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Tailgating on Keeneland’s Hill takes open-air tradition to new heights

Last year, the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland fell on Halloween, giving tailgating fans on the Hill lots of ideas for decorating. Susan Jennings of Paris took a broken display for Admiral Nelson spiced rum and a pumpkin head to create the centerpiece for her tailgating spread.
Last year, the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland fell on Halloween, giving tailgating fans on the Hill lots of ideas for decorating. Susan Jennings of Paris took a broken display for Admiral Nelson spiced rum and a pumpkin head to create the centerpiece for her tailgating spread. rcopley@herald-leader.com

Tailgating is a staple of fall football games, but since it opened in 2013, Keeneland’s Hill also has become a big draw in Lexington for tailgating.

What started as a casual free-to-all weekend gathering has mushroomed into a major social event that runs from casual to upscale.

On any given weekend, you can find bachelorette and birthday parties, blue-blazered fraternity brothers gathered around a truck, sororities hosting University of Kentucky parents weekends, and local businesses entertaining clients in rented tents with fully catered brunches.

The idea when the venue opened, Keeneland representatives said, was to mirror the vision of Keeneland’s first president, Hal Price Headley, who said: “We want a place where those who love horses can come and picnic with us and thrill to the sport of the Bluegrass. ... We want them to come out here to enjoy God’s sunshine, fresh air and to watch horses race.”

As the track celebrates its 80th anniversary this fall, the Hill has become just that, Keeneland says. The venue is open every Friday and Saturday during the race meet. The fall race meet begins Oct. 7 and will feature a Jumbotron to view races, mutuel tellers and machines to place bets, live music on Saturdays, a merchandise tent for programs and Keeneland gear, and a shuttle bus to take you to and from the track to see the races.

Another big draw of the Hill is the food trucks: Every day, a lineup of local trucks, from perennial favorites like Gastro Gnomes to ice cream vendors, show up to help feed those who didn’t bring their own chow.

Many people find the tailgating at Keeneland to be a great opportunity to bring together a crowd and pool resources: Somebody brings the fixings for a Bloody Mary bar, while another brings a pan of jambalaya.

Here are some essentials for a great Keeneland tailgating experience:

▪  Food and drinks. It can be as simple as a family picnic or as elaborate as a catered buffet, but you have to have food to enjoy while you’re at Keeneland. If you’re planning on a small group, keep it simple with things that can be served cold or at ambient temperature; with tricky weather, trying to keep a Sterno can going outdoors can be a headache.

Lots of restaurants will do a “tailgating package” if you’re looking for, say, a Cajun feast for a dozen. Caterers (check out Critchfield Meat’s tailgate bundle) also can whip together food for many or provide a single carry-out dish to bring to the party.

▪  Chairs. There is limited seating on the Hill, so you will need to bring lots of folding chairs and tables.

▪  Generators and grills are allowed, but caution is encouraged. Small portable versions can make a tailgate easier. A little generator can keep a slow-cooker of chili (or bourbon bread pudding sauce?) warm and power a TV so you can watch the football game, too. And speaking of football, Keeneland will show the University of Kentucky football games on a split-screen giant TV on the Hill.

▪  Weather gear. Both the fall and the spring meets are known for having pop-up storms. One minute there can be blazing heat, and the next there can be snow. Keeneland allows pop-up tents, but keep in mind that the Hill isn’t paved, so it can get muddy. A couple of years ago, heavy spring storms made the ground so muddy, even a tow truck got stuck.

▪  Money. It’s free to tailgate at the Hill, but you’ll probably want a racing program and to place a bet or two. And a Keeneland souvenir or two, maybe even some ice cream from a food truck, ... and you’ll want to tip the volunteers (often high school students) who help direct traffic and push cars out of the mud.

▪  Games. Corn hole is huge at tailgates, but Frisbee games, giant Jenga, and even “bra pong” have been spotted. After all, there’s always a break between races, and you’ve got to entertain a crowd.

▪  For ultimate comfort, bring an RV, which can be parked in a bus parking lot, where tailgating also is popular. Besides the Hill, you can tailgate almost anywhere at Keeneland, and everyone has a favorite spot, including the parking lot near the track kitchen (which will be open, so you can get food there, too.)

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