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

You 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.

“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.

Two 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.”

The 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 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.

After 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.

In 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]

Party With The Ponies: Kentucky Derby Parties And Packages

The most famous horse race of the year takes place on Saturday, and it’s time to place your bets. ­­Our safest pick? A party. Can’t make it to Louisville and the famed Barnstable Brown celebrity bash? Some of our favorite events around the Run for the Roses are listed below.

Derby Day at Sea Island
Sea Island, the Forbes Five-Star resort on the southeastern coast of Georgia, is joining in the Derby celebrations with their own package for resort guests. The resort’s 11th Annual Derby Day Party will include a viewing party of the Derby along with a silent and live auction, hat parade, live music and dancing under the stars. In addition to celebrating this Saturday, Sea Island is also hosting a pre-party on Friday night with a casual evening of corn hole games, potato sack races, bocce ball, horses and jockeys to greet everyone and a bourbon tasting. Stay overnight and the weekend ($1,400) includes a Cloister River View Room (with upgrade if available), access to parties Friday and Saturday, a $100 experience credit per person and a welcome amenity.

Mint Juleps Galore in DC
Washington’s historic Willard InterContinental hosts their 26th annual “Bonnets and Bow-Ties” party in honor of the Derby on Saturday. A $75 cover fee includes red carpet entry, two handcrafted Henry Clay Mint Juleps – the Round Robin Bar’s signature cocktail – or two cocktails of choice and a traditional Southern buffet with prizes and raffles throughout the event.

Double Down in Austin
The Four Seasons Hotel Austin hosts an annual Derby Day event in their Lobby Lounge, featuring a live broadcast of the races, mint juleps and other drink specials as well as a contest for Best Hat (for the ladies) and Best Seersucker Suit (for men). The two winners of these contests will each take home a silver-plated cup that they can bring in to receive free mint juleps for an entire year.

Run for the Roses at The Plaza
New Yorkers and guests of The Plaza alike can watch the race and attend a “Best Hat” contest at the hotel’s legendary Rose Club. The lucky winner of the hat contest will receive a bottle of Special Edition Woodford Reserve Kentucky Derby Bourbon.
Fun in the Irons at the Iron Horse Hotel
Milwaukee’s equine-inspired hotel is getting into the action with their second annual Derby party, offering a best hat contest, photo op with the hotel’s own “winner’s circle,” Mint Juleps and an array of prizes. You can even “bet” on your favorite horse and win prizes via a donation of gently used business clothing, which will be given to a local charity.

Noir Does the Derby
The Charles Hotel’s Noir bar is hosting their first annual Derby Infield Party. Watch the race on a 9-foot projection screen while sipping a variety of Mint Julep-inspired cocktails and enjoying southern-themed bites. Dressing the part is encouraged, and prizes will be awarded for Best Attire (Southern belle and Southern gentleman) as well as Best Hat. Cast your vote for the winning horse to win a chance to receive Derby related prizes. Tables are available with a $95 food and beverage minimum for up to four people ($50 for up to two people).

Hold Your Horses with the Los Angeles Athletic Club
The club is hosting their second Annual Kentucky Derby Viewing Party appropriately named “Hold Your Horses” on its newly renovated third floor. Races will be shown on multiple TVs, guests will enjoy equine-inspired activities, a live band, southern-inspired dishes and whiskey flights. There will even be a hat designer onsite. $30 per person includes entry, complimentary Mint Julep, buffet, games and live entertainment.

Show Your Horse Racing Love at in St. Augustine
In St. Augustine, Florida, the Casa Monica Hotel is hosting Derby and a Dinner on Saturday, May 5 from 4:00 – 5:30 p.m. Upon entering the event, guests will participate in a blind draw to select their horse. Attendees enjoy complimentary mint juleps and light hors d’oeuvres along with a cash bar, but those who pick horses “in the money” (first, second or third) will win prizes, and all guests wearing a hat are entered to win brunch for two. Tickets are $25 per person, and everyone attending will receive a $25 dinner credit at 95 Cordova after the event.

The most ridiculous hats of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks

One of the best parts about the Kentucky Derby is the fashion. Much like the exhaustively covered royal wedding, hats are the accessory du jour. While photos from tonight’s Kentucky Derby won’t start flooding in until later today, check out this great gallery of hats, hats, and more hats from the Kentucky Oaks, held last evening, where the nation’s top fillies competed for top honors. Plum Pretty narrowly edged out St. John’s River (ridden by a female jockey!) to take the $1 million prize.

Care for more images? Visit the official Kentucky Derby website.


All images reprinted from Kentucky and courtesy of Dan Dry, Kinetic, Sam English, Andrew Kung, Zymage and G. Raymond Schuhmann.]

Four great Kentucky Derby events

Whether you’re headed to Louisville to celebrate this year’s Kentucky Derby or simply want to gather your friends for an excuse to don fancy hats and drink mint juleps, we’ve got a party for you.

Barnstable Brown Party
For more than two decades, the most elite of all Derby events has been the Friday evening Barnstable Brown Party. Co-hosted by twin sisters – and famed Doublemint twins – Patricia (“Tricia”) Barnstable Brown and Priscilla (“Cyb”) Barnstable, their mother, Wilma (“Willie”) Barnstable, and Tricia’s son, Chris Brown. The black-tie gala raises money for programs supporting diabetes research, treatment and education at the sisters’ alma mater, the University of Kentucky. You’ll find numerous celebrities at the party – The Jonas Brothers and Miranda Lambert are among confirmed attendees for this year. Tickets are $1,000+, and available here.

Night of Silk Party
Derby Evening, party with the jockey’s themselves at the first-ever Night of Silk Derby Party at the Galt House Hotel. The first ever Night of Silk will feature signature cocktails, full open bar, a decadent menu and indulgent desserts including dry-ice chocolate and a life-sized chocolate horse. Tickets are $375 per person (buy tickets here) and will benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockey’s Fund.

Los Angeles Soiree
West Coastsers can celebrate the “Greatest 2 Minutes In Sports” with a unique Kentucky Derby Viewing Party called “Hold Your Horses” at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Taking place in the LAAC’s main game room, the races will be shown on multiple TV, live music will take place from Gypsy Jazz band Icy Hot Club, equine-inspired games such as indoor Horse Shoes there will even be a room where guests can log onto the Kentucky Derby site and place bets on the races. For the Derby guests who hedge their bets more on the fashion of the event than the horses, designer Charlie Altuna will be onsite showcasing some of his original hat creations. There will also be a whisky tasting hosted by Maker’s Mark and a specialty Kentucky-inspired cocktail menu. The party will take place from 1 – 4 PM and is $25 per person, including food. The first 50 reservations will get a complimentary Maker’s Mark glass to take home. To make reservations, call 213-630-5200.

Derby Day in DC
The Willard InterContinental’s historic Round Robin Bar host an “Afternoon at the Races” event on Saturday with its annual Bonnets and Bow Ties Kentucky Derby Party. Join the fun at the Round Robin Bar, a favorite of locals, celebrities, and politicos. The $75 entry fee includes a southern-style buffet featuring country baked ham with baby soft rolls, Kentucky coleslaw and potato salad, a display of international cheeses and Derby pies, including a thematic variation on the pecan pie with a healthy measure of Maker’s Mark and two of the bar’s famous Henry Clay Southern-Style Mint Juleps. Each drink is individually handcrafted and served in the official keepsake 137th Kentucky Derby glassware. To make a reservation, visit the hotel website.

[Flickr via Velo Steve]

Triple Crown 101: A guide for horse racing newcomers

Arguably the biggest event of the horse racing world takes place on Saturday, May 7 and kicks off a five week blitz of horse racing events and buzz around the country. Want to know the 101 on the Sport of Kings’ Triple Crown, or hope to visit one of the surrounding cities? We’ll be featuring coverage of the three cities that house the races as well as events for travelers wanting to celebrate horse racing’s greatest three days over the next few weeks.

Today, educate yourself on the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont with this Triple Crown 101.

{Want to know more about the Derby? Take a peek at what our friends over at AOL Travel have to say.}

What is the Triple Crown?
Taking place starting the first Saturday of each May, the Triple Crown races are made up of three Grade One stakes races for the country’s most elite Thoroughbred racehorses. All of the horses in the race are three years of age and have won qualifying races to enter. The goal? To have a single horse win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes races, conducted over a five-week period in three different states.

[Flickr via Rennett Stowe]
No horse has won all three races since Affirmed in 1978, although a number of horses have won two out of three. Usually the first, second and third place winners of each race go on to compete in the final two of three “jewels,” but each race is also run as a standalone and can include new participants. The winning prize for each is $1 million.

Where does the Triple Crown take place?
The first race of the series, The Kentucky Derby or “Run for the Roses,” takes place this Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Two weeks later, on May 23, The Preakness takes place in Baltimore at Pimlico. Three weeks after that, in Elmont, New York, The Belmont takes place on June 11 at Belmont Park.

What should I drink?
Each race has its own drink (and its own traditions). The classiest event of the series, the Derby, is known for its signature Mint Juleps. At The Preakness, drink Black Eyed Susans, a deadly concoction made with vodka, orange juice, light rum, ice, triple sec, lime juice and pineapple juice. This is appropriate for a race known equally for its crazy infield crowds as it is for its horse racing. Technically, the official drink of the Belmont is a whiskey concoction known as the Belmont Breeze, made with bourbon, sherry, orange juice, cranberry and mint.

What should I wear?
Much like the royal wedding, women should wear hats. Big hats, floppy hats, and we’re guessing you’ll see a ton of fascinators. The bigger the hat … the better. The Kentucky Derby is by far the most formal of the races, with the infield crowd at The Preakness barely surpassing the shirt and shoes rules. Belmont is a mixed bag, with people getting fancier as they advance to higher ticketing levels.

How do I celebrate?
Much like any sporting event, we’d suggest a betting pool. You can head to your local racetrack and place a bet, or host a fun themed events with a mandatory “best hat” entry. After last week’s wedding … we’re sure you’ll find some creative interpretations of that theme.

How do I pick a winner?
Pick your favorite name, your favorite color combination, or simply follow what the commentators are suggesting. That way, you’ll have someone to cheer for as they race down the home stretch. Remember that even though the main races themselves are the highlight of the day, the “race card” for the day will include as many as 12 races – so you’ll have plenty of time to learn the ropes.