Lexington, Ky., welcomes spring with championship horse racing,
Bluegrass, basketball, bourbon, and beer give springtime in Lexington, Ky., a sense of place like no other.
Tiny, purplish blooms pop up on redbud trees against acres of rolling bluegrass in central Kentucky. March Madness is like a holiday, especially if the local favorites, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, are playing in the NCAA Tournament. Win or lose, the phrase, “How about them ’Cats?” will be all you need to start a conversation with the Big Blue Nation locals over drinks at any of the bourbon distilleries, breweries, and restaurants in and around Lexington.
Known the world over as the “Horse Capital of the World,” Lexington, combined with Fayette County, has a population of nearly 310,000. It’s the second-largest city in Kentucky, behind Louisville.
Lexington is a very drivable city and is easy to get around, so much so that you might be surprised by all you will be able to see and do in a three-day weekend. For example, driving from the heart of Lexington to points just beyond New Circle Road, the main highway surrounding the city, only takes about 20 minutes.
One of those places just beyond New Circle Road, which is also called Kentucky Route 4, is Keeneland race course. A National Historic Landmark, Keeneland is an iconic piece of the famed central Kentucky Bluegrass Region. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, and scenic horse farms surround the facility.
Keeneland offers world-class Thoroughbred racing with its Spring Meet, April 8–29, and Fall Meet, Oct. 7–29. The sport’s top jockeys, trainers, and owners will be competing.
Last October, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah generated a tremendous amount of excitement for horse racing by winning the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was held for the first time at Keeneland. This was American Pharoah’s final race. These days, the Thoroughbred is spending his racing retirement as a sire at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud breeding facility.
This spring, Keeneland will invite fans to help honor a number of legendary jockeys who will be in attendance at the track, part of a fun-filled special events calendar. As always, Keeneland will offer a variety of delicious food, including such fan favorites as burgoo (think Kentucky meat stew), corned beef sandwiches, and its popular bread pudding with bourbon sauce.
Keeneland is open every day free of charge. Visitors can watch horses training on the track every morning from 6–10 a.m., take a self-guided walking tour of the grounds, browse the gift shop, have breakfast or lunch in the Track Kitchen, and enjoy the Keeneland Library.
Now that you’ve cashed in your winning tickets at Keeneland and are in need of a place to stay, the equestrian theme continues at Gratz Park Inn, 120 W. Second St.
This boutique hotel, which opened in 1988, located in downtown Lexington’s Historic District, is warm and inviting, with suites and guest rooms featuring four-poster beds, luxurious accommodations, and a staff specializing in Southern hospitality. The cozy lobby features a baby grand piano and a library with leather chairs for reading or relaxing with a cup of complimentary coffee or tea.
From 1920 to 1958, the building that is now home to the Gratz Park Inn was used as a medical clinic. Are there ghosts? Ask the folks who work at the hotel.
Nearby Gratz Park is named for Lexington businessman Benjamin Gratz. He was a city council member, founder of the city’s first public library, and a force in preserving the green space now known as Gratz Park, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
DISTILLERIES & BREWERIES
Like many hotels in Lexington, Gratz Park Inn’s Distilled restaurant features a bar with row after row of more than 50 bourbons and other spirits. Since there are more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky, the native spirit continues to grow in popularity as more distilleries and breweries continue to open.
Take a tour of Alltech Lexington Brewery and Distilling Co.’s Town Branch Distillery. The maker of Kentucky Ale, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, and many other seasonal beers, is located on the edge of town at 401 Cross St. The distillery has been part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail since 2012. The tour includes samples of both bourbons and beers, and master distiller Mark Coffman gives visitors insight into what goes into making bourbon and rye.
At nearby Country Boy Brewing, 436 Chair Ave., there are 24 taps – 12 are beers by Country Boy, the other 12 are specially selected guest beers from around the world. The focus is on beer here, so there’s not much to eat unless you bring your own, have it delivered, or wait until the food trucks come around in the evening.
Like many small breweries, Country Boy’s located in a nondescript industrial park. Once inside, the beers and their names – Shotgun Wedding, Cougar Bait, and Amos Moses – make up for the outside appearance.
HOME TO A FIRST LADY
For a more leisurely tour, the Mary Todd Lincoln House, 578 W. Main St., helps to shine a light on how this Kentuckian and first lady stood up to public attacks and personal tragedy.
It is said that upon meeting Mary Todd Lincoln at a dance in Springfield, Ill., a young Abraham Lincoln said to her, “I’d like to dance with you in the worst way.”
“And he did,” she later recalled.
Museum docent Tom Wright gives a fascinating look into what life was like in the 1800s. The home was the Todd family residence from 1832 until her father Robert S. Todd’s death in 1849. When she was 21, she moved to Springfield, Ill., to live with her sister, Elizabeth.
The 14-room residence opened in 1977 and is the first house museum in America to honor a first lady. It contains period furniture, family portraits, and items belonging to both the Lincolns and the Todds, including her Tiffany chocolate pot.
Closed during winter months, the museum reopens March 15 and is available for tours Monday–Saturday through Nov. 30.
ON THE MENU
For breakfast or lunch, the line is long at Doodles, 262 N. Limestone Ave., but the smell of biscuits from the kitchen will keep you in the quick-moving que. Housed in a repurposed gas station, Doodles gets folks from nearby Transylvania University, as well as from downtown. “Lillie’s Egg Doodle” is a twist on the classic egg-in-a-hole and is served with cheese grits. It’s breakfast to remember.
At National Provisions, 264 Walton, Ave., there is a lot going on under one roof. The former soda bottling plant not far from downtown is home to a bakery, grocery, and restaurant. National Provisions Brasserie is located in a beautiful space, so if you’re looking for a leisurely dinner, this is the spot. Seafood, catfish, duck, and pork are all represented on the menu, so take your time and enjoy the revival of this beautiful space.
Jackie Hutcherson Parker is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
March/April 2016 Issue
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