If you missed the Kentucky Derby this year, don't worry. There is plenty of horse racing in Lexington, Kentucky, the Horse Capital of the World.
Recent trends in Equine Tourism give visitors of all ages an easy, delightful and budget-friendly way to watch world-famous horse races and see the animals up close at the region's many horse farms. Lexington's four-legged citizenry is part of the city's charm and culture.
The Virginia gentlemen farmers who settled the Bluegrass brought their love of fine horses with them. The first thoroughbred was brought to Lexington in 1779 and they were soon racing on Main Street. The 1789 census counted more horses than people.
Keenland Race Park
Today, horse racing is safely confined to race tracks. The pastoral beauty of Keeneland is the setting for exciting thoroughbred races in April and October. Noted as one of the world's most beautiful race tracks, Keeneland held its first "call to the post" in l936. Today, annual auction sales are held in the pavilion several times a year.
While horse racing attracts the rich and famous, visitors of all ages can enjoy a real life experience. At Keeneland, you can rub shoulders with fancy-dressed horse owners or students in sweatpants. Visitors are invited to walk the grounds or come early for the horses' morning workouts on the main track. Keeneland has several dining options and concessions. Post time is 1:05 p.m. Races are run every half hour during the afternoon.
Public tours are given during racing season, including a two hour behind the scenes look at racing from the inside out. For tickets and times, contact: keenland.com.
The Bluegrass State also has the world's most concentrated collection of horse farms — more than 400. Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, Morgans and Saddlebreds are some of the breeds raised.
Until recently, these special places were closed to the public. Now a select few are open for visitors to see baby foals and yearlings first hand. The best way to organize a visit is through a local tour operator or the visitors' bureau.
A museum for horses
The Kentucky Horse Park north of downtown Lexington is the world's first park devoted exclusively to horses and man's relationship to the horse throughout history. It is a showcase of museums, galleries, theaters, and working farm exhibits. Horse drawn tours and walking tours are family favorites. From Spring to Fall, fans fill up the seats for the daily Breeds Barn Show in the outdoor show ring. A campground offers 260 spacious sites with recreational facilities.
Also on the grounds are the American Saddlebred Museum and Hall of Fame. Call 1-859-233-4303 for an event schedule.
Kentucky's famed Bluegrass Region is an American masterpiece. Lexington is at the heart of this region of rare beauty. Known as the Front door of the South, Kentucky is a border state, bound by nine other states. It's a Red State, but Lexington is a beacon of blue, a cool blue city, a Blue Nation. The city's vast number of students at the University of Kentucky is a big influence in pushing a massive Blue Wave into the social consciousness.
To discover the real tone and flavor of Lexington, walk through the downtown's historic district. In less than two miles, with plenty of resting places along the way, one can imagine the city a century ago. Among the high points is Triangle Park with its impressive rushing fountains and tree-lined promenades. The restored Lexington Opera House is reputed as the "best one-night stand in America." Such luminaries as Al Jolsen, Will Rogers, Fannie Brice, Lillian Russell and the Barrymore's once graced the stage.
Arts Place is a 1904 era Beaux Arts style headquarters for the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council. A first floor art gallery is open to the public.
A stroll through Gratz Park transports the visitor to a prosperous l800s neighborhood graced by lovely homes and mansions showcasing the design elements of a bygone age.
Ashland, the impressive Henry Clay Estate, was the home of the famous l9th century statesman Henry Clay. Situated on a beautiful 20-acre wooded estate with an English garden, the home is open for tours. It is filled with memories and furnishings of the beloved Kentuckian, U.S. Senator and House Speaker who famously said, "I would rather be right than President." In his long years of public service, Clay worked to unify the growing country amid regional divisions.
House Beautiful magazine named Ashland as one of the 50 most historic houses in America.
No visit to Lexington would be complete without a leisurely drive around the legendary countryside. The visitors' center has maps and brochures illustrating several driving tours, with blue and white signs for guidance on the way. The Bluegrass country driving tour makes a scenic loop around the city with road symbols to expand the drive to nearby villages and attractions.
The gently rolling hills and curving roads of the Bluegrass are bordered by miles of white fences. This lush pastureland is the heart of the equine "nursery" where horses are bred and sold.
The bourbon trail
The Lexington area is called "the best place to get a drink in America." It's easy to see why. Bourbon is king. The state produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon. There are distilleries, breweries, and a growing wine industry. For more than 200 years Kentucky's legendary distilleries have crafted the world's finest bourbons using secret recipes and a time-honored process passed down from generation to generation.
Now visitors can explore the rich tradition and proud history of America's official native spirit on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, showcasing 14 distilleries. These tours are a discovery of the art and science of the making of King Bourbon. Kentucky's natural mix of weather and pure limestone water produces the distinct mellow flavors and deep amber color.
Don't want to drive while sampling liquid gold? Organized tours are the answer, leaving the driving to pros who know the territory.
Tour information and directions are spelled out in a brochure with a detailed itinerary. Contact 1-502 875-9351 or www.kybourbontrail.com.
Lexington's quirky luncheon options are authentic and budget-friendly. Stella's Kentucky Deli in the sunny yellow building uses home grown ingredients. Fried green tomatoes, a Southern standard, are popular here.
Lexington knows how to recycle old buildings. Wallace Station along the Old Frankfort Pike is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's small and always busy. A one-time general store and gas station, it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a surviving example of a small railroad community. Farm hands and socialites alike are fond of the sandwiches and pastries in this country cafe. The ham and brie panini is a favorite.
"Comfort food with a conscience" is the mantra at Doodle's, a trendy spot for breakfast and lunch specializing in organic ingredients, fresh beignets and shrimp and grits.
Doodle's, too, is a former gas station.
The Village Idiot, a gastro pub with two bars, is open for lunch and dinner, offering gourmet pub food. The Idiot was the city's first post office.
For information on tours and horse farm visits, contact the Lexington Visitors bureau at: www.visitlex.com, 1-800-845-3959 or 1-859-233-7299. Also, www.visithorsecountry.com.
Photo (Horseback riding at the Kentucky Horse Park): Jeff Rodgers
Photo (Breeds Barn at the Kentucky Horse Park): Lee Thomas
Photo (Berea Arts & Crafts Fair): Lee Thomas
Photo (Equus Run Tasting Room): Lee Thomas