Kentucky's unbridled spirit - bourbon, horse racing and much more

Kentucky's unbridled spirit - bourbon, horse racing and much more

A FURLONG TO RUN: The closing stages of the 149th Kentucky Derby (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

IT’S THE home of bourbon whiskey, bluegrass music, and a certain well-known takeaway. The Commonwealth of Kentucky — as it is officially known — is also the birthplace of Muhammad Ali, and host to one of the most celebrated and glamorous horse races in the world, the Kentucky Derby.

This weekend, May 4, all eyes are on the azure tinted grass of Kentucky’s largest city Louisville, specifically that Kentucky Derby, celebrating its 150th run this year.

This global event showcases the finest thoroughbreds in the world in a thrilling competition called 'The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.'

The Derby, a sporting event like no other, is one of the world's great sporting occasions, with a staggering crowd of over 150,000, a rich tapestry of history and tradition, and a charm uniquely its own.

Every year, on the first Saturday in May, three-year-old thoroughbreds run the race at 1+1⁄4 miles (10 furlongs; 2,012 metres).

But what if you can't be part of the event? Rest assured; any time of year is a perfect time to explore Louisville. This city sits gracefully on the banks of the Ohio River and offers a wealth of attractions and experiences.

Steve Buttleman, official bugler of Churchill Downs, prepares to do the Call to Post for the Kentucky Derby  (Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kentucky Derby Museum

There are many museums in Kentucky, including one to the state’s most famous son Colonel Harland Saunders. But unless you have an abiding interest in takeaway food, you’re probably likely to eschew the KFC embassy, and head for the Kentucky Derby Museum. Located at Churchill Downs, the museum preserves the history and legacy of the race, the longest continuously-running sporting event in the US, dating back to the first Derby in 1875.

The upbeat museum chronicles everything about the race, the horses, and the men and women of thoroughbred racing.

Several Churchill Downs tours are also available, ranging from a railside view of the track while you delve into its history, to the Ultimate Churchill Downs Tour. This is a comprehensive journey through Churchill Downs, where guests can observe horses in training on the railside, explore the track's backside for a close-up view of horses, jockeys, and trainers, and conclude with a visit to the Grandstand for unparalleled views of the Twin Spires.

Louisville is about an hour’s drive to Lexington, the epicentre of Kentucky, indeed American, horse breeding and training.

For a truly authentic Kentucky experience you can stay on one of the many horse farms, set amongst grand southern mansions and wealthy equine ranches. For a terrific horsey bed and breakfast experience, the Bluegrass Country estate is about a half hour’s drive northeast of Louisville. If you’ve managed to get your horse on the plane, they’ll stable it for you, otherwise you can have a relaxing time strolling round the 5,000 acre Arabian Horse Farm, taking a dip in the pool, or enjoying the sub-tropical gardens

Victorian neighbourhood as seen on Trolley de 'Ville tour (image by Marilyn Jones)

Museum Row

I stayed at The Gault House Hotel, right on the river, and within easy walking distance of many attractions. I started with the Kentucky Science Center.

Already recognised as a leader in inquiry-based learning, the Science Center encourages all ages to explore science in everyday life.

With three floors of interactive exhibits and films on a four-story screen and daily programming, it's educational, thought-provoking — and fun.  The Discovery Gallery highlights polar bears, offering a sense of the scale and power of the world's largest bear.

Tchaenhotep is the remains of a mummified Egyptian woman who lived in the late 25th to early 26th century (700-625 BC). Her coffin is nearly 3,500 years old.

The famous Gemini Trainer from Project Gemini, NASA's second human spaceflight programme, helped many astronauts in the 1960s prepare for their space missions.

Louisville Slugger Factory & Museum (image by Marilyn Jones)

Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

It’s hard to miss the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory — it has a 120-foot-tall baseball bat leaning against the building.

The Museum showcases the story of Louisville Slugger baseball bats in baseball and American history. Baseball fans can hold bats used by the greatest players, such as Babe Ruth, Johnny Bench, David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, and many more. Guests can also step up and see a 90mph fastball in action.

ALL ABOARD: The Belle of Louisville (photo by Marilyn Jones)

The Belle of Louisville

My next stop is the Belle of Louisville, a riverboat that has been cruising these waters for decades. A National Historic Landmark and an icon of the Louisville waterfront, the Belle is the only remaining authentic 1914 steamboat from the American packet boat era.

Beautiful views of the city from a new perspective guaranteed.

Muhammad Ali Center

Born in Louisville, Muhammad Ali is honoured in the Center for more than his boxing prowess. The Center honours Ali's political and social legacy

The exhibition follows Ali’s journey through the three world heavyweight titles and humanitarian efforts that made him a global superstar.

Artifacts, photos, and interactive displays bring Muhammad Ali's life to life inside and outside the boxing ring.

Oak barrels on a carriage of Maker's Mark Distillery Loretto Kentucky USA. (Photo by: Andrew Woodley/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The bourbon trail

More than 90 per cent of all of America’s bourbon whisky is made in this state, including Jim Beam, Four Roses and Maker’s Mark. Central Kentucky has been the epicentre of bourbon production since the 1800s — a drink that is tied up with folklore, specifically prohibition.

Louisville is the official starting point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the Urban Bourbon Trail, and countless other bourbon experiences and tours. Kentucky is where sour mash fermentation was discovered and developed, and so bourbon was born.

Louisville is the only city in the world with some 10 distillery experiences, a bourbon cocktail and culinary trail, bourbon-themed accommodations, and bourbon-centric shopping.

With more than 6.7 million barrels of bourbon ageing in warehouses across the state, you’re unlikely to go thirsty. Many bourbon makers offer free tastings and tours, sometimes guided by master distillers.

The  state’s limestone-filtered waters help provide some of the spirit's unique flavouring, and its wide  wide temperature swings— cold winters that can get down to

well below freezing winters to hot summers — that help cause the charred oak barrels, which give the spirit its amber colour and distinctive taste, to give up their secret flavour. Whatever, it seems to work.


Accommodation - the Gault House Hotel

Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum are a 15-minute drive from the hotel

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British Airways flies from Heathrow to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport