Southern charm in Kentucky
by Jessica Pook | 04 December 2019
It’s mid-afternoon and from a distant paddock a handsome silvery-white steed makes his way to the gate, as he does every day.
With his tongue lolling and hankering after his daily dose of carrots, he looks slightly comical. But Silver Charm was once a celebrated Kentucky Derby winner and at the time the wealthiest racehorse ever to retire, worth a cool $7 million!
These days he spends his time grazing in his private paddock within the tranquil grounds of Old Friends, a 136-acre thoroughbred horse retirement facility in Georgetown, Kentucky, that is home to 217 horses and one plucky Shetland pony.
It’s no secret that Silver Charm is favoured by founder Michael Blowen, who opened the farm in 2003 in a bid to prevent Derby winners from ending up in slaughterhouses.
“Horseracing is a $63 billion industry here in Kentucky and Lexington is considered the horse capital of the world, but when they can’t make any more money the horses are considered worthless," Blowen tells me.
"We’re proving that horses past their prime can still be valuable. Thanks to Old Friends people flock to see these former champions and movie stars."
Mike is referring to the horse who played Seabiscuit in the Oscar-nominated film.
Silver Charm buries his nose in a large bucket of carrots, lovingly prepared so that minimal chewing is required; it’s clear to see just how devoted this place is to giving these creatures a comfortable retirement – with the support of visitors and donations from the local community.
Kentucky born & bred
But even these stately stallions don't have the stature of Kentucky’s most celebrated sporting champion, the legendary ex-boxer Muhammad Ali.
The man's own words – “I'm young; I'm handsome; I'm fast. I can't possibly be beat” – blast out during a poignant presentation at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, a reminder of the unbridled confidence of 'Cassius Clay', who went on to become Olympic gold medallist and a three-times heavyweight champion.
As the museum recounts his life, from his sporting achievements to his religious beliefs, it also unearths the racism he endured, including being refused entry into a white-only restaurant having just won his first Olympic Gold medal.
We also learn how he became an important but controversial civil rights activist and served five years in jail for abstaining from the Vietnam War.
With 2020 marking 60 years since his Olympic win, plans are in place to host Ali Week 2020: The Greatest, from June 3-6, with a line-up of events honouring his life.
From one influential figure to another, our next tour is of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville. Here we get an insight into the humble roots of the 16th president. Born in a one-room log cabin, Lincoln went on to abolish slavery but had to win a Civil War to do so. Today the site attracts over 200,000 people a year.
Home of bourbon
It soon becomes clear that Kentucky, a worthwhile stop on any Deep South itinerary, favours one taste above all others – and it’s not fried chicken!
Bourbon is a Kentucky staple and can be found in everything from a traditional Old Fashioned cocktail, to a dressing on salads and even an ingredient in cakes.
Bourbon originates from Kentucky and the state produces 95% of the world’s supply – in fact, there’s said to be two barrels for every person in the state.
On an Even Williams Distillery Tour on Louisville’s Whiskey Row, I’m told that all bourbons are a whiskey but not all whiskeys are a bourbon.
I'm none the wiser, but three tastings later it’s explained that to become a bourbon the whiskey needs to be 51% corn and aged in a new charred oak barrel - I have finally got it, I think.
I experience my first 'Kentucky hug', the warm, comforting sensation when the liquor runs down your throat. It’s strong stuff and during the Prohibition period when alcohol was banned its perceived medicinal qualities allowed those in need to be prescribed a pint every 10 days!
For me it’s a bit eye-watering taken straight, but I find it goes down easier in a bourbon bloody mary, served to me at the historic Brown Hotel in Louisville. Accompanied with its famous dish the 'hot brown' – an open turkey sandwich with bacon, tomatoes and a cheesy mornay sauce – it’s an indulgent breakfast.
The hotel mixes traces of English Renaissance with southern charm and its guests have included Barack Obama and Elizabeth Taylor. It's especially busy during the week of the Kentucky Derby in May, which attracts 165,000 visitors.
Our last stop in Kentucky is Owensboro, home to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum which hosts weekly concerts. We stop off in Rosine to learn more about the genre from the Bill Monroe Museum, but it’s at The Rosine Barn Jamboree venue that we get a real education from the Jerusalem Ridge band. Using acoustic string instruments with quick plucking and high-pitched tones, the band have us clapping along to their catchy songs.
Three members turns to four and four to seven, and it's not long before we're all on stage, banjos in hand, ready for our Bluegrass debut.
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