Kentucky Horse Country
For more than an hour, the little tour van rambled down the one-lane roads that crisscross sprawling Calumet Farm, the most famous name in Kentucky Thoroughbred racing
As the driver recalled the farm's glories--nine Kentucky Derby winners, three Triple Crown trophies-my wife and I gaped through the windows at horses everywhere. Horses training on Calumet's racetrack. Horses getting a cooling bath in the barn. Horses idly grazing in luxuriant bluegrass pastures. Not ordinary horses these; they're aristocrats-maybe the next Derby winner, valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. They looked gorgeous: sleek and powerful. We admired them, of course. But really, it was their offspring-the young, spindly legged colts, barely two or three months old-that charmed us as they scampered at their mothers' sides. And get this: The tour, a fascinating, up-close glimpse of the fabled realm of Thoroughbred breeding and racing, costs nothing. Like a number of other horse farms near Lexington-the heart of the Kentucky Horse Country-Calumet offers free regularly scheduled tours (daily in summer).
But this is only one of numerous bargains that make the region a great money-saving vacation spot for budget travelers. Though lofty mansions preside over the horse farms, visitors can stay in quality motels nearby for as little as $50 to $65 per night. Order a heaping plate of Kentucky fried chicken (this is the place to indulge) for under $10.
Thoroughbreds take the spotlight in central Kentucky. But count on much more to see and do as you follow the four-day, 525-mile drive detailed below. The itinerary, which I followed in midsummer, crosses paths with young Abe Lincoln, frontiersman Daniel Boone, and composer Stephen Collins Foster. Recall that Foster wrote "My Old Kentucky Home." You can hike deep into America's longest network of caves, view the second biggest waterfall (after Niagara) east of the Rocky Mountains, perhaps go rafting on the Cumberland River, browse the many crafts shops of Berea, and stroll a tree-shaded Shaker village. And-this is Kentucky, after all-plan on visiting one of the state's famous bourbon distilleries.
Much of the way is over lightly traveled back roads. Initially, you pass through rolling hills carpeted with bluegrass. Miles of tidy plank fences-a tradition in Horse Country-line the route. Beyond, the landscape turns rugged as you enter the forest-draped Appalachian Mountains, where here and there a stream tumbles alongside.
The drive is organized so that you can spend at least one night at Dupont Lodge in Cumberland Falls State Resort Park. Tucked into a rugged mountainside in Daniel Boone National Forest, it's one of 17 moderately priced state-park lodges (800/255-7275, www.kystateparks.com). A real budget traveler's find, any of them might tempt you to explore even more of Kentucky.
Unlike Calumet, most of the attractions you will want to see charge fees of up to $12 per person. To keep your expenses down, I've highlighted only places that I've seen and know are worth your money. Ask for youth, senior, AARP, and AAA discounts.
Day 1: On the road
Cincinnati to Lexington via the Kentucky Horse Park, 85 miles. The Bluegrass region around Lexington is home to about 450 horse farms. As a fitting introduction, make your first stop the Kentucky Horse Park (adults, $12). It's conveniently located just outside Lexington off I-75, the route from the Cincinnati airport. Once you've landed, you can be at the H orse Park in less than 90 minutes.
An amazing place, the complex is a 1,200-acre, one-of-a-kind re-creation of a working horse farm that in appearance is as splendid as any of them. More than 30 miles of white-plank fences enclose pastures and barns where as many as 200 horses can be viewed. They represent nearly 50 breeds, among them the relatively petite Tennessee Walking Horse and the massive Clydesdale draft horse. Nowhere else can you see so many breeds in one place.
Watch a farrier shoe a horse. Climb aboard a horse-drawn wagon for a 15-minute ride (no extra cost). Take a lesson in the history of the horse at the International Museum of the Horse. Pay homage to the legendary Thoroughbred Man o' War, who is buried in the park. His grave is marked by a life-size bronze statue. And don't miss the daily horse shows. No horseman myself, I was nonetheless fascinated by the "Parade of Breeds," a twice-daily display of a sampling of the park's many breeds.
For 30 minutes, we visitors watched seven horses parade into the show ring one after the other. As costumed riders put each breed through its paces, the announcer educated us on its attributes. The American Paint, splashed in colors of white, brown, and black, was prized on the frontier for its stamina and brains. The sturdy white Arabian, mounted by a rider in flowing desert robes, is admired for its courage, endurance, and beauty. In the finale, the horses gathered in front of the viewing bleachers to be petted. One was designated the photo horse. Youngsters climbed atop while parental cameras clicked.
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