Savor the beauty of Lexington, Kentucky, the town that runs on horsepower.
By Carolyn Thornton
Some 400 horse farms fan out from Lexington, that horse-crazy Kentucky town. On these farms, thoroughbreds kick up their hooves alongside quarter horses, Tennessee walking horses, Arabians, Morgans, Appaloosas, and American Saddlebreds.
Many of racing’s most famous thoroughbreds – Seattle Slew, Nureyev, Spendthrift, Black Gold, and the legendary Man O’ War, to name just a few “” were bred here. Within the city itself, the horse motif is prevalent on everything from flower boxes and window displays to street names and advertising signs. Bumper stickers ask, “Have you hugged your horse today?”
Is it any wonder that Lexington is called “The Horse Capital of the World?”
To become immersed in the bluegrass region, or merely view it from the back roads, pick up a “Bluegrass Country Driving Tour” brochure or the new “Dreamer Driving Tour,” which lists landmarks from the movie Dreamer starring Kurt Russell. They’re available from the Lexington Convention & Visitors Bureau. Both offer options for side trips, quick returns to town, photo stops, and otherwise easily missed insights into the history and character of the area. Blue signs mark the route.
Since the countryside is dotted with horse farms, the roads, which are regularly traveled by dually pickups and horse trailers, can accommodate motorhomes as well. But drive slowly, not only to appreciate a sunrise over rolling hills with horses grazing contentedly, but because many of the bordering fences are constructed of mortarless stacked stone. Shoulders are minimal, with deep drop-offs in places. There won’t be room to pull off, but traffic is generally light. Also be aware that in places trees form natural archways over the road.
When you can stop for a closer look, curious horses may amble up to the fence. Frolicking youngsters nip at each others’ necks and stamp their hooves. You won’t be able to get close to the spirited stallions, which are enclosed behind a double set of fences five boards high. Mares can be contained with four boards and single fencing.
Board fences may be painted black or white. Some people believe white is easier for the horses to see, but black requires less painting. Since a single farm with all of its cross fences and paddocks easily can require up to several miles of fencing, black is often chosen for economic reasons. According to the driving tour brochure, plank fencing for a farm costs approximately $18,000, before painting.
Start your tour early and have breakfast (served between 6:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. daily) in the Track Kitchen at Keeneland, Lexington’s renowned race course. This is where the trainers, grooms, owners, and investors dine. Or watch the 20-minute workouts of the horses (from mid-March to early November). There are 1,500 horse stalls here.
Many horses have their own stall companions, such as resident goats, cats, or roosters, to settle them down. High-strung yet social, thoroughbreds are calmed by such friends. The Keeneland Association holds racing meets in April and October, and presents live thoroughbred auctions throughout the year. The track’s parklike setting and absence of a noisy public address system fulfill Keeneland’s slogan: “Racing as it was meant to be.” Grounds tours are free; for more information, call (800) 456-3412 or visit www.keeneland.com.
As you drive throughout this area, you’ll see old-time architectural details on some barns, such as cupolas, spires, and arches. The symbol of an eagle is believed to be a sign of good fortune, as is a horseshoe hung with the open ends facing up (the bottom curve holds in the good luck).
The second-oldest harness racetrack in the world, the Red Mile Harness Track, dates from 1875. The name comes from the red soil of the track, the grounds of which are open year-round. Racing occurs between April and September. The largest outdoor Saddlehorse show takes center stage here each summer. To find out more about this facility, call (859) 255-0752 or visit www.theredmile.com.
Not all of Lexington is about horses, however. The best way to tour downtown Lexington is by car or on foot, particularly when exploring residential districts such as Gratz Park, the campus of Transylvania University, and homes on North Mill and Market streets.
Downtown, historic homes open to tours include Mary Todd Lincoln’s House, the first home ever dedicated to a first lady. One story tells about how Mary’s little sister cried, “The giant is here!” and ran and hid beneath her mother’s skirts when 6-foot-4-inch-tall Abraham Lincoln first visited this place. To avoid the petite furniture (normal size for most folks of that era), Abe would lie in front of the window to read.
The Hunt-Morgan House, historically known as Hopemont, was built in 1814 by Kentucky’s first millionaire, John Wesley Hunt. Look for the horse-shaped hitching post out front. And Ashland, the home of 19th-century statesman Henry Clay, is the city’s crown jewel. The grandeur of this home reflects Lexington’s namesake as “The Athens of the West.” Early residents had been accustomed to the finer things in life, and brought the best furnishings and goods with them.
At Thoroughbred Park, located at the corner of Main and Midland streets, you can step into the center of a spirited race, albeit one that is frozen in time. It’s fitting because horse races once were held on Main. Sculptures depict seven bronze horses and jockeys lunging toward an imaginary finish line. These full-size figures are so lifelike that they have frightened real horses who have seen them.
“Want to climb up on them?” asked a passerby. “That’s what the kids do.” Check out the details. Number 5 depicts legendary jockey Willie Shoemaker with his head bent, trying to win by a nose.
There is so much more to Lexington than horse farms, indeed.
For entertaining the kids in your family, the Explorium of Lexington, formerly the Lexington Children’s Museum, has more than 100 hands-on exhibits that focus on culture, archaeology, and geography. Or, take a free tour of Old Kentucky Candies to give kids a taste of their fantastic chocolates. Adults might want to try some Bourbon Chocolates, made with 100-proof Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Another city stop is “the best one-night-stand in America,” the 1886 Lexington Opera House, which is the setting for performances by the Kentucky Ballet Theatre. Two other downtown facilities – Arts Place and the Downtown Arts Center – feature art exhibitions and performances that showcase the region’s creative talent.
For those who are calling for more horses, a destination in itself is the Kentucky Horse Park. Horse shows, exhibits, tours, horseback riding, workshops, and museum exhibits document equine history. More than 40 breeds are stabled in the midst of 1,000 rolling acres. Near the entrance stands the monument and gravesite of the celebrated Man O’ War. Nicknamed Big Red, this thoroughbred won his first race by five lengths and broke or set new records in most of his 20 wins.
Many lesser-known breeds can be seen at the park, such as Gelderlanders carriage horses, Peruvian Pasos, miniature breeds, and draft horses. A Parade of Breeds is a regular feature twice a day (morning and afternoon) from mid-March to the end of October. Other shows presented each day in those months include a 25-minute show called Hall of Champions. And visitors may watch the harnessing of draft and carriage horses, or a blacksmith trimming hooves and nailing on shoes; take a surrey or carriage ride; learn about the personality of various breeds; or watch the Draft Horse Exodus as these big babies are unharnessed and returned to pasture for the evening graze.
You may want to take a horse farm tour that departs from the Horse Park, leaving the driving to the experts. The 2 ½- to-3-hour tour includes a stop at Keeneland, and visits some of the most beautiful historic farm estates, as well as the most up-to-date multimillion-dollar farms in the area. Tours depart from the Information Center, where you can learn more about this opportunity.
A major new permanent exhibition opening in May 2007 at the Horse Park is dedicated to Triple Crown winner Affirmed. In 1978 he became the third horse of that decade to win the Triple Crown. No horse has achieved that feat since.
While you’re at the Horse Park, don’t miss the International Museum of the Horse. Inside are all sorts of artists’ tributes to the horse throughout the ages, including sculptures, photos, paintings, and historical items.
Several prestigious annual events are held at the Horse Park, too. These include the Kentucky Spring Classic Horse Show and High Hope Steeplechase, both in May; a miniature horse show in July; the Kentucky Fall Classic Saddlebred Show in October; and Southern Lights, a holiday tradition (mid-November through December 31). The latter event includes a 3-mile driving tour through light displays at the park, and then attractions to reach on foot, such as a petting zoo, holiday decorations, musical programs, and a miniature train.
The American Saddlebred Museum, which is also on the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park, showcases the history of Kentucky’s only native breed. Climb into the saddle for a video glimpse of how you’d look astride this high-stepping horse. Or explore the homey comforts for horse and rider in a deluxe horse trailer.
No matter where you travel throughout the Bluegrass region, you’re guaranteed to find the horse of your dreams.
Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau
301 E. Vine St.
Lexington, KY 40507-1513
Kentucky Horse Park Campground
4089 Iron Works Parkway
Lexington, KY 40511
This campground, which is located on the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park, has 260 campsites, all with electrical and water hookups. All are back-in sites and can accommodate RVs up to 45 feet. Amenities include a pool, showers, bathhouses, two laundry facilities, children’s activities, and more.