Neil Hennessy-Vass enjoys the horse racing, bourbon, music and history of a sporting legend in this fascinating U.S. state
It would be hard to find a state in America that was more American than Kentucky. Bordered by eight other states it is considered the beginning of the Southern states. They call it the front porch to the south. It is a rich and green land home to many American institutions. This is where the biggest horse race takes place; it’s where most of the world’s bourbon is produced and home to Bluegrass music, that twangy, banjo led mountain sound that became so popular in 1930’s and 40’s.
Kentucky is notably clean and tidy in appearance; everyone takes care about how everything looks. There are beautiful small towns like Georgetown and Covington and the larger ones like Lexington and Louisville that offer a bit more for the traveller. The smaller ones offer a slice of life, as it once was with old brick built low-rise sleepy places where time has stood still.
I started my trip at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, the most important race meeting in America. The track and stables on the ‘back side’ are a hive of industry. Over a 1000 horses at any one time can be liveried there, the next Derby winner probably among them. The Derby held in May commands audiences of up 170,000 spectators. There are 20 runners, they have to be a three-year-old thoroughbred and the race lasts around two minutes. During that short space of time $149.9 million was gambled. The winning horse Justify earned its owner $1,432,000 this year. The whole state is geared up to the racing business with stud farms everywhere and some previous winners worth up to $80 million as a stud. Nice work if you can get it!
But what of the horses once their useful racing life (and earning potential) is over? Years ago not much was done for the ‘retired’ horse but now there are ‘homes’ for them to go to where they are looked after with care and have plenty of land. Just outside Georgetown is Old Friends Farm for Retired Thoroughbreds it is a not for profit retirement home where over 100 horses now reside. Previous winner of the Kentucky Derby, Silver Charm and even ‘stars’ like Popcorn Deelights who played Seabiscuit in the 2003 film live here. It’s a wonderful place that you can visit and meet the owner Michael Blowen. He used to be the film critic for the Boston Globe but packed it all in for a life with horses. Through his movie connections famous people started to place their horses with him, so Jack Nicholson, Angie Dickenson and Burt Bacharach have handed over their cherished horses for the best equine care on offer. Over 20,000 visitors a year call in to see their racing heroes. Michael who is on good terms with Burt Bacharach took a photo of his horse Afternoon Deelites appearing to read his owners recently published biography and emailed him a picture. He heard nothing and thought he might have offended Burt. Michael called Burt’s office and was thrilled to hear that far from being offended Burt had had the photograph blown up to fill the wall behind his deck in his office.
Bourbon plays a large part in the life for the average Kentuckian. 99% of the world’s bourbon is produced here the remaining 1% is made in Tennessee. It’s taken very seriously indeed and the selections available in restaurants and bars are incredible. Like wine lists they go on for pages, staff are usually very knowledgeable and keen to advise. The bourbon industry is a big employer in the state and you can follow the ‘Bourbon Trail’ and meander through the state visiting many distilleries. Barrel making is an important part of the bourbon process I went to see how they were made at the Brown-Forman Cooperage. It’s tough dirty work the wood used is always American oak all the stages are completed in house. The barrels are made by hand, a skilled worker can make 200 barrels a day. They make 300,000 barrels a year and supply Jack Daniels amongst others. The ‘char’ is applied to the inside of the barrel to add flavour. Flames are blown inside the completed barrel and depending on the distiller burned for 15 seconds up to a couple of minutes. Bourbon must be made of at least 51% corn, housed in one barrel and no colouring is allowed. The only variables are length in the barrel, the level of char and storage temperature. The highly skilled task of the blenders is to create the right colour, taste profile and consistency. I visited many distilleries but Makers Mark offered the best tour with a tasting at the end. If you wanted to take it to the next level you can even have a custom bourbon made, for a price of course.
So what do you do when you’ve put some money on the horses (you can go to race meetings 52 weeks a year in Kentucky) enjoying some of the famous Kentuckian hospitality bourbon in hand? Well the simple answer is to listen to some Bluegrass music. Said to be invented by Bill Monroe in Rosine, Kentucky. One of his homes lived is now a museum and there’s a barn where you can listen to locals performing Bluegrass music every Friday night into the small hours.
Owensboro another neat small town on the edge of the Ohio River has the recently opened Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Offering a history of the genre it’s a must if you enjoy music. There’s a concert hall as well where I was lucky enough to see Sam Bush an exponent of progressive Bluegrass for a real foot tapping evening of energetic music.
Kentucky was also the birthplace of Cassius Clay. At the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville you can learn about his life and career. He was a complex person whose charm and wit often hid his considerable intelligence and devotion to equal rights in America and beyond. He ran his life with six core principles; confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality, which helped make him the greatest boxer in the world. It’s an excellent interactive museum, which inspires and impresses on many levels. There are many of his key fights available to watch.
Kentucky has much to offer the intrepid traveller. It’s a large state (with two time zones) so it’s worth hiring a car and moving around to see the best on offer. The countryside is delightful especially in horse country with white picket fences and old farmsteads over every hill. The bourbon is sublime (if it’s your thing) and the music and friendliness of the people a delight. Food is plentiful and tasty. Kentucky, what’s not to like!
The following trip is available with Travelplanners
- 2 nights Omni Louisville
- Standard Room
- 2 nights Hotel Covington
- Standard Room
- 2 nights Hilton Garden Inn Lexington
- Standard Room
- 2 nights Hampton Inn Owensboro
- Standard Room Breakfast
Based on 2 people travelling on the 4th March 2019 with United Airlines from Edinburgh £1195 per person or
United Airlines from Heathrow £1259 per person including Hertz car hire for the full duration with insurances and taxes pre-paid.
To book call Travelplanners on 020 3542 8888