Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Bourbon, Junk, and (of course) Horses

I’ll start with horses. We’re wrapping up a week in Kentucky, the horse capital of the US, and specifically, the thoroughbred racing capital of the US. The area around Lexington, known as the blue grass, probably because Kentucky blue grass is the predominant grass here, is chock-full of thoroughbred breeding farms, racing stables and training facilities.
I hate to start an entry on a downer, but there’s a dark side of racing that a few dedicated individuals are trying to fix. About 35 to 40 thousand thoroughbreds are born every year. Of those, a very small percentage are fast enough to make it to the track and of those, a very small percentage are winners. Have you ever wondered what happens to those horses you’ve never heard about, or about those superstars of racing when their running days are done? The real superstars, as long as they’re not geldings, are retired for breeding. Unless they are among the lucky few who become pleasure or show horses, the geldings and the losers, as well as the breeding stallions and mares too old to get it on any longer, most often are sent to a slaughter house.
Now these may be animals that won millions of dollars for their owners, but their earning days are done, and the upkeep of a horse runs into big bucks, so it’s bye-bye Mr. Ed.
This brings us to the positive side of this story. DSC_0024A handful of farms have been established to serve as retirement homes for old race horses. One in Lexington is called Old Friends. Started in 2003 by former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen,

Old Friends  (http://www.oldfriendsequine.org) currently cares for about 125 former race horses, and it’s about to open another farm in New York. Blowen decided to start Old Friends after hearing about the fate of Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand who was a successful stud in Japan but was sent to a slaughter house when his services were no longer needed.
In this photo, Penny is communing with Gulch, a major stakes winner of over $3-million and the sire of many stakes winners. Gulch’s owners retired him to Old Friends, and pay for his upkeep. And by the way, Gulch isn’t wearing a Halloween costume, that’s a fly mask.
The horses that retire here live the rest of their lives here, and are also buried on the farm. And if you are asking yourself “why the big deal, horses are livestock and we have no qualms about sending cattle to the slaughter house,” well, if you know horses you know that these are animals with intelligence and extremely well-developed relationships with humans. If you ever hear the cries from a horse when it’s loaded on the truck to the slaughter house you will know that the horse knows exactly what’s going on. All domestic animals deserve a humane end, and that’s what Old Friends provides for the old friends they care for. By the way, Old Friends operates strictly on donations and support from some individuals and organizations in the racing industry. They don’t even charge for tours of the farm. The do accept donations from visitors, and Penny and I bought hats.
Our next stop was Louisville and Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby.
Penny had a chance to actually get on a horse in an actual starting gate, but the horse didn’t have any legs and seemed to be made of plastic, so it didn’t get a very good start.
At least she didn’t fall off. The gate (and the fake horse) were in the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, which is a lot bigger than the last time I was there more than 10 years ago. A neat exhibit was the trophies for several Derby winners including Secretariat’s Derby, Preakness and Belmont trophies and his Triple Crown Trophy as well.
The museum offers several tours of the track, and we participated in two of them. The first was a walking tour of the public areas of the track including the paddock,  the walking ring and trackside.
There’s no racing going on now, but lots of horses are in training. It was much less crowded at the track than on Derby Day, but you can still see horses running around the track. It’s also impossible to lose money when there aren’t any races.
The second tour we took was a van ride through the infield and the stable area. If you’ve ever watched  the Derby on TV you’ve seen the thousands of people packed into the infield, drinking beer and mint juleps. It’s been referred to as a cross between Woodstock, Burning Man, and Coney Island.
DSC_0051One thing I didn’t know about the infield that should put it in perspective. The bunker-like structure behind the fence in this picture is an infield jail, and there are four of them in operation on Derby Day. Hmm, I don’t remember that being mentioned during the TV coverage.
Aside from horses, Kentucky is also noted for bourbon, and we toured the Wild Turkey distillery about 30 miles outside of Louisville along the “Bourbon Trail” AKA Interstate 64. And yes, they do offer tastings.
Once distilled, the bourbon is stored in oak barrels in one of these giant warehouses. Bourbon is distilled from at least 51% corn, plus rye and malted barley. Some distilleries may substitute one of the grains, but by law it has to be at least 51% corn.
The oak barrels are charred on the inside and used only once. After up to 10 years of aging, depending on the style of the bourbon, when the booze is removed the barrels are shipped to Scotland where they’re used to age single-malt scotch.
An interesting anecdote is something that happened in 2000.
images[1] One of the warehouses caught fire. Thousands of barrels of bourbon went up in flames, and a lot of them rolled down the hill into the Kentucky River. Our tour guide said the river was burning and since the town’s water supply was just downstream, the water treatment plant had to be shut down for days. And we weren’t here in 2000, the picture was stolen from the BBC web site.
Yes, that’s Penny riding a turkey.

When I first posted this the other day I forgot to include something on "junk" mentioned in the title. So here it is.
We happened to be in Kentucky on the weekend of the Route 127 Yard Sale, which is a 960 mile yard sale that runs along US 127 from Michigan to Alabama. If you've seen coverage of this on TV it looks like its a continuous yard sale along it's whole length. It may be like that it cities and larger towns, but in rural areas it's a bit spotty. This photo is pretty typical of what we saw in the area of Frankfort, Kentucky. We stopped at several sales and actually made a purchase. A folk art cat carving for 25 cents.


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