Bourbon was invented in Kentucky and, with over 70 distilleries scattered throughout the state, you’re unlikely to be thirsty. Unless of course you’re at the Kentucky Derby, anxiously waiting for your horse to come in, scared you’re going to lose your money. Better to be in a honky-tonk, dancing to bluegrass jazz, the state’s own version of country music, where a tipple or two is a medical necessity.
Apart from the pull of the bourbon, Kentucky with its museums, makes for a highly cultural road trip.
At Louisville airport you’re greeted by a huge sign saying Colonel Sanders (of fast food fried chicken fame) Welcomes You. Apart from the good colonel, the city is famous as the birth place of Muhammad Ali, once known as the Louisville Lip for his banter. Before he died he founded the Muhammad Ali Center with his wife and the emphasis here is more on his humanitarian work rather than boxing
Of course there are his famous fights with Henry Cooper, Joe Frazier and George Foreman but the display is laid out around his six core principles; confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. He was a deeply complex person and it’s a tragedy that he was incapacitated by Parkinson’s shortly after he retired from boxing.
Louisville is also a horse racing town and the track at Churchill Downs hosts the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. It opened and has grown to include 40 stables, a Kentucky Derby Museum and of course the famous stadium which can hold up to 170,000 spectators. Only 20 horses compete, after competing in heats all across the US, and they must be three-year-old thoroughbreds. The race lasts under two minutes, the winning horse, Justify, earned its owner $1,432,000.
If you’ve ever wondered where race horses go when they retire, then around 70 miles east, in Georgetown, is the Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm. It’s run as a labour of love by former Boston Globe critic Michael Blowen. 129 racehorses are out to grass here with the oldest a venerable 32 years. There are a couple of Derby Winners passing their twilight years on the tranquil 126 acre, Silver Charm, and also the star of the movie Seabiscuit, Popcorn Deelites.
Georgetown also claims to be the birthplace of bourbon – apparently, the Reverend Elijah Craig distilled the first Kentucky bourbon using the water from a local spring of course there’s no proof but he was probably the first to age it in charred oak casks the process that gives bourbon its colour and distinctive taste. This certainly gave Kentucky a head start and now the state is responsible for 99% of the world’s supply. If you are interested in tasting the difference, there’s a mapped Bourbon Trail which guides you around the distilleries.
Horses are big business in Kentucky and stud farms are dotted all over the state. Godolphin, at Jonabell Farm in Lexington, 15 miles south of Georgetown, is owned by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai. They charge a fee of £200,000 for letting their stallion Medaglia d’Oro, “cover” your mare. The horse never won the Derby as it didn’t compete but they have three that did – the services of Street Sense, Animal Kingdom, and Nyquist are all on offer. For a much smaller fee, you can take a 90 minute tour of the farm and get up close to these thoroughbreds.