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Bluegrass Immersion

By Katherine Tandy Brown

The Central Kentucky area is home to several distilleries, and craft breweries are becoming increasingly popular as well.
The Central Kentucky area is home to several distilleries, and craft breweries are becoming increasingly popular as well.

After 31 years of crisscrossing the country, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships have finally landed in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, the Horse Capital of the World and cradle of the Thoroughbred breeding industry. On Oct. 30-31, Keeneland will host the 32nd running of this prestigious series of Grade I races that’s sure to draw horse lovers and racing enthusiasts from around the world. And Lexington is set to entertain all royally with enough equine-related activities to keep visitors as busy as they want to be for as long as they want to stay.

Here’s a Bluegrass visitor’s guide to help you understand what the area has to offer.

All towering oaks and hand-laid limestone buildings, Keeneland (keeneland.org; (800) 456-3412) offers a great start to exploring horse country. Tucked in among rolling Thoroughbred farms, this National Historic Landmark has conducted “racing as it was meant to be” since 1936. Arise with the chickens to discover the culture of the racetrack. Join owners and trainers trackside to watch as exercise riders and jockeys put sleek, leggy racehorses through their galloping paces. Top off your outdoor morning with a hearty Southern breakfast of eggs, grits, and biscuits and gravy at the Track Kitchen.

You can learn the venerable facility’s history, including stories about visits by England’s Queen Elizabeth and other celebrities, on a self-guided walking tour through its stone grandstands and around its manicured grounds, tree-studded saddling area, hedge-lined paddock and rows of dark green barns. Just download a map from the Keeneland website, or schedule a guided tour by a knowledgeable Keeneland rep ahead of time.

A must-see for the equine-minded is the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP) (KyHorsePark.com; (800) 678-8813), a 1,200-acre working farm that’s home to more than 100 horses representing around 50 different breeds. Daily activities, some of which are seasonal, include a Parade of Breeds, narrated horse-drawn trolley tours of the grounds, horse and pony rides, Hall of Champions presentations featuring an elite group of well-known retired horses living at the park, The Rein of Nobility (a breathtaking movie about the majesty of the horse, narrated by William Shatner) and tours of the KHP’s mounted police barn and blacksmith shop.

While there, wander through the International Museum of the Horse, a Smithsonian affiliate with interactive displays and changing exhibits that focus on the horse-human bond through the ages. Be sure to see “Ted Bassett: A Kentucky Legend,” the museum’s new exhibit about this iconic, Eclipse-Award-winning equine industry leader who served as past president of the Keeneland Association, the Thoroughbred Racing Association and Breeders’ Cup Ltd.

Also on the grounds is the American Saddlebred Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of artifacts – trophies, photos, artwork, tack and a research library – about Kentucky’s native breed.

Make a heartwarming stop in Georgetown at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center (oldfriendsequine.org; (502) 863-1775), a nonprofit rescue/retirement center for stallions whose racing and breeding careers have ended. Here you can glimpse horses such as 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm happily living out their retirement munching bluegrass.

Dotting the Bluegrass are more than 400 Thoroughbred farms where a slew of the world’s greatest runners have been bred, raised and trained. Many are open to visitors, and you can take a peek on a guided tour, some of which include lunch. Catch a Unique Horse Farm Tours van at the KHP for a two-to-three-hour narrated immersion into the lifestyles of the equestrian elite at spacious historic estates, as well as impeccably groomed, multimillion dollar, internationally owned farms.

Or hire a private guide with in-depth knowledge of area history to climb into your car and entertain with stories as you ogle the countryside. VisitLex can furnish a list of recommended tour companies and individual guides, plus purveyors of horse-drawn carriage tours and walking tours of downtown Lexington, including foodie tour specialist, Bleu Plate Tours. Horse fans will want to stop at Thoroughbred Park on the corner of Main and Midland to admire life-sized bronze statues of seven Thoroughbreds racing toward a finish line with well-known jockeys aboard, such as Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day and Chris McCarron.

All this horsin’ around can work up quite a thirst, and the Bluegrass can quench it in a heartbeat at a number of bourbon distilleries, craft breweries and local wineries.

Voted America’s Native Spirit in 1964 by the U.S. Congress, bourbon was born in Kentucky, and a number of area distilleries give tours and samples. In Lexington, Barrell House is a small-batch distiller that grew out of a poker game to make bourbon, vodka, rum and moonshine. Surrounded by scenic horse farms, Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles hosts meals and events, in addition to tours. The state capital of Frankfort is home to Buffalo Trace Distillery, which has been making bourbon on the banks of the Kentucky River for more than 200 years.

And nearby Lawrenceburg boasts two distilleries. Built in 1910 in a distinctive Spanish mission style, Four Roses has been named Whisky Magazine’s American Whisky Distiller of the Year four times in the last five years. At Wild Turkey, Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, storyteller extraordinaire, has been at the distillery for more than 60 years.

Looking for more libations? Try Lexington’s Brewgrass Trail: West Sixth Brewing Co. taproom and beer garden; German lager and British ale specialist Blue Stallion Brewing Co.; Country Boy Brewing that uses local fruits, vegetables and hops to make beers; and Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co., maker of bourbons and craft beers, such as Town Branch and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel, respectively.

Or sip wine from the vines at Jean Farris Winery and Bistro, Grimes Mill Winery, Talon Winery and Vineyards, Equus Run Vineyard in Midway, and Lovers Leap Vineyards and Winery in Lawrenceburg. All offer facility tours and tastings of Kentucky wines.

Saddle up to explore the Bluegrass and find out more about the aforementioned options at VisitLex (visitlex.com; (800) 845-3959 or VisitLex.mobi on a smartphone) and about the Breeders’ Cup at breederscup.com; (859) 223-5444.