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The genteel precision of the immaculately fenced rolling hills tells visitors they've crossed into Kentucky. (Gene Burch)
The genteel precision of the immaculately fenced rolling hills tells visitors they've crossed into Kentucky. (Gene Burch)

Kentucky: Head into the heartland of thoroughbreds and bourbon Add to ...

The World Equestrian Games were held here last year and drew half a million spectators. The Horse Park has its own living champions, such as Cigar, Go For Gin and Funny Cide – a gelding who won the Derby and the Preakness in 2003. Prickly by reputation, he was led out and fixed me with his imperious gaze.

Horses invariably generate stories, and in horse-centric Kentucky one of the joys is simply sitting in the company of horse people and hearing what they had to say. A gifted storyteller, Mike Blowen told me about a certain retired jockey who religiously attends fundraisers at the Old Friends farm, delighting his audiences with his recollections. Like this one:

Now in his 70s, he was approached many years ago by a novice jockey who gushed at meeting his idol.

“Hey kid,” the veteran told him, “you and I are in the next race and yours is the only horse I'm worried about. I'll put a thousand bucks in cash in your locker if you lay back a little.”

“Oh,” the young jock replied, “I could never be a part of anything like that.”

(To understand the rest of his story, you need to know two things: One, jockeys do talk to each other during a race, and two, an “exacta” in racetrack parlance involves picking the first- and second-place finishers, in the correct order.)

In the race, the senior rider was six lengths ahead down the stretch but the young lad blew by him at the wire.

“Sorry,” the rookie shouted.

“That's okay, kid,” the jock shouted back. “I got the exacta.”

My last evening in Kentucky, I was walking in Shaker Village when the sun finally showed itself and lit up the trees in burnished gold. On a tall 19th-century house, a great oak cast intricate black shadows that covered much of the white clapboard. I paused to admire the sight, unable to resist taking a photograph. Come back another day, the setting sun said. And I will.

IF YOU GO

Where to stay: Old Friends isn’t your average bed and breakfast (the view from my second-floor spacious bedroom was of a pond and horses in paddocks). Even if you don’t stay here (they close for the winter), come for a visit. And check out their website for the many stories about this unique retirement home for horses who seem to know how lucky they are. From $150; Paynes Depot Road; oldfriends.equine.org; (502) 863-1775.

Gratz Park Inn: When I left at dawn Friday morning, the desk clerk organized my boarding passes. True southern hospitality. From almost $200; West Second Street; gratzparkinn.com; 1-800-752-4166.

Where to eat

Kentucky cuisine can be as rich as some breeders. At Keeneland, I had one bite of Kentucky Bread Pudding, with extra Maker’s Mark bourbon sauce, and got a jolt of butter and sugar. A Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich makes poutine look like health food.

Sam’s Restaurant (essentially a truck stop, lunch cost $5), Jonathan’s Bluegrass Table at Dudley’s On Short at the Keeneland clubhouse ( keeneland.com; 1-800-456-3412), and the Trustees’ Office Dining Room at Shaker Village were all fabulous. Lexington cuisine has taken off in the past decade.

Visiting farms

Always call ahead before going to any farm. Aficionados of racing are drawn to these tours, but so are those who simply appreciate the beauty of these animals and their often splendid digs.

For more information, check out the following:



Lawrence Scanlan is the author or co-author of 11 books about horses, including The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, the World’s Greatest Racehorse.



Special to The Globe and Mail

Editor's note: The original version of this article contained the incorrect phone number for Three Chimneys. This vershion has been corrected.

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