Beyond Bourbon: How to Plan a Horse-Themed Kentucky Trip
I went to Kentucky to learn about bourbon. I was really excited about it. And then I got to Kentucky and everywhere I looked there were long wooden fences surrounding rolling green hills topped with silhouettes of majestic horses tossing their heads around like they were in a freaking horse shampoo commercial and the used-to-be-a-little-girl part of me was like ohmygodIlovethemIlovethemIlovethem and I got kind of distracted.*
*Don’t worry. I still learned a whole bunch about bourbon. Post coming later this week.
So my bourbon trip became a bourbon-and-horses trip. Which I’m thinking was a good thing, and not just for my liver. You see, bourbon and Thoroughbreds have more in common than you might think (and more than just ‘it is nice to drink bourbon while watching horses race’, though I imagine that to also be true). And there’s a reason why the best of both come from Kentucky: it’s the water. Well, the water and the rock. The water which filters through Kentucky’s limestone undergoes some sort of magical, scientific process which results in both really great bourbon and really strong horses. Thus, planning a trip to Kentucky around horse-tourism is not only possible, it is recommended (at least by me). Because horses and bourbon go together, so too should you experience them together.
Here’s how you can plan your own horse-themed Kentucky trip, with or without bourbon (though again, I always recommend ‘with’):
A Horse-Themed Kentucky Dream Trip How-To
After only one day spent hiking in extreme-eastern Kentucky’s Red River Gorge area, rain prompted me to continue west towards Lexington and into the relatively dry distilleries of Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace (dry as in ‘not raining’, not dry as in ‘no alcohol’. Obviously!) And on my way to Woodford, I discovered back-roads Kentucky. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a beautiful part of the country, even from the highway. But as soon as you get off of the main roads, you’re all kinds of in horse country. It was as if I’d stepped into a painting–or, more accurately, as though Disney World created Kentucky-Land. I decided right then and there that if all I did for the next three days was drive around, I’d be happy to have come to Kentucky.
Note: There are no photos of this experience. It is impossible to capture the actual beauty of this area with a camera, as there’s really nowhere to pull over safely and one should not shoot while driving. So I guess you’re just going to have to go there and see for yourself.
Visit The Kentucky Horse Park.
I didn’t really understand what The Kentucky Horse Park was before visiting. I just knew that I liked horses and I liked parks, so clearly I should go. I explored the website before heading out, and grabbed a rather small tourist brochure from a rest area, but still was not clear on what I should expect, nor was I really sure how much time I should expect to spend there. Here are the answers to those questions:
The Kentucky Horse Park is a beautiful outdoor space where you can go and learn about all things horse. It is billed as an ‘equine theme park’, but it was not a theme park in the way that I typically imagine (meaning there are no rides and at least on the day I visited, there were no crowds) There are various shows and talks throughout the day. I went to both showings of the Breeds Barn Show, which was the most theme-park-y thing on offer: a 30-minute presentation of four different horse breeds, with riders dressed in appropriate garb for the geographical and historical era during which that breed was popular. It was both entertaining and educational, and the two showings that day each featured different breeds, so attending both was a good idea. I also attended the Hall of Champions show, which I also really enjoyed. In the Hall of Champions, you get to be up close and personal with these race-winning horses (all of which have earned more money in their lifetime than I have). Because the races are so short, they were able to play the entire race (on video screens mounted above the show ring) before introducing the actual horse. A real live guide then shared a bit of the life story of each horse; she was super entertaining and informative. It was really pretty fantastic. In addition to the shows, there are also various museums, several barn areas, and fenced in fields to explore. Allow me to interrupt this post with a brief photo essay to explain further:
So how much time should you allot for a visit to The Kentucky Horse Park? My advice: however long you think you need, double it. I arrived around 10am and had to make myself leave at 2pm (as I had to make the last distillery tour of the day back in Lexington). While I did take maybe twenty minutes to have a quick lunch, the rest of the time was spent at shows, walking through the barns and fields and admiring the horses and then rushing through the International Museum of the Horse, where I could have spent at least an additional hour if not more. And I didn’t even make it to the American Saddlebred Museum, which I regret.
The Kentucky Horse Park was the first true horse-stop on my trip, and what led me to get up ridiculously early the next morning in order to…
Visit Keeneland in the early morning.
After spending the day at the horse park, I retired to my room after dinner and did some quick internet research to find a way to fit more horse-tourism into my already packed schedule. Having driven past the Keeneland gates twice already, I knew it was very near by, and to my delight I discovered that you can go there un-guided in the mornings on non-race days to watch the horses work out. So the next morning I got up way too bright and early and made a stop at Keeneland on my way from Lexington to Louisville.
When I arrived, things seemed overly quiet. I found the gift shop and asked the nice lady at the counter if, in fact, I really was allowed to ‘just walk around’. She sort of laughed at me and said yes, you can go anywhere. Well gee. That’s pretty cool. Also: now you know and don’t have to bother the nice lady at the desk.
I probably spent more time here than most would; I passed about an hour just standing against the rail, watching the horses run. While I was there, a few small tour groups came and went. But other than that, it was just me and the horses and the trainers and the blue sky. It was definitely a highlight of my time in Kentucky, and it cost exactly zero dollars. If you do one horse-thing during your time in the Bluegrass State, do this. You really have no excuse not to.
Visit Churchill Downs and The Kentucky Derby Museum.
Even though this was my last horse-stop of the trip, I still feel like I entered into the experience a total horse novice. I’ve never even attended a horse race. Heck, I have still never even seen one live on tv. I knew that the derby was a thing, and that’s about it.
Twenty minutes into my time at Churchill Downs and I sent a text to my husband: can we come back to Kentucky in the spring for the Derby? (He said sure. I married the right man, clearly.)
The Kentucky Derby Museum is a must-visit. There’s a whole museum area to explore, much of which is interactive, all of which is both beautifully curated and informative. But I recommend you start with the 17 minute video, which is what convinced me that I needed to–I absolutely, positively must–attend the Kentucky Derby at some point in my life, ideally as soon as possible (I’m thinking next May). After the film, I headed out on the thirty-minute walking tour of Churchill Downs proper, which is actually owned and operated separately from the museum (the museum is a non-profit and Churchill Downs is super-for-profit.) During the tour, you hear a bit of history, get to see the paddock and the track itself, and then get to meet one of the now-retired derby winners.
All of the above is included with your admission to the museum. But there are additional tours you can take–like the Barns and Backside Tour, which for my money was the best travel bargain I’ve found. For the low, low discount price of $11, you can board a van and be driven under the track, around the infield, and then into the backsides area where all of the horses and trainers and caretakers live and work. As someone who, again, knew nothing about derby-ing or horse racing or care-taking or training, this was an education in and of itself. I learned the economics of horse racing, the day-to-day lives of the people who care for the horses (it’s basically like taking care of a child, so it is a 24/7 job) as well as the stories of the people who breed and raise race horses for fun and (mostly) profit. Did I mention you get to do this for $11? All I could think the whole time was ‘man, if this were Disney World, this would have cost a fortune!’
Dear Kentucky: thank you for not being Disney World.
After all of that, I returned to the museum itself to explore the exhibits and take some selfies in the derby hats for sale in the gift shop. Some day I will own a hat like that, and I will attend the Derby and wear it. Oh yes. I will. Welcome to my travel bucket-list, Kentucky Derby.
Take an organized farm tour.
There are several companies based out of Lexington which run van trips to major racetracks–typically Keeneland–as well as make visits to actual farms. I looked into joining one last minute, and though time did not allow it, I can say that many of them got great reviews and all were more than reasonably priced–typically around $35 for a three hour tour. When I return to Kentucky (did I mention I will be returning to Kentucky?) I will most definitely do one (or more) of these tours (did I mention I’ve become horse-obsessed?)
Consider planning your trip during actual racing season.
There were no races running during the time I visited, which is fair–if I were a horse, I’d not want to race in Kentucky in August either. So consider visiting in spring or fall. Of course, it would probably be wise to avoid the super-popular races (like, say, the Derby) to avoid insane crowds and hotel non-availability (even though I do not plan to let that stop me, enamored-with-the-hats as I’ve become.)
Yes, you can definitely craft an entire Kentucky vacation featuring only horse-things, entirely devoid of any bourbon experiences. Of course, I don’t know why you’d do that.
Coming later this week: bourbon, bourbon, and more bourbon!