Two Reasons to Visit Louisville: The Kentucky Derby Museum And The Muhammad Ali Center

kentucky derby museum churchill downs barbaro statueYou don’t have to be a sports fan or a museum buff to appreciate the fact that Louisville has two of America’s best sports-related museums: the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center. I’m not much of a sightseer, and my wife would sooner clean the toilets than watch a boxing match or a horse race. But we could have easily spent all day in these outstanding museums.

The Kentucky Derby has been held every year since 1875 and the famous twin spires at Churchill Downs are a national landmark. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the grandson of William Clark, of Lewis-Clark expedition fame, founded Churchill Downs after spending two years in Europe where he developed an interest in horse racing. This year more than 160,000 people turned up for the race; only 54,000 of them had seats, while the rest pile into the infield in the center of the track.
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“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the infield see no horse racing at all,” said Tiara, our guide for a walking tour around Churchill Downs. “But 99% of them don’t care. They’re here for the party.”


The derby is held on the first Saturday in May, but if you don’t want to take part in the Derby day madness, definitely hit the museum, and, if you can, take in a race. Churchill Downs plays host to more than 800 horse races per year, so there are ample opportunities to see top-flight thoroughbred racing.


The tour starts with a walk past the headstones of four derby winners that are buried on the grounds. We learned that horses are cremated and normally only the head, heart and hooves are buried, but in the case of truly legendary horses – like Secretariat, who won the Derby in 1973 and still is the only horse to complete the race in less than two minutes – they are buried whole.

kentucky derby museumTwo horses live at Churchill Downs year round – Perfect Drift, who placed third in the 2002 Derby, and Winston, a 19-year-old miniature horse that could be mistaken for a pony – and we had a chance to visit with both before pushing off to see the rest of the grounds.

We strolled past a statue of Pat Day, a jockey who won 2,500 races at Churchill Downs and more than $23 million in prize money during his career, and Tiara asked if we thought the diminutive little statue reflected his actual height.

“He’s actually two inches shorter in real life,” she said. “He’s 4 foot 11, and the statue’s just over 5 feet.”

We passed the betting windows – Tiara said they open some 3,000 of them on Derby day – and made our way toward the track, which was empty and full of puddles on the day we visited.

“The seats in here sell out a year or two in advance,” Tiara said. “And if you want to sit in the best seats, you’d better be a celebrity or have plenty of money.”

We learned about a few of the Derby’s cherished rituals – drinking mint juleps, eating burgoo and singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

kentucky derby museumThe museum itself was just as interesting as the tour. My sons were hooked on an interactive jockey video game where you climb onto a horse and try to ride it to victory, while my wife was fixated on exhibits featuring fancy ladies hats worn on Derby day and another exhibiting jockey silks – the colorful jackets jockeys wear on race days that have evolved since the days when chariot drivers in ancient Rome wore variations of the same thing (there are now 25,000 registered designs).

I was hooked on the video booths, where you can sit and watch replays with commentary of every race dating back to the 1920s. You can sort through the choices by choosing close races, wins by long shots, runaways, and Triple Crown winners. We capped off our visit by checking out “The Greatest Race” a short but intense film about the Derby that is shown in a remarkable 360-degree cinema.

Muhammad Ali – World Class Fighter & Traveler

muhammad ali centerMuhammad Ali is probably the greatest sports personality of the 20th Century and Louisville’s Ali Center, opened in 2005 at a cost of $80 million, does the great man and his fascinating life justice. It’s a huge place that’s informative, interactive and entertaining. I thought I knew everything there was to know about Ali, but I came away with a deeper appreciation for what an interesting and influential personality Ali was.

He was born and raised in Louisville while the city was still segregated. Ali, then Cassius Clay, took up boxing at age 12 after his bike was stolen and a police officer suggested he join a recreational boxing league after he insisted he was going to “whup” the thief once he caught him. He rose through the local ranks, became an Olympic and heavyweight champion, converted to Islam, became a member of the Nation of Islam and then was stripped of his title for refusing to serve in Vietnam during the war.

muhammad ali centerAfter the Supreme Court ruled that his claim as a conscientious objector was legitimate, he was reinstated in 1971, and quickly regained his title. One could write a 1,000-page book on his personal life and not cover it all. Ali married four times (once to a 17-year-old) and had nine children, two from extramarital affairs. He was considered a dangerous rabble-rouser by many in the white establishment and was even under FBI surveillance for a time.

The museum chronicles all of this and more. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome in 1984, but he’s remained remarkably active. I was struck by what a traveler Ali was and is. He fought in Zaire, The Philippines, England, Canada, Italy, Germany and beyond. He visited Ghana in 1964 and was greeted like a conquering hero. He made the hajj to Mecca in ’72 and visited Iraq in 1990 to seek freedom for hostages held by Saddam Hussein.

muhammad ali centerIn 2002, he visited Afghanistan as a U.N. Messenger for Peace, and in 2009, he was again greeted like a rock star in Ireland, where he went to visit the ancestral home of his great-grandfather in County Clare. He’s done charity work in Indonesia, Morocco, and the Ivory Coast, among other places. And this summer, he took part in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London. These days he spends most of his time in Scottsdale, Arizona, but he celebrated his 70th birthday in January at the museum and he still owns a home in Kentucky.

Aside from all the interactive exhibits, the museum also features a boxing ring, and some punching bags for those who want to get their aggression out. But I was hooked on the cinema area, where you can sit down and watch a number of old Ali fights. If you’re too young to have seen him fight or if you aren’t but want to relive the good old days, you’ll love this museum.


Other Ali landmarks in Louisville:

The Clay Home
3302 W. Grand Avenue

Central High School
1130 W. Chestnut St.

Columbia Gym- site where Clay’s bike was stolen and his early workouts
851 S. 4th Street

Presbyterian Community Center- site of the rec program where Clay learned to box
760 S. Hancock Street

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Bourbon, beer, wine, and equines in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region

My desire to take advantage of flight deals and see new places often takes me to destinations I might not have otherwise considered. An $89 round trip flight from Chicago to Louisville, for example, is how I ended up discovering that there’s a lot more to Kentucky‘s Bluegrass region than horses.
Louisville
The Louisville airport is larger than Lexington and receives more daily flights, which means for most people, it will be cheaper to fly into Louisville than Lexington. The two cities are an hour’s drive away from each other, so you can easily see both over a long weekend, no matter which airport you fly into. Louisville is the larger of the two cities- actually it is the largest in Kentucky. It’s not a major city though, and if you come expecting a Bluegrass Chicago, you may be disappointed.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of things to do in Louisville though. Boxing fans will want to visit the Muhammad Ali Center and baseball lovers can’t miss the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. The West Main area, also known as museum row, is home to several impressive art, history and science museums. Fort Knox and the Belle of Louisville (the oldest Mississippi-style steamboat still in use in the US) are also popular attractions.

In Louisville, I stayed at the 1888 Rocking Horse Manor. A totally restored historic house just south of the downtown area (an easy 15 minute walk), it features its original stained glass, antique furniture, free wi-fi, and a cooked-to-order breakfast included in the rate. The furnishings look a little like they came from your grandma’s house, but the hosts are helpful and friendly, the breakfast (and soft, chewy cookies available all day) is delicious, and the house is full of hidden nooks and crannies where you can escape and relax. Rates start at around $85 per night.

To find Louisville’s trendy scenesters (yes, they do exist), head to Proof on Main, a lounge/restaurant in the 21C Hotel. The menu features artisanal small plates (like bison bone marrow or grilled fennel relish) and eclectic main plates like roasted beet risotto and Amish chicken that start at $15. The drink list emphases the local Bourbon. The $10 Woodland Cider (bourbon, clove and apple cider) was excellent and you can take your drink into the adjoining museum and browse the modern art installations while you sip.

For a more casual meal, check out the pub grub at Bluegrass Brewing. They serve all the standards like burgers, pizzas and salads, plus local specialties like the Hot Brown – a giant sandwich of turkey, tomato, bacon, cheese and Alfredo sauce. After a few Bourbon Barrel Oatmeal Stouts, it’s just the kind of food you may need to avoid a morning hangover.

Lexington
Lexington is pure horse-country. The airport is just outside of Keenland, where you can place your bets and watch athletic Thoroughbred horses speed around the track. True horse enthusiasts (and anyone with kids) should head to the Kentucky Horse Park, a working horse farm, event grounds, and museum dedicated to all things horse. The park is home to over 100 horses (less in winter) and often hosts horse shows and competitions like the Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event. Admission is $15 for adults and well worth it. Plan on spending at least 3-4 hours onsite. The farm offers horseback and pony rides (as do several other farms in the area). Many racing and breeding farms also offer tours (by appointment) to visitors.

The Bourbon Trail runs between Lexington and Louisville and features eight distilleries producing Bourbon, which is the United States’ only native spirit and is produced only in Kentucky. You can visit one or two (I highly recommend Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark) or head to the Whiskey Heritage Center to try multiple brands in one spot.

If Bourbon isn’t your drink of choice, you can also visit several wineries in the area – there are over a dozen within an hour’s drive of Lexington. At Wildside Vines, about 20 minutes west of the city, you can sample eight of their award-winning wines at no cost. Be sure to try the creative dessert wines like Blueberry and Blackberry.

For a fun night on the town, try the Cheapside Bar and Grill, a local favorite tucked away on a side street in the downtown core. It’s always packed, the daily drink specials are a great deal, they often have live music on weekends, and the Kentucky Bourbon Ale is strong and cheap.

There are many familiar chain hotels in the downtown area and further out of the city, you can stay the night at several working horse farms that offer accommodation. For $55 a night, you can also try the Motel 6. It’s a five minute drive (or $10 taxi) out of the downtown core. It’s basic but clean, and with the money saved, you can afford a few more bottles of Bourbon or Kentucky wine for souvenirs.