On a balmy spring day, there is an excited tension in the air, mingled with anticipation and the scent of mint juleps. Dapper crowds gather in the stands and anxiously watch the starting gate while tightly gripping their betting tickets. It is a few seconds to post time and all eyes focus on the magnificent Thoroughbreds that are coiled to break from the gate at Keeneland racetrack in Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky, is home to the world's top Thoroughbred horse farms, beautiful Keeneland racetrack, superb bourbon and some of the most picturesque countryside in the U.S. In addition to these outstanding attributes, Lexington also possesses fascinating history, excellent cuisine, several impressive wineries, walking and driving tours and an intriguing downtown. With so much to experience, don your finest hat for the races and journey to Lexington to discover why so many visitors love this bucolic paradise.
Keeneland racetrackKeeneland racetrack has an illustrious history dating back to the early '30s. Jack Keene began building a private training and racetrack facility when the depression hit and his wealth vanished with his dream. It would be several years later when a faction of equestrians from Central Kentucky purchase the property and completed the racetrack of Keeneland. In 2006, the racetrack went through a significant renovation with a composition called Polytrack that was laid to improve the safety and health for jockeys and horses. Today, Keeneland is marking its 75th anniversary and it is one of the most beautiful racetracks in the world with over 1000 acres of lush, bluegrass countryside. Its scenic stone fences, gorgeous landscaping, flowering shrubbery and trees, such as dogwood, maples and oaks, unite into a serene and lovely environment that is a pleasure to visit. Auctions are at Keeneland are a thrilling event and take place during September, November, January and April of each year. The venue is a global market place and one of the top firms in the world for selling the most Thoroughbreds and fetching the highest prices. Racing season takes place during the months of April and October. Each of these months are host to numerous races with April's Toyota Blue Grass Stakes that lead the winning horses to the Kentucky Derby. The atmosphere of the racetrack is exhilarating and whether you just want to watch the races or place a few bets, you're in for a spectacularly good time! Albeit a bit crowded during some races, it is the ultimate people-watching venue with men dressed in winsome suites and ladies sporting exotic and fashionable hats. If you wish to dine and partake of a traditional Mint Julep (liberally laced with bourbon), make sure to book a seat in one of Keeneland's upper-level restaurants, in the Lexington/Kentucky or Phoenix Room. These multiple dining areas over-look several coveted vistas, such as the grandstand and the paddock, where the horses are walked in presentation before the races. Guests can view the horses and their attributes, as well see the jockeys as they mount on their way to the track. In addition, guests are afforded covered, outside viewing balconies for an excellent panorama of a time-honored race. There is something intrinsically elegant about Thoroughbred racing and nothing quite like the sensation of watching the horses break from the gate. The growing excitement is contagious as they hit the home stretch neck and neck. You lean over the rail, hold your breath and wildly cheer as your horse crosses the finish line first.
Kentucky BourbonKentucky is home to an American legacy, bourbon. In fact, bourbon is the only spirit that is native to America and Kentucky produces a whopping 95 percent of the amber liquor. Lexington and surrounding areas have numerous select distilleries. However, take a scenic short drive to the town of Versailles and visit the Woodford Reserve Distillery for a fascinating tour and tasting. The grounds are lovely and the charming stone buildings where the bourbon is distilled are from the 1840s and fragrant with oak barrels and distilling spirits. The tour takes visitors through the distillery process from huge vats of bubbling brew with yeasty tops, to their three huge unique copper pots that distill the spirits. The Woodford guide also explains that true bourbon is made from at least 62 percent corn (WF uses 72 percent), rye and barley. In addition, Woodford boasts its own cooperage. The cooperage produces barrels made from American White Oak, charred inside to provide color, and added flavor to the bourbon. The tour is fun, interesting, and the bourbon strong yet smooth.
Visit a Stud FarmWhile you're out in Versailles and driving by the incredible scenery, you'll pass by exquisite stud farms owned by royalty. The Sheikh of Dubai's farm is close to the Woodford Distillery and a bit further is the cosseted Lanes End, where England's Queen Elizabeth II keeps several brood mares. This entire area is one breath-taking stud farm after the next with some of the world's crown stallions and mares. If you wish to take a tour of one of these distinguished farms, visit one of the top global farms, Three Chimneys, located on Old Frankfort Pike in Versailles/Midway is open for tours. In 1972, Three Chimneys started with just 100-acres and 10 stalls in a tobacco barn. Today, the farm is over 2000 acres; their sires' progeny have earned almost one billion dollars and they have bred and raised over 1,000 stakes winners. Their lists of Stallions over the years are amazing and include the undefeated in Triple Crown history, Seattle Slew. This elite farm is splendid with an impressively architected stallion barn and adjacent breeding barn. The buildings are set amidst lush paddocks surrounded by rolling green fields and dotted with picturesque trees. Moreover, the loving and professional care given to these magnificent horses is apparent when you visit the barn and paddock and see stallions, such as Red Giant. The gorgeous chestnut stallion is a world-record holder (1.57 in the 1-1/4 miles turf) of the Clement Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship; Red Giant was two seconds faster than legendary Secretariat. His intelligent eyes miss nothing, especially the small piece of peppermint candy one of the staff offers him. The 2012 winner of the Kentucky Derby, I'll Have Another, was sired by Three Chimney's stud Flower Alley.
Shaker VillageKentucky is rich in history and one of the most interesting religious communities, the Shakers, lived in Harrodsburg, located just 25 miles from Lexington. There are only two known Shakers left in the world today and they live in Maine. Yet, the astonishing community of stone buildings, rock walls and land were preserved and turned into the largest restored Shaker village in the nation. The Shakers (about 500) lived in the community in the 1800s and derived their name from the religious practice of literally shaking themselves vigorously in order to rid themselves of evil. They were also quite vociferous and were heard worshipping at least five miles away. They also lived celibate lives, with men, women and children living in different dormitory buildings.
American and Civil War History: Mary Todd and Henry ClayIf you are interested in American political history and the civil war, Lexington possesses two must-see historical houses; the Mary Todd Lincoln House, and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. The late-Georgian-style brick house of Mary Todd Lincoln is located on West Main Street and is the nation's first memorial to a First Lady. Todd lived in the home with her father, stepmother and siblings from the age of 13 to 18 years old. President Abraham Lincoln also stayed in the home for a few weeks while he was courting Todd. The Todd home is filled with splendid antiques and portraits from the period, as well as household positions of the family. The docents providing the tours are especially adept in drawing visitors into the social world of Mary Todd Lincoln and the life she lead in the home and her life after marriage to president Lincoln. Her life was often tragic. In addition, there is a small display case on the upper landing that contains personal items of Todd's, such as a tiny coat she wore as an adult and several grooming items as well. Henry Clay was a famous 19-century statesman and Ashland was his estate, located on Sycamore Street in Lexington. Clay was called the great mediator and was the first Speaker of the House and one of the 10 most important senators. He lived in very political turbulent times, had a major influence on American politics, and is the Father of the American System. His career was fascinating and the tours of Ashland delve into his life, character and political beliefs. Ashland is adorned with Clay family possessions, as well as memorabilia and family portraits. The brick mansion that exists today was built on the same site as the ordinal home. Clay's son built the new Ashland in the same layout as the original in 1856. The 20-acre property that surrounds the mansion is lovely with an English parterre garden and additional buildings related to the mansion. The public are welcome to tour the grounds and the mansion is open for tours with a docent.
Downtown Lexington KentuckyDowntown Lexington is an appealing town with brick period structures that seem to blend in with the area's more modern construction. Numerous parks grace the city, such as historic Gratz Park. Most of the stately homes surrounding Gratz are from the 1800s and have an interesting history. The city also provides a map of walking and driving tours as well. If you want to learn a bit of the town's history and try a sample of the areas wonderful restaurants, try taking a Bleu Plate Tour that combines a fun walking and food tour. Try visiting the city's Famer's Market that is held in historic Cheapside. If shopping is on your list, peruse the Lexington Center and Victorian Square for quaint little shops that sell everything from fashionable shoes to fabulous hats, such as Anne Sawyer. Lexington is also home to Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Book lovers know this is no ordinary independent bookstore but a huge, two-level enclave of marvelous books with a full cafe and cool merchandise. Lexington's restaurants are excellent and so are their wineries. Our top suggestions for dining and wine are Dudley's On Short; the restaurant is always busy but is worth the wait for their luscious continental fare. For a tremendous winery that serves superb cuisine, try Jean Farris Winery, located in Versailles. The setting is a country vineyard dream and their award-winning wine is matched perfectly to their culinary menu creations, such as tender filet mignon and savory artisan cheese plates. For wine, try their divine Tempest, 2007; a perfectly balanced blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. For additional information go to Lexington, Kentucky.
Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel and is a regular guest on Travel radio talk shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her photographs and articles have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure. Photos courtesy of Patrice Raplee.