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Noble Ponies [Nov. 2nd, 2010|01:29 pm]
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While we were in central Kentucky sampling the local spirits, we took a day to go to Louisville and enjoy what our tour guide at the track touted as the second of Kentucky’s three vices: bourbon, horse racing, and tobacco. Louisville is the home of Churchill Downs, the famous racetrack which runs the Kentucky Derby every year in early May, and the race grounds also feature the Kentucky Derby Museum. The museum was completely renovated after a flood in 2009, and it is very cool. On the lower level, it’s all about the Derby: the history of the racetrack and the race, exhibits talking about the mechanics of racing and how tracks work, plus video and still photos of all the Derby races for which those items exist. It was interesting to tour a recently installed museum; there were a lot more interactive exhibits than I am used to, including a touch screen computer for showing the aforementioned videos on a huge screen, with handy seating. There were even some life-sized fiberglass horses you could “ride to victory” using a computer game style setup.

Upstairs, the exhibits were all about the horses: thoroughbreds and how they are raised and trained. The upstairs exhibits are scattered around a balcony which overlooks the theatre area where the “Greatest Race” film is shown in a 360 degree format. The film changes every year and always features the most recent running of the Kentucky Derby.

The biggest draws of the museum for us, though, were the tours of Churchill Downs Racetrack. The museum offers two behind-the-scenes tours (I’ve become a big fan of these as we travel) and if you buy both, there’s a discount on the package. The first tour, for which we got up very early in the morning for the drive to Louisville, was the Barn and Backside tour. The early morning start was definitely worth it. The morning Barn and Backside tours take place while training is going on. They load everyone into a van, drive over to the stable area, and let you out onto a viewing platform and give you all the time you want to watch the thoroughbreds in training. I was surprised to note that the loudest sound, as the horses pounded around the track, wasn’t hooves hitting the turf but the horses breathing. They sounded like steam locomotives puffing along! The guide had a lot of neat stories to tell, and he was happy to answer all of our questions, dumb or not. He told us about the thoroughbreds which were stabled there, including the mare from Maryland who arrived with her own patch of Maryland sod to graze on, and the one from Ireland who got a pint of Guinness in her feed every day, and refused to eat on the day that the trainer ran out of bottled Guinness and had to substitute canned. I asked what the tours did in the afternoon when the horses weren’t running, and he told us that once training was over for the day he had more freedom to drive the van around the barns, and the focus of the tour shifted but there was still plenty to see.

Our second behind the scenes tour took us all over the race track stadium, including Millionaire’s Row, the jockeys’ quarters, and the press areas. I was amused to learn that the same seating which costs something like 8K per ticket (and you have to buy eight at a go) for the Derby goes for about 20 to 50 dollars per ticket during the regular racing season. You can see the racing from the same place as the millionaires very cheaply if you like, any day but Derby Day. And even with the exorbitant cost, Derby tickets are in so much demand that there’s a lottery to win a chance to buy them. It was fascinating to see the press levels, including the room from which the Derby is broadcast, complete with a printed cheat sheet of the opening words of the broadcast on a music stand near the mike. In the jockeys’ area we learned about tips and tricks for keeping the jockeys light, how the saddles are weighted with lead disks to bring everyone to a standard weight, and where the phrase “get the lead out” originated, as jockeys on the far turn from the race stand (and the officials) would ditch the weights to speed the horse. Hence the post-race weigh in.

After the tours and the museum, we left Churchill Downs and drove into downtown Louisville for lunch at the Brown Hotel. The café serves Hot Browns, open-faced turkey sandwiches with Mornay sauce, garnished with bacon and grilled tomatoes. They are far more delicious than the description would suggest. We found out about them via a Food Network show, and they’ve been a Thanksgiving leftover staple ever since. The ones at J. Graham’s Café at the Brown Hotel are near perfection, and we were really happy with our traditional Louisville lunch of Hot Browns and cold mint juleps.

We finished the day at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory with a factory tour. The small museum had some historic bats which you were allowed to carefully handle with cotton gloves on, just like at quilt shows. We saw standard bats being made on automated machinery, and the guide demonstrated the precision machines used to make custom bats for major league baseball players. P found a “seconds” premium bat which made a great souvenir, and we all got mini-bats at the end of the tour. All in all, a fun way to end the day.