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Horse Sense

And they're off... The summer racing season has only just begun, but the smart money is already looking forward to fall when this year's prestigious, high stakes Breeders' Cup World Championships will bring the Sport of Kings back to its old Kentucky home.

Rounding the clubhouse turn at Keeneland, this year’s site of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships

The Triple Crown’s prestigious thoroughbred races—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes—always promise a thrilling competition, a rarefied vibe and a colorful social scene. But for the most serious racing fans, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships (Oct. 30 and 31), the culmination of the season, is without peer simply because the event features an international lineup of shining stars—horses, jockeys, breeders, trainers and owners—determined to gallop to victory during the richest two days in sports. Plus, the highest purses in North America (from $1 million to $5 million per race, totaling $26 million) are paid out over the weekend. And, of course, the party scene is nothing to sneeze at either.

Since its inception in 1984, the Breeders’ Cup has striven to be the purest expression of horse-racing competition. The Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” gives the winners of the year’s major races automatic entry; top ponies from 15 countries, including the U.S., England, Ireland, France, Hong Kong, Japan, South Africa and Australia, vie to cross the finish line first. Additional entrants qualify by accumulating points based on their performance in major stakes races throughout the year, or by being selected by a panel of experts.

After a three-year run at the Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., this year’s event returns to Kentucky for the ninth time, taking place at the storied Keeneland Racecourse (also home to the world’s largest thoroughbred auction house) in Lexington for the very first time, making the 2015 Cup even more special. “Last year we announced a new marketing strategy that promised to bring the Breeders’ Cup World Championships to some of the most prestigious tracks in the country. In 2015, we’ll be at Keeneland in the heart of Kentucky’s Bluegrass region,” said Craig Fravel, Breeders’ Cup president and CEO. “It’s a classically elegant track with a rich history, and it gives us an incredible opportunity to showcase the best our sport has to offer. This is the first time that Keeneland will host the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, but many of our thoroughbred champions have raced at Keeneland or passed through its renowned sales pavilion, so it feels like a homecoming for us.”

Ranked as the country’s top track by the Horseplayers Association of North America, Keeneland, founded in 1936, is a National Historic Landmark that just oozes gentlemanly Southern style. Held on Keeneland’s 1 1/16-mile dirt oval and half-furlong turf oval, the four races on Friday and nine races on Saturday (ending with the $5 million-purse Breeders’ Cup Classic) promise to be more dramatically and fiercely competitive than ever.

Expect a bourbon-infused old-school Southern social scene to complement the races. Keeneland’s updated but classic stands and paddocks evoke a bygone era, which explains why many scenes from the 2003 film Seabiscuit were shot here. Folks will be dressed to the nines, with fascinators and fedoras galore (star milliner Christine A. Moore will be on hand with a pop-up shop if you want to sport a new chapeau). You could even win in a fashion contest: Cup sponsor Longines holds a Prize for Elegance event that awards luxury timepieces to the most stylish male and female race attendees.

Thursday night, Breeders’ Cup ambassador chef Bobby Flay (himself an avid race fan and horse owner) throws what is considered to be the hottest party of the weekend, A Taste of the World, a tented, culinary walk-and-taste event for which top chefs are flown in. Will the new location inject a bit of Kentucky-fried flavor to the proceedings? “While I’m sure the charm of Kentucky will permeate the Cup this year, we really want to emphasize the international nature of the event,” the chef said. “We have race fans and owners from all over the globe coming, and we want to give them an unforgettable cuisine experience.” Invited chefs this year include luminaries such as Marcus Samuelsson, Janine Booth from Root & Bone in NYC, German-born Wolfgang Ban and Irish-born Matt Lambert. Officially, the event is exclusive to owners, breeders, trainers and invited guests, but a little networking might help you score admission.

Lexington is a small city in the heart of Bluegrass Country, and your best hotel options in town include the Hilton Lexington/Downtown (room rates from $269 per night, suites from $1,000 per night), which offers a onebedroom Presidential suite with a private kitchen and city views overlooking Lexington Center and Triangle Park, and the Hyatt Regency Lexington (suites from $825 per night), which features the hopping BlueFire Bar & Grill for dining and socializing. Closer to the track, the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa (room rates from $279 per night) offers additional amenities like a full-service spa, an 18-hole Rees Jones-designed golf course and club, and a historic antebellum mansion facility for private events. 

For the ultimate in trackside hospitality, Cup partner QuintEvents is offering its Trackside Luxury Chalet package (from $2,299 without hotel accommodations, from $4,479 with hotel accommodations). Located on the clubhouse turn, this chalet is glassed-in and climate-controlled. On the first floor, witness the thunder of the world’s best horses going by the rail. The chalet includes an exclusive open bar, private buffet and mutual tellers as well. The package also includes fast-access passes, a complimentary gift bag and other perks. General admission tickets $40-$375 Friday, Oct. 30; $50-$475 Saturday, Oct. 31; premium seating at Keeneland’s ’84 Club Bourbon Lounge, $200 per day

In addition to prime thoroughbred horseflesh, fine bourbon is Kentucky’s other notable export. Only American-style whiskey made in Kentucky can properly be called bourbon, and the Lexington area is home to some of the very best. 

Woodford Reserve Crafted in small batches, Woodford Reserve stands out as one of the most elegant bourbons produced. Experience a guided education through the distillery that explains the history of bourbon, Woodford’s unique flavor secrets, the bottling process and much more. At the end of the tour, guests 21 and over can taste award-winning craft bourbon for themselves in the visitors’ center. Tours daily, $10, Corn to Cork tours by reservation, $30, 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, 859.879.1812

Buffalo Trace Walk amid the paths of rolling bourbon barrels at the home of this award-winning bourbon (also home to Blanton’s and Van Winkle bourbons and Sazerac rye, to boot). You will be captivated by the alluring smell of bourbon resting inside the aging warehouses. Inside the renowned Blanton’s Bottling Hall, reportedly haunted by the ghost of Col. Blanton himself, see signature bourbons being filled, sealed, labeled and packaged—all by hand. Tours daily, special Ghost Tour by reservation only, 113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, 502.696.5926

Wild Turkey Considered by many to be the benchmark of uncompromising traditional bourbons, the fruits of master distiller Jimmy Russell’s labor (especially the special editions of the distillery’s Russell’s Reserve bourbons) speak for themselves. Tours daily, prices vary, 1417 Versailles Road, Lawrenceburg, 502.839.2182

Town Branch Launched in 2012 and located in downtown Lexington, the refined woody/sweet notes of Town Branch bourbon are already a hometown favorite. The tour here is unique, as parent company Alltech Lexington also produces Kentucky Ale beer; they call themselves a “brewstillery.” Call for tour details, 401 Cross St., 859.255.2337