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Kentucky: It's not just horses and bourbon

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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.

And so we set off for a la Lucie, which first opened its doors in 1985 and is considered the restaurant that brought innovative cuisine and hip dining to downtown Lexington. Today, the atmosphere and decor remain whimsically cool -- leopard print abounds and the tasseled lamps give the room a "Bourbon Street bordello" feel -- but sadly we found the service lacking, and every appetizer, soup and entree we tried failed to live up to Lucie's reputation or the bill at the end of the night.

Disappointed, we strolled through downtown to check out the nearby nightlife and found quite a few Irish pubs, which makes sense when you consider all the Irish immigrants who work in the horse industry and the fact that this is also a college town. We eventually settled into stools at McCarthy's Irish Bar and relaxed with a bit of bourbon and beer. We didn't linger for long, though -- tomorrow was to be an early day.

On day 2 we decided to put the horses out to pasture for a bit and turn our attention toward bourbon, central Kentucky's other marquee moneymaker. Seven distilleries dot the rolling hills around here, and bourbon partisans will argue at length -- even while sober -- about which one offers the best product and tour. For us, the decision was easy: We wanted to end up in Frankfort, the capital, and Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace distilleries are along on the way.

Of course, one needn't tour a distillery in Kentucky to sample the native whiskey -- we had already had it in pie and chicken. So when we learned that the Buffalo Trace tour wouldn't start until 10 a.m., we slipped into downtown Frankfort and made our way to the original Rebecca Ruth candy store, home of "bourbon ball chocolate candy."

Rebecca Ruth, which began business in 1919, has stores throughout the city, but its main location and factory, which you can tour, is on East Second Street. Still bleary-eyed from our early start, we skipped the tour and dove right into those alcohol-infused bourbon balls and our personal favorite: chocolate-covered cherries filled with bourbon.

Back at Buffalo Trace, our tour group consisted of Parker and me, six middle-age men and a young couple who apparently felt that a 90-minute lecture on the history of bourbon would prove educational and exciting to their four children, all under the age of 10.

They were wrong, and within 15 minutes the couple peeled off, squirming kids in tow.

It made us realize that while one of the best things about the Lexington area is the trans-generational appeal of its many attractions, watching people make booze is not one of them. Even if you think your child is mature enough to handle hearing about whiskey's history, just put yourself in the kid's shoes: Who wants to sit through a beverage tour of something they can't taste?

The guided tour and video at Buffalo Trace was fine, but I preferred the rural setting of Woodford Reserve, which I had stopped at before. Some of the guys from our tour said that Buffalo Trace was their favorite, and others championed Maker's Mark and Heaven Hill Distilleries. It's a fine debate to have over some samples of bourbon, although I noticed that Parker didn't finish his.

"My stomach hurts," he moaned, noting that it was nearly noon and we had consumed only chocolate and alcohol since waking up. Perhaps, he noted softly, we should not have skipped the hotel muffins.

Before we filled our stomachs, though, we wanted to check out the nearby Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, a tribute to all things Bluegrass State.

The museum's permanent exhibit, "A Kentucky Journey," is a walk through the history of the state -- actually a commonwealth -- from prehistoric times to the present day. With so much ground to cover, sometimes eons bump up against each other, and at one point I found myself reading about the area's Native Americans while listening to Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter" blare from around the bend.

Leaving the museum, we took a quick spin though downtown shops and the stately Old State Capitol complex, which cemented our belief that we had underestimated Frankfort's charm. At just 30 miles from Lexington, Frankfort should be part of any trip to the area -- it's too good to miss.

With grub on our minds, we decided that there's no better place to lunch after a morning of chocolate and bourbon than the farm of an ultra-conservative religious sect, which we found at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

Just kidding. The last Shaker to live at the Village died in 1923, but the 3,000-acre farm -- perhaps the most pastoral and picturesque place we visited on our trip -- carries on as a living-history farm, complete with period-costumed actors. Once there, we found the restaurant fare, which is not "Shaker food," whatever that might be, to be overpriced and average, but anyone with children should surely stop by for a visit. One young boy I chatted with could hardly contain his excitement as he told how he had played with bows and arrows, made ice cream and watched sheep being shorn at the farm.

Back in Lexington, we set out for our trip's "last supper" with one goal in mind: to experience something in the area that had nothing to do with bourbon or horses. We thought we just might succeed by selecting Jonathan's at Gratz Park, a chic downtown eatery, housed within the historic Gratz Park Inn.

Jonathan's is known for adding Southern flavor and ingredients to non-regional dishes, serving creations like country ham pot stickers and -- our top pick -- fried green tomato eggs benedict. Every dish that we had there had proved delectable, yet I must confess that we self-destructed the "no bourbon" part of our mission when we scooped spoonfuls of Jonathan's homemade bourbon chocolate brownie ice cream.

Rules can always be broken for ice cream.

The "no horses" half of the test actually collapsed quickly, too, thanks to a loud patron who blabbered on about a friend who had recently purchased a bad racehorse. At that point, sitting in the dining room, it became obvious -- if it hadn't been before -- that Lexington's two passions can't be avoided, even when far from the distillery or racetrack.

That's fine by me -- those dueling obsessions make this destination unlike any other -- although I might tweak the city's slogan to attract tourists, such as myself, who might not care about horses.

I'm thinking: "Lexington, The Horse and Bourbon Ice Cream Capital of the World."

Attractions:

• Kentucky Horse Park: 4089 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington; kyhorsepark.com; 800-678-8813. Hours (through Oct. 31) 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission (through Oct. 31) $15 adults, $8 ages 7-12, free for 6 and under.

• Three Chimneys Farm: 1981 Old Frankfort Pike, Versailles; threechimney.com; 859-873-7053. Admission free, but by appointment only; tours are limited to 25 or 30 persons and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Tip from Three Chimneys staff: "We do ask visitors to remember that this is a working farm, and not a zoo or petting farm, and to consider that this may not be a place to bring children with short attention spans, or who are not mindful of their parents."

Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate: 120 Sycamore Rd., Lexington; henryclay.org; 859-266-8581. Hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Self-guided tours of the grounds are free. Guided tours of the mansion and grounds are $7 adult, $3 ages 6-18, free for children 5 and under.

Buffalo Trace Distillery: 1001 Wilkinson Blvd., Frankfort; buffalotrace.com; 800-654-8471. Hours 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday; tours start on the hour. No admission charge.

The Woodford Reserve Distilleries: 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles; woodfordreserve.com. Hours 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 12:30-4:30 p.m. Sunday through October. Three tours are offered, but the most popular "Discovery Tour" is $5 for those over 18 and free for children.

Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History: 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort; history.ky.gov; 502-564-1792. Hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Admission $4 adults, $2 ages 6-18, free for 5 and under. Tickets include admission to the center, the nearby Old State Capitol, and the Kentucky Military History Museum.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill: 3501 Lexington Rd., Harrodsburg; shakervillageky.org; 800-734-5611. Hours (through Oct. 31) 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission $14 for adults, $7 ages 12-17 and $5 ages 6-11.

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