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On the right course

This spring, let your spirit soar free while exploring the charms
of Kentucky Horse Country.
By Sheree K. Nielsen

Legendary racetracks, verdant pastures, thoroughbred farms, and quaint villages steeped in history all can be found in Kentucky Horse Country. Spring­, which ushers in important races and new foals, is a perfect time to explore Kentucky’s bluegrass region.

Churchill Downs

Above: The Kentucky Derby is one of 13 horse races slated for May 4 at Churchill Downs. Louisville CVB photo

Below: Elaborate horse farms such as this are commonplace throughout Kentucky’s Horse Country. photo

horse farm


A bell rings, the crowd cheers, and they’re off. Some say the Kentucky Derby is the fastest two minutes in sports. The 140th Annual Run for the Roses may be the 11th of 13 races slated for May 3 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, but it certainly is the most famous. It also is steeped in rich tradition.

Less than an hour to post time, My Old Kentucky Home is heard over the public address system as the crowd sings along. It’s customary to attend the event dressed in one’s best. Women wear beautiful spring dresses and fancy hats, men are dapper in suits and ties. An insider’s tip: Ladies, consider packing a pair of flat shoes or even flip flops for walking.

The Walkover is an entourage of groomers, owners, trainers, and horses that passes through the walkway under the Twin Spires and arrives in the paddock.

After final race preparation, the jockeys join them. Twenty thoroughbreds are led into the starting gates for the mile-and-a- quarter race. It’s a great spectacle to witness while sipping a traditional mint julep, that wonderfully Southern libation of bourbon, water, sugar, and mint.

Susan Dallas, communications manager for Louisville’s convention and visitors bureau, said general admission tickets for $50 are available the day of the Derby, and while the ticket does not include a seat, guests can get to the paddock area and infield. Churchill Downs has additional information about admission to the race.

If you plan to attend the Derby, other tips for the event include:

  • Reserve a hotel early. The Seilbach Hilton (AAA Four Diamonds) is a celebrity favorite, or consider a Louisville icon–the newly renovated Brown Hotel (AAA Four Diamonds).
  • Bring a poncho in case of rain. No umbrellas are allowed.
  • Secure public transportation to Churchill Downs. Parking may be difficult. Nearby businesses also offer race day shuttles for a fee.

While the race is exciting, the Kentucky Derby is more than one event. From April 15 to May 2, a variety of activities make up the Kentucky Derby Festival, including a huge fireworks event called Thunder over Louisville on April 20. Get calendar information at

The Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs has exhibits and tours, including barn and backside tours during Derby week.

Louisville offers other premier attractions not related to horses.

Watch white ash or maple bats being shaped, cut, and stained, and hear fun facts about major league players at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory located downtown. You can’t miss the building; a six-story replica of Babe Ruth’s bat is leaning against the brick structure. The museum boasts interactive exhibits and historic memorabilia.

Re-energize with dinner at Proof on Main at the 21c Museum Hotel. Boxy lighting complemented by brick walls and butter-colored tufted seats set a vibrant tone. Try the mouthwatering farm-raised bison burger with cheddar or the pork chop. Browse the museum’s interactive contemporary art displays.


Celebrating its 35th anniversary, Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington is a state-owned tourist attraction on more than 1,200 acres. Several competitions, representing breeds and disciplines, take place within the park. The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event happens the last weekend in April and offers dressage, cross-country, and jumping competitions.

Tour the American Saddlebred Museum­–one of three museums within the park–or one of several barns, including the Draft Horse Barn. The Horses of the World Show presents authentically costumed riders on selected horse breeds. The delightful Mare and Foal Show happens daily at 11:45 a.m. from Memorial Day through July.

Unique Horse Farm Tours leave from Kentucky Horse Park and visit nearby thoroughbred farms such as WinStar and Calumet. On the way, step inside rustic charcoal-hued tobacco barns, pass historical churches and cemeteries, and gaze at pre-Civil War stone fences on scenic country roads. Hear tales about famous horses and Kentuckians.

After the tour, treat yourself to deSha’s restaurant in downtown Lexington for Bourbon Bread Pudding. Walk off the calories at a hidden oasis called Triangle Park. Its cascading waterfalls, fragrant honey locust trees, and café tables provide a peaceful downtown respite.

Slumber your cares away on a plush four-poster bed at the elegant Gratz Park Inn (AAA Three Diamonds) on Second Street. It’s located in the heart of the historical district close to major attractions.

At daybreak, head to Keeneland Race Course. Early risers can enjoy biscuits smothered in sausage gravy at the Track Kitchen, and possibly brush shoulders with a famous jockey or owner. Watch the early morning workouts of countless horses guided by their riders. The sky dipped in frosty blue captivates, while the equine’s thundering hooves and rhythmical breathing is all you’ll hear as they gallop past at unbridled speeds.

A short drive away is Holly Hill Inn, set in historical Midway, a railroad town. Locally grown products are key to the restaurant’s cuisine. We dined on salmon in a delicate white wine sauce with new potatoes, sautéed green beans, and roasted carrots. Loganberry pie featured plump berries and a flaky crust.

Overlooking Glenn’s Creek in Versailles is Woodford Reserve Distillery. Sign up for the Bourbon Discovery Tour and learn about the history of triple-distilled bourbon. View the fermentation process in 100-year-old cypress tubs.


Founded in 1786, Georgetown is a scenic village. Its roots can be traced to the site of Royal Spring. Today, Royal Spring Park features a log cabin museum, a viewing site, and a recreation area. A walking tour of Georgetown’s Southern architecture reveals 200 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Like Louisville and Lexington, horses are in the blood of Georgetown. An interesting attraction is Old Friends, a retirement home for thoroughbreds. Started in 2003 by former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen, Old Friends is home to about 119 retired horses. Many are champions like Rapid Redux, who set the record for winning 22 races in a row.

Visitors can pet the horses, feed them carrots, and learn their stories. The farm’s mascot–Silver Charm–is an adorable soccer-playing miniature horse.

Interesting lodging and dining options await visitors in Georgetown and Scott County. Situated on a working Bluegrass farm, Jordan Farm Bed and Breakfast offers accommodations in the spacious equine-themed Carriage House. At sunrise, the sky heaps tangerine hues as the fog lifts from the meadow. For haute cuisine, try Rodney’s on Broadway. Crisp tablecloths, white crown molding, and dark espresso walls create a soothing ambiance.

Whether you’re into horses, history or heritage, you’re sure to cherish Kentucky’s unbridled treasures.

Sheree K. Nielsen is a contributor from Wentzville, Mo.

Mar/Apr 2013 Issue


Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau,
(888) 568-4784 or

Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau,
(800) 845-3959 or

Georgetown/Scott County Tourism,
(888) 863-8600 or

To visit Kentucky Horse Country, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

AAA Travel and Empire Sports offer packages for the Kentucky Derby. Contact your AAA Travel professional for information or visit for details.



Tracking Regional Courses

Springtime racing excitement also can be experienced at several regional race courses. Arkansas and Louisiana offer live horse racing at facilities that have long histories, as well as newer courses.

In Hot Springs, Ark., Oaklawn offers live racing action from January through April. The last four days of the season are known as the Racing Festival of the South and culminates on April 13 with the Arkansas Derby.

Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans, La., is the place for the 100th Louisiana Derby, which will be run on March 30.

Newer race courses in Louisiana include Delta Downs Racetrack and Casino Hotel in Vinton, Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino in Opelousas, and Harrah’s Louisiana Downs in Bossier City.

Oaklawn in Hot Springs runs with the Arkansas Derby on April 13. Arkansas Parks and Tourism photo

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