Monday, August 24, 2015

36 Hours in Horse Country

Lexington and Georgetown, Kentucky
August 19-20
“That is the most unhealthy meal I have ever seen you order,” says Dick, as my lunch is set before me at Ramsey’s, a home cooking institution in Lexington since 1989, now boasting four locations around town.  
He is so right--the plate is piled high with fried chicken livers, with a big old ear of parmesan fried corn on the cob balancing on the edge, a pile of fried green tomatoes nearly buried beneath the livers, some pasty chicken gravy for dipping and a piece of corn bread providing the finishing embellishment.   His chicken salad plate delivers at least two cups worth, so he isn’t on the diet plan either.

No clean plates here--not even close.

After lunch we visit the Mary Todd Lincoln house, which sits smack in the middle of downtown development, across the street from the Convention Center.   There is just one other couple on our tour, and our guide is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, encouraging questions and dialogue. We climb the stairs grasping the same banister that Abraham Lincoln held many a time.  Lots of the furniture and accessories are authenticated possessions of the Todds, used in the house when Mary lived there, and when she and Abe visited in later years.  The vast difference in the stations of log cabin Lincoln and his sophisticated highly educated socially prominent wife is very clear.   The Todd family did not approve of the marriage, but I guess he showed them.
After contemplating the ethical and moral dilemmas of Oak Ridge yesterday, today our thoughts turned to the dilemmas of a house divided--literally.  Like so many other families in Kentucky, the Todds were divided, with at least four of Mary’s brothers serving in the Confederate Army, while Mary and one of her brothers who was too old to enlist stalwartly stood behind the Union cause.

The base of operations for the rest of our visit is Georgetown--a ten mile drive through rolling hills and limestone outcrops, bordered by endless miles of the classic black or white wood fences of horse farms.   The grazing horses all look as if they were freshly groomed just minutes ago.  If there are any emaciated, fat, or seedy-looking horses around here, they don’t put them out in a pasture you can see from the road.   

The Lexington Visitor’s Bureau has a driving tour map with the notable and famous stables marked on it, but it is too difficult to drive and read the map, more enjoyable just to admire the details--dry set stone fences so old that tree trunks are growing around them, stately homes with barns to match, elaborate landscaping with ponds and fountains and winding roads, and just a few rustic old tobacco barns and elegant ruins.

Kentucky Horse Park in Georgetown was developed to give visitors to the region a place they could go to get close to horses, and be inculcated with the culture of the horse and the reverence for the horse that permeates this region, without disturbing the valuable pampered horses of private farms.  

 It would be easy to spend a whole day here, but we just spend a morning, beginning with a ride on a horse-drawn trolley to get the lay of the land.  In the Police Horse barn, while strolling the stall and petting noses, we come across Pumpkin--the horse who played Sea Biscuit’s calming companion in the movie.  We learn this, and lots more about these big horses while chatting with their groomers. 
At the Hall of Champions presentation, famous horses who have earned millions through their racing winnings and stud fees are paraded around a small ring and stop frequently for photos, while an announcer tells their stories and shows videos of their peak performances (on the track, not earning stud fees).   The most famous of the group is Go For Gin, who at 24 is the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner. 


Our favorite show features horses of different breeds from around the world, ridden by riders costumed to match the horse’s cultural origins.  Music from the country of origin plays while the announcer tells the story of the breed.  An American mustang, culled by the Bureau of Land Management from a western herd just last year, seems remarkably tame and well trained as his cowgirl rider puts him through his paces.  The next horse looks like a little Clydesdale, and we learn that it is a Gypsy Vanner horse, bred by Eastern European gypsies to pull their wagons and be ridden.   The rider of the Andalusian rode side saddle in nineteenth century riding attire; the rider of the Appaloosa wore Indian attire--honoring the Nez Perce Indians who developed the breed-- and she rode in with her arms spread wide and the reins free. 
 Our favorite horse was the Akhal-Teke from Turkmenistan, who glowed golden in the sun.  At the end of the show, the horses all came to the edge of the ring, where we could pet them and talk to the riders.


On to one of the two horse museums at the park, where walking up a spiral walkway you can trace the history of human interaction with the horse from pre-historic cave paintings on cave walls showing horses as hunted prey through our taming of horses, deifying them in images of gods, using them in war, in various forms of labor, and in leisure pursuits, like racing and hunting. 

 After several hours we agree we have gotten our money’s worth and need not visit the other museum and the other barns around the grounds.  But, we can’t leave without paying our respects to Man O’ War, perhaps the greatest thoroughbred racehorse of all time, who lies beneath a life size sculpture of himself in a memorial garden area fit for a ruler of state.
The start of the Legacy Trail--a paved path connecting Georgetown to Kentucky--lies right next door to the Horse Park, adjacent to the Park’s campground.  We change into our bike togs in a campground shower building, fill our water bottles with a big cold bottle of water from the camp store, and head out on the trail.

The trail winds through rural rolling hills with bucolic farmland views, crosses over a major expressway, passes the Lexmark  office campus, and a University of Kentucky Research Center.  It ends at a Lexington YMCA.   Markers along the trail provide interesting information.  Ironically, one of the first markers points out a trailside building--the international headquarters of the Asphalt Institute--and extols the many virtues of asphalt, the substance upon which we ride.   About five miles later, the trail surface changes for a short segment, and a marker there tells us that we are riding on a “pervious surface,” preventing the environmental damage of run-off that occurs when we cover our earth with too much asphalt.

There are lots of murals painted on the pavement.  (None on the pervious surface.)


A marker tells us when we are riding over a field where the winner of the first Kentucky Derby grazed.  

On the way back, we accept the invitation of a trailside sign to take a side trail up to Spindletop for a cold drink of water.  Spindletop was once the forty bedroom home and Thoroughbred horse farm of Pansy Yount, who built it with money from a Texas oil well in 1935 and left it about 20 years later, after it became clear to her that the Kentucky blue bloods were never going to accept her into their society, regardless of the size of her farm and the luxury of her home.  She sold it to the University of Kentucky, which maintains the home as a private club.   Dick has been inside, visiting the club with his then mother-in-law, who was a member.  He wants to go inside again, but I demur, believing that in our sweaty biking attire, we might not be especially welcome guests.

Round trip, our ride is a little over 17 miles, the rolling route a good microcosm of Lexington’s legacy--horse farms, UK, and growing corporate influences on Bluegrass traditions.  

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