Keeneland Thoroughbred Sales- Not Only for Buyers and Sellers

Go behind the scenes at the Keeneland, the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction house and learn how you can get up close to the horses.

by Sara Clendenin

My fellow horse people, I must say–– living in the horse capital of the world has its perks. Lexington, Kentucky has a lot to offer us lovers of those four-legged creatures, especially when it comes to Thoroughbred fans.

On the outskirts of downtown Lexington sits the beautiful Keeneland Racetrack, arguably the most visually appealing Thoroughbred track in the country. Keeneland–– while being a mere fraction of the size of its famous counterparts such as Churchill Downs in Louisville–– has much to offer it visitors. Fans can enjoy shopping, dining, equine demonstrations, private events, wagering, and even face painting, for the little ones. Or the kid-at-heart type.

Keeneland gate entrance

The drive into Keeneland through Gate 2 is certainly a beautiful one. This is the Gate to use when going to the sales.

A series of events at Keeneland that many folks don’t know about are the Thoroughbred sales that take place four times per year. Each sale showcases horses of different ages.

• January: Horses of All Ages Sale 
• April: Two Year Old Sale
• September: Yearling Sale
• November: Breeding Stock Sale

While the sales aren’t necessarily as thrilling as racing, they are a great way to see behind-the-scenes of the Thoroughbred industry and to get a closer look at the horses. Not to mention the fact that you could see the future big names of racing. Thoroughbred royalty such as Zenyatta, Curlin, and A.P. Indy have graced the walkways of the Keeneland sales pavilion. Who knows, you may see the next Triple Crown winner while you’re visiting.

The Auction House and Paddocks

Keeneland’s auction house boasts the title of largest in the world, and it is truly a beautiful place to behold. From the moment you walk in the sales pavilion you’re surrounded by tasteful art and a lively atmosphere.

keeneland entrance

Glass windows enclose the main bidding area of the auction house where horses will be paraded in, one-by-one, and sold to the highest bidder.  

keen eland horse auctions

Art on display at Keeneland will be sold at their second annual Sporting Art Auction, to be held at 4 pm on Wednesday, Nov 19. The public is welcome to attend the auction, and view the paintings and sculptures in the sales pavilion during the Nov sale, which is Nov 4-14.

horse art auction keen eland

My favorite painting in the hall. What can I say, I’m truly a sport horse person at heart!

There is an area open to the public to observe bidders and horses. You are welcome to sit on the benches that surround the auction ring and watch the sale through the large windows. Seating in the auction ring itself is reserved for buyers and sellers. I will go ahead and state the obvious here – make sure you don’t get the reps’ attention! Otherwise you may go home with a little more than you bargained for.

keeneland horse sales

Tip for sitting in the auction house: Avoid eye contact with the reps. This will let them know that you are not there to bid. Feel free to talk quietly – don’t worry you’ll quickly get the hang of it!

To get a closer look at the horses, I recommend that you wander outside, behind the stage in the main area. There you will find two paddocks constantly filled with handlers walking horses around before they make it to the stage. This is where bloodstock agents and other potential buyers go to inspect and analyze horses before bidding on them. 

keeneland thoroughbred sales

Above is the paddock that leads directly into the auction house. Below is the detached paddock – the first stop to the stage.

keeneland horse sales ky

thoroughbred sales ky

I really liked this little guy. From his selling price, I don’t have the same taste as Thoroughbred buyers. He only sold for about $12,000.

What’s a Hip Number?

“So,” you may ask, “how do buyers keep track of the horses they want to purchase?” Well the horse industry has provided a simple answer for you: hip numbers. Yes, they are exactly what they sound like. A numbered sticker is placed on each side of a horse’s hind quarters so that potential buyers can see them from either side.

thoroughbred hip number

keeneland horse sales hip number

As each horse is led up to the main stage, two large screens display the hip number of the horse. As potential buyers place bids, the highest bid is shown on the screen. It’s pretty simple really. And yes, you will sometimes see the number on the screen go over $1,000,000. No big deal, right?

La Comida

To break up the sales scenery, or if your stomach is growling, the pavilion also offers a cafeteria-style restaurant (with some good food, I might add) and a separate, full-service bar. I personally like that they separated the two areas; should a family decide to bring their children they are able to sit at a table in the restaurant, away from the bar, if they so choose.

And should you choose to buy a beer or mixed drink at the bar, you are welcome to take it out to the patio or back to the paddocks to watch more horses.

keeneland thoroughbreds


Visiting the Sales

Keeneland sales make a great stop for most ages. I recommend that families consider going for lunch and to see the process for a short while. Because of the close proximity to the horses, children may be more interested than at the racetrack. That being said, it is a professional atmosphere with a lot of money going around – you will not see any young or misbehaving children. I would say, maybe, ages 8 and up.

As an adult outing, the sales are a great place for a longer stop. Between the restaurant and the bar, and especially with the patio overlooking the outside paddocks, the sales pavilion is essentially a full service restaurant with some pretty perfect scenery.

keeneland horse sales

The pictures in this article were taken on the third-to-last day of the sale, when it was less crowded. Larger crowds and super-high selling prices generally appear during the early parts of the sale, and begin to scale down from there. 

There aren’t many places you can go watch a Thoroughbred sale like this– it’s pretty darn cool!

How you can go: For more information, visit the Keeneland Sales Website.

About the author: Sara Clendenin is a lawyer, horsewoman, and travel enthusiast living in Lexington, Kentucky. Her riding career began at age eight and she eventually fell in love with dressage. She hopes to one day get back on the training and competition path to reach her dream of riding at the Grand Prix level. In the meantime Sara plans to travel, share her experiences, and practice (equine) law. You may find her website here at