Lexington, Ky.— Lexington is no one-horse town. Nowhere is that more evident than at the Kentucky Horse Park, a 1,200-acre equine theme park and competition facility in the heart of the scenic Bluegrass Region.
At the park’s popular Horses of the World Show, a Gypsy Vanner gallops confidently into the ring, delighting spectators with its flowing snow-white mane and ice-blue eyes. Feathering around the hooves accentuates a surprisingly elegant gait in this small draft horse known for its strength and endurance.
As a young woman sporting a purple Gypsy costume rides the horse around the ring, a narrator explains that this breed was the perfect caravan horse – well suited to the nomadic lifestyle of the Roma people, also called Gypsies, that traveled throughout England and Ireland in horse-drawn wagons in the 19th century. Powerful enough to pull a loaded wagon, but gentle enough for children to ride, this breed is both a work horse and a docile companion.
The stallion doesn’t have the spotlight to himself for long. He is joined by a sleek, ebony Arabian, the oldest known breed of riding horse. The animal’s coat glistens in the sun. Next, a compact Norwegian Fjord with a roached mane prances into the arena, followed by an American Saddlebred.
Some of the youngest audience members can’t wait for the show to end – not because they aren’t having fun, but because after the show they can run their hands over the horses’ velvety coats and chat with the riders.
Kentucky is famous for its lightening-fast thoroughbreds, but the Kentucky Horse Park pays homage to breeds from around the globe, some of them expensive and exotic.
But it’s not hard to find those beloved thoroughbreds, too. Kentucky Derby winners Funny Cide and Go for Gin are enjoying posh retirements at the park. Their racing days are over, but these equestrian superstars still get loads admiration from fans that come to see them in the Hall of Champions Show.
The International Museum of the Horse, one of three museums at the park, celebrates man’s bond with the horse. Dogs have long been known as “man’s best friend,” but horses have served as companions and more.
The signature Legacy of the Horse exhibit traces the history of man’s relationship with the horse, especially on the battlefield. It focuses on some of the world’s most notorious conquerors, including Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne and Napoleon - all great horsemen known for strategically deploying cavalry during their military campaigns.
A museum highlight is the Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries. You can make yourself at home in a tent where a “magic” urn reveals the mysteries of the Bedouin people who wandered the desert with their hearty Arabians for thousands of years. According to legend, the Arabian was a gift from Allah, meant to be cherished.
Keeneland Race Course - Horse Power
Now that you’ve acquired a little “horse sense” at the Kentucky Horse Park, head to Keeneland Race Course to see some of Kentucky’s finest horses thunder around the track.
Keeneland is more than a race track. It’s the world’s largest thoroughbred auction house, famous for its two-week September yearling sale. But you don’t have to be in the market for a race horse to get in on the action. Spectators are welcome, so take a seat and enjoy the show. And what a show it is.
The Lamborghinis of the equestrian world are auctioned off during the first couple of days of the sale. Horses with impeccable bloodlines, often descended from racing royalty, are led into the sales pavilion where they flick their ears and stamp restlessly while their fate is decided by deep-pocketed buyers from around the globe.
They don’t have to wait long. It’s not unusual for the auctioneer’s rapid-fire chant to sell a horse in a couple of minutes, sometimes for more than one million dollars.
Potential buyers peruse the sale catalogue, whispering in dozens of languages about the horses’ pedigrees, temperaments, and medical records.
This spirited sale has an undercurrent of mystery because it’s not always apparent who is bidding against whom. This isn’t the sort of auction where bidders raise paddles with numbers, so a bidding war between two determined buyers may be obvious only to bid spotters who are trained to read the buyers’ signals and alert the auctioneer.
“The bid spotters know the clients so well,” said Keeneland spokeswoman Amy Gregory. “They know if I raise my pen like this, it means I’m bidding, or if I cross my legs, it means I’m bidding, so there are subtle signs.”
Part of the fun of the sale is the possibility of rubbing elbows with celebs, such as country music sensation Toby Keith or Food Network chef Bobby Flay. You may even find yourself strolling alongside royalty.
Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum is a familiar face at the sale. Over the decades, the ruler of the desert kingdom of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in promising colts that he races in Europe, the United States and his home country.
“He’s won many of the European Classic races,” said Gregory. “His dream now is to win the Kentucky Derby.”
Sheik Mohammed’s brother, Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum, also has a passion for the ponies and owns the 1,300-acre Shadwell Farm, a global breeding operation near Lexington. At the 2012 September sale, Hamdan was the leading buyer, purchasing 17 yearlings for approximately $8.25 million.
Of course, after acquiring these massive, yet delicate creatures, the new owners have to get them back home, and sometimes home is the Middle East, Asia or Europe. So, how does one transport a 1,200-pound animal thousands of miles?
Well, there’s always FedEx. Yes, Federal Express will fly your horse overseas in the equivalent of equine first class. The carrier is often used by international horse transportation companies that specialize in getting horses to their destinations.
That usually means traveling with an entourage of “flight attendants” - grooms, trainers, and veterinarians.
There are few equine-related problems that can’t be managed in Lexington. It’s not called the Horse Capital of the World for nothing.
Where to Stay:
Gratz Park Inn is an upscale boutique hotel near many of Lexington’s main tourist attractions. 120 W. Second St., Lexington, 855-238-7780, www.gratzparkinn.com
Where to Eat:
DeSha’s restaurant serves hearty Southern comfort food and specializes in top-barrel bourbons. 101 N. Broadway, Lexington, 859-259-3771, www.deshas.com
Keeneland Race Course —4201 Versailles Road, Lexington, 800-456-3412, www.keeneland.com