By Mark Boxley
Terri Darr McLean
Tucked away near the stable area on the backside of the 921-acre Keeneland complex, the Track Kitchen (yes, that’s its official name) has the accessible look and feel of a mom-and-pop restaurant. If you didn’t know you were at the famous Thoroughbred race track in Lexington – surrounded by manicured lawns, plank fences and champion racehorses – you would think you had happened upon little gem found on the side of a dusty country road.
Once inside the nondescript concrete block building, the sounds of dishes heard clinking in the background and steam rising from the trays of bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs and, of course, biscuits and gravy on the morning buffet, further convince you that you’ve discovered something special.
More than a place to eat, however, the Track Kitchen is part of the quintessential Keeneland experience; the epicenter of the backside – a place where anyone and everyone come to take it all in.
Veteran turf writer Ron Mitchell of Lexington admits that his twice weekly visits to Keeneland’s Track Kitchen for breakfast are not as much about the food as they are the atmosphere.
After all, where else can you break bread with jockeys and trainers, carry on conversations with hotwalkers and exercise riders, or exchange pleasantries with some of racing’s biggest names, including former Keeneland president and unofficial “Ambassador of Racing” James E. Ted Bassett himself, who by most accounts has had breakfast at the Track Kitchen nearly every morning for more than 30 years? And all while surrounded by the pristine Keeneland landscape, in the heart of horse country.
“I love the Track Kitchen,” said Mitchell, online managing editor for Bloodhorse.com “It’s a coming together of so many different people.”
Of course, he confesses, the two biscuits and sausage patties covered in gravy that he often orders certainly makes the trips worthwhile, too. “This is the breakfast of champions,” he said, showing off his grub one morning during the Keeneland fall race meet before heading to the track to watch the horses work out.
Mitchell is just one in a long line of “regulars” – track employees, horse industry personnel, community members, racing fans and tourists – who count themselves among the Track Kitchen family; whose visits to the aptly named eatery for a tasty meal and a heaping helping of Southern hospitality seldom disappoint.
Take Ron Ashford, a former traveling salesman who now works part-time in the Keeneland Gift Shop’s warehouse.
“I love it here,” he proclaimed, in between bites of pancakes topped with bacon and drizzled with maple syrup. “Not only the food. You’ve got friendly people here. … It’s like going home to granny.”
Or consider Bill Wakefield, one of a group of 15 or so Catholic men the Track Kitchen staff calls “The Preachers.” They meet every Wednesday to “share witness together, talk about how the faith is in our lives” and, of course, order up a hot breakfast. The group’s favorite? The breakfast burrito.
“It’s convenient, it’s open early enough, the food is good, and it provides good fellowship,” Wakefield said of the Track Kitchen, which, like Keeneland itself, has been in business for 75 years.
Plus, he added, “You’re in a real comfortable place here.”
Ted Fraebel, another member of “The Preachers,” said he also enjoys the “majesty” that surrounds the Track Kitchen.
“Right now, it’s kind of busy (during the meet),” Fraebel said. “But most of the year it’s very pastoral when you come out here … when the sun’s coming up, early in the morning, you have the mist and the horses. It’s just awesome.”
There’s another group of “regulars” at the Keeneland Track Kitchen, but they are on the other side of the serving line. People like Mary Page who’ve worked there for years and are largely responsible for creating the family atmosphere so many diners have come to love.
Page has been manager for 18 years, and although she doesn’t eat breakfast herself any more, she has a pretty good handle on how to keep the diners happy.
“The most popular is the biscuits and gravy,” Page said. As proof, the Track Kitchen staff cooks “600 biscuits or better” and prepares eight to 10 gallons of gravy a day.
And the secret behind the popular dish? Well, it’s a secret. “We can’t give it out,” Page said with a laugh. Although she did credit the crumbled sausage added to the gravy as one reason it’s so tasty.
Add to that 90 to 120 pounds of bacon and 75 to 90 dozens of eggs prepared by the Track Kitchen staff each day, and it’s easy to see what keeps diners coming back for more.
The $4.75 “special” is also popular but requires a hearty appetite, Page said.
“The special is what everybody gets … you can’t beat it. Biscuits, gravy, sausage and bacon, grits if you like grits, eggs,” said Ashford.
“I tried it once but it was just too much,” said Scott Hunt, another member of “The Preachers.” “It’s a
traditional southern breakfast.” Now, he sticks with the breakfast burrito, which he and his friends claim is equally as good, just not as filling.
While the menu stays pretty much the same – you can still get a lot of food for under five bucks – and the atmosphere is always welcoming, there’s an element of surprise awaiting in the track kitchen.
“You never know who you are going to see, you never know what you’re going to hear,” said Christa Marrillia, director of marketing at Keeneland. “And the inside scoop is all focused in the track kitchen.”
“It’s different every day. We get them from all over the world in here,” Page said. Included are movie stars and other famous people “dressed just like you are. You’d never even know they were movie stars.”
In addition to the food and atmosphere, the thing that sets Keeneland’s Track Kitchen apart from most is that it is open to everyone, all year long. It’s open at 6 a.m. every day, with the exception of a few holidays and annual maintenance.
“Keeneland’s Track Kitchen is special …,” Marillia said. “Tour groups and everyone can enjoy breakfast over here.”
The ability to get so close to famous jockeys, owners and trainers is just part of the mission of Keeneland, which also allows the public access to the barn area of the track complex.
“I think it’s great that the patrons and the tour groups can always get an up-close-and-personal look at the backside and a look at Keeneland,” Marillia added. “And, really, that philosophy of letting people close to the horse and close to the trainers is something that is not only part of the Track Kitchen but part of the racetrack.
“We want people to see us when we’re racing, and we also want them to see us during the other parts of the year,” she said. “So, the Track Kitchen certainly shares in that philosophy.”