"Seattle Slew has a statue because much of what you see here was built from his earnings," says my guide Jen Roytz, who's the marketing person at Three Chimneys. At his peak he earned a cool half million dollars every time he inseminated a female. Many marketing people in various industries may complain that they feel like they're pimping, but here it's actually part of the gig. Sure, there's a little tour leading and press hobnobbing, but on a horse farm of this stature the real business is arranging high-priced mating and selling homegrown offspring at local horse auctions. (The first, second, and third place finishers at the Kentucky Derby were all bought at Keeneland auctions.)
Point Given took a stroll around the viewing area, still showing the muscular shoulders that led to millions in winnings more than a decade ago. Now he still gets a respectable $20,000 each time he mounts a horse in the padded mating room—after donning the equivalent of boxing gloves on his hooves so nobody gets hurt. He may not see the money, but if you could choose an animal life for reincarnation, this would be a pretty good one. What wouldn't be good would be coming back as the "teaser stallion." This poor soul's job is to get the visiting female excited and ready for the moment of truth. When the female seems ready to mate, the first horse is dragged out and the real stud comes in for the fun part. It's like being Cyrano de Bergerac without ever seeing a happy ending.
There actually was a horse named Bergerac in Race 9 when I visited Keeneland the next day. No way I was betting on him. He came in second though, in line with my luck, so now he's surely spared from a future of professional teasing.
The late Dynaformer, daydreaming about his upcoming tryst
Resident Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby in 2008 and you'll have to pay $35,000 for the pleasure of him mounting your female horse. During my visit, resident horse Dynaformer was earning the highest stud fee in North America, at $150,000 each time. This sire of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was in high demand until he died a few weeks later. With Roytz's help he was still charming the ladies until the end. "We send the mares our horses have mated with a box of peppermints or a carrot bouquet."
Oooh, so romantic.
The act itself is a different story: often the whole process takes 20 minutes or less. So even the lesser-paid studs are averaging a grand a minute.
This is Bourbon Country
I recently had a dream that I was at a party in Lexington, mingling with dapper men and coiffed women, but something was horribly wrong: there was no bourbon at the bar. This dream seemed more absurd than ones I'd had about walking around naked at a convention or showing up for a college class final I'd never studied for once. This one could never happen.
Bourbon has been Kentucky's other claim to fame ever since Elijah Craig started his commercial operation selling aged whiskey in 1789. Or did it really start in 1783, when T.W. Samuels started the family business that would become Maker's Mark? Or was it all started that same year by Evan Williams in Louisville, the man whose name still graces popular bourbon bottles today? Or in 1795 when Jacob Beam, ancestor of Jim Beam, started selling his "Old Jake Beam Sour" whiskey?
Regardless of the origin, the Woodford Reserve distillery I visit for the third time in my life may have ushered in the leap from firewater to fine whiskey. The original distillery at this location pioneered sour mash: the now-standard method of recycling some yeast for the next fermentation. With its stone barrle warehouses, copper pot stills, and location amidst postcard-perfect horse farms, it's the kind of distillery even non-drinkers enjoy visiting.
We had a sampling there of the fine Woodford Reserve whiskey, but the real fun came the next day at a bourbon bar—not a hard thing to find in Lexington—where our group was able to order up a flight of samples.
I went for three I'd never tried before: Four Roses Single Barrel, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, and Elijah Craig 18 year. I was surprised to find my favorite morphing as I spent more time sipping. In the end, I was back to Woodford with their new "double oaked" introduction. This new bourbon style basically uses two new barrels at two stages of the aging, so the new charred barrel tastes of vanilla and caramel are doubly accentuated.
I tasted these three whiskies after losing on the horses all day and all were excellent. When it comes to gambling, apparently I'm better at betting on Kentucky's whiskey output than its horses.
If you go:
The Lexington Tourism website is excellent, with info on where to stay, how to tour a horse farm, and plenty more. See the official Keeneland race track site for info on their races, which run only in April and October. For a unique lodging experience, head down the road a bit to the Inn at Shaker Village. Woodford Reserve and Four Roses bourbon distilleries are close to Lexington and open to the public.
Award-winning writer Tim Leffel is the editor of Perceptive Travel and author of four books including The World's Cheapest Destinations. See his regular rants on the Cheapest Destinations Blog.
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