LEXINGTON, Ky.—As a rule, I'm skeptical of cities that bill themselves as "The [fill in the blank] Capital of the World."
Such claims seem boastful, dubious or, at best, a weak gimmick. Has anyone actually traveled to Ft. Payne, Ala., because it's crowned itself "The Sock Capital of the World"?
In a similar fashion, Lexington is the self-anointed "Horse Capital of the World," but this is the rare tout that's both accurate and worth checking out, as I learned during a recent weekend trip to the city and surrounding Bluegrass Region. Lexington's horse culture infuses everything here -- from the arts to architecture -- making this one of the most interesting, beautiful and unique places you can escape to.
To confess, Parker, my traveling companion, and I began our trip knowing, and caring, little about horses beyond the occasional trail ride or trifecta. So, needing to get up to speed, we unpacked our bags and headed straight for the Kentucky Horse Park, an "educational theme park" that's one of the area's most popular attractions.
Driving into the complex, and down the racehorse-honoring War Admiral Boulevard -- not to be confused with Man O' War Boulevard out by the airport -- we saw rows of horse trailers in the parking lot, making us fear we would soon be mocked as equine ignoramuses. In truth, the place turned out to not only be welcoming but full of smiling visitors young and old.
The Kentucky Horse Park offers horse-drawn tours around the gorgeous green grounds, as well as trail rides and hourly events such as the "Mare & Foal Show," a popular kid pleaser. Our favorite was the "Hall of Champions Presentation," where staff members led retired racehorses into a small pavilion and told how these champions, in a couple of years of galloping glory, earned more money than I will in a lifetime.
We also enjoyed the park's International Museum of the Horse and American Saddlebred Museum, although after an hour of going from exhibit to exhibit I found myself skimming ones like Great Canters Through History. Still, at least someone was paying attention: As I began to climb atop an adult-size rocking horse, Parker cried out, "You mount from the left side, the left!" City slickers no more -- at least Parker had earned his spurs -- we decided to apply ourselves in a topic we knew much more about: lunch.
Heading 15 miles west, we hit the small city of Midway, which in the last few years has restored its historic downtown, and numerous cafes and galleries now populate Main Street. There are also a couple of museums and the Thoroughbred Theater, which features movies, live theater and local music.
Our destination this day was the Holly Hill Inn, a circa 1845 stone and brick structure on the edge of town. Owned by Chris and Ouita Michel, a Culinary Institute of America-trained husband-and-wife team, the inn has three cozy dining rooms, which feature white tablecloth tables and oil paintings upon the walls. It's surely Southern fancy, but the cheerful staff keeps the atmosphere from slipping into stuffy.
Our lunch at the inn consisted of two tasty, non-local dishes, eggs sardou and Crab Louis salad, followed by hometown favorites: slices of chocolate bourbon pecan pie and sour cream apple pie, complete with a streusel topping.
With bellies full, we hit the road again to -- where else? -- a horse stud farm.
Three Chimneys Farm sprawls over 2,000 meticulously manicured acres, but with "only" 12 thoroughbred stallions for stud, it's considered a boutique operation within the state's horse industry, which is said to generate $6 billion annually for the Kentucky economy.
Three Chimneys' role in that economy is to act as facilitator for owners of the resident stallions and visiting mares who hope that a carnal connection between the sire and dam will produce offspring that can repeat the stallion's successes on the racetrack.
If it sounds simple, it's not: From February through July, the stallions commingle, as many as three times a day, with a parade of visiting mares. It's a task that requires human patience, care and technology, and Three Chimneys works around the clock to facilitate these pairings, which last, on average, less than 30 seconds.
It's also pricey. During our fascinating (and free) tour of the stallion stables, our group of about 15 visitors had to briefly scram, while the owner of a mare looked over the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, Smarty Jones, who is available for stud service at Three Chimneys.
The price that a mare's owner pays for such seed?
$100,000 for every healthy foal produced.
We were beginning to understand how Kentucky cleared that $6 billion figure each year. After the stud farm, we headed back into Lexington and stopped at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Clay represented Kentucky in both the U.S. Senate and House during the 1800s, when he also repeatedly ran unsuccessfully for the presidency -- a defeat that the mansion's small museum blames on Clay's uncompromising character. (Ironically, Henry Clay's nickname was the "Great Compromiser.")
Despite Clay's failure to reach the Oval Office, he did succeed in creating a beautiful home and grounds here, including gardens, an icehouse and outer buildings. It's a big enough spread that walking around it left us with healthy appetites for dinner.