My old Kentucky visit

I recently found myself thinking about horses — a lot.

I happened to be reading a biography of Queen Elizabeth II and learned that she has had a keen interest in horses since, at age 4, she was given a Shetland pony named Peggy. This diversion developed over time into one of her main leisure activities with a particular emphasis on the breeding of Thoroughbreds. I learned that she sometimes sent her horses to be bred in Lexington, Kentucky, home of the top horse farms in this country and the Keeneland horse auctions held each autumn. The Queen’s prized horses right here on our own soil? Intrigued, I decided to pay a visit to Kentucky for some authentic equine excitement.

As it turned out during my sojourn, I saw these majestic creatures wherever I looked.  Lexington is horse country in every sense of the word and, on my drive from the airport, I was enthralled with the spectacular scenery — the rolling hills of bluegrass with pretty red barns, fields and meadows sprinkled with wild flowers and encircled by miles of white horse fencing that enclosed beauteous Thoroughbreds and their foals.

A mare and her newborn. Image courtesy Sloane Travel Photography.

BUT FIRST, KENTUCKY BOURBON, YA’LL

No visit to Kentucky would be complete without a trip to some of its famed bourbon distilleries, and Buffalo Trace Distillery is one of America’s oldest.  On the tour, I observed the entire process of turning corn, rye and malted barley into bourbon.  At the Woodford Reserve Distillery, I learned that it is the only facility in the state making bourbon with the original Scottish “pot still” method. There were some fine exhibits on the history and heritage of this beloved beverage and lunch on the front porch was a great way to end the distillery tours — topped off, natch, with a splash of pure, perfect Kentucky bourbon.

KENTUCKY HORSE PARK

A highlight of my visit was the Kentucky Horse Park, which is dedicated to man’s relationship with the horse. The park is one of Kentucky’s premier attractions and unlike any other in the world with its showcase of museums, galleries, theaters and working farm exhibits. Fifty breeds graze on its 1,200 acres of lush pastures and everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the horse is here, including the Hall of Champions and the “Horses of the World” exhibit.  

At the park, you can take Shaun Washington’s Unique Horse Farm Tour. Knowledgeable in all things horse and particularly Kentucky’s history of horse racing and breeding, with fascinating tidbits you will hear nowhere else, Washington offers a behind-the-scenes tour that is not to be missed. First up was the Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital. He explained that this is one of the foremost equine hospitals in the world, a leader in equine veterinary care founded in 1986.

As we walked into the reception area, we faced a large window onto one of the operating rooms.  A masked and gloved nurse was readying the room for doctor and patient. Within moments, double doors swung open and there on a gurney-operating table was a sight I found somewhat alarming — a totally sedated horse lying on its back, his hind legs drawn up almost to his stomach and his left front leg strung up straight and fixed in place. The surgeon then drilled a screw into the horse’s ankle that would ultimately adjust its abnormal gait. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sight that was difficult to watch but utterly fascinating, start to finish.  

Our behind-the-scenes tour brought us up close and personal with the celebrated stables of not only Keeneland but Calumet Farm — which produced Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948). Perhaps there’s another Whirly or Citation among the farm’s million-dollar Thoroughbreds and adorable two- and three-week-old foals.

A Keeneland competition. Image courtesy Sloane Travel Photography.

AN ICONIC EVENT HAPPENING SOON

Next month, the Bluegrass State steps into the spotlight again with the 144th Run for the Roses, as the horse-racing world gets set to mark the 40th anniversary of the epic rivalry between Harbor View Farm’s Affirmed and Calumet Farm’s Alydar for the 1978 Triple Crown, which Affirmed won. The Kentucky Derby — the first leg of the Crown, which includes the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes — is a wonderful sporting event replete with rich traditions like sipping Mint Juleps, donning big, beautiful hats, and singing Stephen Foster’s poignant “My Old Kentucky Home.” This fanfare elevates the event, which takes place May 5 in Louisville, from just another horse race to a celebration of Southern culture, making it a true icon of Americana. 

LEXINGTON – HORSE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

I came away from this engrossing equine experience with a firmer knowledge of what goes into the fine and exacting art of horse breeding. I was captivated by the beauty of the Kentucky countryside and gripped by the towering statue of Man o’ War — routinely ranked as the greatest racehorse to date — at the entrance to the Kentucky Horse Park. I will always remember the classic Calumet Farm but will try to erase the vision of the particular stall where the great Alydar — the only racehorse to finish second in each of the Triple Crown races — met his tragic, suspicious end in 1990. (Was he killed for the insurance money?) I now have a finer appreciation of horse racing and the complex business of breeding these wonderful animals.  

But above all when I remember Kentucky, my thoughts will return to my peeking into pristinely kept stalls and finding tiny, just-born foals lying languidly as their elegant mothers protectively hovered over them. The tenderness of those images will stay with me forever.

For more, visit Lexington Kentucky Tourism at visitlex.com, Buffalo Trace Distillery at buffalotracedistillery.com, Woodford Reserve Distillery at woodfordreserve.com, Unique Horse Farm Tour at uniquehorsefarmtour.com, Kentucky Horse Park at kentuckytourism.com and the Kentucky Derby at kentuckyderby.com.

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