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Lexington and Keeneland offer horses, history and bourbon
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Lexington and Keeneland offer horses, history and bourbon

Keeneland, the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction house as well as a stud farm and race track, is famed for its spring and fall races and three times yearly horse sales, all of which attract an international crowd. But it's more than just a mecca for wealthy racing fans.

Though you may not want to bid, it’s fun to watch the stakes go higher and higher. Last year, two buyers paid over $360 million for 2,855 yearlings, with hopes some would become future winners. And beyond the races, historic Keeneland is a year-round destination for families — even those without a million or  more in their pockets.

Located in Lexington, Kentucky, a city known as the Horse Capital of the World with good reason, as this area of rolling hills has more than 400 horse farms, Keeneland was founded in 1936 by Jack Keene on land owned by his family since the 1830s.

Morning workouts, when trainers put horses through their paces, are a fun way to start the day at Keeneland. Indulge in Southern cookery at the nearby Track Kitchen. It’s the type of place where you might find yourself sitting next to a jockey, owner or trainer while eating a heaping plate of biscuits and gravy.

Keeneland has modified some of its offerings because of COVID-19, but you can still explore its 1,034 acres of manicured lawns, gardens and walking paths by taking a group or self-guided tour (a variety of information, including tour maps can be found at www.keeneland.com). Places on the tour include the Saddling Paddock, where rubberized walking paths protect horse hooves and small rings and trees help soothe the horses before they’re saddled up. The horses then move towards the Walking Ring, past statues of famous jockeys. It is here that the jockeys emerge, walking in single file to mount their horses before being led into the ring.

A visit to the stables showcases how Keeneland has grown big time since 1935 — the year before it officially opened — when there were just six barns, made from old barn wood, on the premises. Now the number has morphed into 57 barns that are able to accommodate up to 1,951 horses.

Horse racing may date back millenniums, but a stop at the grandstand shows that Keeneland is definitely state-of-the-art. They were the first in the U.S. to use Trackus, an in-the-moment monitoring system that displays the performance of each horse in a race on an LED tote board set up in the infield.

Tickets and information for October’s Fall Race Meet are available on the website at tickets.keeneland.com.

Tailgating, always popular at Keeneland on race days, runs the gamut with some bring sandwiches, and others serving sweets and savories out of grandmother’s silver buffet dishes set on linen tablecloths. On non-race days, pack a picnic lunch and find a leafy glade or pretty garden area to dine. Keeneland also has several fine restaurants that may be opening soon.

Beyond Keeneland, Lexington is a lovely city known for its history, food scene and, of course, bourbon.

History

Within walking distance of restaurants, the city market and other attractions, The Sire, a Hilton hotel, is in Gratz Park, a stately neighborhood abutting Transylvania University, founded in 1780.

Two house museums across the park from each other highlight the Confederate and Union divide that split Lexington during the Civil War. On one corner, and open for tours, is the stately home and gardens of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, who crossed the Ohio River into Indiana and looted his way through its southeastern counties in what was the only Civil War battle in the state. He did so against his commander’s order, but then he also was expelled from Transylvania University for dueling, so obviously there were issue with authority.

From the second floor windows of the Morgan home one can see the former law offices of statesman Henry Clay, who favored the Union, as well as the three-story Bodley-Bullock House, which served as a Union headquarters during the Civil War and is open for tours. Not far away, Clay’s spectacular 18-room Ashland estate is situated in one of Lexington’s historic districts and is also open to the public, as is the house where Mary Todd Lincoln grew up.

Dining

Traveling with kids? Lex (as they call it here) has a plethora of independent restaurants suitable for casual dining, such as Zim’s Café, one of award winning chef Ouita Michel’s restaurants. For fancier fare, the menu at Dudley’s On Short is both creative and locally inspired menu and offers rooftop dining. Just a short ride away in horse country, the Greek Revival-style Holly Hill Inn built in the 1840s is great place for brunch on race days or dinner anytime of the year amid the grandeur of yesteryear.

Drink the terroir

Bourbon is a legacy of the mineral-laden water filtered through Kentucky limestone, producing the distinctive taste that made this region famed for its spirits.

To get a taste of bourbon history, visit Lex’s 25-acre Distillery District, once the site of the James B. Pepper Distillery that was abandoned after eight decades in 1958 and lay untouched for half a century. Now a bustling downtown destination, take your pick of where to dine and drink at such places as the Elkhorn Tavern, Barrel House, Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge, and the five-story Pepper Rickhouse.

The latter, on the National Register of Historic Places, was an aging warehouse capable of holding 100,000 bourbon barrels. Now, the first floor, which covers almost an acre, is home to Wise Bird Cider Co., Fusion Brewing, Battle Axes (take out your aggressions by throwing hatchets) and such retail as Relics, where you can buy vintage, rustic and reclaimed items like signage, bourbon barrels, wall art, furniture, clothing, home décor and so much more

For more information, contact Visit Lex at 800-848-1224; visitlex.com.

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