There's poetry in the soul of the Bluegrass. Listen for a moment to the lyrical names of the legendary farms, some passed from generation to generation, others long since acquired by captains of industry or oil-rich sheikhs. There's Spendthrift, Calumet, Three Chimneys, Gainsborough, Dixiana, Claiborne, and Faraway Farm among them.
You can hear it, too, in the honor roll of fabled Thoroughbreds that have fought for and captured the elusive Kentucky Derby. Their names speak of beauty, speed, and the mystery of what makes a horse yearn to cross the finish line first. There's Whirlaway and Spectacular Bid. Unbridled and Affirmed. Seattle Slew and Secretariat. The list is long, yet it has no end. From among the crop of current three-year-olds, there could be one that joins these lofty ranks.
Blessed with rolling hills and tumbling spring-fed creeks, this area of Central Kentucky nurtures some of the most beautiful horse farms in the world. Here, narrow country lanes amble beneath the outstretched arms of maples and pin oaks, past postcard-perfect farms. Stallion barns, outfitted in polished copper, burnished wood, and stained glass, call to mind cathedrals built for worship. In the paddocks, wobbly legged foals, tucked close against their mothers' flanks, nibble contentedly at tender blades of bluegrass and offer the promise of a new generation.
Yes, there's poetry in the soul of the Bluegrass, and it is the person with a bankrupt spirit and jaundiced eye who gazes upon this land and remains unmoved.
There's no such thing as an unfortunate time to visit Kentucky's horse country. Beauty abounds most any time of the year. Still, spring brings with it an air of excitement and expectation that lightens the step of even the most curmudgeonly Kentuckian. By April, warm breezes coax the daffodils from their slumber, sunny days convince flowering crabapples and dogwoods to present their pink and white blossoms, and Thoroughbred racing starts at Keeneland Race Course.
"Spring is one of the best times to be in Kentucky because that's when the best racing happens," says native Donna Ward, who trains and races Thoroughbreds with husband John, trainer of 2001 Derby winner Monarchos. "Those two months--April and May--set the stage for what's going to happen the rest of the year. You get to see if all your hard work has paid off."
For three weeks in April, the oval at Keeneland in Lexington stands at the center of Thoroughbred racing, often providing a foreshadowing of things to come. Once a showcase primarily for Kentucky horses, the races now bring owners and trainers from across the country.
Thousands of racing enthusiasts pour into the limestone grandstand each day hoping to catch a glimpse of the next Triple Crown threat. Between races, the well-dressed masses feast on burgoo, a thick regional stew laden with meats and vegetables, and then hobnob with friends and business associates. Ladies in unshielded boxes hoist parasols to ward off the afternoon sun. Those too busy to attend deposit their wagers at drive-through betting windows. By the time the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes day rolls around, the excitement is tangible, for the winner of this race instantly becomes a Derby favorite.
When the crowds fade away, Keeneland quietens, yet its splendor and influence do not diminish. Throughout the year, some of the finest equine prospects pass through the sale barns here. The races return in the fall, offering a preamble for the Breeders' Cup. All the while, picturesque farmland and white plank fences surround the racecourse like a rumpled blanket of emerald velvet stitched with fine white thread.
"I drive through Keeneland every morning going to work," Donna confides. "Our farm sits right beside it, and we train on the track there. I never get tired of seeing Keeneland. It's a truly lovely place."