Tuesday, May 13, 2008


In case people weren't sure if Dianne and I were crazy, we took steps to confirm their suspicions when we booked a trip to the Kentucky Derby as part of a 4 day tour with Tauck World Discovery, which is the Cadillac of touring companies.

The Kentucky Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May, and our tour began on the previous Wednesday afternoon. On our flight from Chicago to Lexington, KY, we encountered several ladies lugging big hats or wearing them on the plane.  On a normal flight that is unusual, and overhearing the conversations, we determined that many of the people on the plane were part of our tour.

Arriving in Lexington, the tour company drove us to the hotel, the Marriott Griffin Gate, which is a fine resort.  The only drawback was that the bathrooms in the rooms are smaller than most closets.  It's like a one lane highway, if two people are in the bathroom at once, in order to pass, one must step outside.  But it's like Las Vegas--how much time do you spend in the room anyway?

There were two attractions in Lexington to see on Wednesday afternoon.  You could visit Mary Todd Lincoln's home or Henry Clay's home.  Because we had previously visited the Lincoln museum in Springfield, IL., we opted for Henry Clay's home which is called Ashland.

Henry Clay was the partriarch of a prominent Kentucky family.  He traveled over the mountains from Virginia around 1800, studied law and married a woman from a prominent family.  He ran for Congress and was elected Speaker of the House in his first term.  He later served as Secretary of State.  Highly respected, he was the unsuccessful Whig candidate for President three times.  In those contentious times, Clay, being a slave owner, had a major liability in attempting to unify the nation.  Nevertheless, in Congress, he was a driving force in keeping the Union together in the pre-Civil War days, passing the Compromise of 1850.  He was a major inspiration for another native Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln. 

Clay entertained notables like James Monroe, Daniel Webster and Marquis de Lafayette in the house.  Clay's actual house no longer stands.  His descendants purchased the house after his death in 1853 and found it to be dilapidated and structurally unsound.  It turned out to be easier and less costly to tear it down and build a replica, which is the house we saw, built in 1854. 

During his busy lifetime, Clay was, among other things, a proponent of scientific farming.  He constantly experimented with cross breeding crops as well as racehorses. He ran the farm as a profitable business, with the help of many slaves, of course.  In fact, he was the largest slaveholder in Kentucky. 

The farm featured Kentucky's 3 major industries, all of which are bad for you in one way or another--tobacco, bourbon whisky and racehorses.  The other major industry, fried chicken is probably not good for you either.


The next morning, 300 thirsty people on our tour took a 90 minute bus ride to Loretto, KY to sample the true Kentucky experience and learn how they make Bourbon Whisky.  On the way, we passed through the rolling limestone bluegrass covered hills which are the center of the horse breeding industry.  This region was once part of an ancient ocean, and the numerous shellfish deposited their calcite shells which, over millions of years became limestone.  The water in the area, rich in calcium, feeding the lush bluegrass, helps build strong bones in the horses raised in the area. 

There is a strong French influence in this part of Kentucky, reflected in many of the place names.  Kentucky was settled shortly after the American Revolution, and the settlers were grateful for French assistance (see Marquis de Lafayette) in the decisive battles.  So you have towns with names like Versailles (pronounced ver-SAYLES), Paris, and of course Bourbon, which was the French royal family pre-1789.

Makers Mark is a fairly small boutique type distillery.  The business was begun in 1780 by Robert Samuels, a farmer who made Whisky to keep him and his neighbors happy, in fact, very happy.  The business stayed in the family and in the 1800's, distilling became their primary business.  The recipe was altered in the 1950's to substitute winter wheat for rye to produce a gentler taste.

Every bottle is dipped and sealed in a distinctive red wax.  We have a picture of Dianne, wearing an apron and goggles, dipping the bottle which we took home for the next time we entertain guests who appreciate fine bourbon.  We viewed large vats of the fermenting, bubbling mash, made from the secret recipe of fine malted barley, corn and wheat.  I was allowed to stick my finger in the vat and taste it, with no harm done.  It tasted pretty good.

After the tour, each visitor gets 1 ticket for a free glass of bourbon.  A determined imbiber can gather up the tickets of the non-drinkers like me and really have a bender, especially with someone else driving the bus.  But everybody behaved themselves, and we were served a nice buffet lunch with barbecue chicken and pork with corn bread.  The entertainment was a bluegrass band, and we were to see several more of those on our tour.  I did taste my drink with its distinct fine bourbon taste, but it's not something that I would drink on a regular basis.


We drove further down the road to My Old Kentucky Home State Park which is in tribute to 19th century Kentucky composer, Stephen Foster.  The house was actually that of Judge Rowen, a prominent Kentuckian who mentored Foster.  Foster had a troubled and impoverished life and he died, an alcoholic, on the streets of New York at age 38.  His songs became a part of American tradition.

The background music was all Stephen Foster--the namesake My Old Kentucky Home (the Kentucky state song), Old Folks at Home (Swanee River), Beautiful Dreamer, and more.  Foster's lyrics had to be changed in recent years because of racial sensibilities.  For example, the second line of My Old Kentucky Home used to be, "Tis Summer, the darkies are gay."  Now it reads< "Tis Summer, the people are gay." Formerly the song offended only African Americans and Gays, but now it offends almost everyone equally.


That evening, our tour group went for dinner to Keeneland Race Track where we tried the signature drink mint julep for the first time.  It consists of Early Times Bourbon mixed with mint sprigs, sugar, water and crushed ice.  It's a sweet drink and we didn't care much for it.  Keeneland is another famous Kentucky race track.  Its racing season had ended a week or two ago when the horses moved over to Churchill Downs in Louisville.

Our group went into the gift shop.  Dianne got after me about the "requirement" of a hat to wear for the Derby--my golf cap wouldn't do.  I bought a nice Panama hat for $80 which was far more than I would spend for a hat back home.We had a wonderful steak dinner with entertainment by a bluegrass band.  Did I mention that they play a lot of bluegrass music in Kentucky?


Friday, we had a choice to either go to Churchill Downs for the featured Kentucky Oaks race, the big race for fillies, or visit a horse farm.  Many of the hard core horse players from the tour went to the Oaks and had to watch that race on a rainy, stormy afternoon.  We elected to do the horse farm and knew right away it was the correct decision.

We visited the Margaux Farm near Midway, KY, which concentrates on thoroughbred breeding and training. The owner, Steve Johnson, a highly respected breeder, gave a talk about horse breeding.  He then trotted out his three celebrated stud horses.  First was Kela, a top sprinter who won over $1 million in his racing career.  Then came Cryptoclearance and Devil His Due, veterans of Triple Crown races, both of which had won over $3 million in their careers.  These horses command stud fees of $6,500 to $7,500, and they can sometimes cover 3 mares in a single day, and do that hundreds of times.  The whole thing is scientific.  They even walk a horse through the barn to determine which mares are ready to mate.

The horses' family trees are computerized and analyzed to determine which would be the most advantageous matches for speed, endurance, durability, etc.  With racehorses, there is no such thing as artificial insemination.  The stallions are required to drive over to "cover" the brood mares.  To make sure that happens, they videotape the event.  We weren't told whether they play the videos in the barn to excite the horses.  The stud fees are held in escrow and paid when the mare conceives.

We went out into the pasture to interact with the yearlings.  Hopefully one or more will run in the Derby in 2010.  Horses like Bashful Maggie and Sky Star may become the stars in future years.  When the yearlings are sold, the new owners often change their names.  Right now, the young colts and fillies run and play in the pasture.  They are very friendly.  One young colt was licking my leather sandals through the wood fence.


This is a museum devoted to the horse--not just the racehorse, but all breeds.  Incidentally, all thoroughbred horses are descended from three stallions brought over from Europe in the 1600's--Darley's Arabian, The Godolphin Arabian, and the Byerly Turk.  The museum also featured harness horses like the famous Dan Patch, who was Dianne's great grandfather--not the horse, but the horse's namesake.  He was a friend of the horse's breeder back in the 1890's.  Dan Patch ran the mile in 1:55 in 1905 establishing the world record which stood for 55 years (1905-60).  We took Dianne's picture in front of that exhibit.  Her brother has in his house an oil painting of that famous horse.

We went to the arena where we were treated to the Parade of Breeds, a dressage horse show.  It was raining cats and dogs.  Apparently the rain doesn't bother the horses as much as it does us.  The riders wore elaborate, hopefully waterproof costumes and put the horses through various difficult maneuvers.  They did a great job despite the adverse playing conditions.

We were encouraged to dress Western style for the dinner.  The band, called Chicken Grease, led off with a bluegrass song (What! more bluegrass) and then figured out that the tour group was up to here in bluegrass.  They changed over to popular dance music and we had a great time.


Saturday morning, Derby Day, arrived with driving rain which sent horseplayers furiously scanning their Daily Racing Form seeking mudders--horses that like to run in the slop.  Every one of the 175 women in our tour group was decked out in her finery which included a big hat.  Our hotel had a hat shop where women could custom design their hats with feathers, fruit, various colors of cloth, buckles and every imaginable design.  Finished hats sold in the $400-500 range.  The hatpin was $35.  If that were me, I'd wear the same hat again next year and save money, but I don't believe most women think that way.  I'd sure hate to ruin a $500 hat in the rain.

Because of the rain, the tour guides passed out ponchos to wear over hat and dress.  Fortunately, by the time we arrived in Louisville, 90 minutes later, the rain had stopped, and we didn't need the ponchos.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  On the bus, they played timely songs like Dan Fogelberg's wonderful Run for the Roses about a horse bred and raised in Kentucky with the dream to run in the Derby.  It brings tears to my eyes.  Incidentally, "Derby" is named after the Earl of Derby in England who started the renowned Epsom Derby. 

We got to Churchill Downs about 11:00 in the morning, and the energy there was electrifying!  The women were dressed to the nines, with big hats, high heels, and beautiful dresses with the most cleavage this side of Las Vegas.  They were in competition with each other, and most of them knew little if anything about horse racing.  Most of the men wore broad brimmed hats also.  I had on my big Panama and a cream sportcoat.

Many older men brought their young "nieces" decked out in their finery.  Even octogenarian Hugh Hefner was there with his 3 nieces--they were pretty young!  His party almost ran us over with track security driving one of those big golf carts.

Many other people looked familiar--they were probably famous but I didn't know who they were.  There were 160,000 people in attendance to see the 2 minute race.  You wouldn't want to go down for a hot dog or you'd miss the whole race. 

Tauck World Discovery had a giant party tent built to accommodate over 300 people on our tour.  They served a buffet lunch all afternoon with complimentary drinks served in special Kentucky Derby glasses.  We accumulated 4 of them. We could have had more, but we had no more room for them at home or in our suitcases. In the Marquee Village, other corporations and tour companies also had party tents next to and across from ours. 

In the first race, I bet a horse that went to the post at 10 to 1 and didn't return until a quarter after 3.  That was the story of my afternoon betting until the 10th race, which was the big one--the fabled Kentucky Derby. 

We always allocate a significant amount of money to spread around among the various horses, looking for the big payoff if a longshot comes in as if often does.  Three years ago, when Giacomo won at 50-1 odds, and the second place horse, Closing Argument wsa a 71-1 shot, the payoff on the exacta (the top two horses in order) was $9,800 on a $2 bet.  The trifecta (top three horses in order) paid $133,000.  So we bet a number of different combinations.

After the 9th race, we had about 75 minutes to prepare for the big race and get all our bets down.  Fans wore colorful buttons extolling their favored horses.  I saw many Big Brown buttons around the stands.  Big Brown was named after UPS which is a big customer of the horse's owner. 

The vendors were hawking Early Times mint juleps at $9 apiece, which were selling like hotcakes.  The fans from the tents were settling into their reserved box seats--ours were on the first turn, a furlong or two past the finish line.  Looking over a sea of big hats, we could see the parade of horses and jockeys on the track.
The University of Louisville Marching Band marched out as they have every year since 1936 to play My Old Kentucky Home, which, to the 160,000 fans, is almost a religious experience.  The words are flashed on the screen and the fans sing along with the new, politically correct version of the song.

The horses broke from the gate and the favorite, Big Brown, breaking from the far outside 20th position got to the first turn in contention, only three horses from the rail, and we knew at that point that it had a good chance to win.  The race is a mile and a quarter, and most of it must be viewed on the TV monitors.  Coming into the final stretch, the leader was the Number 18 horse, Racapturetheglory at 47-1, and we had bet him!  Big Brown was in second.  Eight Belles, the sole filly, was up there also.  From our vantage point, we couldn't readily determine who won.  The big win for us was not to be, however, but we did have Big Brown and Eight Belles in the exacta, which paid $70.80.  But tragedy struck the filly, which after finishing second, pulled up and fell in front of where we were sitting.  The unfortunate animal had to be destroyed, which they do discreetly behind drawn curtains.

So the day ended on a down note.  My dream of the big Derby payoff will have to wait until next year.  But as several people on the tour remarked,  "We can now cross off the Derby on our Bucket List."




Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home