Even the horses seem to like Lexington better in the fall. The autumn breeze makes them frisky, a local jockey whispers in my ear. "They also run a bit faster in the cool air," he quips.
Proclaiming itself "The Horse Capital of the World" on its official tourism website, it's no surprise to anyone that Lexington, Ky., is famous for its equines.
At Keeneland Race Course, a national historic landmark which hosts thoroughbred racing every April and October, I get to experience what is widely considered one of the most handsome racetracks in the world. On top of that, of course, is the bourbon: Placing $5 bets while engaging in prolonged derby hat-appraisals from the exclusive Phoenix Room at Keeneland, I can't help but notice that the wait staff makes certain that my friends and I always have frosty mint juleps in hand.
My wagering strategy is simple — place tiny bets on the horses whose names I like. (My favorite, June Cleaver, doesn't fare so well though.)
We watch the event from one of several large-screen TVs inside, then walk out to a designated balcony above the bleachers. People cheer and shriek as the starting gates swing open. Following the races, we pour outside to the see the jockeys with their horses as congratulations and pats on the back go around. Afterward, we flock to the Winner's Circle, where shiny trophies are presented to each race winner.
With the racing done, I drive through Lexington and its outskirts, taking in views of a seemingly infinite string of private farms flanked by immaculate white fences, each one more beautiful than the next. William Shatner and Sam Shepherd both have farms in Lexington, as do the Sheik of Dubai and Will Farish, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. They've got to love this area for more than just horses and bourbon, right?
I learn that the first commercial vineyard in the U.S. was planted just south of Lexington in 1799, and the city has a handful of excellent wineries today. Lexingtonian Stella Parks was recently named one of the Top 5 pastry chefs in the country too, courtesy of Food & Wine magazine. Horses? Check. Bourbon? Check. But burgeoning food and wine scene? This is all new to me.
Laura Mize, a Cincinnati native who moved to Lexington in 2006, was so taken with the growing culinary landscape in the "Thoroughbred City" that she started Bleu Plate Tours in summer 2010.
A three-hour walking tour that combines culinary arts and local history, it offers a mix of formal and casual restaurants, even throwing an artisanal grocery shop — Shorty's Market — into the mix. (Shorty's sells neatly packaged servings of freshly prepared chicken tikka masala to go. Nice.)
My favorite restaurant on the tour is Jonathan at Gratz Park. Jonathan Lundy's zesty deviled eggs are divine, as are the fried green tomatoes and tiny tasting bowl of crispy black-eyed peas.
Outside of Keeneland, my friends and I hightail it to Lexington's outlying wineries. At Equus Run Vineyards, former IBM executive and Equus' owner Cynthia Bohn gives us a warm welcome and a personal tour of the grounds. Although Equus is known for its cabernet sauvignon blanc de noir, the consensus among the four of us after an hourlong tasting is that the chocolate-infused cabernet sauvignon desert wine (despite its cheesy name, Passionate Kiss) is, hands-down, the best we tried.
I finish my Lexington excursion at the Jean Farris Winery & Bistro, located on a remote rural road just outside the city. With its carefully curated farm-to-table menu and wine list, this is easily my favorite spot in Lexington. I savor dishes such as the charcuterie board with raisin compote, house-cured salmon and fennel, and milk-fed sausage and sea scallops with gnocchi. To accompany this, I order a bottle of Tempest — Jean Farris' dry red blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvingnon and cabernet franc.
With the cool breeze drifting in amidst open views of the chef's garden and surrounding vineyards, I swear I am in the Cape Winelands of South Africa. Suddenly, a lithe southern accent at the table behind me brings me back to Kentucky.