Keeneland fans, get ready for a fall racing meet unlike anything you've ever seen. Just like the racehorses, genteel, quiet Keeneland is training up to the championships.
The track is gearing up for the Breeders' Cup, which comes to Central Kentucky for the first time on Oct. 30 and 31.
"Everything we're doing is to provide an exceptional experience, and it's not just for this one event," says Bill Thomason, Keeneland president and CEO. The track is "always trying to improve the experience for our guests."
And that's great for racing fans. Ever wanted to sit in one of the coveted boxes?
Now you can try out the grandstand "loge" boxes, special seating erected for the Breeders' Cup. These boxes are in front of the regular ones, so you will have prime places to enjoy some of the best in racing, but keep in mind they aren't under cover, so you might want to come armed with an umbrella or a parasol, depending on the weather.
These seats will be six for $100 on Wednesdays and Thursdays; six for $150 on Fridays and Sundays; and six for $200 on Saturdays. You can book regular seating and all the special venues, and make dining room reservations, at Keeneland.com.
Other special venues put up for the championships also will be available during the regular race meet, so if you've ever thought about taking a party to lunch at the races, this might be your chance.
The saddling paddock chalet, which overlooks the saddling area, is available Fridays and Saturdays for $80, including a buffet. Dress is business casual: no jeans, athletic attire or revealing clothing.
There is also a chalet on the club lawn available for Fridays and Saturdays (although opening weekend is sold out). It's also $80, with a dress code. Seating is available in tables of six.
Thomason says the traffic pattern will be a little different, too, with some of the parking lots taken up with the large temporary structures. And there are new entrances off Van Meter Road, gates 4 and 5, to new parking areas with more shuttles to the grandstand.
And there will be some new things to eat: Keeneland has added a large smoker, so smoked meats and barbecue will be on the menu, along with more Southern-inspired foods. Save room for the new Keeneland French butter cake, a pound cakelike creation from Martine's Pastries that is likely to rival the much-sought bourbon bread pudding.
"We have redesigned all over our buffets," says Bryan O'Shields, managing director of hospitality. "We rotisserie all the chicken now. ... We've just added a lot of stuff so that when people get to that buffet, it's going to be a completely different look."
Everything has been tweaked: hot dog buns; ice cream; new china, glassware and linen; and curtains and decorating in the clubhouse. Even the restrooms are spruced up.
Concessions are updated: All the hamburgers are fresh, not frozen, O'Shields says. "We're just trying to figure out what guests really want. We want them to feel like they get a piece of the place: every cup now is take-away. Whether you have a cocktail or a beer or a soft drink, you're getting a Keeneland logoed cup."
One of the biggest treats for this meet might be in the morning this weekend. The track's Fall Stars Weekend on Friday, Saturday and Sunday will feature seven "win and you're in" races, meaning the race winners can enter a Breeders' Cup race automatically. Many of the top horses are expected to stay at Keeneland to train during the month running up to the championships.
So fans who don't mind coming to the track early in the morning can get a glimpse of the sport's biggest stars — possibly including Triple Crown winner American Pharoah — during the weeks beforehand. (No word yet on when he will arrive.)
Keeneland plans to cover American Pharoah and other potential Breeders' Cup horses' workouts with commentators at the track. During those morning workouts, you can go to the track, where thousands of fans are expected to turn out for American Pharoah.
Or you can watch him on the giant screens that will be erected at Fifth Third Bank Pavilion in Cheapside Park downtown during the week leading up to Breeders' Cup weekend.
The fall race meet opens Friday and ends Oct. 24; after that, the track will turn itself over to Breeders' Cup hoopla. The Thursday before the championships, Oct. 29, will be Prelude Day, with a full card of races that will be almost a dress rehearsal for Friday and Saturday's cup races. So even if you don't have tickets to the actual championships, you can get a feel for them.