On the first Saturday of May, the swiftest three-year-old Thoroughbred in the world will be crowned champion of the Kentucky Derby at Louisville's Churchill Downs. Those brave enough to attend Derby Week—seven days of wild fêting that lead up to what's billed as "the most exciting two minutes in sports"—share an ebullience fueled by 128 years of tradition, regional pride (bluegrass-fed horses have long dominated the derby's winner's circle), and copious amounts of the event's requisite libation, the mint julep.
But springtime excitement in Horse Country is palpable even if you bypass derby-mania altogether. (The lottery-awarded tickets are in such high demand, you may be forced to.) Kentucky's two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington, represent the outer limits of the region and deliver plenty in the way of Southern culture. The latter, with its outlying horse farms, epitomizes the slow life. The former (pronounced "loo-uh-vull," by the way) has vintage streets lined with lively restaurants, lists a legendary baseball bat manufacturer in its Yellow Pages, and, of course, attracts horse enthusiasts from every stratum of society to its white-spired Churchill Downs. The towns between the two are equally divergent: Bardstown is the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World; Harrodsburg is the land of the simplicity-seeking Shakers. Surrounding them are undulating meadows in that mythical shade that gives the Bluegrass State its name.
Spring is the time of year when conversation focuses on sire reports and handicaps. But spend a few days in north-central Kentucky and you'll see beyond the horses. After all, this corner of America also gave the world cheeseburgers, bourbon, and the first self-contained artificial heart.
Where to Stay
Derby Week is Bluegrass Country's high season. Still, good value can be found in a wide range of accommodations.
The Brown 335 W. Broadway, Louisville; 800/555-8000 or 502/583-1234, fax 502/587-7006; doubles from $122. A downtown Louisville landmark since 1922, the Brown has played host to celebrities such as native son Muhammad Ali (who has a suite named after him). The 292 rooms are formally furnished with English Manor—style pieces; public areas glow with ornate chandeliers, Italian marble floors, and elaborate gilded plasterwork.
Beaumont Inn 638 Beaumont Inn Dr., Harrodsburg; 800/352-3992 or 859/734-3381, fax 859/734-6897; doubles from $90. Once a girls' finishing school, this Greek Revival hilltop mansion has been run as an inn by the same family since 1919. And it shows: the house overflows with hand-me-down treasures, from the angel-festooned onyx-and-marble clock purchased at the 1893 Columbian Exposition to the handmade bed frames in the 33 guest rooms. It's not stuffy and overstuffed, however—staying here is like visiting an eccentric, doting aunt.
Swann's Nest at Cygnet Farm 3463 Rosalie Lane, Lexington; 859/226-0095, fax 859/252-4499; doubles from $160. When Rosalie Swann's husband died, her accountant suggested she put her horse farm's mansion to good use and open a B&B. Ever since, the history of the house has attracted mostly horse owners and trainers, many of whom are connected to Keeneland Race Course down the road. In such small quarters—there are only three single rooms and two suites—it's a good bet you'll hear some interesting gossip about past and present races.
Jailer's Inn 111 W. Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown; 800/948-5551 or 502/348-5551, fax 502/349-1837; doubles from $105. Not many inns have iron bars on the windows and their own drunk tank. This one does—until 1987, it was a working prison. Now it's a six-room resting stop for (mostly) law-abiding citizens. Next door is the Old Talbott Tavern (800/482-8376 or 502/348-3494, fax 502/348-3404; doubles from $76), the Western frontier's first stagecoach stop and purportedly a favorite watering hole of Jesse James.
The Simple Life: Shaker Style
Founded in 1805, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 55 miles southwest of Lexington, is the largest restored settlement belonging to the followers of Mother Ann Lee, who were collectively known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. Outsiders, however, dubbed the group "Shakers" for the euphoric trembling that accompanied their worship.
In 1961, a private foundation took over the preservation of the 2,800-acre Pleasant Hill site. Thirty-three of the original 270 buildings remain, 14 of which are open for self-guided tours. (Guests can also ask questions of the costumed interpreters who work on the property.) For an unusual visit, stop in at the Meeting House, where music director Donna Phillips sings "Simple Gifts" and other hymns in an operatic voice four times each day. Her demonstration of the Shakers' clapping and spinning during prayer, as well as her display of their religious ecstasy, shows the lively side of these otherwise plainspoken, pragmatic people.
Visitors impressed with the spare design and spiritual (albeit playacted) harmony can stay overnight in one of the 81 guest rooms, furnished with Shaker reproductions. Unlike the elders who once kept close watch on the younger generation, today's proprietors coyly look the other way when men and women occupy the same room. 3501 Lexington Rd., Harrodsburg; 800/734-5611 or 859/743-5411; admission for adults $10.50, children 12—17 $6; doubles from $74.
Where to Eat
The Oakroom At the Seelbach Hilton Hotel, 500 S. Fourth Ave., Louisville; 502/585-3200; dinner for two $65. Chef Jim Gerhardt's tireless support of "Kentucky fine dining" means his elegant affairs are driven almost entirely by local ingredients, such as spoonfish caviar (river-sturgeon roe) and Colonel Newsome's smoked country hams. Ask for a seat by one of the arched windows and try the Kentucky ostrich or the Bluegrass bouillabaisse, a rich stew of freshwater shrimp, crayfish, and frog's legs.
Lynn's Paradise Café 984 Barret Ave., Louisville; 502/583-3447; breakfast for two $20. Employees show their work on the art-flooded walls—inquire and you'll be referred to the artists themselves. Lynn's is open all day, but it's the café's huge breakfasts of eggs, cheese grits, and biscuits with gravy that have become an institution.
BEST VALUE Lilly's 1147 Bardstown Rd., Louisville; 502/451-0447; dinner for two $75. Purple ceilings, dark green walls, and eclectic murals give Louisville's hippest dining room a bohemian ambience. Chef-owner Kathy Cary, a former Kentucky farm girl, shows her devotion to local produce in unorthodox ways: dinner might begin with a house-smoked salmon quesadilla, then move on to venison in huckleberry-Cabernet sauce. If you're there for lunch, go native and order the oysters and grits in chipotle butter.
English Grill At the Brown, 335 W. Broadway, Louisville; 502/583-1234; dinner for two $100. Louisvillian Joe Castro draws on his Amerasian heritage (his mother is Kentuckian, his father Filipino) to create dishes as diverse as sea bass with Moroccan couscous and foie gras with corn bread and black-eyed peas.
Roy & Nadine's 3735 Palomar Centre Dr., Lexington; 859/223-0797; dinner for two $45. Despite occupying a spot in a strip mall, Roy & Nadine's is the place to see and be seen, especially after the winners are announced at Keeneland Race Course. It would be criminal to pass up their warm pecan pie.
Beaumont Inn 638 Beaumont Inn Dr., Harrodsburg; 859/734-3381; dinner for two $20. When the dinner bell rings at 6 p.m., it's time for thin slices of cured ham, aged two years on the premises. Or you can try the crisp, juicy fried chicken, served with white-corn pudding so thick and savory, it's as comforting as a mother's hug. Pitchers of iced tea stand at the ready, but Mercer County—like two-thirds of Kentucky—is dry, so unless you book the private dining room, you'll have to do without Bordeaux.
Kaelin's 1801 Newburg Rd., Louisville; 502/451-1801; lunch for two $14. Like a great folk tune, the cheeseburger is something that seems to have always existed. Actually, it was invented at this diner by Carl Kaelin in 1934, and is still being fried up in the family's trusty iron skillets. Order a regular-sized burger or a plate of minis—with fries, of course—and decide whether you've ever had better.
A decent Kentucky bourbon is one that has been aged four to eight years. But in an old distillery in Lawrenceburg, about 50 miles southeast of Louisville, Julian Van Winkle III keeps watch over bourbon that's been biding its time in charred white-oak barrels for two decades—and then some.
The price tags on Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve alone should demonstrate that these bourbons aren't meant to be mixed in a Manhattan. Twenty-year-old pints go for $85; 23-year-olds (the most aging that Kentucky bourbon can handle without turning excessively woody) sell for $150 or more. But good luck finding any of those: Van Winkle released only 3,300 bottles in 2000, and the next batch won't be out until 2003. If you stumble upon a 23-year-old bottle, splurge on it. The Family Reserve bourbons possess an amazingly warm, radiating velvetiness that should be savored like fine Cognac.
Following in his grandfather Pappy's market-savvy footsteps, Van Winkle III also bottles 10-, 12-, and 15-year-old bourbons, as well as acclaimed 12- and 13-year-old rye whiskeys. These are available at most Kentucky liquor stores, or through www.oldripvanwinkle.com.
Kentucky Tea Party
No one would mistake soft-spoken ordained minister Bruce Richardson for a tea snob. Nonetheless, this Kentucky resident is the author of Great Tea Rooms of Britain and owns the first American tearoom to be included in the British Tea Council's Guide to Best Tea Places.
At the Elmwood Inn, an 1862 Greek Revival mansion, Richardson and his wife, Shelley, serve 30 different brews. Just as prized as their carefully steeped Darjeeling is Shelley's seasonally themed four-course menu of sandwiches and cakes. Be sure to reserve well ahead for a teatime sitting: the inn's 10 tables are booked weeks in advance. 205 E. Fourth St., Perryville; 800/765-2139 or 859/332-2400; www.elmwoodinn.com. Afternoon tea is served at 1 and 3 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Doing the Derby
The Kentucky Derby conjures up visions of Southern gentility and privilege, which it does indeed epitomize—right down to the well-heeled ladies in matching hats and gloves. But the derby isn't only for the upper crust. People from every walk of life rub shoulders in the shadows of the twin octagonal spires of Churchill Downs (502/636-4400; www.churchilldowns.com), though many are admittedly more interested in the party than in which three-year-old Thoroughbred is the first to cross the finish line.
Visitors hoping to watch the derby from the stands, however, will sense the pervasive snobbery. All reserved seating for the 2002 derby (May 4) has been sold out since September. In fact, on the day after the race, as many as 100,000 requests for reserved tickets for next year's derby (the 129th) will start flooding the Churchill Downs ticket office. (To get on the list, write to: Special Events, Churchill Downs, 700 Central Ave., Louisville, KY 40208. Good luck: current holders of the 48,500 seats receive priority.) Don't even dream about getting into the Skye Terrace, the upper echelon of clubhouse boxes known as Millionaire's Row. Those places go to members of the inner circle of breeders, politicians, corporate sponsors, and celebrity guests. (In previous years, the Row has been the vantage point of both Presidents Bush, Kid Rock, and two members of the Backstreet Boys.)
That doesn't mean you have to forgo the derby altogether. For $40 you can purchase a general admission, standing-room-only ticket on the day of the race, and watch on TV monitors set up in the gardens outside the stands. Or you can use the same ticket to join the 80,000 revelers in the Infield, a fenced-in grassy patch within the track itself. There's no seating (you can bring your own), no shade (all umbrellas are confiscated), and, given the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, faint chance of seeing even the flick of a horse's tail. Aerial photos of the Infield on Derby Day show not a single blade of grass, but if you're in the mood for a rowdy time, this is the place to find it. Louisville bars stay open the entire night before the race; gates open and beer (as well as mint juleps) begins flowing at 8 a.m.; the derby itself doesn't start until 5 p.m.
An alternative to the madness is to make your way to the Kentucky Oaks, a fillies-only competition held the day before the derby. Louisvillians consider the Oaks their race—politicians have even created a school holiday in its honor. While the Oaks crowds are by no means diminutive (nearly 100,000 people show up, versus 150,000 for the derby), you stand a better chance of having a ticket application granted.
Another option for some track action before Derby Day can be found 80 miles east at Keeneland Race Course (4201 Versailles Rd., Lexington; 800/456-3412; www.keeneland.com). Churchill Downs may have the edge in history, but Keeneland is in prime horse country. From the immaculately maintained grandstands, look beyond the action to a sea of wildflower-dotted bluegrass. Best of all, you can usually get a seat in the stands. The 2002 spring season runs April 5 through 26.
The season's horse-racing revelry officially begins on April 20, when the Kentucky Derby Festival (502/584-6383; www.kdf.org) takes over the region. More than 70 events kick off with Thunder over Louisville (www.thunderoverlouisville.org), a full day of activities that include an afternoon air show and what's billed as the largest fireworks display in America. Most of the 600,000 or so people in attendance vie for a spot along the banks of the Ohio River, though the show can be seen from almost anywhere in town.
Where to Shop
Aside from the buying and selling of fleet-footed horses, antiquing is one of the other attractions of Bluegrass Country. Joe Ley Antiques (615 E. Market St., Louisville; 502/583-4014) sprawls over two acres and three stories, and has gained a national reputation for architectural salvage. Wakefield-Scearce Galleries (525 Washington St., Shelbyville; 502/633-4382) specializes in English antiques and silver pieces. Scavenge here for one of the dainty sterling silver cups that purists insist on for mint juleps.
Skipping the Races
Beyond the tracks, there's lots to do in Bluegrass Country in the month of April—when dogwood and redbud float over the velvety green hills between Lexington and Louisville. Of course, much of the excitement still revolves around horses.
Kentucky Derby Museum Churchill Downs, Gate 1, 704 Central Ave., Louisville; 502/637-7097; admission $8. Pick up useless factoids, such as the rule banning any Derby contenders from having names longer than 18 letters, or the stipulation that jockeys keep a seven-inch space between their rears and the saddles (an interactive exhibit allows you to practice). With guides so obviously enamored of the Downs, it's likely that some of their affection will rub off.
Kentucky Horse Park 4089 Iron Works Pkwy., Lexington; 859/233-4303; admission $12. Learn about equine evolution (did you know that horses were the size of Great Danes just one millennium ago?) and tour actual farms nearby. But call in advance—some farms sponsor their own tours, while others require visitors to sign on with an intermediary company. Two of the best farms: the Calumet Farm in Lexington (859/231-8272), which gave the world nine Kentucky Derby and three Triple Crown winners; and Three Chimneys in Midway (859/873-7053), which counts among its equine residents Seattle Slew, the oldest living Kentucky Derby champion and only living Triple Crown winner.
Louisville Slugger Museum 800 W. Main St., Louisville; 502/588-7228; adults $6, children $3.50. You can't miss it: there's a 120-foot-long, 68,000-pound bat tilted up against the building. Inside, elbow through the youngsters and see what it's like to take a simulated 90 mph pitch from Orlando Hernández, and learn that an early nickname for Babe Ruth was "the Behemoth of Bust." The air is fragrant with maple and northern white ash as guides lead baseball fans through a tour; at the end, visitors take away their own 16-inch bat.
Maker's Mark Distillery 3350 Burks Springs Rd., Loretto; 270/865-2099. The 11/2-hour drive from Louisville is well worth it. The highlight: the fermenting room, where pungent, yeasted mash bubbles and heaves in huge vats like an alien life-form. Sorry, no alcohol samples, but if you're over 21 and it's not Sunday, you can buy a small bottle of bourbon in the gift shop and hand-dip it in red sealing wax, just as they do in the factory.
Actors Theatre of Louisville 316 W. Main St., Louisville; 502/584-1205. The region's renowned stage features the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, which has been called the Kentucky Derby of American theater. Premieres have included Crimes of the Heart, Dinner with Friends, and Agnes of God. The last two performances of this season are Yasmina Reza's satire Art (April 16—June 2) and Red Herring, a Cold War spy spoof by Michael Hollinger (May 7—June 1).
Cave Hill Cemetery 701 Baxter Ave., Louisville; 502/451-5630. First opened in 1848, Cave Hill is the permanent residence of Colonel Harland Sanders (of fried chicken fame), Mildred and Patty Hill (who wrote the original version of "Happy Birthday to You"), and 100,000 other lesser-known Kentuckians. Stroll amid Cave Hill's 300 rolling acres and five spring-fed lakes; the blossoming trees and shrubs will help soften the unshakable sense of mortality the tombstones evoke.