Spring brings a special beauty to this storied slice of Kentucky.
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."
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.
"When we cook bourbon, we use ground water from a deep well that filters through the limestone strata that is predominant in this area," says Dave Scheurich, plant manager at Labrot & Graham Distillery, just outside the town of Versailles. "As water filters through the limestone, it filters out iron and other ferrous materials that are bad for distilling alcohol, and it adds minerals such as calcium that provide a good environment for the yeast. So distillers really like to use limestone water."
The oldest distillery in the state, lovely Labrot & Graham sits beside a rushing creek in a narrow valley in the midst of some of the commonwealth's most famous horse farms. Thousands make the trek each year to tour the distillery, enjoy a picnic prepared by the in-house chef, and take home a sample of the premium Woodford Reserve bourbon.
"I fell in love with this place the first time I saw it, but you have to be careful driving these roads," Dave says. "You can easily come upon someone stopped in the middle of the road taking a picture. We like to say this is the only place in the world you can see two of Kentucky's most famous products maturing side by side."
For more information: Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, 301 East Vine Street, Lexington, KY 40507-1513; (859) 233-7299, 1-800-845-3959, or www.visitlex.com.
Hats Off to Horses
Blue Grass Tours: (859) 233-2152, 1-800-755-6956, or www.bluegrasstours.com. Tours: 9 a.m. daily. Additional tour at 1:30 p.m. during high season, if needed. Pickup at local hotels. Price: $25.
Horse Farm Tours, Inc.: (859) 268-2906. Tours: 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily. Pickup at local hotels. Price: $24.
Keeneland Race Course: 4201 Versailles Road, Lexington, KY 40510; (859) 254-3412, 1-800-456-3412, or www.keeneland.com. Hours: Grounds open year-round 6:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Live racing takes place Wednesday-Sunday in April and October. First post time is 1:15 p.m.
Kentucky Horse Park and International Museum of the Horse: 4089 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington, KY 40511; (859) 233-4303, 1-800-678-8813, or www.kyhorsepark.com. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily March 15-October 31, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday November 1-March 14. Admission: $9 November 1-March 14, $12 March 15-October 31. Special exhibitions cost extra.
A Toast to Bourbon
Labrot & Graham Distillery: 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, KY 40383; (859) 879-1812 or www.labrot-graham.com. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Guides offer tours at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Tours on Sunday are at 1, 2, and 3 p.m. April-October. Picnic on the Porch: Enjoy gourmet sandwiches, salads, and desserts at the Visitors Center, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. April-October.
This article is from the April 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.