For horse racing enthusiasts, Leton, Kentucky is a legendary destination. It offers a genteel way of life, gracious Southern charms, exciting racing and lovely people. Leton, Kentucky is called the Horse Capital of the World and with good reason. Leton’s landscape is lush rolling pasture and endless white fencing, home to one of the finest horse breeding cultures in the world. Today, visitors here come to admire and watch some of the world’s finest horses compete. Race horses came to America courtesy of wealthy English settlers; the first racetrack, IN Long Island, New York, is documented back to 1665. A new breed, the Thoroughbred, came from the English, and was introduced here in the 17th century. It goes without saying that betting has been an intrinsic part of horse racing history. American tracks host betting using the pari-mutuel wagering system. Thoroughbred horses, admired for their spirited personalities, their agility and their speed, are especially popular. They race over distances from 3/4 to 2 miles.
Keeneland () is a Thoroughbred racetrack and an auction company. “We take our mission very seriously here,” Julie Balog, director of public relations, told me. “We take the casual observer and turn them into a lifelong fan.” And in such an accessible, affordable and exciting atmosphere, that is exactly what happened to me. Keeneland was buzzing the day we visited, With nine races before us, we watched as the brightly dressed jockeys paraded their horses through the crowd, past the Mint Julep and Bloody Mary concessions onto the track. Balog told me that there are two racing seasons at Keeneland, a nonprofit race and auction park. “On any Saturday, more than 25,000 people will be here,” she added. We settled into our seats in one of their famous dining rooms and sampled some famous Kentucky Burgoo – a local, and delightful, stew. A complimentary portion of Kentucky beer cheese, gaily placed in the table’s center, disappeared on the ends of carrots and celery sticks. We had our own private betting booth nestled between the mint juleps and the chocolate fountain. Large floor-to-ceiling windows afforded a great view. The people- watching was as almost as entertaining as the horse racing. A few photo finishes and a lot of fun! Keeneland celebrates its 75th anniversary next year and it is well worth a visit. admission allows you to enjoy Keeneland’s live racing, but does not include seating or dining options. General admission is $5 per person; children 12 and under admitted free, Balog said.
Kentucky Horse Park
The Kentucky Horse Park park covers 1,224 acres of Kentucky’s famous Bluegrass. As a real working horse farm and show facility, most of the park attractions are outside. The Visitor Information Center (with gift shop and movie theaters), the International Museum of the Horse, the American Saddlebred Museum and the Clubhouse Restaurant are all indoor facilities with air-conditioning, sitting areas and restrooms. The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event is the largest annual equine competition held at the Kentucky Horse Park, said Mike Cooper, commissioner of Kentucky Travel and Tourism. One of only six three-day events in the world that are ranked at the highest level, four stars, the Rolex Kentucky is the first three-day eventing competition of the year on the international calendar, he added. The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event is held each year during the last weekend of April. We had a wonderful time watching the jumpers take hurdles across the park, while sipping Woodford Reserve Old-Fashioneds, of course. All of Leton is excited about the upcoming World Equestrian Games (www.alltechfeigames.com. The most prestigious event of its kind in the world, Leton and horse faces everywhere are preparing for the world championships for eight equestrian sports- dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, jumping, para dressage, reining and vaulting. The Games are held every four years, two years prior to the Olympic Games, and are governed by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI). The Games will take place at the Kentucky Horse Park from Sept. 25 to Oct 10 but related events will take place all over the area. More than 600,000 tickets, beginning at $25, are available.
If you can’t come for a race, there is still much to see in the equine world. According to local guide Martha Martin, who owns Unbridled Horse Tours, there are 450 Thoroughbred farms in the Leton bluegrass area. “Bluegrass is the area that is within a 50-mile radius of Leton,” she said. “The grass really isn’t blue but it can look bluish green when it goes to seed. “But the real star of the land is the soil. The reason this area is so fertile is the limestone in the earth that makes everything, especially the grass and the horse, grow so well.” Sign up for a horse farm tour or two. The experience is amazing! You don’t need to feel shy or intimidated if you don’t know that much about the industry. Guides are friendly and realize most visitors are just admiring the beautiful animals and the lovely farms where they live. Some farms allow visitors only on certain days or limit tours at certain times of year such as breeding season (February through mid-July), Kentucky Derby time, during the horse sales, or during race meets, Martin told me. She also cautioned that while some farms allow you to get out and tour the barns, others allow drive-through visits only. Almost all allow photographs but don’t count on petting the horses. That is not allowed. Calling first is the key to a good experience. We toured Darley’s Jonabell Farm, 750 acres owned by Sheik Mohammed since 2001. Hundreds of winning horses have been produced there, including 14 champions. The last Triple Crown winner (in 1978), Affirmed, died on Jan. 12, 2001, and is buried on the grounds. Racing is the highlight of the efforts here, but the main business of the farm is breeding, an extensive and highly scientific process. After their relatively short racing career, most horses live to their teens and quite a few into their 20s. For more information, visit www.darleyamerica.com. Visitors must call ( 859-255-8537) for a tour. Individual horses have huge legions of fans. According to Martin, when the great Thoroughbred Man o’ War retired to stud in the Bluegrass, there was an overwhelming crush of visitors from around the world to see him. Man o’ War’s groom, Will Harbut, kept ledgers for visitors to sign. When Man o’ War died in 1947, there were 63 ledgers containing over 1.3 million names.
There is a vast array of choices in lodging in Leton but for comfort and affordability, the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort and Spa is certainly a winner. Guests are greeted in the lobby each evening with complimentary ‘Kentucky Cocktails” made with Maker’s Mark Whiskey or with mint juleps. The concierge level offers a very nice self-serve breakfast or cold drinks and snacks all day long. There are fresh flowers, newspapers and a business center available. There is a Starbucks in the lobby and an acclaimed steakhouse. Golfers will appreciate the a Rees Jones-designed golf course golf course while moms will love the spa. On the hotel grounds is the Mansion, a haunted Southern antebellum home, available for private parties. It’s lovely.
Downtown Leton is definitely a happening place. Each evening, sidewalk cafes are filled with people. Great local restaurants are bustling; shops and bars are lively. There are lots of people walking and biking on the streets as downtown is undergoing a Renaissance. Dudley’s on Short was jumping the Wednesday night we visited. Elegant, high ceilings jewel tones and oil paintings. Bourbon and water was flowing. Steaks, seafood and luscious desserts all prepared under the watchful eye of owner Debbie Long. Jonathan at Gratz Park is simply wonderful. We raved about the pimento cheese grit fries and the traditional favorite, Crab Benedictine, to chef and owner Jonathan Lundy. The shrimp and grits entree was superb as were the lamb chops. Be sure to have a cocktail in the Sky Bar, located on the top floor of an old bank building. Owner Vince Carlucci is a dedicated developer in Leton and offers tasty food, delectable drinks and a heart stopping view of downtown. It is definitely the “in” place! Plan your entire trip at www.visitlex.com! Call the Leton Convention and Visitors Bureau toll free at 1-800-848-1224 and ask for the Horse Farm Tours brochure and the Leton Walk and Bluegrass Country Driving Tour map. One side is a walking tour of historic downtown Leton. The other side is a scenic loop around Leton with suggested side trips. Be sure to watch for the upcoming movie “Secretariat,” which will be in theaters Oct. 8. Most of the movie was filmed in Leton. Cynthia Calvert is an experienced travel writer based in Houston, Texas. She owns four newspapers, hoabinhres, in suburban Houston with a delivered circulation of 50,000 and an online presence receiving more than 155,000 unique visitors each month. hoabinhres are an accredited (application basis only) part of Google News and enjoy a serious presence on the Internet (hoabinhre.info). Calvert is a contributing editor to Stone Magazine, a bi-monthly, glossy magazine completely devoted to travel: www.stone-mag.com and StoneTravelGuide.com Stone is distributed in 25 countries and has a paid subscriber base of 85,000. Calvert is also a contributing writer for Bonita Living Magazine www.bonitalivingmagazine.com a paid monthly delivered to upscale businesses and affluent communities in Southern Florida. Photos (from top to bottom): The winner at a recent race; Keeneland Race Course has conducted live race meets in April and October since 1936. Jonathan at Gratz Park serves fantastic Southern dishes like this Slow Roasted Pork Rack Chop with Kentucky Hot Slaw. The Rolex three Day Invitational is an eventing competition held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Leton and is the only four star show in the US. Does anything say Leton better than fresh flowers and an Old Fashioned cocktail made with Woodford Reserve? Woodford Reserve is a super-premium small batch bourbon made in the heart of Kentucky.