Since 1936, Keeneland Racecourse —which sits in the heart of Lexington , Ky., or the “horse capital of the world”—has established itself as the single largest thoroughbred auction house in the world as well as a racecourse that hosts racing seasons in the spring and fall.
An iconic site, Keeneland was started on 147 acres of farmland and now encompasses 1,038 acres, serving as not just a thoroughbred auction and racing hub, but also a setting for weddings and events.
Bill Thomason, Keeneland’s president and CEO, has been the steward of the space for the past eight years. He says that what makes it special is its commitment to its surrounding community. While it has become an international destination for the sport of horse racing, he says it is more than a site for auctions and sporting events, it’s “a point of pride for the greater Lexington community.”
It also serves as a stop along the way to horse racing’s fabled Triple Crown. Its Kentucky Derby-qualifying races during the annual Spring Race Meet usually draw about 250,000 people each year.
Of course, this year was very different. Once the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the nation, Keeneland had to adapt. The spring events were canceled and Keeneland shifted its priorities to provide resources for a mass community food bank in the region.
Beyond this philanthropic work, the Keeneland experience has now gone digital. It held a Summer Meet in July, with social media video broadcasts on Facebook Live, Periscope, and YouTube showing at-home pre-shows leading up to livestreams of the races.
While it was a new way to experience the racecourse’s traditions, Thomason adds these uncertain times have forced Keeneland, like many other institutions steeped in ritual and tradition, to improvise.
“Every single day that I wake up, all I gotta think about is, ‘What is best for racing, what is best for our industry, what’s best for our community?’” Thomason says. “We are counted on to be great for this great sport, but beyond that, every single day, I gotta worry about doing the right thing and doing it for the right reasons.”
Keeneland hosts thoroughbred auctions four times each year—January, April, September, and November. More than 50 countries are represented among the buyers and sellers who flock to the site. They are holding a digital auction this summer due to the current health crisis.
On the racing end, people from all over the world head to Keeneland for the two annual meets. The Fall Meet is scheduled to run from Oct. 2-24.
Horse auction figures can vary. Figures from Keeneland’s January 2020 auction show that some horses can go for about US$2,000 up to the US$500,000, to US$650,000 range.
Sales from their four auctions generate more than US$500 million each year. Their two race meets total up to 32 graded stakes, or thoroughbred races, worth US$9.675 million each year.
Thomason says Keeneland was originally founded as a nonprofit institution with the mission to grow and support the sport of thoroughbred horse racing. Today, its mission now also involves engaging directly with the community while also providing a “modern entertainment facility that is enjoyable for all of our fans.”