Louisville and St. Louis share a sports passion. If you guessed baseball, try again.
Granted, Louisville once was the home of the Cardinals Triple-A farm team and remains the home of the Louisville Slugger. But this sports passion is older than the Cardinals. Have you guessed it?
According to Nancy Carver, author of “Making Tracks: The Untold Story of Racing in St. Louis,” St. Louis’ favorite pastime once was horse racing.
Before Missouri prohibited horse racing at the turn of the 20th century, 21 tracks dotted St. Louis’ landscape, including a track at old Fairgrounds Park, the site of the first St. Louis National Charity Horse Show, held in 1856.
The show continued at Queeny Park before moving, in 1999, to the National Equestrian Center, 6880 Lake St. Louis Blvd., in Lake Saint Louis where fans will gather again this weekend to watch saddlebred breeds [Sept. 26-29] strut their stuff. All sessions of the horse show are free and open to the public but what those fans won’t see at the National Charity Horse Show are thoroughbreds, the darlings of the track.
To watch those legendary, long-legged lovelies requires a trip to Kentucky – or more specifically, Louisville, the Gateway to the South. It’s an easy 260-mile trip via Interstate 64.
Home of the Kentucky Derby
Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, has drawn race fans to Louisville since the inaugural Derby in 1875. Last year, over 150,000 attended the Derby and watched Justify capture the first star of the Triple Crown. The legendary race track is home to two racing meets a year. The spring meet lasts from Derby week in May through June. The fall meet runs through Sept. 30 and picks up again Oct. 28 through Nov. 25.
No matter the time of year, pilgrimages paying homage to horses begin at Churchill Downs, which is a destination worth touring whether the ponies are running or not.
The attraction pulls visitors from the track and betting booth into its museum every day except Christmas, Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving and during the Oaks and Derby race days when it is closed.
The Kentucky Derby Museum is located steps away from the track’s main entrance and boasts, “We make every day Derby Day.”
It delivers on its promise, beginning with the ultimate selfie stop – a rose-laden winner’s circle. To experience the thrill of the fastest two minutes in sports, visitors should head to the interactive circle theater where one of the world’s only 360 degree-4K high-resolution video players puts viewers smack in the middle of the track.
“You almost feel like you’re in the race,” said Kentucky Derby winning trainer H. Graham Motion, when asked to describe the 360-video experience. “It’s amazing and exhilarating how it puts you in the race. There’s nothing else like it.”
Would-be jockeys can answer the call for “riders up” and climb into the saddle atop thoroughbred simulators for an adrenaline-rushing, heart-thundering race down the track. Afterward, guides recommend strolling through the museum’s galleries and special exhibits. Currently on display is “Photo Finish: A rare collection of race day photography.” Fashionistas won’t want to miss the race day clothing exhibition, featuring fabulously flamboyant Derby Day chapeaus.
Churchill Downs offers eight different tours, March through November.
A 30-minute historic walking tour is free with museum admission. For a behind the track tour you’ll have to pony up a few extra bucks. The hour-and-a-half Behind the Scenes Walking Tour passes through non-public areas such as Millionaires Row and the exclusive members-only Turf Club.
A favorite tour for locals is The Horse & Haunts Tour. Held each October, Horse & Haunts takes visitors down the darker side of the track and into Churchill Downs’ on-site cemetery, where spirits reportedly roam.
Louisville’s Visitor Center, which has two downtown locations, has a complete listing of area tours in addition to guides, passports and information on thoroughbred farms open to the public.
Home of old friends
Driving from Louisville through Kentucky’s intoxicating bluegrass countryside allows visitors to discover horse country. Less than 60 minutes from the city, visitors will find the farms and stables where champions are born and raised. Among those stops is a sentimental favorite, Old Farms Thoroughbred Retirement Farms, located in Georgetown, Kentucky.
Dubbed a “living history museum of horse racing,” Old Friends is a 136-acre farm whose mission is to care for thoroughbreds after they have finished their race careers. Old Friends currently cares for 175 recused and retired horses.
“I think we have more stakes winners here than any farm in race history,” said Michael Blowen, who established Old Friends in 2003. “For me, having these champions here is like having Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier in my backyard.”
Visitors can walk the farm and meet Derby and Preakness winners Silver Charm and War Emblem, or Game on Dude and Little Mike, who together earned $10 million. “That’s why we call it the $10 million pasture,” said Blowen. “Not every horse here was a big winner. But that’s OK. They each have won respect along with a comfortable retirement.”
During Old Friends farm’s 90-minute walking tour, visitors may catch Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert visiting a few of his old friends. But one of the best opportunities is the chance to share lunch – a bucket of carrots – with an old friend.