Running is second nature to them, almost like breathing. Ears pricked and neck arching with a sleek muscled body and sinewy leg, the thoroughbred has roamed the luxuriant bluegrass pastures throughout north-central Kentucky since 1779.
Lexington is home of the most valuable thoroughbreds on the planet and iconic breeding farms. Top-tier horses and horsemen gather each April and October to race at the historic Keeneland Race Course that opened in 1935. Known for its intimate and inviting atmosphere, Keeneland is also home to the world’s most prestigious thoroughbred auctions, a pipeline for the yearlings raised at Kentucky farms.
From sun-up to 10 a.m. you can watch waves of runners zip across the track in early morning workouts. Then head over to the Track Kitchen for a hearty country breakfast alongside jockeys, trainers and owners.
Travel north 12 miles on the Bluegrass Parkway and you enter Kentucky Horse Park. Spread across more than 1200 acres, this premier equestrian facility is dedicated to “man’s relationship with the horse.” At the park’s Hall of Champions, thoroughbred legends Cigar, Funny Cide and Da Hoss and other runners wow the public. Don’t miss the Parade of Breeds in the afternoon.
Belgians, Percherons and the world-famous Clydesdales are stabled at the Draft Horse Barn. Here the gentle giants are groomed and harnessed as they get ready to pull the trolley for a park tour. The horseshoe-shaped Breeds Barn houses 24 horses, each represents one of the world's different breeds. We spied a minature horse 36 inches tall with her two-week old fuzzy foal, a curly hair horse typical of the Bashkir breed, and a dazzling Chincoteague pony.
One of the biggest attractions is the International Museum of the Horse. Exhibits trace the entire 55-million year history of horses, a stunning display covering everything from horse-drawn carriages to competitions, from historic horse racing to equine art. There is also an entire museum dedicated to the American Saddlebred, Kentucky’s first native horse breed.
In September 2010, the World Equestrian Games are expected to bring more than 500,000 people to the park. It’s always been staged in Europe, so it’s quite a coup for Lexington.
Kentucky is also Bourbon Country. America’s only native spirit, 98 percent of all bourbon is produced here. A twisty country lane, flanked by rolling hills with clusters of mares and foals, leads to the gorgeous Woodford Reserve Distillery. Your senses come alive. Smell the heady aromas of yeast and grain. Sour mash bubbling in a cypress fermenting tank. The glimmer of three copper pot stills that triple distills the mash and finally, the charred oak barrels that give bourbon its distinct taste and color.
Barrels are hand-guided down a sloping track that leads to a stone aging warehouse. Row upon row of wooden barrels stretch up into the darkness. The end of the tour signals a free tasting of this premium bourbon.
After a full day of exploring the region we settled into the Gratz Park Inn. An intimate, boutique hotel, the Gratz showcases late 19th century antiques and large bedrooms with four-poster mahogany beds. Its staff is friendly, and aims to please. Their restaurant, Jonathan’s, offers an eclectic menu of southern-inspired and tasty dishes, including country ham potstickers, mushroom dusted beef tenderloin, and shrimp over white cheddar grits.
A few streets over is the Atomic Café with bright murals, rhythmic Caribbean music and a spacious brick patio. The cuisine follows suit, from crisp sweet potato chips to zesty jerk chicken, tropically flavored fresh fish, conch fritters and Cuban pork. Tucked across from the courthouse, the Sidebar Grille is known for its juicy burgers, sandwiches and sides.
Twenty-five miles southwest of Lexington is the largest restored Shaker community in America. Known for communal living and peaceful ways in the mid-19th century, Shaker Village is home to 14 original Shaker buildings and miles of iconic rock fences. You’ll learn about their culture through costumed interpreters playing chamber music, crafting brooms, blacksmithing, tending draft horses and oxen or simply working the gardens.
Back in town, just down from Rupp Arena, is the Mary Todd Lincoln House, the family home of one of America’s most controversial First Ladies. Mary and Abe visited the Georgian style brick house on several occasions where period antiques and her personal possessions are on the display. Ashland was the plantation of Henry Clay, one of America’s esteemed statesmen. In 1856 his son built an 18-room mansion, a stately Italianate structure that features an extensive collection of Clay family items and manicured gardens.
On our last morning we paid a visit to Smarty Jones at Three Chimneys Farm. Now age 8, he’s filled out and his chestnut coat shimmers. But watch out, he still takes a nip at visitors. Five years after his retirement, it’s still the “Smarty Show.” The stallion managers report he draws the biggest crowds and affection, plus 30 letters a week from fans.
That afternoon we headed over to Darley Stud, the American division of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed’s global breeding operation. We marveled at the opulent grounds and facilities and walked through the palatial barns to the see the stallions, including Chester County-bred Hard Spun. He just finished up his second breeding season. His reward: a trip to New Zealand where he’ll breed a full book of mares during the Southern Hemisphere breeding season. Life is good.