By Lauren R. Giannini
Emblazoned across the top of the blue water tower painted with a mare and foal, the words Welcome to the Horse Capital of the World greet motorists from the westbound side of I-64 near the merge with I-75 en route to Lexington. The racehorses on the water tower are especially visible to eastbound traffic. From either direction, this classic example of Bluegrass hospitality will lift your travel-weary spirits.
There’s so much to do wherever you go in this amazing horse paradise. Most people head to Lexington because of the Kentucky Horse Park, a world-famous venue for indoor and outdoor equestrian competitions — hunter, jumper, gaited, eventing, driving, dressage, reining, steeplechase, etc. — plus non-equine activities and events, including dog competitions, 5K runs and cross-country meets, to name a few.
Annual events include Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event, Breyerfest, North American Junior & Young Rider Championships, USEF Pony Finals, Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover, CP National Horse Show, U.S. Dressage Finals and more. The Kentucky Horse Park offers four museums, including the International Museum of the Horse, a Smithsonian affiliate. At the Hall of Champions, visitors can meet champions of the racetrack: Thoroughbreds, American Quarter Horses and Standardbreds. For a reasonable fee, there are trail rides, pony rides and horse farm tours. Visit www.kyhorsepark.com to learn more.
Just around the corner from Kentucky Horse Park in nearby Georgetown: Old Friends, the non-profit Thoroughbred retirement center for racehorses, founded in 2003 by Michael Blowen. Old Friends provides a special home in three states for more than 150 horses — the only retirement/rescue facility that specializes in accepting stallions as well as mares and geldings. Each pensioner at Old Friends has a story and Michael is a great host and tour guide. Visit www.oldfriendsequine.org to learn more.
If you’re into Thoroughbred racing, you might want to visit local Thoroughbred breeding farms, including Coolmore America (Ashford Stud), home of the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 and freshman sire American Pharoah, whose first foals are due in 2017. The Triple Crown plus his victory in the 2015 Breeders Cup Classic make American Pharoah the only winner of the “Grand Slam” of American Horse Racing. He retired with three Eclipse Awards: 2014 Male 2-Year-Old Champion, 2015 3-year-old Champion, and 2015 Horse of the Year. Tours of Coolmore America cost $20 for adults, $11 for under 12, and all proceeds are donated to local charities. To RSVP, go to www.visithorsecountry.com.
Lexington offers something for everyone. History buffs have a choice of museums, stately mansions, civil war forts, Daniel Boone’s grave, battlefields, and the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion. Art is part of the Bluegrass culture. In addition to art galleries and museums, empty walls throughout Lexington are being painted with murals. The American Academy of Equine Artists offers its 2016 Spring Invitational Exhibition and Sale through June 23 in The Club at Spindletop Hall, on Iron Works Pike across from the Kentucky Horse Park.
Kentucky is famous for bourbon — as its birthplace and also for making 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. Buffalo Trace Distillery, not far from the Governor’s Mansion, is home to four “single barrel” bourbons, bottled and sealed by hand, including Blantons in the distinctive racehorse-corked decanter. Town Branch Distillery, which owes its existence to Dr. Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, is a downtown attraction and the first distillery built in Lexington in nearly 100 years. Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale and Bourbon are two highlights of the tours: $8.50 per person, which includes a sample of four of their eight products. About 20 miles outside Lexington, historic Woodford Reserve nestles picturesquely among horse farms just west of Lexington. You might enjoy wending your way through more of Kentucky’s prime horse country to visit Wild Turkey Distillery and Four Roses.
Keeneland Race Course is open year round with “live” racing in April and October, three annual horse sales, and simulcast racing from around the world. The clubhouse is gracious, the food delicious and the racing always exciting, especially when you can visit the paddock to watch horses parade for their next race and cheer your favorites as they fly around the track. Simulcast keeps the air electric at Keeneland, which offers year-round tours ($8 per person) of this National Historic Landmark with its beautiful and impeccably kept grounds. An experienced guide explains the history and provides an inside view while you witness morning workouts. Please RSVP: www.keeneland.com.
With so much to see and do, the lodging in and around Lexington is varied and plentiful. If you want a pampered getaway, check out the luxuries on offer at Gratz Park Inn, the only small boutique hotel located in the historic district. It’s within walking distance of restaurants, boutiques, antique shops, historic landmarks and nightlife. Distilled at Gratz Park serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week.
One good tip for Lexington is to be prepared and search the Internet ahead of time so you have more time for fun. Be sure to bookmark www.visitlex.com — a virtual version of the stunning Lexington Visitors Center on Main Street in the heart of downtown. Online, you’ll find tons of information, such as Things To Do, Restaurants, Visitor Guide, Calendar of Events and more.