When they say Lexington, Kentucky is horse country, one might ask, how much? To give you an idea, I have been in Lexington for three days, seen nothing but horses and with the exception of driving past it, haven’t entered Keeneland Race Course once.
Lexington is still horse country any other time of the year. The last week of April magnifies this label to a whole new level. Derby Fever is taking hold of the thoroughbred world. The Rolex 3-Day Event is under way with competitors from around the world. It is the highest rated competition of its type held in the United States. There is even the Kentucky Reining Cup during Rolex. All of this, and we haven’t touched the 400 horse farms in the midst of breeding season or the Keeneland Spring Meet – drawing to a close tomorrow.
Which brings us back to this plethora of horse-related event choices all sandwiched into one week. I will concede I am not Kentucky native. I know very little about the inner workings of the horse industry. I do know horse racing, and, while I photograph racing for editorial reasons, there is no way I would do it if I didn’t love horses as much as I do. Kind of a nice added benefit, loving what you are doing.
So I coaxed my family into a “working vacation” to the Bluegrass State the week before the Kentucky Derby. Rolex is a major equestrian event so why not weave in, more like why not become immersed in, everything Kentucky.
There aren’t very many sports where the stars retire and you get to hang out with them. If I had asked my oldest daughter which retired athlete she wanted to go visit, I doubt I would have been able to deliver on the request. Try to go visit Michael Jordan and Pete Rose and see where that gets you. Horse racing is quite different.
I was expecting Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra, but she responded, rather quickly I might add, “I want to see Big Brown.” Well, she got to see Big Brown at Three Chimneys. The folks there are quite accommodating - their tours are excellent, their horses are amazing, the grounds are perfectly kept and they have the Seattle Slew monument.
Now it was my turn. If you haven’t tried to schedule a farm visit, it can be quite vexing. Plan way ahead. Most tours book quickly. Darley – no go. Lane’s End – not there either. Calumet – not a shot. I did have one that was still at the top of my list and it was a yes at Claiborne Farm.
Not only is the 3100-acre Hancock-run establishment the home of Blame, his daddy Arch and War Front, but also six out of eleven Triple Crown winners were bred there. The on-site cemetery is a walk through racing history, including the graves of such racing greats as Secretariat, Mr. Prospector, Gallant Fox, Bold Ruler and many more.
According to Rodeo, our tour guide at Claiborne and a regular groom, the usual horses visitors get to see are Pulpit and Eddington. He asked if anyone wanted to see a different stallion and I promptly requested Arch. It was a tough call, but Blame isn’t siring a potential Derby winner for a while and I liked Arch anyway.
It turns out that Rodeo is also Arch’s regular handler. You could see they had formed a bond over the years. It wasn’t just a groom trotting out a stallion. Arch knew Rodeo and Arch knew Rodeo owed him a payment of at least one peppermint for being nice to the visitors. Claiborne and Three Chimneys are must visits.
If not horses in Kentucky, then what? Well, for many, the next word is bourbon. It was labeled in the Bourbon Act of 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson and Congress as uniquely American. They declared only whiskey distilled in the United States could be called bourbon. While many think it is only distilled in Kentucky, it can be made in other locations – it just happens that 95% is made in the Bluegrass.
For a reminder of these facts and for a tour of the oldest bourbon distillery in Kentucky, one only needs to drive 20 minutes west of Lexington on I-64 to Woodford Reserve Distillery. Distilling began at the location in 1797 and the building was erected in 1838. Not only will you learn more than one could imagine about Kentucky Straight Bourbon, but you will get a sample of their wares at the end of the tour. An added bonus for visitors is free Rebecca-Ruth Bourbon Ball chocolates. The supply is seemingly endless.
Back in Lexington, we still haven’t touched Keeneland. There is so much more to this town and much of it is horse-related. I will try to address some of that in a follow-up posting. For now, Rolex 3-Day has taken center stage. Day 1 for the Dressage Test is down and great weather is on tap for the weekend. Also in the works is a visit to Michael Blowen’s Old Friends Equine.
We wrote about Lexington in one of the first Stride LIVE posts. If you love horses, there is no better time to be in Lexington than right now. Any trip to Lexington can be bookended right into Derby week. Does it get any better?