It is the month of the Durban July. People go to horse races for various reasons. Some go for the hats or the dresses. Others go for the parties and the atmosphere. Most, like me, go because they love horses.Whilst the Durban July is arguably South Africa’s premier horse racing event, transforming Durban during the first weekend of July into horse central in South Africa, true horse loving heaven is to be found further afield in the American state Kentucky.
Never in my life have I thought I’d see people that love horses more than I do, but in Kentucky I finally met my match. If people are willing to build bigger, more extravagant horse barns than their own homes, you know they like horses. Flying into Kentucky and seeing the stables and fields on the ground far below, I knew I was in good company.
Kentucky thrives on horseracing. It’s the heartbeat of the state and even real city dwellers who may not know the first thing about horses will leave strangely fulfilled. I landed in Lexington, the home of Keeneland Racecourse—where the Blue Grass Stakes, one of America’s best known preparatory races for the Kentucky Derby is held annually. The Blue Grass Stakes is a R7,5 million race, compared to the Durban July which is a R2,5 million race. The Kentucky Derby is held at the famous Churchill Downs racecourse, in Louisville and this race has a first prize of around R14,5 million.
Visiting Keeneland Racecourse is quite a treat. It was built in 1935 and has withheld most of its original old school charm. Keeneland was used as the main set for the majority of the racecourse scenes from the film Seabiscuit. It was declared a National Historic landmark in 1986.Keeneland also owns the famous Kentucky Thoroughbred Centre where visitors can go for a behind-the-scenes tour of a racecourse. This tour showcases a day in the life of a racehorse. Included in the tour is watching, at rail side, the morning workouts of Thoroughbred horses. Visitors can also learn how Thoroughbred horses are trained and hear about how Kentucky became the Horse Capital of the World.
Lexington is also home to the Kentucky Horse Park, a fabulous park dedicated only to horses. Prepare to spend at least a day here with activities including horse-trail riding and horse-drawn carriage rides. The park also hosts a variety of horse-themed shows including “Horses of the World”.
At the horse park visitors can see over 50 different horse breeds; visit the graves of world famous horses like John Henry III at the Memorial Walk of Champions and see famous horses like Cigar at the Hall of Champions. Be sure to go and measure your steps to the actual measured strides of legendary world famous horses like Man O War and Secretariat. Thirteen of my regular steps goes into one stride of John Henry III. This legendary horse had the longest stride of them all.
A rather famous farm in the state you should try to visit is Claiborne Farm, situated on the outskirts of a small Kentucky town called Paris. (Interestingly most American states have a town called Paris).
Driving to Paris from Lexington takes about half an hour through the most gorgeous countryside, totally making the trip worthwhile. To say the scenery is picturesque would be an injustice. The Kentucky countryside is full of green meadows speckled with yellow flowers, bluegrass and of course horses. Horses as far as the eye can see. Claiborne Farm must be one of the most impressive farms in the state. This farm has enjoyed its fair share of equestrian celebrities since starting out more than 100 years ago in 1910.
Seabiscuit was born here. Secretariat, the wonder horse, stood at stud here and was so loved that he is one of the few horses buried entirely in the horse cemetery on the estate.(Usually, if a racehorse gets buried its only the heart and feet—which makes a good racehorse—that gets buried) Other famous horses like Bold Ruler (Secretariat’s sire) and Mr. Prospector were also stallions on this farm.Claiborne Farm has a fascinating link to South Africa and this was what prompted my original visit. Our very own equestrian champion, Horse Chestnut,(a Triple Crown Winner) stood at stud on this farm for almost five years of his life after retiring from racing. Horse Chestnut is currently at stud back in South Africa at the Drakenstein stud in Franschhoek.
Touring such a wonderfully designed and successful stud farm as Claiborne Farm gave me a renewed admiration for people working on these farms from the manager to the grooms. Everyone has a part to play, irreplaceable in the big scene of racehorse-breeding.You can also visit Louisville that is a 90 minute drive from Lexington and an absolute must see for tourists visiting Kentucky. Incidentally it’s not the capitol city of this fair state, that honour goes to Frankfort.
Kentucky is pure horse-lover heaven, a state dedicated to the sport of kings. In Disney World Mickey Mouse is the star of the show, in California everyone is a star. In Kentucky the stars are always our equine friends.