We arrived in Louisville Wednesday evening May 1st greeted by a bluegrass band and lovely ladies in Derby dresses and hats handing out Bourbon Balls. Kentucky was at its finest and Derby week was in full swing. After checking into our hotel, we headed to Bardstown Road to have dinner at The Bristol. Following a scrumptious meal and the best Mint Julep to date, we headed down the road to peer into the windows filled with derby and horse themed items and hats. Regarding hats, the variety, spectacle, artistry and beauty of these fashion jewels could never be beat in any other place. For the city of Louisville, this is their week of the year to make a big impression… and a living!
Thursday morning the 2nd, we headed out early to the Dawn at the Downs – in a nutshell, breakfast with a commentator giving the information on the Kentucky Oaks and Derby horses as they came out to the track for their morning workouts. This was a huge treat to see the track with just a few other spectators and check out how the people on Millionaires Row enjoy the festivities during the actual Oaks and Derby race days. Following Dawn at the Downs, we strolled around Churchill Downs and took in all of the sights before the crowds started showing up for the races at 11am.
Rental car now in possession, we set out to find a couple track tack stores. Upon arriving at the second tack store across from the gate to the Churchill Downs backside, we learned that we parked one slot too close to the track pharmacy. I slipped into the tack store while Andrew and the owner had a little “discussion”. By the time I was out of the tack store, they were fast friends and we were on our way to an escorted tour of the backside of Churchill Downs!
Just the day before, we were looking across the track at the barns wondering how we were going get back to where we really belong – the stables! It was intriguing to walk around and see how the other half lives and works. I was amazed at the variety of living quarters for the human population at a track this size. The barns had varying degrees of security depending on the number of horses in the Oaks and Derby. After wandering around to see all of the sweet faces of the horses and watching some races from the Backside, we headed to the 21C Museum Hotel in downtown Louisville.
A gold three story “David” statue outside, red penguins on the roof and a “Pomegranate Limo” make for an interesting first impression at the 21C Hotel. There is a large art display to walk through down the stairs off of the lobby. Of course, a trunk show of amazing hats happened to be at the entrance of the stairs.
Friday morning the 3rd we headed to Lexington to meet our farm tour at 9:45am. John from Heritage Farm Tours took the loaded van through the countryside describing the history and layout of Lexington and its farms. We toured the pristine Keeneland Race Track, Donamire Farms and went to Kenny McPeek’s Magdalena Farm to walk around and rub on some mares and foals. Raised in Lexington, Kenny started training horses at 20 years old I believe and is now starting to keep his race mares and breed them for future prospects. He was the trainer for Java’s Gold in the Derby.
You can’t talk about Kentucky without noting one of the main reasons why it is such a ideal place to raise horses (and make Bourbon). As you drive through areas that have been cut through the landscape for roads, down about 12” under the top soil is limestone – lots of it. Rich in minerals, notably calcium for strong bones, the grass and water carry this high mineral content to the growing bodies and bones of the horses.
After the farm tour, we had lunch at Stella’s in Lexington and then headed over the Kentucky Horse Park to meet Susanna at the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center. Re-training and finding new homes for Thoroughbreds, MMSC is the most transparent place to find a new horse friend! Susanna’s description of the horses is worth the trip itself. I had to chuckle at horses described as Laura Ingalls, The Godfather, Marilyn Monroe, the social worker, etc. Funny yet descriptive! See more about them at SecretariatCenter.org.
From there we headed to Gainesborough Farm in Versailles, where I worked my college summers – 20 plus years ago! Directly south of Gainesborough Farm was the Woodford Reserve Distillery. We were too late for the extended tour, but sipped on our sample and enjoyed Bourbon Balls while we had a “porch tour”. We headed the southern route back to Versailles through the countryside, past farms of various sizes including Pin Oak Stud. Back in Versailles, we drove by my old apartment over Wilson’s Pool Hall.
Looking for another Mint Julep to sample, we headed back to downtown Louisville to the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House. On such a night reservations were needed, so we went to the next spot on our list, The Brown Hotel. What a treat! At $18 the Mint Juleps were certainly pricy, but the people was priceless. For your viewing pleasure, the lounge on the second floor at The Brown runs along the reception desk. Such a variety of people from all over the world as well as people returning from Kentucky Oaks race day at Churchill Downs. The Brown Hotel is a four-diamond hotel with a strong aesthetic resemblance to Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel.
In The Brown Hotel lobby that night was Derek Gores, the artist for the 2013 Kentucky Derby and Oaks artwork. Known for his collage style of work, Derek used vintage tickets, programs, photos of Churchill Downs and red roses to create the stunning pieces. He was a pleasure to meet and gladly signed our Derby poster for us.
After idyllic weather for the first few days, Derby day showed arrived with little to no chance of sunshine. After all of the efforts to figure out what to wear for the Derby the last couple months, we wore none of it and went for the practical style of warm and dry. Purchasing our parkas as we arrived at Churchill Downs and picking up a plastic derby at the Dodge booth, those two items kept us warm and dry for the day. The only break in the rain happened to be during the 11th race, the Kentucky Derby.
The rain was of no matter to the spectacle and entertainment to be had on Derby day. We arrived for the second race and stayed through until the 13th race was over in the lights. Once again, people watching was at its prime. We had second level seats with access to the third level. Whatever access of tickets you have entitles you to any areas below your access. The lower down on the grandstands, the busier and more crowded it becomes. The infield was akin to a college party with a wide assortment of finery covered in mud.
Kentucky is the closest place on earth to what I imagine horse heaven to be like. Endless grass, huge expansive pastures, people doting on your every need to keep you happy and healthy. No matter what shape or size of horse you like, there is something for you to see and explore in Kentucky. Unless you see it for yourself, it is hard to describe the sheer number and beauty of the farms on every spoke that extends out of Lexington.
What we would definitely do again: Dawn at the Downs, Farm Tour, Track Backside Tour, Distillery Tours, drive down back roads past endless farms!
What we would do differently: *Horse people should stay in Lexington and head over to Louisville for Dawn at the Downs, the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby days. *Buy the best tickets you can afford for the Oaks and/or Derby. *Make sure we made it to the Kentucky Derby Museum (it is closed on Oaks & Derby Days)- We should have gone on the day of Dawn at the Downs.
Heather McWilliams © 2013.