American Horse Trail Road Trip, Stop One: Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville is home to the world's premier horse race, the Kentucky Derby (its just "Derby" to locals). The 160,000 people -- two-thirds of Louisville's everyday population -- that head to Churchill Downs includes all types. For $40 travelers can party with the infield hordes, where you'll likely see more mud wrestling than horses races. At the other extreme, for you-know-how-much-it-costs-if-you-can-afford-it, you can be one of 320 people enjoying the rarefied air of the 6th floor invite-only The Mansion (also dubbed Billionaire's Row), which overlooks the finish line and debuts this year.
Road Trip Starting Point: Driving the American Horse Trail
But even if you're not road tripping to Kentucky's largest city the first Saturday of May -- and with some hotels and restaurants jacking up their prices that weekend (for example, the Econo Lodge Downtown's best rate for Derby: $499 a night), you might not want to be -- the thoroughbred-racing scene here still demands a visit. Churchill Downs is hosting three meets in 2013: April 27-June 30, Sept. 6-29 and Oct. 27-Nov. 30. While not quite as grandiose as Derby, night racing (Downs after Dark), a go-to spot for locals, provides a chic racing experience.
Churchill and other racetracks are surprisingly kid-friendly too. Hang out by the paddock and watch the ponies walk around and get saddled up. Then head to the track to watch them warm up, parade to the post and race. Stand by the winner's circle and you'll see them get washed down after the race while the winner poses for a picture. Head back to the paddock, and a few minutes later a new batch of horses will be out.
Even when the ponies aren't running, Churchill Downs is home to the Kentucky Derby Museum, which is open year round. Its permanent exhibits includes Riders Up where visitors can "mount a simulated horse and try to maintain the jockey's stance for two minutes-the time it takes to run 1.25 mile track on Derby day." For the winner anyway.
EAT AND DRINK HERE
Located across the street from Churchill Downs's backside, the horse racing atmosphere at Wagner's Pharmacy is no simulation: jockey silks and horse liniment for sale at the register, walls covered with racing photos and a steady stream of stable hands at its lunch counter give it an authentic vibe without a whiff of manure. To get a true taste of the South, try the pimento cheese sandwich.
For a more upscale, but still horse-related, meal, visit Jack Fry's, a clubby steakhouse in Louisville's Highlands district. Fry used to run a bookmaking operation out of the back. These days, it's better known for its steaks, shrimp and grits, and Manhattans.
And while no area barns advertise accommodations for humans, Bashford Manor Inn used to be a thoroughbred racing and breeding farm. It produced Lookout, winner of the 1893 Derby, as you no doubt recall. Now it's a bed and breakfast.
ROAD TRIP TIP
For betting, while it's more fun to pick your own horses, winning money can be a lot of fun too. The track announcers, Daily Racing Form or tip sheets (like the easy-to-read ones of syndicated handicapper Ellis Starr's) can provide insight on what horses might win, and how to bet them to best make a profit. Keep in mind though, just as most horses leave the track as losers, so to do gamblers.
American Horse Trail Road Trip, Stop Two: Lexington, Kentucky
Starting Point: Driving the American Horse Trail
Looking for more road trip ideas? Visit our Great American Road Trips home page.