LEXINGTON, Ky. — 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 2-1 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 nine-hour drive west from Philadelphia 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 11-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 honor of the race and its 75th anniversary. Not only were we 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 see the daily workouts. The sun was just rising as we joined a couple of 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 take you down the country lanes that wind past legendary horse farms such as Manchester Horse Farm, Darby Dan, and Calumet Farm. But we did it ourselves, guided by our eyes and the official state highway map that 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 halls of fame (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, who was foaled just down the road, we cantered over to the Breeds Barn for the 11 a.m. Parade of Breeds. From the stands, we watched 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 learned 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, Racehorse of the Decade for the 1990s 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 stopped 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-size horse sculptures, seven of whom are driving for the wire, punctuate a small urban park.
The next morning we made sure we were on time for the 9 a.m. 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 were 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, explained just what goes into making a racehorse, from daily workouts to gate training. (As for what comes out of a racehorse, we were informed that the rather sizable muck pile is regularly loaded up and shipped to Southeast Pennsylvania mushroom farms.)
As a special treat, we were taken inside the barn that houses the North American Racing Academy, where founder and two-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Chris McCarron took the time to answer a few questions (including one from me about Uncle Mo's prospects for the Derby) and sign a few autographs.
Lexington might have the horses, but Louisville — 80 miles to the west — has the race. We were two weeks early for the Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May, but we were just in time to catch all the action at the Kentucky Derby Museum, located on the grounds of Churchill Downs and just beyond the memorial statue of Barbaro, the 2006 winner.
And there's a lot to be seen — so much, in fact, that we had to return the next morning to see it all. (Tickets are good for 24 hours.) Entrance to the two-story 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 2½-yard garland of roses draped over the winning horse's neck.
We began by taking in The Greatest Race, a high-definition, 360-degree (though in the shape of a racetrack) 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."
Afterward, the girls embarked 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 declined, however, to try calling a race.)
Meanwhile, I made 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 sampled a number of races, including the two that I actually attended in the early 1990s but didn't see well because of my location in the crowded infield.
We reunited 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 walked in the steps of the horses and jocks themselves, and heard the stories of some of them who made racing history here. Appropriately enough, our last stop was down in front of the finish line, where our guide, Adam, took our picture in front of the famous twin spires — a photo finish to four days of horsing around in northern Kentucky.
Kentucky Horse Park
4089 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington
Information: 859-233-4303 or www.kyhorsepark.com Hours: 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily Admission: $16 adults; $8, ages 7-12; $3 parking
The Thoroughbred Center
3380 Paris Pike, Lexington
Information: 859-293-1853 or www.thethoroughbredcenter.com Tours: Mon.–Sat. at 9 a.m. $15 adults, $8 children
Keeneland Race Track
4201 Versailles Rd., Lexington
Information: 859-254-3412 or www.keeneland.com Post time: 1:30 p.m. General admission: $5 adults; free, children 12 and under. Morning workouts: free
Kentucky Derby Museum
704 Central Ave., Louisville
Information: 502-637-1111 or www.derbymuseum.org Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon. – Sat.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun. Museum admission (includes 45-minute historic walking tour): $14 adults; $11 ages 13-18; $6 ages 5-12; behind the scenes tour (90 minutes): $10; barn and backside van tour (one hour): $10; horse and haunts walking tour (90 minutes): $15
700 Kentucky Ave., Louisville
Information: 502-636-4400 or www.churchilldowns.com Post time: varies. Admission:$3 adults; $1 seniors (60+); free, children 12 and under
Lexington Convention & Visitors Bureau
301 East Vine St., Lexington
1-800-848-1224 or www.visitlex.com
Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau
One Riverfront Plaza, Louisville