for the past two years.
Last year the shop sold 600 Derby hats and fascinators from all vendors, ranging in price from $50 to $700.
"That includes about 25 custom orders Christine took while she was here," Dawkins said, referring to Manhattan milliner Christine A. Moore, whose hats have exquisite satin bows and handmade roses. "Women came in and showed her their dress, and she would make a hat specifically to match their outfit."
Apparel in the store changes with the season. "In the spring and summer we have festive event attire, bright colored dresses for festive events and the Derby," Dawkins said. As the weather gets cooler in the fall, the shop shifts to an English country look with waxed coats, apparel with suede patches on the elbows and leather-trimmed items.
The shop occupies space in the original stone clubhouse, not a high visibility location for a retail establishment. But tourists find it, as do race fans, people from around the globe who come to Keeneland horse sales and locals.
"Local customers are mostly from the horse farms and horse industry. We're fortunate that we've established our business with the equestrian industry," Dawkins said.
Last week, Hope Lallace of Lexington stopped at the store to buy a pair of sterling silver pierced earrings shaped as horseshoes. "Everything in my house is equine — everything," said Lallace, a former exercise rider and now an event competitor.
The shop gets tourists who have been to the Kentucky Horse Park or visited Old Friends or some of the horse farms. "They refer visitors to us. The Convention and Visitors Bureau tells people about us," Arnold said.
Keeneland is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "Any tour bus through Lexington will probably stop. On Wednesday, I bet we had six tour buses out here," Dawkins said.
For many race fans, visiting the shop is as much a part of the Keeneland experience as betting on the horses. "During the races, it's wall-to-wall people in here sometimes," Dawkins said. "We do about 65 percent of our sales in April and October," the two months when Keeneland holds races.
Other busy times are during Keeneland's horse sales in September, January and April, events that draw an international clientele. "Probably 75 percent of the people who attend horse sales shop this store," Dawkins said.
"Especially if they come from California or someplace warm, and they get here and it's cold. They come in for a jacket or a vest," she said.
"A lot of special events held at Keeneland ask us to stay open longer, and we do," Dawkins said. On April 27, the last day of this year's spring meet, the Markey Cancer Center is having a charity event at Keeneland. The store will have extended hours for those guests.
The Keeneland shop was started in 1992 by Norma Greely, wife of Bill Greely, Keeneland president at the time. The thought behind the shop was that it would give race-goers a place to buy something that commemorated their Keeneland experience.
Dawkins declined to give sales figures for the Keeneland shop, except to say, "It's a profitable organization." Online sales, at Keenelandshop.com, have grown tremendously. .
In 2010, the shop opened a satellite location in the Lexus Store of Lexington at New Circle and Liberty roads. "The thought was to have a venue for people who are waiting for their car to be worked on," Dawkins said. "And it's convenient for people who don't want to come clear across town to Keeneland to shop.
"It's very small, only about 300 square feet. It's worked out well. It's a capsule of the main shop."
Dawkins and Arnold travel extensively to buy for the shop, always attentive to "buying the correct product mix to get the Keeneland look," Dawkins said. That look is quality, often with an equestrian theme or merchandise that relates to the outdoors, has a festive Derby feel or is for a dressy occasion.
The women go to the Atlanta gift market twice a year. Dawkins spends 45 days each year in New York at gift and trade shows, plus she attends shows in Las Vegas and Chicago. Arnold goes to the equestrian gift show in Philadelphia.
Shawna and Brad Geiger of Colorado stopped at the store Tuesday with sons Griffin and Ethan while visiting local equestrian sites during a spring break vacation. "I love the hats," Brad Geiger said. "It's fascinating that you still have the tradition of wearing big hats here."
His wife added, "If I lived in Lexington, I would come here for apparel and hats. The hats are beautiful."