Ready your fancy fascinators and savvy Southern wardrobe: The Kentucky Derby, the first of three horse races that make up the Triple Crown, takes place May 6 at Churchill Downs in Louisville with 20 eager thoroughbreds vying for the win. Texans may be quite a distance away from this legendary track, but that doesn’t mean we can’t honor this equestrian event from our home state.
Texas horse racing has a colorful history that took off in the 1900s, with spots like the now-defunct Alamo Downs racetrack in San Antonio attracting betting crowds. But with the legalization of parimutuel betting in 1987 after being outlawed for 50 years, the sport has only grown in popularity and prestige in both the quarter horse and thoroughbred fields.
Texas has had its fair share of legendary race horses, including King Ranch’s 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba. “Those horses put Texas on the national stage to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got some great horses here and you need to pay attention to us,” says Tracy Sheffield, president of the Texas Thoroughbred Association.
This year at the Kentucky Derby, Texans can even cheer on one of their own: After a shocking, unexpected loss last year, Texas trainer Steve Asmussen is back at it again hoping to snag his first Kentucky Derby win with his client’s horse Disarm.
Wondering how you can celebrate local horse racing from this year’s Derby Day and beyond? Read below to find out where you can tour top-performing breeding and training facilities, catch exciting year-round races, and cheer on those speedy steeds on May 6.
Texas Horse Tours
Every legendary race horse gets his or her beginning somewhere. There are breeding and training facilities rooted all over the state, but there are some known for producing top racing contenders. One such place is the 393-acre Valor Farm in Pilot Point, which Sheffield calls “the most significant breeding facility in Texas.” The Scharbauer family, owners of the legendary, aforementioned Alysheba, established this farm in the 1990s, and while the facility is busy during breeding season, they are able to give private, by-request tours outside of the breeding season.
Highlander Training Center in Sulphur Springs, which 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra graduated from, is a remarkable 189-acre facility that prepares young thoroughbreds for racing careers with breaking, early training, veterinary care, and fitness therapy. The training center, which has over 100 horses at any given time, welcomes tours on an appointment-only basis to get an up-close look at how these novice horses successfully launch their careers, according to Chairman and CEO Jeff Hooper.
A Day at the Races
There are sanctioned facilities and parks around Texas where individuals can watch and bet on racing during the year. One such place is at the Gillespie County Fair in Fredericksburg, which hosts popular quarter horse and thoroughbred racing in July and August. General admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children, and kids under 5 are free. It’s also a spot where you’re guaranteed a great view from anywhere, since it’s a smaller track. “It’s local horse racing done right. It’s definitely a must-see experience,” Sheffield says.
One of the state’s larger racing destinations is Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, where guests pay as little as a $5 entry fee to bet on horse races during the spring and summer but also catch exotic animal races (think: camels and ostriches) and other year-round experiences like festivals and live concerts.
Over 700,000 guests visit Grand Prairie’s Lone Star Park every year, especially during their 44 days of racing, and can customize their park visit from general admission all the way to a prestigious penthouse experience.
Where to Watch the Kentucky Derby
Those who want to celebrate this year’s Kentucky Derby beyond their living rooms have great destinations to do so. Grapetown Vineyard and the Fredericksburg Polo Club are hosting a VIP, high-end Derby-day experience, complete with a farm-to-table dinner, live music, wine tastings, an exotic farm-animal tour with zebras and kangaroos, and nighttime hot air balloon rides.
Over in Navasota, the elegant, restored P.A. Smith Hotel & Event Center will feature mint juleps, raffles, Southern fare, live music, and a live painter who will produce a detailed action piece during their late-afternoon event.
Houstonians can flock to James Beard Award-winning, chic cocktail bar Julep, where guests sit amidst 5,000 fresh-cut flowers and enjoy tacos and bistro-style cuisine, whiskey and mint juleps, a live DJ set, and a livestream of the race.
Turtle Creek Conservancy in Dallas will feature their 15th annual Day At The Races. Part viewing party, part fundraiser, the event features dancing, spirits, a live auction, racing wagers, and decadent fare.