Days 47-48/ Apr 14th-15th – Richmond, KY to Lexington, KY: A day at the races

We set ourselves a 25-mile walk into Lexington to earn ourselves a day off at the races, and so for fuel we ventured this morning into the local Waffle House.  It offers portions of hash browns described as ‘regular’, ‘large’, ‘triple’ or ‘all the way’.  We plumped for ‘large’, and were presented with a tottering Kilimanjaro of singed potatoes that took us until the start of our 25th mile fully to digest.  God only knows what ‘all the way’ is like.

For the first time today we longed to be walking on the interstate, specifically I-75, which ran flat and straight alongside our own road, Route 25, which dipped and bucked as if damaged by a severe quake, presenting us with a series of stiff hills to negotiate in the morning heat.  The interstate glided serenely across a magnificent iron bridge over the day’s main obstacle, the gorge of the Kentucky River, while our little road wilted into three miles of squiggling switchbacks down one side of it and steeply up the other.

I-75 bridge over the Kentucky River

I-75 crosses the Kentucky painlessly; we don't

Had we launched a raft into the river here and floated a few miles downstream, we would have arrived at the site of Boonesborough, a short-lived 18th-century settlement founded by Daniel Boone, which was one of the first English-speaking communities west of the Appalachians.  Significantly for us, it marked the end of the old Wilderness Road, which we’ve been following for several hundred miles from western Virginia.  The only nod to it here is Boone’s Trace, a ‘gated golf community’, with a faux-stone gatehouse from which a bored security guard watched us without evident interest as we sweated up the hairpins out of the gorge.

On the other side of the river the world changed.  The air was filled with the spitting of sprinklers and the whirring of mowers, and on either side of the road Hispanic men moved along the verge with strimmers, like a platoon on patrol in Vietnam.  The road was barely visible through the grass cuttings that had blown onto it.  We were in horse farm country.  All around us were black four-tier fences enclosing vast, undulating oceans of closely mown grass, some with tiny figures on ride-on mowers moving across them like fishing boats far out at sea.  At their centres were great brick mansions, most of them with garages larger than our entire house in London, with names like Champagne Run, Windswept, Greenfields and, I was pleased to note, Richland.  Some of the estates were so colossal that all we could see were their stone gateposts and driveways disappearing behind great hills of grass.

Horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky

Another grim trailer park outside Lexington

This, surely, was the entire planet’s supply of grass in one place, covering every inch of unbuilt ground and extending to every horizon.  It was lush, thick and deep, and on a hot day like this just looking at it made us feel cooler.  The bluegrass, as it’s called, isn’t even native to America – it originated on the Russian steppes, and was probably brought over by some nameless 19th-century emigrant.  It thrived immediately on the limestone just beneath the soil, infusing the bones of the horses that munched on it with calcium and turning them into world-beaters on the racetrack.

Lexington is nicknamed ‘The Thoroughbred City’ and ‘The Horse Capital of the World’, and its numberless horse farms – as well as more than a hundred parks – form a doughnut of green space around it.  It’s a city built, essentially, on a three-hundred-square-mile lawn.  We walked through four uninterrupted miles of lush suburbia – Lakewood, Tabor Oaks, Zandale and Lansdowne – some modestly middle-class, and others graced by the kind of houses that make Wisteria Lane seem like a trailer park.  Apple, pear and cherry trees were in blossom on the lawns, and little children flashed past us on razor scooters and pink Schwinn bikes trailing glittery streamers from their handlebars.

Suburbs in Lexington, Kentucky

Suburbia Lexingtonia

Lexington has always been an affluent place; in the 19th century it was one of the wealthiest towns west of the Appalachians, and boasted the West’s first millionaire, John Wesley Hunt.  It’s the home of the University of Kentucky, a sporting behemoth that is regularly, if ungrammatically, lauded as the ‘winningest’ college basketball team in the country.  As if this were not enough, it’s also the birthplace of George Clooney and the home of the world’s largest peanut butter factory, so truly it offers something for everyone.

We walked to Lexington’s racetrack, Keeneland, past the Lexington Christian Academy (‘Education with Eternity in View’) and the city’s tiny airport, with private planes screaming in over our heads bringing in high rollers for the weekend’s racing.  We’d arrived in town during a two-week racing festival here that leads up to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville at the start of May.  The highway was gridlocked with cars queuing to get into the course, and down the long avenue leading up to the stands marquee and tailgate parties were in full swing in the sunshine.  The car park was so vast that people were being driven to the front gate in golf carts.

Keeneland is one of America’s prettiest racecourses – the racing scenes in Seabiscuit were filmed here – and it’s been hosting race meetings since the Thirties.  It was packed on this Friday, with a crowd that was Royal Ascot meets Jersey Shore – roving bands of spray-tanned young girls in high-waisted posh frocks, tottering coltishly in unfamiliar stilettos and wedges, trailing orbiting gaggles of boys looking self-conscious in the American male dress-up uniform of chinos, loafers and striped button-down shirts with the reassuring little polo player nestling by their nipple.  There was a more democratic and eclectic range of dress on display than at a British race meeting, with a strong representation from the polo shirt, baggy shorts and flip-flops brigade, as well as from willowy couples in lounge suits and couture.  Even so, very few people had made as bold a statement as we had in hiking boots and sweaty leggings, and I like to feel that we cut a dash as we moved through the crowds.

Girls at the races in Keeneland, Kentucky

The flower of young Kentucky womanhood at the races

There was a decidedly superior betting system, too, to that employed by British bookies.  You went up to a little counter and explained to a tired-looking attendant what race and horse you wanted to bet on and what sort of bet you wanted to place, and when you had bored them for long enough they pressed a hidden button and a pre-printed betting slip squirted out of a slot.  The odds were short and stingy compared to British courses: anything much over 4-1 was a decided donkey.  We milled around behind the private boxes studying form for a good hour before venturing a princely sum on Citizen’s Arrest in the sixth race; he finished third, and is probably even now filling a bottle of glue in a stationery shop near you.

Racing at Keeneland, Lexington, Kentucky

The field gallops by at Keeneland

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