By Corinne Minard
There’s a reason Kentucky is known for horses. The state is packed with hundreds of horse farms; is home to Keeneland, the world’s largest thoroughbred auction house; and hosts the first leg of the American Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby, at Louisville’s Churchill Downs.
With much of the state being connected to horses it’s no wonder that so many of its attractions are connected to them, too. Have a horse enthusiast in the family? A trip down to Kentucky can help them get closer to what they love while entertaining the rest of the family as well.
Kentucky Derby Museum
The race known as “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” is May 2 this year, but every day is Derby Day at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville.
“We celebrate Derby Day every day so if you come here you should be able to get a good taste of what the derby is like,” says Rachel Collier, director of communications for the museum.
The museum itself offers two floors of exhibits. Visitors can learn more about trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won four Kentucky Derbies, and Bill Shoemaker, who is considered the greatest jockey of all time; see memorabilia from famous Kentucky Derby winners like Secretariat and American Pharoah; and view the museum’s newest exhibit, “Right to Ride,” which opens April 19 and tells the stories of the derby’s female jockeys.
According to Collier, one of the museum’s must-see attractions is its 18-minute film, The Greatest Race. The film is shown on an oval-shaped screen and envelopes the audience in the sights and sounds of the derby.
“It tells the story of Derby Day, from how a foal gets to the derby, it starts out with that, and then it goes through the day of the derby, the sights, the sounds, the streets outside of Churchill Downs where you have street cart vendors who are cooking barbecue and to inside the track where you’re seeing all the preparations that go into the big day—it’s really powerful,” she says. “A lot of people watch that movie and it makes them want to come to the derby if they haven’t been.”
In addition to viewing the exhibits visitors can also tour the museum’s next-door neighbor Churchill Downs. “Our museum is the exclusive tour provider for Churchill Downs,” adds Collier.
Included with admission to the museum is a 30-minute tour of the park, which includes the grandstands, track and famous twin spires. But for those looking to explore more of Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby Museum offers several other tours. The Behind the Scenes Walking Tour, for example, takes visitors into non-public areas such as the exclusive Millionaires Row, members-only Turf Club and the Jockey’s Quarters.
The Barn and Backside Tour explores the village behind Churchill Downs that features 1,400 stalls, the dormitories and living quarters of those who care for the horses, the community’s church and more.
And the museum’s newest tour, Bourbon and Bridles, looks at the history of bourbon and horse racing. At the end of the tour, visitors also get to enjoy a bourbon tasting and learn how to make their own Mint Julep.
“We’ve found that when people come to Kentucky they want to learn about the Kentucky Derby, of course, but they also want to experience bourbon,” says Collier. “We wanted to have something to offer guests who kind of want both.”
While the museum offers many different attractions for horse lovers visitors should also make sure to stop by one of the museum’s free diversions. “Even if you do come in the winter months… our stable always has a thoroughbred and pony,” says Collier. “You can walk in our museum anytime and say, ‘I just want to go look at your horse.’”
Horse Farm and Other Tours
Those looking to get closer to the horses themselves may want to look into taking a tour of a horse farm or other facility. Horse Country, a nonprofit membership organization, assists local farms by handling, booking, marketing and coordinating all touring experiences at its member farms. With prestigious farms like Claiborne Farm (where Secretariat is buried), Horse Country helps visitors find the tours that best match their interests.
With 40 members, Horse Country has access to about any experience a horse lover could ask for. Visitors can book tours with stud farms, nursery farms, a sport horse farm, two equine clinics, a training track, three accredited after-care facilities (which serve as adoption agencies for horses looking for new homes after the racetrack) and a feed mill. “So really at any point in the life cycle of the horse, literally from what they eat at the feed mill, to foaling at the nurseries, training at the tracks, stud career after they race, to after care, … you’re seeing really behind the scenes of the most premier facilities that you can,” says Stephanie Arnold, marketing and members services director for Horse Country.
Because so many tours are available Arnold suggests narrowing your options by date and location first. “If you know there is a particular horse that you want to see that’s obviously a leading kind of criteria, but if you are just looking for a great horse experience, honestly, I would point people toward their itinerary and what fits into it,” she says.
If you plan on taking multiple tours, Arnold suggests picking up a free Horse Country passport. They can be found at any touring Horse Country member location, the Lexington Visitor Center and several other sites. If you complete one of the two experience categories, you can earn a commemorative gift. “(People) may not know just how interconnected it all is. So hopefully the passport rings some bells for people and they can see that it’s all connected,” adds Arnold.
Kentucky Horse Park
There are many more horse attractions beyond the Kentucky Derby Museum and farm tours, though. The Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington is itself home to many attractions.
The International Museum of the Horse, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is considered to be the largest horse museum in the world with more than 60,000 square feet of exhibits. Featured exhibits include “All the Queen’s Horses: The Role of the Horse in British History” and “A Gift from the Desert: the Art, Culture and History of the Arabian Horse.” Its new permanent exhibit, “Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf,” features reproductions by artist Edward Troye and looks at the legacy of legendary jockeys like Oliver Lewis and Isaac Murphy.
Other museums at the park include the American Saddlebred Museum, the Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries and Wheeler Museum.
After viewing the museums, visitors can also take a tour of the Big Barn, which houses the park’s draft horses, or Mounted Police Barn; view park memorials for several famous horses, including Man o’War; meet famous horses in the Hall of Champions; take a horseback or pony ride; and more.