VERSAILLES, Ky. — The first Saturday in May, millions of Americans who would not otherwise be inclined become horse fans. From Louisville, the Kentucky Derby is broadcast to a country of viewers who watch an event that's been held for 124 consecutive years. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and other Triple Crown winners have become part of the nation's collective memory, along with the twin spires at Churchill Downs and a sea of people in flat-brimmed straw hats sipping mint juleps.
Like the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras and New Year's Eve at Times Square, the Run for the Roses is a grand-scale packing-in of people, an annual celebration of regional culture.
But there's another, quieter side of Kentucky's equine tradition: the Bluegrass horse-breeding country, southeast of Louisville, where it all begins. This is where the blueblooded aristocracy of the horse world is raised. And it's as different from the Derby as the farming communities of eastern New York state are from the Woodstock concert.
My father grew up in Kentucky, along the Ohio River. Later, he would spend most of his career in the city, running a business in Indianapolis and making trips to Chicago. A few years ago, nearing retirement, he decided to fulfill a dream: He traded in his business suits for overalls, bought a modest (by Kentucky standards) 32-acre farm and began taking care of horses.
Last year, my wife and I made our first extended visit to the farm, driving up from our home in Florida. We got off Interstate 75 and wound our way around Lexington out into the horse country near the hamlet of Versailles (pronounced Ver SAILS). The scene along the drive was what you'd expect from the cliches and postcards: White-plank fencing ran for miles over rolling hills as sleek thoroughbred horses grazed and galloped.
It was after we arrived at Hoxley Hole, my father's farm, that the extent of horse mania began to sink in. We were standing in the driveway at dusk, when I noticed chandeliers light up in the cupola of a mansion next door.
"They must be rich," I remarked to my father. "What a house!"
"That's not the house," he replied, "that's the stable."
Welcome to thoroughbred country, where the horses dine under crystal light fixtures.
The money flows at an eye-crossing pace here. Yearlings can fetch more than $10 million at auctions that are as much social events as business. One story has a waitress receiving a $10,000 tip from a well-fed foreigner. In this economic galaxy, "Star Trek's" William Shatner can comfortably blend into the background with his relatively modest farm, Belle Reve.
Despite some of the rarefied lifestyles, the Lexington area has resisted the celebrity spotlight that shines on such retreats as Aspen, Colo., and Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Visitors can move freely in and out of the various social strata, whether they're antique shopping at a tiny crossroads, watching workouts at a prestigious racetrack or visiting the farms of Triple Crown winners (horses that have won the Preakness in Baltimore and the Belmont in Elmont, N.Y., in addition to the Derby).
The next morning my father and I got up just as the sky began to lighten, and he gave me a tour of the neighborhood in his pickup. Next door at Brookside Farm the chandeliers were still burning in the dozens of horse barns stretching to the horizon. Trainers saddled up horses for predawn workouts.
He parked and turned off the pickup next to a low wall of granite stones. We could see the horses' breath in the air as they ran by. The only sounds were their light panting and the thudding of their hooves on the ground.
My father, knowing I wanted to take some photos, said he had a nice shot for me, and drove around to the north side of Brookside Farm and across the street to the equally spectacular Gainsborough Farm, owned by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai.
The bright orange sky just before sunrise back-lighted the farm's ornate copper roofs. I jumped out of the pickup for a few photos. On the other side of the fence, surveillance cameras on tall poles scanned the grounds and probably had picked up our presence before the pickup had come to a stop.
We drove east, toward Lexington, and past perhaps the area's most recognizable farm. The white fencing running along U.S. 60 and the white buildings with dark red trim marked the historic Calumet Farm. Its horses hold a record eight Derby championships, and the Polish aviation magnate who saved the spread from being chopped up on the auction block now works on expanding the tradition. We didn't have the time, but the farm can be toured by contacting Historic and Horse Farm Tours in Lexington.