By Lucas Marquardt
It’s nearing noon, just about an hour before first post at Keeneland. The crowd is already substantial, with rows of cars and trucks interrupted by the odd camper van or re-purposed school bus. Footballs are launched into the air. Games of corn hole are in full swing. Cans of beer are in full swig. A band plays nearby. It is springtime in Kentucky, and the horses and the people are happy.
Welcome to The Hill, the official tailgating lot at Keeneland. On a busy Saturday, as many as 5,000 people may gather here. The area is, yes, elevated, and sits above the track, a good mile away as the crow flies. Both are part of Keeneland’s sprawling 1,000-acre campus. The Hill celebrates its five-year anniversary in 2018, and if it’s too new to call iconic, it’s for sure become an integral part of what makes Keeneland, well, Keeneland.
“For years, the hot spot for tailgating was the gate house parking lot,” says Christa Marrillia, Keeneland’s chief marketing officer. “But we were outgrowing the space, and while a big party at our front door was great, but there was a need to provide more amenities for our customers.”
The Hill was envisioned, and if there were skeptics at first, Keeneland quelled them with its unique stamp on tailgating. A jumbotron with the live race feed was erected, as was a tent with betting windows staffed with “Betologists,” there to educate neophytes on the ins and outs of handicapping. Local food trucks were invited. A gift shop with souvenirs, attire and fashion accessories was established. Keeneland began a free shuttle service to and from the track. That, assuming that fans want to vacate the party on The Hill. Many, as it turns out, don’t.
“It’s been wildly popular, a destination for people,” says Marrillia. “When we first sat around and talked about it, we assumed the average Hill customer would be the college kids, the sorority girls in dresses and frat boys in bow ties. But it’s also become an area for corporate events and meetings, for family reunions and wedding showings. It’s a mixed bag of wonderful people up there, kicking off and spending their day at the races.”
On this particular day, all those demographics are represented. Armed with a video camera and a microphone, tools of immense magnetic attraction to many here, we set out to see what makes for a good day on The Hill. (The “we” is the author, hauling the camera, and Jim Mulvihill, the NTRA’s director of communications.)
We are not disappointed with what and who we find. Under a tent, two musicians, a drummer and guitarist, jam out to ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses.” The guitarist has a long gray beard and, who knows, maybe have BEEN in ZZ Top. The drummer, once aware of the camera, sucks in his gut.
We talk to Jessica, a young lady whose friends are throwing her a baby shower. Jessica is having a girl, and says her daughter will soon join the Keeneland fan base. “Absolutely,” she says. “My parents brought me–I’ve been coming my whole life–and I’ll bring her whenever we can take her out in the stroller.”
We talk to a group of University of Kentucky coeds who don’t seem to have slowed down from the night before.
“We’ve been coming here every weekend for the last four years,” said two female students. Presumably seniors, they nonetheless look a little a little confused when Jim says, “You mean, when you’re not studying.”
We talk to Jimmy, proprietor of the Princess Party Bus, a bright pink contraption that Jimmy gives us a personal tour of. There are tiaras embroidered on the seats and a dancer pole and, at this point in time, “Devil Went Down to Georgia” is playing through the sound system.
(In what turns out to be the most interesting interview of the day, Jimmy reveals, with very little prodding, that he’s a retired WWE wrestler formerly known as… Jimmy Wang Yang. He tussled with, among others, John Cena and Hacksaw Jim Duggan!)
It’s hard to imagine that Keeneland’s founders didn’t imagine this sort of star power when the doors first opened here in 1936.
Marrillia has her own stories to tell about The Hill, including the one time when a bank, having a function there, inflated a 20-foot dog so that invitees could find the party easily.
“I was guilty of having to deflate the dog, but they were having a great time and didn’t mind,” she says with a laugh.
If The Hill’s open spaces offer Keeneland’s fans more space to stretch out–inflatable dogs aside–it also provides opportunities for business partners. After all, the tight proximity inside the grandstand doesn’t allow for much in the way of sponsorship tents or displays.
“The real estate here allows us to work with our partners and be creative,” says Marrillia. “This spring, for example, Maker’s Mark is going to be doing this cool experiential destination on The Hill, where people can learn more about the bourbon industry. It’s something we could have never fit inside the gates.”
At 1:05 p.m., the day’s first race goes off. Some people begin to make their way down to the shuttles, but from what we can tell, many are content to sit back, soak up the sunshine and enjoy the races from their current vantage point. And that, really, is the point of The Hill.
“The Hill is way for us to bring the sport to a group of customers looking to experience racing in a different way,” says Marrillia. “Maybe they don’t want to be right on the rail in the thick of the action. Maybe they want to be sitting on a blanket, having a picnic and eating a sandwich from a food truck. It adds variety, and people love it.”
If you’re planning on a visit to The Hill this spring, here is a quick list of some Do’s and Dont’s.
DON’T: Expect to pay an entrance fee. Access to The Hill is free.
DO: Bring a dog. Bring eight or 10, even, if you have access to that many. But attach a leash to them. Otherwise they won’t be welcome.
DON’T: Bring giant inflatables and/or helium balloons. We know, we know. These things are great fun. But due to Keeneland’s proximity to the Blue Grass Airport, and the killjoys over at the FAA, you can’t have them at The Hill.
DO: Bring your own beer and/or cocktails. But be cool about it. Only if you’re of age, obviously, and no kegs or full bars.
DON’T: Make a fire pit. Again, fun, but…
DON’T: Bring your own DJ. We’re sympathetic that your friend has crafted a giant styrofoam helmet shaped like a chipmunk and is now calling himself DJ EvilAlvin, but any amplified sound is going to be shut down. And really, DJ EvilAlvin just is not that good anyway.
DO: Come on Fridays and Saturdays–these are the only days that The Hill is open.