"Odds-On Favorite" by Nancy Hoyt Belcher

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Congratulations to Nancy Hoyt Belcher, whose story “Odds-On Favorite: Get away to the green, rolling hills of Kentucky’s Bluegrass on your way to the Louisville Rally” ran in the April, 2010, issue of Good Sam Club Highways.]
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Kentucky horse (photo © Nancy Hoyt Belcher)
Kentucky horse (photo © Nancy Hoyt Belcher)

When I was a horse-crazed teenager, long before any talk of Bucket Lists, I dreamed of going to the Kentucky Derby. Finally, many decades later, I bought a race ticket. I’d go to the derby, but I’d also go early to explore the nearby attractions in the Bluegrass region, considered the Horse Capital of the World. Good Sam members can consider taking the same trip this summer, substituting May’s Kentucky Derby for July’s Louisville Rally.

Kentucky’s Bluegrass isn’t just famous for horses. There’s “burley, bourbon and betting,” as one local put it, along with some of North America’s most eminent craft workers, celebrated for quilts, pottery and woodcarvings.

The state features the Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trail, as well as the artisan community of Berea in the southeast Bluegrass region, the official Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky.

I’d visited Berea 20 years earlier, had been thoroughly smitten and was anxious to return. This small college town, which nestles against the western edge of Kentucky’s Cumberland foothills, remains a delight to anyone who can be moved by the beauty of handcrafted objects and the quiet pride of the men and women who make them.

Berea is one of the country’s most popular gathering places for craftspeople to sell their wares, both traditional and contemporary. Many live and work in Berea, a tradition that started in the mid-1800s. Shops runneth over with the products of all this talent. To a citified Californian like me, Berea is quintessential small-town Mid-America with a slight drawl and lots of Southern hospitality.

Warren May has been handcrafting dulcimers—the official instrument of Kentucky—in Berea since 1977. I found him as I had two decades earlier in his shop on College Square, strumming one of his dulcimers and talking about the four-string instrument’s place in Appalachian history.

Among the more recent attractions in Berea is the Kentucky Artisan Center, opened in 2003. This state-run facility (free admission) represents 700 Kentucky artists and their wares, everything from local Bybee pottery and honeysuckle baskets to garden sculptures and hand-woven shawls. All fairly pricey, all beautiful. Artists give demonstrations on Saturdays. The restaurant features Kentucky cuisine, or you can buy packaged specialty foods to take home with you. Boxed chocolates are a big seller, particularly bourbon balls

With a new salad bowl in hand, I headed toward Lexington, the heart of the Bluegrass, and took short detours off the interstate near Richmond to investigate two of the area’s most historic attractions, White Hall State Historic Site and Fort Boonesborough State Park.

Daniel Boone and his men laid out Fort Boonesborough in 1775, the second settlement in Kentucky after Fort Harrod. It’s been reconstructed as a working fort with blockhouses, cabins and period furnishings. If you’ve forgotten your history, there’s an excellent 18-minute film to jog your memory. A blacksmith demonstrates his skills, and women in calico dresses, aprons and bonnets share their knowledge of pioneer arts.

A few miles away, I stopped off at White Hall, home to Cassius M. Clay, emancipationist, politician, newspaper publisher, landowner and one of the founders of Berea College and later minister to Russia under Abraham Lincoln.

While the tour of the mansion was notable by reason of the innovations for its day—central heating and a three-compartment bathroom with indoor plumbing—it was the guide’s story about Clay, a man I knew nothing about, that most interested me.

Despite his lofty position in politics and society, he divorced after 45 years of marriage (unheard of at the time) and remarried at the age of 84 to a 15-year-old (also later divorced). He was involved in almost 200 fights in his lifetime, the last when three men broke into his sun porch to rob and kill him. He knifed one and shot one (killed both), and one escaped. He was 89 at the time.

I crisscrossed the interstate on my way to Lexington, primarily to drive some of the back roads through softly rolling fields dotted with horse farms, traditional plank fencing, classic barns and stone buildings. And, of course, horses—mostly thoroughbreds—in lush green pastures.

When I reached Lexington, I found statues that featured jockeys on racehorses, not the usual generals on horses. There were horse billboards, horse oil paintings on restaurant walls, cast-iron jockey hitching posts. There were Man o’ War and Citation boulevards and Furlongs Steak Restaurant. This is where it all happens, where thoroughbreds have been bred, born, registered, bought, sold and trained, long before there even was a Kentucky Derby.

I’d arrived in horse heaven.

The next morning I headed for Kentucky Horse Park, where the state showcases its treasured creature, and you can discover everything you might want to know about horses as well as get close to dozens of the 53 equine breeds that dwell on the park’s 1,200 acres.

Before you start any tour, view the introductory movie, Thou Shalt Fly without Wings, at the visitor center and pick up a map and schedule of events. I started with the International Museum of the Horse (a Smithsonian affiliate), with its nine galleries.

Later, I walked the grounds where I discovered the memorial and grave site of Man o’ War and learned tidbits of information from posted signs, such as that adult horses don’t sleep much, only about three hours every day in short phases. When my feet gave out, I took a horse-drawn tour to scheduled activities in the park, which included the Hall of Champions show and the Parade of Breeds with unique breeds of horses in full ceremonial attire and costumed riders.

This spring the park will open the new 8,000-square-foot Arabian Horse Galleries and in the fall will host the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, second only to the Olympics. It will be the first time the games have been held outside Europe, and 800 athletes and 900 horses are expected to compete.

While I thought the Kentucky Horse Park was a great educational experience and lots of fun—you could spend all day here—my favorite of all Bluegrass destinations turned out to be Keeneland. The horse park is more a theme park, but Keeneland is more the real thing.

A thoroughbred racecourse combined with the world’s largest thoroughbred auction company, Keeneland opened in 1936 as the world’s first not-for-profit track. Now a National Historic Landmark, it provides a short racing season (in April and November), but thoroughbreds train here year-round, and you can watch them work out on the track any morning of the week. Jockey legends from Eddie Arcaro to Bill Shoemaker have raced here, and scenes from the movie Seabiscuit were filmed here in 2002.

Keeneland’s greatest fame is its annual thoroughbred auctions, especially its July yearling sale, considered the world’s most prestigious. I can imagine how exciting it would have been to see the bidding go up to $4 million for Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 (he won the Derby two years later). All told, 17 Kentucky Derby winners have been sold at Keeneland over the years.

I watched workouts in an early morning mist, standing close to the grandstand where the path from the stables leads to the track. Watching along with me were trainers, owners, grooms and jockeys. The horses are usually walking back to their stalls by 9:30.

Afterward, I had breakfast at the track kitchen—grits and country gravy over biscuits, the specialty—along with the same trainers, owners, grooms and jockeys, including Jean Cruget, the jockey who won the 1977 Triple Crown on Seattle Slew.

Then I took a detour on Rice Road, a pastoral scenic route behind Keeneland, before I headed for a tour of Three

More than 450 thoroughbred farms ribbon the Bluegrass region, and Lexington is surrounded by many world-famous ones, a special treat to visit. Several of the farms allow visitors, but you can’t just drop in. You either need a reservation or to have signed up with an organized tour. Three Chimneys’ tours are limited to their thoroughbred stallion complex in a lush and incredibly beautiful setting. When I was there, the stallions included some very impressive guys: Big Brown, the 2008 Derby winner; Dynaformer, the father of 2006 winner Barbaro, who commands a $150,000 breeding fee; and Smarty Jones, winner of the 2004 Kentucky Derby who’s expected to meet up with about 110 mares this year at a fee of $65,000 each. You do the math.

Three Chimneys can accommodate RV parking, but if your vehicle is very large, call in advance to make sure space is available.

Hard to believe, but I was almost horsed-out, so for the next two days I pursued other Bluegrass attractions. Lexington offered several worthwhile choices, one of which was the Mary Todd Lincoln House, America’s only shrine to a first lady.

The 14-room Georgian-style house, built in 1806, was the Todds’ from 1832 to 1849. It was the first lady’s childhood home, and she brought her family here in 1847 on their way to Washington. The house has been restored to the Todds’ time, and many of the items inside are originals, both from the Lincolns and the Todds, including family portraits and the mourning jacket Mary Lincoln wore for 17 years after the President’s death. It’s an eerie feeling to walk upstairs and grasp the same banister that the 16th president did

Once again, I was impressed with the guide, who was well versed about the controversial first lady and provided information that many in my tour group did not know.

The Todds lived less than 2 miles away from their friend, the “Great Compro­miser” Henry Clay, orator, statesman, senator, speaker of the house, secretary of state and candidate for U.S. president three times. His estate, Ashland, a National Historic Landmark, offers tours of the 18-room Italianate-style mansion as well as self-guided tours of the remaining 20 acres. You can pick up a tree identification brochure to wander the Avenue of trees—about 500 of them.

Kentucky showcases another famous product with an official route, the Bourbon Trail, recognizing America’s only native spirit. Six distilleries on the trail are open to visitors. I headed toward Frankfort to Buffalo Trace, one of the country’s oldest operating distilleries.

The hour-long tour was well worth taking. I learned not only the history of bourbon in America (it began in the Bluegrass region, and 95 percent is still made in Kentucky) and that there are more than 90 dry counties out of 120 in the state. I also toured a century-old warehouse, permeated with aromas of yeast and grain, where hundreds of oak barrels were stacked among the 300,000 aging on the property. I watched workers bottle bourbon and attach labels, all by hand. And I took pictures of their finest, the 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, which costs $235 a bottle.

The rest of the day I explored Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, the largest restored Shaker community in America. On my way I stopped off at Old Fort Harrod State Park, Kentucky’s first settlement in 1774, that highlights pioneer life in a full-scale restoration. I had to stop and pay respects to a distant relative who lost his head to Indians here in 1776.

The celibate religious sect of Shakers lived here from 1805 to 1923. Today, there are more than 30 buildings, preserved in their rural condition on 2,900 acres of gentle, rolling farmland. You can take self-guided tours of 14 buildings, among them the Cooper’s Shop, Brethren’s Bath House and the East Family Wash house. There are music performances, farming demonstrations, walking tours, costumed interpreters that relate stories of Shaker life in the mid-19th century and skilled artists working at weaving and furniture and candle making.

This is a good place to buy authentic Shaker handcrafts, from brooms to their signature nested oval boxes. The dining room in the Centre Family Dwelling Trustees’ Office offers three meals a day of Shaker specialties and traditional Kentucky food. The shaker lemon pie lived up to its reputation.

The setting was bucolic and tranquil, something I appreciated because the next day would be entirely the opposite. I’d be up in Louisville with 150,000 screaming race fans at the Kentucky Derby.

— Nancy Hoyt Belcher



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