I had another one-of-a-kind experience recently as Castle & Key Distillery invited my wife and me to opening weekend at Keeneland Racetrack. The invite was to share in the celebration of the distillery’s sponsored G2 $350,000 Castle & Key Bourbon Stakes Race.
If you have never been to Keeneland during the Fall Meet, purchase tickets now; you will not be disappointed. Kentucky is in the beginning stages of fall, so the colors are not vivid now but soon will be. The high temperature for the day was 63 degrees—perfect weather for drinking bourbon and betting on Thoroughbreds.
We arrived at the track and were escorted up to the Keeneland Room. I have never been to that room, but let me tell you, it was spectacular. On the top level, you experience the track like never before, with panoramic views of the oval track and the rolling, tree-lined landscape surrounding the property.
As we entered, we were greeted and asked if we would like to try one of the three Castle & Key specialty cocktails. It was 11 a.m., so we both opted for the “Rise from Ruins.” Since it had grapefruit juice as an ingredient, it was fitting for the time of day. Once the drinks arrived, my wife and I took a sip. We both paused, looked at each other, and said, “This concoction could be dangerous.” Made with Castle & Key Roots of Ruin gin, grapefruit juice, peach schnapps and a splash of lemon juice, it was refreshing, tart and sweet all at the same time. Barely being able to detect any alcohol, I only needed one more to make sure for journalistic purposes.
After being introduced to most of Castle & Key’s marketing and sales departments, we mingled and met other horse-betting enthusiasts in the suite. As the “Call to Post” trumpet sounded, I was reminded that I had not placed any bets yet. After browsing the program and looking at the horse’s names and colors, we selected No. 6, Navy Soul. No reason; we just liked the female jockey’s name, Matilda Burnham. Believe it or not, we won and it paid $32. As any bettor knows, gambling is always better when playing with house money. After a few non-winning races, it was time to eat and drink some more.
The next cocktail up was aptly named “Handicapper’s Key.” This vibrant cocktail was made with Castle and Key Roots of Ruin gin, raspberry, elderflower, lemon juice and tonic water. The drink was not as tart as the other but was just as good. The call to the buffet line started, and as I perused the offering, a Caesar salad caught my attention, along with fingerling potatoes, a delicious-looking salmon square with melted seasoned butter, and the pièce de résistance, sliced prime rib. I am a prime rib nut. I love it, and Keeneland knows how to prepare it. It was a perfect medium rare and paired nicely with a horseradish cream sauce. After another ordered drink arrived (don’t judge me), I finished my plate and headed for the dessert table.
As a Kentuckian, there is no greater pleasure than bread pudding. Keeneland offers a decadent bread pudding that uses Kentucky’s own Sister Schubert’s rolls and a bourbon-infused sauce drizzled on top. If that was not enough, there was also carrot cake. Enough said. The food coma was slowly setting in, but I needed to push through as we approached the main event, the Castle & Key Stakes Race. But first, another round of drinks.
To close out the race day, there was one special cocktail that I had my eye on, but I wanted to wait until after I dined. What better after-dinner cocktail than a “Commonwealth Old Fashioned”? Made with Castle & Key small-batch bourbon, blackberry syrup, lemon juice and just a dash of bitters, this drink hit the spot. Each cocktail I sampled was better than the previous one, but the Old Fashioned was by far the best. Of course, the bourbon was the star, but mixing it with blackberry syrup provided a flavor experience that elevated the cocktail. The subtle hint of bitters and lemon pushed it over for me.
But enough about the drinks and food; we have essential business to attend: the Stakes Race. The race features 2-year-old turf specialists contested over 1 1/16 miles. The winner also secures a slot in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf that runs later in November at Santa Anita Park in California. All the top jockeys were present in the race: Irad Ortiz Jr., Tyler Gaffalione, John Velazquez and Julien Leparoux, along with top trainers Todd Pletcher and Keith Desormeaux, to name just a few. The excitement was barely containable as the turf race was about to start.
And then they were off.
Out of the gate, the horse I hitched my wagon to across the board (No. 2 Gorilla Trek) went straight to the back. The strategy was obvious: wearing your horse down running with all the others would be a shame. At last, my horse bolted to the outside after the first turn. He was about to make a run. He stayed a solid third to last on the backstretch, poised to pounce. And then it happened: a horse from dead last made a move that only Usain Bolt could appreciate. Unfortunately, it was not Gorilla Trek. No. 4 Can Croup weaved his way in and out of traffic to take the win with a photo finish that paid $56 to win, a 27-1 long shot. Who could have predicted? Oh, wait, many people around me. Cheers and jubilation were afoot as people raced to cash their tickets.
Oh well, that’s gambling for you.
I cannot say enough about the people of Castle & Key. They were very warm and welcoming, and everyone in the room was gracious. I love it when people of different economic and social backgrounds come together for the love of racing and spirits.
Click here for more Original Pours.