Lexington is horse, basketball country

Thursday, August 16, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:49 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 29, 2012
In Lexington, Ky., horses and basketball reign.

Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The sun reflects off Charlie's brown coat as he munches grass on a small hill outside his paddock. The pony has already eaten hay this morning, but his owner, P.K. Eldridge, knows how much he loves spring grasses, so she is allowing this mid-morning snack.

In a few hours, it will be time for Charlie to go to work at Keeneland Race Course outside Lexington, Ky. It is his job, as well as the job of other ponies, to lead the racehorses to the starting gates on the other side of the facility.

In the late morning, spectators will begin arriving for the afternoon's 10 races. Between now and then, all the horses running will be groomed, saddled and shown outside the grandstand for those bettors who take their wagers more seriously than just based on name or number.

But for now, some horses are content with sneaking a few bites of grass on a chilly Kentucky morning.

Morning at the racetrack

Lexington is horse country. To the north of the city is Kentucky Horse Park, a horse farm that also hosts races and houses the American Saddlebred Museum. The Lexington airport is named for Man o' War, a Thoroughbred who won 20 of his 21 career races.

Five minutes outside downtown, the roads are no longer lined with buildings, but instead the precise wooden fences of horse farms. Barns in forest green, black or dark gray with white trim sit on top of the rolling bluegrass hills of central Kentucky.

A 10-minute drive down High Street and onto Versailles Road leads to Keeneland. The track only hosts races in April and October, which Eldridge said is normally the perfect weather for racehorses.

Unlike most horse farms and racecourses, the stables and paddocks at Keeneland are open to the public. The gravel paths around the whitewashed buildings are marked by both the footprints of humans and of horses. The air is scented with the earthy smell of dirt, hay and manure.

Thoroughbreds, the breed of racing horses, are an investment. The average price of one of Keeneland's horses last year was $71,400. Winning the Triple Crown, which means winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, carries a purse of $5 million to the owner of the horse.

Horseracing is a highly competitive sport, sometimes at the cost of the animals' health. Thoroughbreds begin racing as 2-year-olds, before their bones are fully formed, which results in injuries later.

"It's nerve-wracking to be a racehorse," Eldridge said. "We lead them through crowds of people screaming to a metal gate. Then the jockeys are hitting them with their whips to make them go faster. But they have heart. If you treat them right, they'll perform."

A stop in Big Blue Nation

The University of Kentucky is on the south side of Lexington. The campus is quiet on a Friday afternoon. It is the beginning of finals week, and the most popular place on campus appears to be William T. Young Library.

Blue and white paw prints of the Kentucky Wildcat mascot mark the sidewalk leading up to Memorial Hall. The brick building serves as a memorial to those who died in World War I. It is the most photographed spot on campus, and the white clock tower has been incorporated into the Kentucky logo.

Downtown, a 20-minute walk from campus, is Rupp Arena, the home of Lexington's other sporting obsession, Kentucky men's basketball. A banner next to the main entrance congratulates Kentucky on its eight NCAA basketball championship wins, most recently in 2012.

The arena is named for former Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp, who ended his career with 876 wins and a .822 percentage, the fifth and second best in history, respectively.

Today, the arena is empty, a contrast to when the seats are filled with members of Big Blue Nation, the name of the Kentucky fan base, during men's basketball season.

The average attendance of the basketball games in the 2011 season was 23,603, the largest in Division I men's basketball. Kentucky has held this title, calculated by the NCAA, for 15 of the past 16 years. (Comparatively, the average attendance of Missouri men's basketball games in 2011 was 11,112.)

"Everyone lives and breathes basketball," junior Tara Bilby said. "To watch a game in Rupp Arena, you won't have that experience anywhere else. Everyone's just so passionate and so loud."

After this year's championship win against Kansas, the scene in Lexington became the focus of media coverage; in some cases, it was the subject of critique. Twitter was filled with quotes from the Lexington Police scanner that detailed riots, burning couches and cars and shots fired in the city. Bilby said she believes these incidents came mostly from a small percentage of Kentucky fans. She attributes some of the atmosphere after the game to the sheer number of people who had traveled to Lexington to watch the game.

"With that much passion and that many people, things are going to happen," she said. "We wanted a championship so bad."

Bilby, a self-proclaimed sports nut, said she transferred to Kentucky from Western Kentucky University so she could have access to student tickets to basketball games. But she said now, she loves other aspects of the university, including the community created by the college.

"Big Blue Nation is like a family," she said.

On the bourbon trail

Ramsey's Diner is a five-minute drive south from Rupp Arena. There are now four locations in Lexington, but the original — on High Street — is just a few blocks northeast of the Kentucky campus.

The tables are made of wood, and the drinks are served in plastic cups. A sign directly at eye level displays the 15 varieties of pie available each day, which include peanut butter, cherry, pecan and coconut cream.

The diner is known for its traditional Kentucky cuisine, a diet that includes macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and fried green tomatoes under the "veggies" section of its menu.

Also on the menu is the Kentucky Hot Brown, a dish created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, but has since been adopted as the state's unofficial sandwich. The open-faced sandwich features ham, turkey and tomatoes stacked on white bread. This is covered in cream sauce, cheddar cheese and bacon, then broiled until the cheese has created a melted crust over the entire entree.

Patrons at the next table over are beginning their lunches with glasses of bourbon. Although Lexington is not in Bourbon County, the county in which the spirit was first distilled, it is the liquor of choice in the area.

A 20-minute drive outside Lexington leads to the Bourbon Trail. The distilleries are tucked into the countryside, between the large horse farms on the outskirts of the city. The trail itself consists of six distilleries: Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.

Woodford Reserve, the last stop on the 70-mile trail, is a large, gray house with white shutters. Rockers sit on a wraparound porch, where visitors can overlook the stone buildings of the distillery while sipping bourbon. The liquor smells slightly of vanilla and has less bite than other whiskeys.

Kentucky is responsible for 95 percent of the world's bourbon supply, and bourbon is the largest spirit exported from the U.S. But some does stay in the state. Call it hometown pride. Each year, over the two-day race period, the Kentucky Derby serves almost 120,000 mint juleps, a drink that consists of bourbon, mint, sugar and water.

Bourbon whiskey has been part of the state's history since before it was a state. Immigrants to the area, mostly from Scotland and Ireland, used surplus corn, which grows well in the Kentucky climate and soil, as the grain in the distillation process to create bourbon. After securing the territory that would become Kentucky, a captain of one of George Rogers Clark's troops sent him a letter that read, "if you have not provisions, send whiskey which will answer as good an end."

'The thought of winning'

Back at Keeneland, it is 25 minutes until the next race starts. The entries are being shown to the public in a grassy enclosure outside the grandstand. There will be 10 races today, the last racing day of the season for the track.

Twenty-three minutes before the race, the initial odds for the horses are broadcast on the screens around the area.

The crowd of college students and older professionals wearing sport coats and sundresses has left the standing-room area near the track to refill drinks, place bets or observe the horses.

Kentucky senior Jordan Ellis says he had an anthropology teacher one semester who let them out of class early on some Fridays so students could head over to Keeneland.

"In the fall, you don't schedule class on Fridays for football and Keeneland," he said. "In the spring, it's just Keeneland."

Many out front are spending their afternoon talking and drinking with friends, the races an afterthought.

"It's more of a social thing for me," Kentucky senior Bryce Moffett said. "But winning, or the thought of winning, is fun."

Fifteen minutes before the race starts, the lines in front of the betting windows are six people deep. Upstairs, groups have taken over tables to lay out their newspapers and race programs that include details about each of the horses, poring over them for some last minute inspiration for the best bet.

"Don't listen to what the bookies say," a man in line offers as a tip for first-time betters.

Two minutes before the race, a trumpet is sounded over the speakers, a signal that it is time for the horses to be walked to the starting gate. At this point, the only betting window that doesn’t have a line is the $50 minimum.

The race begins with the announcement of "And they're off." The attention of the majority of the people is turned to the track or the large screens where the race is being broadcast.

No. 5, Hava Dream, takes an early lead, galloping out in front of the rest. Over the loud speakers, the announcer narrates the race as the horses charge out of the gates.

Cheers rise from the crowd as No. 1 begins to gain on Hava Dream. As the horses approach the finish, Dodie Jo continues to edge toward the front.

The horses stream past the grandstand; Dodie Jo has taken the lead.

In total, the race took a minute and 56 seconds.

The end of the race

At night, students at the University of Kentucky head just north of campus to Limestone Avenue.

The inside of Tin Roof, a chain with locations in several college towns, looks a little like a warehouse turned into a bar. The exposed heating pipes and ductwork have been wrapped in lights.

Many are sitting on the sitting on the top of the back of the booths in order to see the one-man '90s cover band playing at the front of the room.

Tin Roof is a bar that fully embraces being next to a college campus. During the NCAA playoffs in March and April, the bar rented big screen TVs in order to show the basketball games in the parking lot.

Tonight the crowd is smaller, an effect of the end of the semester and the end of the sports season. Across town at Keeneland, the lights are dim, and the horses have been boarded for the night. The race for this season has been run.

Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.

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