TRAVEL Blue grass of spring

Kentucky in early May is a horse-lover's paradise.The scenery isn't bad, either. Michael Leapman tours the stud farms as Derby Day approaches
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HERE is something pathetic about athletes who have grown too old for their sports. Muscles sag and turn to flab, the back starts to bend and the spark of the keen competitor fades from their eyes.

Racehorses are no exception. In a barn set among the lush lawns, clipped hedges and four-railed paddock fences of Three Chimneys stud farm at Versailles, Kentucky, stands Seattle Slew, an erstwhile star of the American track. Bought as a yearling for only $17,500 (£11,000), he became in 1977 one of only 11 horses ever to have won the Triple Crown for three-year-olds - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes - and earned more than $1,200,000 (£760,000) in his racing career: an archetypal American tale of rags to riches.

Today, though, as he is led out for the umpteenth time to be shown to visitors, Slew is fat and a little scruffy. Neck drooping, tongue dangling from his mouth, he stares fixedly at the ground.

The cheerful Wes Lanter, stallion manager at the stud farm, is on hand to deter us from feeling too sorry for the former punters' hero; for the life of a prize thoroughbred stallion has its moments. Mostly these come in early spring, when in three hectic months the horse can enjoy promiscuous relations with more than 70 selected mares in a luxuriously appointed barn, its walls padded for those times when excessive ardour sends limbs flying out of control.

Each of Slew's amorous flings earns his owners $80,000 (£50,000), provided a live foal is born. Small wonder that for the rest of the year, while limbering up for the next bout of sexual athletics, the horse is provided with the best food and physical pampering that money can buy. Small wonder, for that matter, that his tongue hangs out.

Wes is immensely proud of Slew and, with the American sportsman's love of statistics, reels off details of his triumphs of impregnation: "Sired 67 stakes winners who've earned more than $36m. Now one of the most important sires in history. Covered 74 mares in 1994 and got 90 per cent of them in foal."

Wes takes a paternal interest in the performance of Slew's offspring and descendants on the racetrack, as he does of those of other stallions in the yard. On big race days, he confides touchingly, "I cheer for the kids of the guys in the barn here."

You do not have to like horses to enjoy Kentucky but it helps. The key date in the social calendar of the Bluegrass State is the first Saturday in May when the Kentucky Derby, America's most colourful and historic horse race, is run at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The state is the world's leading centre for breeding and selling thoroughbreds, and in recent years a horsy tourist trade has been established around the industry.

Visiting the stud farms is worthwhile not just for the chance to see famous horses in their fecund old age - and to have their breeding techniques described enthusiastically in all-too-explicit detail - but also for the scenery. The low hills are covered with thick bluegrass, whose blueish sheen is apparent only in early spring. The paddocks are divided by stone walls and wooden railings, once universally white but now often black because dark paint needs renewing less often.

The farms' wooden outbuildings may be grouped around a splendid brick house in the Colonial style, with stone columns supporting its portico. Tall, graceful trees provide welcome shade. Grazing horses look inquisitively at visitors but seldom bother to come and investigate further - and if they do you should be wary, for thoroughbreds can get snappy.

It is no use driving around the farms at random because most of them can only be visited by advance arrangement. It is best o hire a guide to do the groundwork, and there are a number in the vicinity of Lexington, the nearest city to most of the farms. They will tailor tours to your taste and accompany you in your own rented car.

We went to Three Chimneys with Joan Combs, who has been taking visitors to the farms for 15 years. Her commentary was a well-judged blend of anecdote and information about the breeding industry, spiced with social history.

"That's Spindletop Farm on the left. It was developed by people who struck it rich in the Texas oil fields in the early 1930s. They built a beautiful farm and a mansion that's now the University Alumni Club. The husband didn't survive to see it finished so the wife lived there with her servants - but because she wasn't of blue blood she wasn't really accepted by the local horsy society. She lived a lonely life and ended up moving to Florida" - a fate, Mrs Combs implied, not to be wished on anyone.

She explained how breeding became a major industry in Kentucky. Today it employs 80,000 people on nearly 1,000 horse farms of all sizes, contributing $5 billion a year to the state's coffers. Most of what is now Kentucky was part of the Virginia territory colonised by the British in the 17th century. "This was the wild west, the land where the buffalo roamed. Men like Daniel Boone explored it and people moved out here to make their fortunes."

The dry-stone walls that are a feature of the landscape were built initially by Irish labourers in the beginning of the 19th century, as the open spaces began to be enclosed. They passed on their skills to black slaves, which is why the structures are sometimes called "slave walls".

Horse-racing was another British custom brought to America by the early settlers and Kentucky, then sparsely inhabited, was a natural place to establish ranches. It is perfect breeding territory because the native limestone is rich in calcium and other bone-strengthening nutrients that seep into the grass. The gentle slopes give the foals ideal conditions for developing their leg muscles. "These are farms breeding a crop like soybeans or anything else," Joan Combs explained. "The crop happens to be live foals raised for the yearling market. The race track is the proving ground for the breeding industry - you can't have one without the other."

Nowadays a number of the farms are owned by wealthy Arabs and Japanese. While Arab owners race their horses all over the world, the Japanese ship theirs to Japan when they are about a year old, to race them there. Many, however, are sold at auction, and the last stop on our tour was the auction room alongside Keeneland race track, near Lexington. Jittery yearlings were being led around a yard behind the auctioneers' podium. Once the horses step inside the ring, framed by steep tiers of seating like a miniature circus tent, the auctioneer begins taking bids in the scarcely decipherable sing-song tones traditionally used at tobacco auctions. Bidding is by discreet nods and signs and it may take only a minute for a well-bred animal to be knocked down for hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are few bargains: stories like Seattle Slew's happen only once in a lifetime.

Apart from looking in on the working aspects of the breeding business, visitors to the horse farm area are catered for at specialised exhibition centres. The biggest is the Kentucky Horse Park, just north of Lexington. Displays here cover all aspects of racing and breeding, as well as show- jumping, steeplechasing and polo, in video presentations and live demonstrations. Horses and ponies can be hired for riding. Horse shows are often held in the outdoor arena, and craftsmen can be seen making horseshoes, harnesses and carriages.

There is a "Hall of Fame" where former champion racehorses are shown off to their admirers and in summer a daily parade of horses of 45 breeds. Around the grounds, quirky signboards tell you things you never thought you needed to know: "Do horses sleep standing up? Yes and no. They sleep lightly while standing but for complete rest they will lie down for short periods."

Racing fans will not want to miss the Kentucky Derby Museum at the Churchill Downs track, with exhibits and a video about the 120-year history of the race, as well as screens where you can play recordings of any year's running of it since cinematography was invented.

Early May, when the Derby is held, is the perfect time to visit Kentucky, because the trees and grass are at their greenest before the summer heat sets in. It is a carnival occasion. There are parties all weekend and, on the day itself, alcoholic breakfasts in the lite country clubs of the Louisville area.

Occupants of boxes in the clubhouse section of the grandstand dress to impress, not in the formal style of Royal Ascot but with tremendous flair. By contrast, thousands take picnics on to the grass in the middle of the track and, if it is warm enough, shed as many clothes as is decent. Mint juleps flow freely. This is the local speciality drink - basically bourbon, sugar and a sprig of mint - and it slips down with treacherous ease.

The race itself is accompanied by strictly observed traditions. Beforehand, those in the crowd who know the words (which means most of them) join in "My Old Kentucky Home". Afterwards, the winning horse is draped in a blanket of magnificent roses. If you think you catch him leering it may be because he knows that, like Seattle Slew, he can look forward to a life of sensual springtimes in the bluegrass. !


GETTING THERE: Usairtours (0181-559 7797) flies to Louisville, starting from £315 plus £37 tax and leaving midweek. This price is available from 19 April to the end of the month. Air America (0171-724 7716) provides flights to Lexington or Louisville from 7 April until the end of May starting from £395 plus £25 tax. There are no direct flights from Britain to Louisville or Lexington, but all the transatlantic carriers offer good connections: Delta via Cincinnati is among the most convenient.

GUIDES AND TOURS: For information on tours and guides to the horse farms, contact the Greater Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau at 301 East Vine Street, Lexington, KY 40507-1513, phone 001 606 233 7299. Michael Leapman's guide, Joan Combs, can be contacted on 001 606 269 1721.

FURTHER READING: This Place Called Kentucky, with photographs by Dan Dry and essays by John Ed Pearce, is published by Sulgrave Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The pictures above and opposite (above) were taken from this book.