Triple Crown 101: A guide for horse racing newcomers

triple crownArguably 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.

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.
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 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.

Mongol Derby is an adventure on horseback

This past Sunday, a group of 25 riders set out on a unique adventure across the Mongolian Steppe that will have them following in the ancient footsteps of Marco Polo and the fabled horsemen that roamed that region centuries ago, as they raise money for a variety of charities in the country.

The Mongol Derby is the latest idea from the same group that brought us the Mongol Rally. In this case, it pits the entrants on a long distance horse race through some of the most remote areas on the planet as they make the journey from Kharkhorin to Ulaanbaatar following a series of routes that were created as a postal system by Genghis Khan back in 1234 AD. The race directors caution that this isn’t about the speed of the horse however, but more of a test of the skill and stamina of the riders themselves.

Along the route, the riders will have to check into a series of horse stations called Urtuus, where they will be forced to change out their mounts for fresh ones. Veterinarians will also be on hand to ensure that the horses are being well cared for, and not pushed to their limits. The course designers have also taken great pains to design a route that will pass by multiple water sources, meaning the riders and horses won’t have to go far to find a drink.

The website will offer updates on the progress of the riders as well as live tracking of their current locations. There is also a long FAQ that answers a lot of questions about the event as well. So if driving to Mongolia by a very slow car isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps you’d prefer to explore it via horseback instead, either way, the Adventurists have you covered.