If you’re a horse enthusiast, sooner or later you’re going to have to make the pilgrimage to Kentucky. And if – like me – it’s your daughters who are the enthusiasts, then the odds are two-to-one it’s going to be sooner.
So when spring break arrived last year and my wife couldn’t take any time off, I loaded my twin daughters into the car for the long drive west to Lexington, the self-proclaimed (not that anyone disputes it) “Horse Capital of the World”. My only concern: would there be enough to do there and in nearby Louisville to keep two eleven-year-olds busy for four days? I needn’t have worried.
For starters, our timing was perfect: we arrived in Lexington on the morning of the Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland Track’s premier annual event. Equally propitiously, the weather had turned unpleasant: a cold drizzle had settled down over the vernal landscape, thinning the dressed-to-kill crowds at the stately brick track, all decked out itself in its vernal finery in honor of the race and its 75th anniversary. Not only were able to make our way effortlessly inside, we were able to secure a spot out near the finish line to see Brilliant Speed nose out Twinspired.
Conditions were considerably improved when we returned the next morning to observe the daily workouts. The sun was just rising as we joined the couple dozen trainers, grooms, and other horsemen standing near the coffee stand at Clocker’s Corners watching the two-way action on the track. Some horses were just loosening up, but others came thundering down along the rail, huffing and grunting in equine exertion, noises generally drowned out by the roar of the crowd. We also took advantage of the lack of crowds to tactilely – and tactfully — examine Keeneland’s dry, gummy, and controversial synthetic turf.
Between Keeneland and the Kentucky Horse Park, to which we had allotted the rest of the day, lies some of the most photogenic horse country in the country. A slew of professional tours will gladly take you down the rolling country lanes that wind past legendary horse farms such as Manchester Fare, Darby Dan, and Calumet Farms. But we did it ourselves, guided by our eyes and the official state highway map which conveniently marks the most scenic byways. The girls were particularly delighted to see several foals gamboling about behind traditional double rows of wooden fencing.
The Kentucky Horse Park bills itself a bit grandiosely as “the Epicenter of the Equestrian Life.” But the 1,200-acre complex, with its two museums, two hall of fames (for jumpers and dressage), and three show rings, is undoubtedly the one site not to be missed. It takes a full day to see it all, and even then you have to plan judiciously. After paying homage at the grave of Man o’War (complete with a life-size bronze likeness), generally considered to be the greatest racehorse of the 20th century and who was foaled just down the road, we canter over to the Breeds Barn for the 11:00 am Parade of Breeds. From the stands we watch while riders in culturally-appropriate costumes introduce exotic breeds such as the speckled Danish Knabstrupper, the golden Akhal Teke from Asia Minor, and the Irish Connemara, the ponies the girls ride at our local stable.
Over at the American Saddlebred Museum, we learn about Kentucky’s oldest native breed, and the breed most often seen in movies and on television. (Fury, My Friend Flicka, and Mr. Ed were all saddlebreds.) You could (and we did) spend more than an hour inside the mammoth (40,000 square foot) International Museum of the Horse with its wide range of equine exhibits. I was particularly impressed with the collection of Calumet Farm’s trophies, while the girls enjoyed the feature exhibit on the art, culture, and history of the Arabian horse.
Next up was the Hall of Champions Show, in which famous retired racehorses are introduced to the audience. Among the celebrities we got to “meet” were Cigar, 1990s Racehorse of the Decade and all-time leading money winner at the time of his retirement in 1999; Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner, and Be a Bono, champion quarter horse.
The girls passed on the $30 half-hour trail rides, which are really only for novices anyway, preferring to spend at least that much time – and money – in the extensive gift shop.
Back downtown, we stop by both the 135-year-old Red Mile Harness Track, the second-oldest harness track in the country, and Thoroughbred Park where 42 plaques and 13-life sized horse sculptures, 7 of whom are driving for the wire, punctuate a small urban park.
The next morning we make sure we are on time for the 9:00 am tour at the Thoroughbred Center, a training facility operated by Keeneland for aspiring racehorses not lucky enough to have their own. For the next hour and a half, we are driven around the extensive facility that can accommodate up to 900 horses – for the very reasonable price of $5 a day — while our guide, Amy Jackson, explains just what all goes into making a racehorse, from daily workouts to gate training. (As for what all comes out of a racehorse, we are informed that the rather sizeable muck pile is regularly loaded up and shipped to southeast Pennsylvania mushroom farms.)
As a special treat, we are taken inside the barn that houses the North American Racing Academy, where founder and two-time Kentucky Derby-winning jock, Chris McCarron, takes the time to answer a few questions (including one from me about Uncle Mo’s prospects for the upcoming Derby) and sign a few autographs.
Lexington might have the horses, but Louisville – 80 miles to the west — has THE race. We are two weeks early for this year’s Running of the Roses (always on the first Saturday in May), but we are just in time to catch all the action at the Kentucky Derby Museum, located inside the grounds of iconic Churchill Downs and just beyond the memorial statue of Barbaro, the 2006 winner..
And there’s a lot to be caught – so much, in fact, that we have to come back the next morning to see it all. (Tickets are good for 24 hours.) Entrance to the two-floor museum (dramatically renovated after a 2009 flood) is gained through a starting gate that opens up into a display of ladies’ hats over the years and a replica of the 2 ½-yard garland of roses draped over the wining horse’s neck.
We begin our visit by taking in “The Greatest Race,” a high-definition, 360-degree (though in the shape of a race track) documentary that chronicles both the life of a thoroughbred and the annual race for three-year-olds frequently called “the greatest two minutes in sport”.
Afterwards, the girls embark on a circuit of the many interactive exhibits, racing each other on the “Riders Up” simulation, designing their own computer racing silks, weighing in, climbing on board in the starting gates, and even learning how to correctly place a $2 wager. (They decline, however, to try calling a race.)
Meanwhile, I make my way to the “Time Machine” exhibit, where individual screens allow users to rerun Derbies from as far back as 1918. Secretariat’s record-setting victory over Sham in 1973 (1:59.40) is clearly the favorite, but I sample a number races, including the two that I actually attended in the early 1990s, but failed to see well because of my location in the crowded infield.
We reunite for the day’s last Historic Walking Tour of the iconic grandstand, itself the beneficiary of a $121 million renovation and expansion in 2005. For the next 45 minutes, we walk in the steps of the horse and jocks themselves, and hear the stories of some of them who made racing history here. Appropriately enough, our last stop is down in front of the finish line, where our guide, Adam, takes our picture in front of the famous twin spires – a true photo finish to four days of horsing around in northern Kentucky.