Both of the rival presidents during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were born in KENTUCKY, where acute divisions existed between slave-owning farmers and the merchants who depended on trade with the nearby cities of the industrial North. While the state remained officially neutral, more Kentuckians joined the Union army than the Confederates; after the war, however, Kentucky sided with the South in its hostility to Reconstruction and has tended to follow southern political trends.
Kentucky’s rugged beauty is at its most appealing in the mountainous east and the small historic towns of the Bluegrass Downs, home to bluegrass, bourbon and thoroughbred horses. Most of these are within reach of reserved Lexington, a major horse-breeding market, while hipper Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, lies eighty miles west. Western Kentucky, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is flat, heavily forested and generally less attractive.Read More
Along Paris and Ironworks pikes, northeast of Lexington in an idyllic Kentucky landscape, sleek thoroughbred horses cavort in bluegrass meadows, often penned in by immaculate white-plank fences. To the west, you can watch the horses’ early-morning workouts at Keeneland racetrack (April–Oct daily dawn–10am; $5; t 859/254-3412, w www.keeneland.com). Dark-green grandstands emphasize the crisp white rails around the one-mile oval track, where meetings are held for three weeks in April (Wed–Sun 7.30pm) and three weeks in Oct (Wed–Sun 1pm). General admission is $5 and seats cost $8–20. There is a great canteen too.
The easiest way to see a farm is to take a guided bus tour out of Lexington; Blue Grass Tours (daily 9am & 1.30pm; $30; t 859/252-5744, w www.bluegrasstours.com) offer a three-hour, fifty-mile itinerary that includes a stop at Old Friends Farm (w www.oldfriendsequine.org), plus a visit to Keeneland. One of the few farms conducting its own tours is Three Chimneys ($10; book on t 859/873-7053 w www.threechimneys.com) on Old Frankfort Pike, about fifteen minutes west of downtown. The Thoroughbred Center, 3380 Paris Pike (9am: April–Oct Mon–Sat; Nov–March Mon–Fri; $10; t 859/293-1853, w www.thethoroughbredcenter.com), allows you to watch trainers at work. The enjoyable 1032-acre Kentucky Horse Park, a little further along at 4089 Ironworks Parkway (mid-March to Oct daily 9am–5pm; Nov to mid-March Wed–Sun 9am–5pm; $9–16; w www.kyhorsepark.com), features over thirty different equine breeds, a working farm and guided horseback rides ($22); its fascinating International Museum of the Horse traces the use of horses throughout history. In nearby Georgetown, at Whispering Woods, experienced equestrians can canter unsupervised, while novices ride with a guide ($25 for 1hr, up to $90/day; w www.whisperingwoodstrails.com).
The Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby is one of the world’s premier horse races; it’s also, as Hunter S. Thompson put it, “decadent and depraved”. Derby Day itself is the first Saturday in May, at the end of the two-week Kentucky Derby Festival. Since 1875, the leading lights of Southern society have gathered at Churchill Downs, three miles south of downtown, for an orgy of betting, haute cuisine and mint juleps in the plush grandstand, while tens of thousands of the beer-guzzling proletariat cram into the infield. Apart from the $40 infield tickets available on the day – offering virtually no chance of a decent view – all seats are sold out months in advance. The actual race, traditionally preceded by a mass drunken rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home”, is run over a distance of one and a quarter miles, lasts barely two minutes and offers around a million dollars in prize money. The excellent hands-on Kentucky Derby Museum (mid-March to Nov Mon–Sat 8am–5pm, Sun 11–5pm; Dec to mid-March Mon–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 11am–5pm; $12; w www.derbymuseum.org), next to Churchill Downs at 704 Central Ave, will appeal to horseracing enthusiasts and neophytes alike. Admission includes a magnificent audiovisual display that captures the Derby Day atmosphere on a 360° screen; you can take a Behind the Scenes tour of the stables and racecourse for an extra $10.