Kentucky destinations, for horse lovers, extend beyond the Derby

Horse lovers know the arrival of May brings the grace and thrill of high-stakes thoroughbred racing. It all begins with the Kentucky Derby in Louisville but need not end there.

This winning trifecta of equine adventures in the Bluegrass State are within 100 miles of Churchill Downs and open all year.

What happens to thoroughbreds past their prime? The old, injured or infertile were more likely to lead very sad lives until 2003, when the nonprofit Old Friends opened as their retirement home on Dream Chase Farm near Georgetown.

Guided walking tours introduce race champions and runners with no-win resumes. Around 100 horses have free rein on 136 acres, and each has a story.

Longtime volunteer Cindy Grisolia nods toward Ide, “on his way to being the best three-year-old in the country” until a broken ankle ended his career and could have easily ended his life. Now the horse is 21 years old.

Old Friends began with one acre and one horse: Narrow Escape, an older mare, abandoned during a breeding stock sale. Old Friends founder Michael Blowen, a Boston Globe film critic and horse lover, leased space to keep her, then saved additional at-risk horses.

Little Silver Charm, the rare non-thoroughbred resident, was bought for $40, off a truck that was slaughter-bound. Grisolia says Blowen named the horse after his all-time favorite racer.

Fifteen years later, the 1997 Kentucky Derby winner named Silver Charm came to live here too. So did opponent Touch Gold, the spoiler of a Triple Crown win for Silver Charm.

“The horses don’t care, and we don’t care, about how much money they won,” Grisolia notes. Some horses are donated to Old Friends. Others are rescued. Some are brought back to the U.S. from as far away as Japan. Still others are on a waiting list to live at this pastoral place.

“A good racehorse is not always a good sire,” observes Grisolia, and that can quickly compromise a stallion’s quality of life.

Old Friends is a last-stop home. “It’s amazing how they tell you when it’s time to say goodbye,” Grisolia says. “They look in your eye, and you can just see it. They are ready,” especially if uncontrollable pain means they don’t eat, seem happy or want attention.

On the grounds is Championship Cemetery, their place of final rest.

Ninety-minute tours of Old Friends happen at least daily and cost $10 per person ($5 for ages 6-12). Self-guided tours are not possible.

Just south of Georgetown, population 30,000, is Kentucky Horse Park, whose International Museum of the Horse is a Smithsonian affiliate. Also on the 1,229 acres is the American Saddlebred Museum, other exhibits, frequent horse shows, an outdoor sculpture park and grounds meant for strolling.

In some way, all careers in the equine industry – veterinarians, farmers, sales brokers, trainers, farriers, horse mane braiders, equine journalists and others – are honored. More than 30 equine organizations and around 50 breeds of horses are represented. The commonwealth of Kentucky owns the operation.

The park has its own mounted police and hosts a competition and conference for these police forces; attendees include the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The biggest park memorial is for Man o’ War, among the all-time greatest racehorses, and some of his offspring, which include 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral.

The Kentucky Horse Park opened 40 years ago, and admission is $20 (less for seniors, children and winter visits). Horse-drawn trolley rides, trail and pony rides can be arranged.

Just north of Georgetown is the world’s largest Toyota factory, where 2,000 cars are assembled per day and free tours happen on weekdays, by reservation.

In neighboring Bourbon County are 20,000 people and at least 200 thoroughbred horse farms. Five are open to the public, and a no-hassle way to visit is through Horse Country Tours.

Among the most popular destinations is Claiborne Farm, home to Secretariat, which in 1973 won the first Triple Crown in 25 years. Six of 12 Triple Crown winners reportedly were conceived here.

On the century-old farm are 3,100 acres, 50 barns, 97 miles of fence and 450 horses (including foals). During breeding season, nine or 10 horses are bred per hour. Tour guides matter-of-factly explain the process in great detail.

In Secretariat’s old stall is Runhappy, who won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup. “He had to work his way up to this stall,” says our guide. That’s how it goes: A stallion whose offspring do well in thoroughbred racing automatically commands a higher stud fee.

War Front, described as one of the world’s top sires, started with a $12,500 stud fee. Now it’s $250,000.

About two dozen horses are buried in the stallion cemetery. That includes Secretariat, embalmed and buried full body, which is rare. It is more common for a successful racehorse’s head, hooves and heart to be buried.

A one-hour walking tour of the stallions area, breeding shed and cemetery costs $20 and reservations are required.

Paris, population 8,500, is the largest Bourbon County city and home to an eclectic assortment of visitor housing, Asian themed to chic converted barn. Debra Hamelback, executive director of the Paris/Bourbon County Chamber of Commerce, is a Janesville native and long involved with the equine industry.

Bourbon was the inspiration for the official Kentucky Derby menu this year. That’s no surprise: The commonwealth produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, declared “America’s Native Spirit” by Congress in 1964.

David Danielson, the Derby’s executive chef, included roasted sweet potato salad with charred pecans and a maple-bourbon reduction; roasted turkey breast with a bourbon-peach glaze; cornbread with bourbon-honey butter and a bourbon-caramel crème brulee.

There’s more: 2018 is The Year of Kentucky Food, and a statewide promotion celebrates all the regional hits: Kentucky country ham with red-eyed gravy, hot brown sandwiches, vinegar-based barbecue, sorghum vinaigrette, pimento cheese, beer cheese, cheese grits, beaten biscuits, spoon bread, burgoo.

Check the nine regional food trails under development at (search for “regional cuisine”).