Kentucky in One Word: Iconic

Colonel Sanders. The Twin Spires. Muhammad Ali. George Clooney. Some of the most famous images in the world. Icons. Symbols of Kentucky.

To me, the one little word that describes Kentucky is "iconic." The defining imagery that conveys the Bluegrass State. The pageantry of the Derby. The limestone fences that outline the Central Kentucky countryside. The quilts. The actual blue grass, and the unique genre of music which shares its name. The college basketball tradition.

You can go anywhere in the world and identify yourself as being from Kentucky and, invariably, you'll get the response of "Fried Chicken" or "Derby." Our horses and our whisky are unparalleled. Our local boxing legend is The Greatest and our hometown heartthrob is The Sexiest.

Kentucky is a land of unmistakable images. Kentucky is iconic.

(All images Leroy Neiman.)


Lilly Pulitzer Derby Hat.
A couple of months ago, I got an email from my editor asking if I'd be interested in covering the Derby. Well, y'all can imagine that it took me about ten seconds to jump on that opportunity.  I filled out my application for Churchill Downs media credentials as quickly as possible.  And I waited.

Even though there was still snow on the ground, I started thinking of angles.  What if I only got credentials for the infield?  I've never been there, but I hear it's dicey.  Maybe I could do a fish-out-of-water thing -- a well-coiffed Junior Leaguer in the muck.  Speaking of muck, what kind of shoes should I wear?  The last time I did any walking at Derby, I wound up with huge blisters.  Dare I store a pair of wellies in the press locker I requested? That seems so... Steeplechase.  And do I let my handbag double as a satchel, or should I buy a chic, teeny notebook? I hoped, of course, for credentials that would give me a ritzier view.  I thought of the ways that I could play with the way that Derby portrays Kentucky's social stratum.  I planned the optimal number of mint juleps that would keep me festive and alert.  And, of course, I started to think about hats.  Maybe I'd finally get the opportunity to write the "the year Louisville girls started to make fascinators" piece I'd been envisioning since the Royal Wedding.

And then, I didn't hear back from my application.  I'm not sure what got screwed up.  I must admit, however, that I was suffering from bronchitis and pretty heavily medicated at the time of my application.  I can't overlook the possibility of user error.  I waited and waited, and I followed up a bit, and I made some preliminary plans to go, and then some things happened and then other plans for Derby Day started to materialize.  Before I knew it, the First Saturday was upon us and I wasn't remotely near Louisville.

Ralph Steadman's artwork for Dr. Thompson's masterpiece.
Before I mixed up a batch of mint-infused simple syrup yesterday morning, I sat down with a little required Derby Day reading.  There was Mr. Faulker's Three Days to the Afternoon, of course, and Dr. Thompson's The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.  I read these both as earnestly as I do every May, and I joked to my beau that I should read them aloud to the dogs in the same manner that normal people read the Christmas Story to their children.  I was quite taken with a sense of satisfaction with myself as a writer, a sports fan, and a Southerner as I reflected on these hallowed words.  And then, those same hallowed words jumped out at me:

Finally, after giving up on Steadman and trying unsuccessfully to reach my man in the press office, I decided my only hope for credentials was to go out to the track and confront the man in person, with no warning — demanding only one pass now, instead of two, and talking very fast with a strange lilt in my voice, like a man trying hard to control some inner frenzy.
Hunter S. Thompson had flown from Texas to Kentucky on a day's notice armed only with fake tags identifying himself as a photographer from Playboy.  He hadn't waited for a confirmation email.  He'd merely insisted that Scanlan's magazine foot the bill.  As late as Oaks Day, he was still hammering out the details:
Clearly, we were going to have to figure out some way to spend more time in the clubhouse tomorrow. But the "walkaround" press passes to F&G were only good for 30 minutes at a time, presumably to allow the newspaper types to rush in and out for photos or quick interviews, but to prevent drifters like Steadman and me from spending all day in the clubhouse, harassing the gentry and rifling an old handbag or two while cruising around the boxes. Or macing the governor. The time limit was no problem on Friday, but on Derby Day the walkaround passes would be in heavy demand.
Something tells me that Dr. Thompson never really gave a thought to wellies.  Or hats.  By his own admission, he didn't "give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track."  I doubt he ever wrote a piece on how to get julep stains out of a Lilly Pulitzer dress.  I suppose that makes me far more "whiskey gentry" than "gonzo", in the rhetoric of his essay.  I certainly know that, unlike Thompson, I never hope for a mob scene in the infield; I'm too busy saying a little prayer that the horses and jockeys stay safe.  I'd never be accused of macing the Governor; I personally find him to be quite a nice fellow. 

Still, I wish I'd had a little bit of gonzo spirit in the days leading up to the race.  If I'd pushed the issue a little harder, I'd be writing a far more interesting piece tonight...

Kentucky Oaks: Ladies First!

via Kentucky Oaks.
Everyone who's spent any time in Louisville knows that Oaks Day is the holiday that locals claim as their own.  The Derby may generate millions in tourist revenue and draw international attention for its high-profile guestlist, but the Oaks is the laid-back race for Louisvillians.
via Kentucky Oaks.

Every year, on the day before the Derby, Churchill Downs holds a Grade I race for thoroughbred fillies. In recent years, this race for female horses has become a celebration of female race-goers.  The race has taken on a "pink-out" theme, serving as a fundraiser for various cancer charities, decorating the track in pink, and encouraging the race-goers to wear pink as well.  Even the cocktails are pink; the signature Oaks Lily cocktail takes a pinkish hue from cranberry juice and sour mix.
via Kentucky Oaks.
This year's Oaks drew a near-record crowd of over 112,000 people.  A portion of attendance revenue ($1/ attendee) was donated to cancer charities, as was a portion of all Oaks Lily sales.  This year, Churchill Downs partnered with Stand Up to Cancer and Horses and Hope, an initiative to promote breast cancer awareness, screening, and treatment among Kentucky's horse industry workers and their families. 

With pink decorations and drinks and a field of fillies racing, the Oaks certainly lives up to its motto "Ladies First."  This year, the 138th running, certainly embodied that motto, as Rosie Napravnik became the first female jockey to win the race.

Pretty cocktails, fundraising and a healthy dose of girl power -- that sounds like a very HerKentucky event indeed!

Twin Spires

In chocolate.

Up close

On my cocktail
Happy Almost-Derby, y'all!

Kentucky Places: The Louisville List

Downtown Louisville as seen from Indiana
This weekend, a Nashville-based friend Facebooked me for recommendations for a summer trip to Louisville.  I guess it's where I've lived in (and loved) three amazing Southern cities, but I get  variants of that email all the time.  "Where should I stay in Louisville?"  "Where are the best places to shop in Nashville?"  "Where should I eat after a day at Keeneland?" -- I actually keep my responses on file in my email account and then re-work the answers to compliment individual friends' personalities, tastes, traveling preferences and companions.

Now, my friend is planning for an early June trip to a concert at the Yum! Center and a few days' stay in downtown Louisville.   She's never been to Louisville before, and wants to get a sense of the city.   There are so many attractions within walking/easy driving distance that this trip virtually plans itself.  Even though it's the middle of winter, talk of a Downtown Louisville summer puts me in the mood for Proof's gelato, a ride on the Belle, and a seat on Molly Malone's patio. -- HCW

The Yum Center and Downtown Museums
The Ali Center
I've never really been to the Yum! Center, but it's supposed to be an incredible venue.  It's right in the middle of Downtown Louisville, and you could have a fantastic trip without ever leaving the Downtown area.
The guys on the trip will probably want to see the Louisville Slugger Museum. If baseball's your thing, the RiverBats - the Minor League team - play downtown. The Frazier Museum has a lot of historical war/arms stuff. The Muhammad Ali Center is also quite neat -- it's kind of a walking tour of The Champ's life, as well as a cultural center that supports a lot of education and charity events.  There are also some very cute galleries/museums up and down Main Street, near Slugger, Frazier and the Ali.
The Seelbach lobby
As for hotels, I would strongly suggest either 21C or the Seelbach. 21C is a very hip and boutique-y museum hotel. The restaurant inside -- Proof on Main -- is extremely cool. Excellent locally sourced food, insanely good cocktails, and a very artsy decor -- all without being too pretentious. Proof also has a fantastic gelato cart on the street during the summer -- I can't recommend it highly enough.
The Seelbach is way more traditional with four-poster cherry beds, marble lobbies, etc. I feel like a princess every time I stay there.  It has some really cool little bars, the best Starbucks in town, and an amazing day spa.  It also boasts the only five-diamond restaurant in the state.  They're even dog-friendly, and treated Max like a visiting dignitary.  Fitzgerald actually got thrown out of the Seelbach for public drunkenness and then set Daisy's wedding there when he wrote The Great Gatsby.
Outside Jeff Ruby's
The Galt House is kind of a non-descript conventioners' hotel, but it does have an amazing view of the river. There is also a really good high-end steakhouse, Jeff Ruby's, at the Galt House that's like a regional Ruth's Chris. Good, big steaks and a fantastic wine list.
Food/ Entertainment

Max  visits Fourth Street Live.
My very favorite breakfast in the world is at Toast on Market. The Blueberry-Lemon Pancakes are insane, as are the pancakes that are dressed out like a pot roast sandwich. Their hash brown casserole is incredible as well. Also on Market is Garage Bar, which is a high-end wood-fired pizza place that also includes a great oyster bar.
The Belle of Louisville
Downtown, just by the Seelbach, is a kind of touristy entertainment district called Fourth Street Live. There's a Hard Rock, a MakersMark-themed restaurant/bar, and a lot of little restaurants and bars. It's a fun place to people-watch and go out for drinks. I think they even have Yum! Center adjacent parking, and there is often live music and other event-y kind of stuff going on.
Oh, and if the weather permits, you can go out on a steamboat. The Belle of Louisville and the Spirit of Jefferson do lunch and dinner cruises and little sightseeing excursions. It's a very neat way to see downtown from the river.
The Highlands
Molly Malone's
If you want to venture just out of Downtown, the Highlands is a fun, eclectic neighborhood just minutes away. Very cute and cool (we lived there for years) shops and some of the best food anywhere. Lynn's Paradise Cafe is a cute, funky diner with fantastic food. Lunch and dinner are really good, and the breakfast/brunch is legendary. Wick's Pizza is kind of a neighborhood favorite -- huge pizzas with tons of quality toppings. There are some really great nicer restaurants up and down Bardstown Road (the main street going through the neighborhood); if you're up for Latin Fusion, Seviche is our favorite restaurant anywhere -- fantastic seafood and mojitos, and my beau loves their skirt steak, too.
I absolutely love the Louisville Stoneware factory--they do tours, paint-your-own, etc., and their big summer sale should be going on. There are also several really cute Irish Pub kind of places in the Highlands -- Molly Malones and O'Shea's are the kind of places where everyone from college kids to Congressmen go -- very laid-back and fun.
Churchill Downs
The one thing that would be worth driving out of downtown would be Churchill Downs. The summer meet will be in full-force by early June. For just a regular weekend race, you should be able to get tix -- you'd be fine to just dress like you would for an afternoon wedding or a "coat and tie rather than suit" church.  If you're in town on the right weekend, I'd hit up Downs After Dark, which is a fun night-racing event.
Louisville in general
Louisville is a really fun city. It can be a little more Midwestern than the rest of Kentucky -- people talk and walk a little faster and sure do drink in public more than they do anywhere else in the state. I think y'all will really like it, though. It's beautiful in the spring and summer! Also, it has really easy roads to navigate for a city its size; you really can get from one part of town to another pretty rapidly.
The biggest drawback to Louisville in the late spring/early summer is the weather. It's located right along the Ohio river and gets a lot of the river basin storms/tornado watches.

What about y'all, dear readers?  What's on your "Must-See Louisville" list??

(All photos are my own.)

Churchill verdict from a Keeneland Purist

A few weeks ago, I made my first pilgrimage to Churchill Downs. For many biased Lexingtonians, Keeneland is the "best" race track in the state. I've heard from the Lexingtonian's that Keeneland is prettier, people dress nicer, and it is just a better overall experience. My only Churchill Downs experience has been through my television, where I watch and judge those in the Kentucky Derby infield. 

At Churchill Downs
For my first trip to Churchill Downs, hubs and I were guests of my friend Melinda who is a Kentucky Colonel. Perhaps my experience was tainted by being on Millionaire's Row, which was nicely decorated for all the Colonels, but all the areas seemed great to me.

Horses are pretty no matter where you are.
The track was well maintained, bathrooms were clean, service was good, drinks were tasty (yum bourbon), and food was as advertised. It was noticeably larger than Keeneland, but that's to be expected.
The room setup with balcony access
All in all, I don't get the fuss between one track being better than the other. They're both Kentucky gems that we should experience as much as possible. Both are the same in one key aspect: I can't seem to win money at either of them.

So, who's taking me to the Derby this year? :)

Clothes and Horses

Heather wrote previously about Lexington style. This stuff is serious, especially when you combine style with horse racing. Something about the "regality" of horse racing and the pride and tradition that it brings Kentucky.

This weekend, I am venturing to Churchill Downs for the first time. Thankfully, there will be no infield experience for me this time as I get to hang out at Millionaire's Row. Not that I'm a millionaire (but I'd be darling at it, per Dorothy Parker).

I understand Keeneland style. I've seen enough spring and fall meet outfits to know what is socially acceptable in each room and what isn't. Churchill Downs style? No idea.

Thankfully for my husband, the dress code is business casual, which does not require a tie. The Keeneland clubhouse, on the other hand, requires coat and tie at all times. No bueno for my scrub-wearing man.

My go-to rules for going to the race track:

  • Oversized sunnies
  • Comfortable, yet cute shoes (those crazies in their platform pumps look nutso when they teeter back to their cars with sore feet)
  • Purse you won't accidentally forget at the betting window
  • Your ID for bourbon
  • A weather-appropriate outfit
  • Something that makes you feel pretty
With those rules, I'm going to go for a 3/4 sleeve knit, knee length dress, brown leather knee high boots, a camel colored pashmina (or a statement necklace if it's warm), my Alesya bag, and oversized tortoise shell sunnies. I may or may not do boot socks out the tops of my boots.

Someone please tell me if this is a fashion mistake. And wish me luck at the track!