CHURCHILL DOWNS & JIM BEAM, KENTUCKY
Updated: Aug 12
America is as beautiful as it is vast. Its bountiful hidden treasures and captivating mysteries have a delightful way of popping up when you least expect them. Wherever you go, something interesting is hiding a few miles away, lurking in the open fields or dense woodlands. Our wish to explore every stubborn little corner of this incredible country may be way beyond us but we remain as keen as ever to check out as much as is humanly possible. So we spent today looking towards the next three months and have conjured up a magical itinerary with places like Hot Springs in Arkansas, San Antonio in Texas and Santa Fe in New Mexico as we continue our trek towards our Christmas retreat in Tucson, Arizona. Just the small matter of 2000 miles to go...
We left Pennsylvania a week ago and ventured into Ohio, staying a couple of nights at a pass-through town called Buckeye before tackling the 300 mile drive to Louisville.
We had long looked forward to getting to the Bluegrass State of Kentucky. This is the land of the thoroughbred racehorse, quite the finest of God's creations, so a day at the races was not just essential but an absolute heavenly highlight. Anyone who knows my past, knows that racing is my passion. It has been since I was at boarding school in the sixties. Since those days of sneaking out of school to place bets at the local 'bookies' as a thirteen year old (strictly illegal and resulting in more than one old-fashioned caning), I have been lucky enough over past 30 years to have owned 65 winners on UK racecourses and every one is a cherished memory. Horse racing stirs the blood like nothing else. There is no finer sight than a group of superbly fit thoroughbreds, all out, necks fully stretched, nostrils flared, as they stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood in their chase to be first to the winning line.
Churchill Downs is the home of the Kentucky Derby, the ultimate American racing festival, which brings together a classic collection of eccentric hats, copious glasses of mint juleps and the best three-year-old horses in training. Wild horses would not have kept us away from a visit to the Holy Grail of American horse racing. From the moment we walked in, we felt we belonged, while at the same time being taken aback by the imposing magnificence of this sensational track, known as the 'Twin Spires'.
A Day At The Races
Parading before the Twin Spires
Racing people are always the friendliest folk but what a bonus it was to receive such a glowing reception from absolutely everyone we met. We were once again experiencing that famous Southern hospitality, y'all, and even the staff on the entrance made us feel like returning friends. We were treated to a panoramic view from our window table in the Stakes Suite, an elegant dining room on the fourth floor with its own balcony overlooking the winning line and another looking over the parade ring. But we needed just one more ingredient to hit the jackpot, the hardest challenge - winners. Solution? Just ask Sandie. She has a truly good eye for a horse in the paddock and promptly won the first two races. Alas, a couple of losers later, probably as the focus of her eye for a winner had been slightly blurred by a delicious Pinot Grigio or two, we were back on Earth again. But, if you ever do get the chance to enjoy all this track has to offer, grab it with both hooves.
About an hour away, lies a small town called Bardstown. It is famous for three things as far as we could see: firstly, it lies at the very heart of Bourbon country, secondly it is very old, the second oldest town in Kentucky, and, thirdly, it was here that the very first full leg amputation took place. So, as we like a drop of the hard stuff now and again and have also been known on occasion to be somewhat legless, it seemed just the place to visit.
The Talbott Inn built in 1779
Bardstown itself is historically quaint, oozing with old shops and bars and colorful stories. At the epicenter of the town, and of the many myths, stands the spooky Talbott Tavern. This roadside hostelry evokes tales of 19th century stagecoaches, having welcomed weary, dusty travelers for over 200 years and it remains just as it did at the time of the American Independence. It is said to be the oldest Western stagecoach stop in America; an inn packed to the rafters with legends. Those notorious outlaw brothers Jesse and Frank James visited the Tavern with impunity while on the run and 'reportedly' let off their guns inside the rooms after yet another session with their favorite local whisky; the bullet holes are still there in a second floor wall as a permanent reminder. Indeed Jesse's ghost apparently haunts the rooms to this day (as we used to say on the newspapers, 'never let the truth get in the way of a good story).
George Washington stayed here too as did the exiled King Louis Philippe of France, who went off on a bawdy tour of America for four years in the 1830s in order to keep his head on his shoulders (which wouldn't have been the case if he had stayed in France after the Revolution). The licentious French monarch, a bit of a swordsman in all senses of the word, allegedly left a tsunami of offspring throughout the land, after numerous nocturnal entanglements with landladies and kitchen maids as he did his Grand Tour with his entourage. Then there's the forbidding jail next door which holds tales of such cruel and terrible conditions; inmates would go to any extreme to get out their hell-hole. One female prisoner, we are told, stripped naked, soaped her body and tried to wriggle through the bars, something I advised Sandie not to attempt as we crossed the road to one of the local pubs. The luckless lady in the prison, to end the fable, got stuck and had to explain her somewhat compromised position to her guard. Tricky.
There are many Bourbon distilleries around Bardstown. We decided to see what damage we could do to one of the most famous, Jim Beam.
As you walk up to the visitors' reception, you are greeted by what looks from a distance like a Freddie Mercury statue. But no, on closer inspection it turns out to be an effigy of old Jim himself, looking as if he has rather over-indulged in his own favorite beverage. The quick visit to the barns and old exhibits of stills and barrels was made more interesting by the consumption of a special Jim Beam cocktail, with a wonderful hint of oaky caramel and vanilla. It was incongruous, after embracing the romance of traditional brewing, then to see the modern production plant nearby, which was more akin to an oil refinery than a backroom still.
Old Jim Beam looking happy to see you
Bemused by the romance of the old wood stills, with a 'Matron, is it bedtime yet?' expression.
The reality of modern Jim Beam production
DARK AND RISKY
Do you know where the longest caves in the world are? It is not a question that has given us sleepless nights but we found the answer right below our RV...hundreds of feet below. We have moved on 75 miles south and found them in the Mammoth Cave National Park. This network of enormous caverns and tunnels stretch for an incredible 425 miles. The intrigue of this subterranean, three dimensional system of passageways has lured many spelunkers to their lonely deaths over the years but we felt it safe to don our walking shoes, pay the fee and take a tour.
We walked for two long hours from cavernous cathedrals to the tightest passages, until we eventually came out to the surface thinking we might not do that again.
Personally, we thought there were far too few stalactites and stalagmites for us, but if you fancy an underground stroll through endless avenues of limestone, then this is the place for you. One trick we can pass on ... as you shuffle in the almost total darkness through low passages, always follow someone exactly the same height as you. The screams as they hit their head on the ceiling gives you the clearest indication of exactly when to duck.