The Sport of Kings

Another must-see in Louisville is Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. This is America’s longest running sporting event, with the 2014 race being the 140th Derby, run every year since it began in 1875. 

Modeled on England’s Epsom Downs – only much larger, evidently – the track was begun by Meriwether Clark Jr., the grandson of William Clark, who had a few weightier issues to deal with, exploring the Louisiana Purchase. It was successful from the start and now it is the most heavily attended sporting event in the country (165,000 people come to see this!), second only to the Westminster Dog Show, which the people here do not consider a sport, let me assure you.

We got a great tour yesterday, which included seeing the horses in the paddock area, before a race we also got to watch. I was here once in college for the Derby, but seeing the race from the infield with a few mint juleps in hand and thousands of companions did not provide as clear a view. The juleps might have something to do with that.

And then there was the museum, with its Derby lore and the colors of this dramatic event. What a spectacle!

Today we moved on to Lexington, in the heart of blue grass horse country. The rolling acres of horse farms with their tidy black or white fences are just gorgeous. We took a guided tour which included landmarks of the city as well as visit to some horses.

And not just any horses. We visited Keeneland Race Course, where we were fortunate enough to see some amazing animals. November is the time of the Breeding Stock sale, and one, two and three-year-olds were being paraded around for potential buyers at the auction on Tuesday. Some go for around $100k; others might fetch much more. They were just gorgeous.

We also saw the sales barn, where the auctions take place. Fine art on the hoof will be sold here next week. And then there are the grounds and the track itself. All lovely, and for those who care about such things, where the Breeders’ Cup race will take place in four years. In preparation, the course converted from a polymer track to dirt this summer.

But the best part of the day was going to Old Friends, a retirement home for thoroughbreds. You’ve probably heard the horror stories about horses – some even Kentucky Derby winners – who passed their breeding years and who were headed for the slaughterhouse. Well, this place rescues or buys them and gives some lovely animals a well-deserved retirement under loving hands. It’s worth knowing about if you are looking for a good animal cause:

We got to meet a lot of celebrities today. Our first was Sarava, who won the Belmont Stakes in 2002. Our tour guide told a story about being on the farm the day he arrived recently, and meeting the jockey who rode him in that race. He had come to “see my horse.”

And there were others. One of them actually got to be one of the horses to play Seabiscuit in the recent film. But they all looked like stars, and very happy ones at that. Million-dollar earners, movie stars, or just tired thoroughbred stallions, they all were lucky enough to end up here.

One thought on “The Sport of Kings

  1. I didn’t go to UK but I did major in weekends there back in the day. Ahhhhhhh what fun. And isn’t it strange. I had the same mint julep, infield, can’t see a thing experience as you did. Must have been something in the water.

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