Horses, hospitality, a hotel (with history) and hoops.
That’s a quick and easy summary of what makes a visit to Lexington, Ky., unique.
You could almost refer to it as “4-H” — except that the term already is in use by youth clubs in the United States, Canada and other parts of the world.
And Lexington is very much a community for those of legal drinking age (21 in Kentucky), whether your beverage of choice is the local bourbon or another concoction.
My wife, Ruth, and I got to experience Lexington up close recently, and learned a lot more about how those wonderful H words apply to this community of 320,000 people.
Do you want to own a horse?
There’s a short-term and a long-term option.
The short-term option is to visit Keeneland (keeneland.com), the 1930s-era racecourse in the western part of the city’s boundary, during the spring meet in April or the fall meet in October. Put your $2 on one of the thoroughbreds competing that day, and you get to “own” it for the time it’s racing on Keeneland’s 11/16-mile dirt track or 71/2-furlong turf course. You may even get a return on your ownership “investment” if you’re lucky.
While you’re there, enjoy the beautiful natural setting and grounds, which are accessible year-round. To prepare for your visit, you might want to watch such movies as Seabiscuit or Secretariat, which filmed at Keeneland.
The long-term option is to visit Keeneland’s Sales Pavilion, the world’s largest auction house for thoroughbred horses, during one of the sales periods. Note: This option carries much more financial risk, but potentially much more reward, than the short-term option!
Keeneland also is home to the Keeneland Library, open to the public and to researchers who want to learn more about all things related to thoroughbred racing. During our visit, we got to tour a special exhibit, “The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers,” which is on display at the library until Dec. 8.
We also looked through a collection of photos from Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Keeneland in 1984.
Those thoroughbred horses aren’t created by chance. There’s a lot of human planning that goes to the mating of the right sires and dams (fathers and mothers, respectively). Gainsborough Farm, part of the immense Godolphin racing and breeding operation founded by Dubai royalty, recently began allowing visitors to take a tour of the facility, including the breeding area. During our tour, our guide, a saucy and knowledgeable English woman, educated us on how the breeding takes place. (Hint: Artificial insemination isn’t allowed, nudge, nudge, wink, wink!)
She also drove us through part of the 1,500-acre farmland and introduced us to some of the mares who were champions in their racing days, and some of the recently born foals. There was plenty of time to observe and take photos. At the International Museum of the Horse, which is part of Kentucky Horse Park (kyhorsepark.com), you can learn about the history of the horse and its relationship with humankind. “Legacy of the Horse” is a very thorough chronological dis- play, starting with the earliest evolutionary horses, their domestication around 3,500 BCE, and their use in such areas as agriculture, transportation, war and peace, and entertainment.
Canadians’ eyes will light up when they see an exhibit about a 1733-era Conestoga wagon (used by German Mennonites to travel from Pennsylvania to Waterloo County in Ontario) and an RCMP display.
The museum has many other exhibits, including 20 hanging tapestries on which are presented a broad spectrum of horse activities, and sculptures of some of the world’s most famous horses.
Kentucky Horse Park also has a daily schedule of events where visitors can get close to some of the horses on the grounds.
Equestrian events also take place there throughout the year.
There’s a lot of overlap between horses and hospitality.
Significantly, the limestone underneath the Lexington area is ideal for both. It adds calcium to the Kentucky bluegrass, which helps Kentucky-raised horses who graze on it grow stronger bones. The limestone also filters the area’s water supply, adding calcium and removing iron, both of which make the bourbon better.
For another example, consider James E. Pepper, both an avid horseman and a distiller in the late part of the 19th century.
In the 1880s, his company was the largest distiller in the U.S. The company’s business had its ups and downs — in the 1960s, drinking habits changed, and the distillery was abandoned. The distillery, just outside of downtown Lexington, was revived in 2008, and after much restoration, whiskies using the same recipes as those used by the original company are produced there.
The James E. Pepper distillery (jamesepepper.com) is open for tours, which is where Bill, our guide, began with a history lesson. He then took us through the distillery, pointing out the steps of distilling spirits — the water source, the grain, fermentation, distilling and aging — as we walked. The smells of the fermentation area, and the alcohol sampling near the end of the tour, will last with us for a long time.
Within steps of the James E. Pepper distillery are many food and beverage options in what’s known as the Distillery District, plus live music venues The Burl (theburlky.com) and the nearby Manchester Music Hall (manchestermusichall.com).
To experience a century-old distillery in a more rural and natural setting, have your Designated Driver take you on the half-hour journey from downtown Lexington to the Castle & Key Distillery (castleandkey.com).
The buildings and grounds now occupied by Castle & Key also had to go through a great deal of restoration to get to its present state.
The distillery was built in 1887 by E.H. Taylor Jr., who like Pepper was a “Kentucky colonel."
Taylor, who was inspired by European architecture, made sure that the distillery was also a destination.
Guests would travel to the site by train, getting off at Taylorton Station. “We like to say that Col. Taylor started the bourbon tourism business,” Maggie, our guide, said. The site was dormant from the early 1970s until 2014, when attorney Will Arvin and a business partner purchased the site. “When I saw this place in its raw state, I fell in love with it,” Arvin said. “It was so enchanting. It had a beauty and charm.”
There’s no admission charge to visit the grounds, walk along a nearby botanical trail, or see the key-shaped Roman bath, which was part of the inspiration for the Castle & Key name. You can even buy a cocktail at the renovated Taylorton Station. However, it’s worth it to pay for a guided tour to see both the inside of the distillery and the Sunken Garden, a quiet natural setting with a koi pond in the middle.
There isn’t a distillery at The Kentucky Castle (thekentuckycastle. com), but that shouldn’t stop you from heading just outside of Lexington to experience this impressive structure.
TKC sits atop an otherwise empty hillside, so when we went to the expansive third-floor rooftop, we had a wonderful view of the surrounding greenery. The rooftop is one of a number of event spaces there that are suitable for weddings, receptions, etc.
TKC also operates as a boutique hotel, a restaurant (breakfast was so good!), and a spa.
Outside the walls of the castle is a teaching garden, where local high school students learn about agriculture. The garden’s products will wind up as ingredients for meals at the restaurant. Sheep, goats and even a donkey are also kept on the property.
Our home base during our time in Lexington was 21C Museum Hotel Lexington (21cmuseumhotels.com/lexington).
The historic 15-story building opened in 1914, and previously was known as the First National Bank building. It was repurposed as a 21C and opened in 2016.
21C is about as downtown as one can get in Lexington. The Historic Lexington Courthouse, a downtown landmark built in 1899, stands only a few metres away.
The hotel portion of the building has 88 units.
The rest of the building, open to the public, is an attraction in itself, and that starts outside with the Totally in Love lamp posts outside the main entrance, and the colourful Spectralline artwork just above the entrance.
The second floor, and parts of the ground floor, are art galleries. One of the exhibitions on display until October is “Seeing Now,” a multi-media selection of works by more than two dozen artists.
Particularly striking is Henry by Nathalie Boutte, which uses tiny strips of paper to produce a portrait.
The ground-floor Lockbox restaurant gets its name from the large bank vault, which can be used as a private dining room, in the back of the restaurant. The walls of Lockbox are also filled with artwork.
Lexington is home to the University of Kentucky, and the students and alumni take their men’s basket- ball team, the Wildcats, very seriously.
More than 30 years later, you still can get a reaction out of a UK backer by mentioning the name Christian Laettner. The former Duke player made an improbable last-second basket to prevent Kentucky from getting to the Final Four in 1992.
Rupp Arena, the downtown facility where the team (ukathletics. com/sports/mbball) plays its home games, seats 20,545 for basketball.
IF YOU GO
There are no direct flights from Canada to Blue Grass Airport, Lexington’s regional airport, which is on the opposite side of Versailles Rd. from Keeneland. On our visit, we flew to Cincinnati (CVG) and drove about 11/2 hours to get to Lexington.
For more hospitality options in Lexington, see the rest of this story at torontosun.com.