When it comes to bourbon and horse racing, most people don’t look past The Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, and the mint julep. This combination seems to be inexorably intwined. However, the story of bourbon and horse racing goes much deeper, and is much more vast than this one drink on this one day.
While a lot of focus is given to Louisville, where Churchill Downs is located, the real headquarters for racing in Kentucky lies in the area surrounding Lexington, where many of the world’s top race horses are bred. Ironically, it’s the Kentucky Bourbon Trail that connects these two cities, a nearly 80 mile stretch bookended on one side by Jim Beam, not too far from Louisville, and on the other by Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace, which are closer to Lexington.
It’s in Lexington, not Louisville, where one of the crown jewels of the racing world lives: Keeneland Racetrack. The Keeneland Racetrack was built all wrong. It’s way too small for any major racing event, as it was designed more as a marketplace for horse buyers.
The horses’ paddock is the main courtyard of the track, and if you arrive just before a race you’ll be greeted by a parade of horses that must pass before you can get to your seat. The upside is that you can get an extremely close look at the horses, and at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, this meant an unrivaled view of the legendary American Pharaoh.
Keeneland’s grandstand was built facing the wrong direction, so as the day goes on, the sun is right in your eyes as you watch the late afternoon races. This is why you’ll often see pictures form Keeneland with lots of little white parasols shielding race fans from the sun.
Yet, Keeneland manages to be something magical, a track where there’s so little separation between you and the horses that you can’t help but get caught up in the action. When the horses race, you can stand right at the rail mere feet away from the horses, and you can feel the pounding of their hooves as they race by.
It’s amazing that most people who are familiar with Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby have never heard of Keeneland, but it’s importance and connection to Kentucky Bourbon is significant. Many of the distilleries near Lexington feature commemorative bottlings featuring horses and horse racing, most notably the running horses atop Buffalo Trace’s Blanton’s Bourbon. Keeneland is the home to the Bourbon Stakes race held every October, as well as the Maker’s Mile (which is now the Maker’s 46 Mile).
Perhaps Keeneland’s most significant connection and contribution to Kentucky Bourbon is that the track was the first customer of a little emerging whiskey brand in the late 1950’s called Maker’s Mark.
Were it not for Keeneland taking a chance on a new and very different style of bourbon, Maker’s Mark may not have become the brand it is today. Because of this, Maker’s Mark has had a very close relationship with Keeneland, sponsoring the Maker’s Mark Mile (now called the Maker’s 46 Mile).
This year the relationship took another step forward as Keeneland hosted The Breeders’ Cup for the very first time with Maker’s Mark as one of the first landmark whiskey sponsors of the race.
There were no mint juleps at Keeneland for The Breeders’ Cup, and the frosty cold drink would seem out of place on the crisp, overcast Halloween day. Instead of a single drink, the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland featured a rainbow of drinks with bourbon (Maker’s Mark) at the center.
While you might not think to put Maker’s Mark in your Bloody Mary, the Maker’s Bloody was one of the standout drinks of the race. The spice and structure from the bourbon meshed well with the other traditional Bloody Mary flavor notes.
Another notable drink at the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland is one of the signature drinks of the track, the Keeneland Breeze. For the Breeders’ Cup the drink was re-named The Breeders’ Cup Breeze, an affable mix of Maker’s Mark Bourbon, ginger ale, Cointreau, orange juice, and an orange slice.
Perhaps the most outstanding use of bourbon at the Breeders’ Cup wasn’t a cocktail, nor was it served in a glass. The Keeneland Maker’s Mark Bread pudding is one of the best hidden gems at Keeneland, and perhaps one of the best bourbon products connected with horse racing. Served out of one of the small concession stands at the far end of the clubhouse, this signature dish is the stuff you’ll dream about long after you’ve traveled back home.
There’s no denying the importance of the Kentucky Derby and the mint julep, but the world of racing and bourbon extends far beyond that classic pairing. Those in the know, skip the insane crowds of Churchill Downs and make their way down to a little magical race track, right out side of Lexington, where champions run, and a little wheated bourbon got its start.