A Kingdom for a Horse
Those who forgo the races find that a drive through the country yields equal beauty and intrigue. Designated driving trails direct visitors past outlying farms, through small towns with big names such as Paris, Georgetown, and Versailles (proudly pronounced ver-SAILS by locals).
Though some still welcome people who call ahead, the best way to see the farms and learn about the area is with a tour guide. Whether you sign on with a group or hire a private guide for a custom tour, you'll get a feel for Lexington, plus a snapshot of the tight-knit horse industry colored with stories of triumph and calamity. Keeneland is on every itinerary, as is The Red Mile track, famous for Standardbred racing.
On any tour--guided or self-directed--you'll pass many farms that stop you at the front gate. But thanks to a former governor's wisdom, the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park welcomes visitors year-round. A working horse farm since the 18th century, this state park boasts more than 50 equine breeds today. A life-size statue of the famous stallion Man o' War stands at the entrance. Visitors picnic under the trees and enjoy horse-drawn tours and carriage rides. Still, the most anticipated event is the twice-daily Parade of Breeds, where riders put their charges through their paces, then let visitors pet the horses' muzzles and stroke their manes.
The Legacy of Limestone
As beautiful as the undulating countryside appears to visitors, what lies just beneath the topsoil truly defines the area. "See those gray rocks sticking out of that bank over there?" asks Jim Evans, a guide with Blue Grass Tours in Lexington. "That's what gives this country its character."
Layer upon layer of limestone lie so close to the surface that the grasses absorb calcium that leaches from the stone. When the horses eat the grass, it helps produce the fabulously strong bones needed for galloping at breakneck speeds.
"When we first get back to Kentucky in the springtime, the horses are ravenous for the bluegrass," says Donna, who helps relocate the Ward horses to the Sunshine State for winter racing. "The grass in Florida obviously has a different taste, and it definitely has a different texture because it's tougher. Once we return to Kentucky, we can hardly get the horses off the van and into the barn because the first thing they want to do is graze."
Miles and miles of board fence--some painted white, some a more durable black--line the paddocks of horse farms throughout the region. But older farms often feature dry-laid stone fences, crafted long ago by Scots-Irish immigrants who knew how to use the piles of limestone that plagued early Kentuckians struggling to plow the fields.
When water filters through those porous stones, the resulting mineral-rich liquid becomes the secret ingredient used in making another of Kentucky's most storied products--bourbon whiskey.