If ever a sound was designed to stir the hearts of our people, it is the sound of horseshoe pounding on hard turf. In Kentucky it is a sound that never quite goes away.
The tour of Churchill Downs is the best point of contact you could hope for. The museums recreate the sense of excitement when the Kentucky derby is staged on the first Saturday of May, but the real soul of Kentucky racing is a few hours down the road, where the Kentucky Horse Park is probably the only place in the world where you can come face to face with tens of millions of dollars worth of horseflesh, or what might have been worth more if they hadn’t been found not to be able to perform at stud.
Imagine the humiliation. The whole world is already putting their tenner on the nose of your progeny for the Derby of three years hence and you discover that, well, she didn’t quite do it for you.
Kentucky Horse park has all the whirling pony shows, the white fences and storyboards, the interactive screens and videos, the farriers who will show you where to put your hoof, but it is the memory of face to face contact that you bring home with you.
Cigar, John Henry and Da Hoss.
The derby has never had an Irish bred winner. Even the promisingly named iconic 19th century jockey Isaac Burns Murphy was a true Kentucky man. Wonder if the thought has crossed Aidan O’Brien’s mind?,
Lexington is where you find the white-railed paddocks, the rolling Bluegrass region, the unhurried and genteel way of life that seems like a throwback to the deep South of the Movies.
Kentucky was split down the middle by that war, 90,000 soldiers fought for the Union armies and about 40,000 for the Confederacy.
It was the birthplace both of Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, and of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, and so it still has the capacity to change landscape, personality and culture with the turn around a corner.
It remains a strongly rural state of small towns and crossroads. Only Louisville and Lexington have large populations. Next door to the whiskey-distilling regions, with their proud waxed bottles, you have dry counties, where no alcohol is sold. White fiddle playing bluegrass juxtaposes with black blues.
North Kentucky smells of beer not bourbon, with its predominantly German heritage and suburban pattern of development, belonging to metropolitan Cincinnati. in its churches, restaurants, family names, and an annual Oktoberfest.
In Covington they are only now revealing the Germanic culture that was pushed aside abruptly when America enter the first world war.
As you head south the imagery is thick as the lush green landscape. Even the name. Its name probably derives from the Iroquois word for “prairie.” The fried chicken isn’t exactly promoted by the tourist board, but it made it a worldwide brand.
Don’t bring up the good Colonel’s name. And for good measure don’t mention how great the smoking ban is, tobacco is the farmers’ biggest cash crop and a livelihood to many in the state.
No introduction is needed to this history. Stray away form the highways and you can almost recognize the territory settled by Daniel Boone and other frontiersmen in 1769.
Boone is only the start of it. The name conjures up images of coal miners in hard hats and farmers, who floated their wares on flatboats down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
They opposed the slavers, and sometimes took a return cargo of escaped slaves with them. In Cincinnati the Underground railroad centre is opening next year to portray the network of safe houses that brought more than a few people to liberty in those pre-war days.
Cincinnati sided with the North despite its location on the Mason and Dixon Line and its close commercial and cultural ties with the South.
There is also the Kentucky of bourbon whiskey, which was named for the county where it was developed and is still made, of white-suited colonels and their ladies sipping mint juleps on summertime verandas, of mountaineers and moonshiners.
At Labrot & Graham distillery, established in 1812, you can see the production for yourself and find out how the distilleries survived during prohibition.
Kentucky encompasses a curious mixture of poverty and wealth, ugliness and beauty, North and South. Great writers (Robert Penn Warren, Wendell Berry, and Bobbie Ann Mason) and ballad-singers, some of the ballads having survived in the mountains unchanged for 300 years, remind visitors of you-know-where.
The annual Big Singing, held at Benton in western Kentucky each May for more than 100 years, celebrates the heritage of shape-note, or “fa-so-la,” singing. In between the sessions you can check out the local nosh, a hot game-meat stew called burgoo.
The greatest Kentucky celebrity was not Boone or even the Colonel, it was Muhammad Ali. In Louisville you can track his childhood.
The house where he grew up is still inhabited, an undistinguished suburban house where Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., supported a wife and two sons by painting billboards and signs and his mother, Odessa Grady Clay, worked as a household domestic.
A few miles takes you to the high school to which he traveled, running behind the school bus. The basketball gym where he first trained is more central, as is the sport where allegedly, when Clay was 12 years old, he first met Louisville policeman Joe Martin to report a theft, and Martin promised him to show him how to box so he could look after himself.
You can also admire the bridge from which he threw his gold medal after being refused admission to a restaurant because of the segregation laws. Recently it appears that the story mightn’t be true after all, he lost the medal. But the bridge story is better.
The self-guided Ali tour is for the knowledgeable and those prepared to go along without the benefit of a helpful plaque.
Other visitors should check out the Muhammad Ali Center when it opens next year. Although a portion of the Center will be devoted to his boxing career, the exhibits and programming will focus on peace and conflict resolution.
Having seen Ali, it’s now time for Frazer. Fighting of another kind distinguishes the Frazer centre. The museum features magnificent displays of American artifacts dating from the colonial era to the early 1900s – including pieces that once belonged to famous politicians and celebrities, explorers and soldiers.
In collaboration with the Royal Armouries (Britain’s oldest museum), the Frazier will display the arms and armor of knights and kings; the possessions of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I; and pieces from Europe dating back a thousand years.
Right in the heart of Louisville the Seelbach Hilton, built in 1905 proudly cherishes its tradition as home to Presidents to gangsters. You can have dinner in a room with a secret staircase so gangsters like Al Capone could escape onto the street and avoid police.
The city is home to the Louisville Slugger Museum, marked by the world’s largest bat. It looks like a scene from the Simpsons, standing 120 feet tall and weighing 68,000 pounds.
The thud of bat and ball we are told, makes the heart sing. No it doesn’t. It is still hooves on turf that does it for me.
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