American Horse Trail Road Trip, Stop Two: Lexington, Kentucky
East of Louisville, through fenced-off rolling green fields where horses with a higher net worth that yours graze, lies Kentucky's Bluegrass region and Lexington, the "Horse Capital of the World." Like your lunchtime smoothie, the soil in that area has high mineral and protein content, which means that horses grazing there grow stronger. That's the claim anyway. That rationale "was tacked on after the fact," John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son, "as a boast or perhaps as an explanation for what had come to seem a part of nature, its contingent historical causes forgotten." For travelers though, the cause is less important than the result-and that's an area flush with equine-related sites.
Road Trip Starting Point: Driving the American Horse Trail
Lane's End, Three Chimneys and WinStar Farm are home to horse racing's recently retired superstars-like 2010 horse of the year Zenyatta, Derby winner Big Brown and the only two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow, respectively. But tours are limited (these horses have work to do in the breeding shed), so check their websites for times. Impersonate a prospective buyer or breeder though (a la Count Homer Simpson at the Bentley dealership), and you'll find more relaxed visiting hours.
While Churchill Downs is the country's most celebrated racetrack, Lexington's Keeneland, might be its best. A shrine to the sport, with a backdrop of a barn resting on lush green pastures, Sullivan described it as "an oasis from the businesslike atmosphere and general skeeviness that still cling to many American tracks." While its annual meets are in April and October (neither of which overlap with Churchill's races), its auctions are a spectator sport onto themselves. Pro tip: Sit on your hands lest you commit yourself to buying a $16 million unraced horse.
Thoroughbred racing, of course, is just one aspect of equine sports. The Kentucky Horse Park, in the northern part of Lexington, is home to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event annually in late April, which includes cross-country, dressage and jumping. The rest of the year, a ticket to the park includes admission to the International Museum of the Horse, the American Saddlebred Museum, a horse-drawn tour and equine presentations. For $25, visitors can saddle up for a guided 35-minute trail ride that's suitable for maiden riders.
The hour-long walking tours are more frequent-daily at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at Old Friends, a retirement home for "thoroughbreds whose racing and breeding careers have come to an end." There you'll meet and learn about its 137 residents, who've won every major race save Derby, earning more than $90 million in the process (how's your career going?). Like many human retirees, these horses have plenty of time to be social.
EAT AND DRINK HERE
This area isn't just horse country though, it's bourbon country too. If you're looking for a distillery with a horse connection (or just want to sip good bourbon), visit Woodford Reserve. It's the official bourbon of Derby, it sponsors the race that immediately precedes Derby (the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic-a major race in its own right and televised nationally on NBC) and the distillery itself used to be a home for (largely unsuccessful) racehorses. April through October, soak up some of that bourbon you sampled with a picnic on the porch overlooking the distillery and Glenn's Creek. Wallace Station's sandwiches also are popular with the horse-and-bourbon traveling set. Guy Fieri declared its The Big Brown (Griddled on the bun, with ham, bacon, tomato and white Cheddar Mornay) one of his top 5 burgers. And while Fieri's tastes are sometimes called into question, this burger's popularity shows that he might be correct.
ROAD TRIP TIP
If Keeneland isn't hosting races or auctions, you can always bet on a race at a different track via its drive-thru wagering window. But, as the signs throughout the track say, "When it's no longer a game, there is help!"
American Horse Trail Road Trip, Stop Three: Northern Virginia
Previous Stop: Louisville, Kentucky
Looking for more road trip ideas? Visit our Great American Road Trips home page.