Louisville, Kentucky – History, Excitement, and Charm

Fun for the whole family

By Arvin Steinberg

Ask any jockey in the U.S. what one race he or she would most want to win. I am confident the answer would be – the Kentucky Derby! So famous is this race that it is often referred to as “the greatest two minutes in sports”. It is the first leg of the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing.

Churchill Downs racetrack located in Louisville, Kentucky is the home of the Kentucky Derby. It is America’s most historic and famous thoroughbred racetrack. Established in 1874, it is the oldest continuously operated racetrack in the U.S. The first Kentucky Derby was held in May 1875 and has been run every year since on the first Saturday in May.

I’ve been to several Kentucky Derbies. It’s great just to be at this historic racetrack. The Twin Spires atop the grandstand have become one of the most recognized structures in all of sports. And, there is not a more moving experience in the world of sports than the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses step onto the track for the Kentucky Derby.

I have also enjoyed many days of racing at Churchill Downs not only on Derby day but also during the spring and fall meets. But recently I visited Churchill Downs during a week when there was no racing at all. I went there for a wedding. My nephew was marrying a girl from New Albany, Indiana, a city just across the bridge from Louisville. And the couple decided to have their wedding at Churchill Downs.

A wedding at a racetrack? Of course! Churchill Downs is undergoing a $121 million renovation and expansion. The famed Twin Spires will stay intact, but virtually every other part of the grandstand and clubhouse is being replaced or extensively renovated. 64 luxury suites and meeting rooms have been added. The clubhouse is undergoing a comprehensive modernization.

The area where the wedding was held was the beautiful new Jockey Suites. You could even look out at the track, and on the giant screen where a race is simulcast were the words “Congratulations Jeff and Julie.” As the bride and groom stood under the lovely chuppah adorned with flowers, I noticed a couple of silver horse shoes among the floral arrangement. Following the ceremony and a brief period of celebrating with hors d’oeuvres and drinks, a track bugler dressed in his red attire and boots, sounded the usual notes played when the horses enter the track, to announce that dinner was served.

The next morning guests of the bride and groom were invited to breakfast at the track. It was a lot of fun to have breakfast on the backstretch where exercise riders and other track employees eat. We then watched early morning training, as thoroughbred horses sprinted around this famous track.

Later, I visited the Kentucky Derby Museum located at Gate 1 of Churchill Downs. It is the only museum in the world dedicated to a single horse race. It offers two floors of exciting exhibits giving visitors an in-depth look at thoroughbred racing and the Kentucky Derby.

At one exhibit I climbed aboard a horse-like structure and rode a simulated race while watching a video in front of me. I was required to stand in the irons and crouch as a jockey would do throughout the two-minute race, but not sit down in the saddle. It looked easy, but my legs were aching before the race was half over. My horse came in fifth, but it was fun.

One exhibit alone “The Greatest Race” is worth the visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum. It is theater in the round. You are seated in the center of a huge room and at times you have to stand and turn all the way around to see everything in this behind-the-scenes look at the Derby and the excitement of the actual race. The color and the action are unbelievable. This exhibit employs high-definition video technology to make the Derby come alive. It is the first 360-degreee high-definition presentation in the world and is updated every June to capture the most recent Kentucky Derby experience.

In addition to the permanent exhibits, visitors can take a guided walking tour of Churchill Downs.

Just as Churchill Downs is renowned for what it has meant for horse racing, there is another enterprise in Louisville that is renowned for what it has meant for the game of baseball. Since 1884 Hillerich & Bradsby Co. has made the world-famous Louisville Slugger baseball bat. It is the official bat of Major League Baseball. In 1996 the company opened the Louisville Slugger Museum in downtown Louisville.

This is a fascinating museum for the entire family. As I explained above, I was in Louisville to attend my nephew’s wedding. My two small grandsons, ages four and two, were also in Louisville to attend the wedding. I took them with me to the Louisville Slugger Museum, and it was a wonderful experience for them as well as for me.

When you get within a couple of blocks of the museum, you can see the world’s largest baseball bat rising 120 feet in front of the museum. This enormous baseball bat is an exact replica of the model R43 34-inch wood bat designed to specifications by Babe Ruth in the early 1920’s.

As soon as you enter the museum you detect a definite ballpark flavor. First you are directed into the theater to enjoy an inspirational film on the excitement of the game of baseball. You then walk through an underground locker room into a full-size dugout and step onto the museum’s playing field. Next, you can stroll through the museum’s galleries featuring rare in-house collections of photos, artifacts, and interactive displays.

At one exhibit I was able to select a famous major league pitcher that I wanted to bat against, and then experience what his 90-mph fastball looked like as it whizzed past me into the catcher’s mitt. My grandchildren loved climbing through a giant ball and glove made of 450 million-year old prehistoric limestone.

Finally, you are taken on a narrated walking tour through the Louisville Slugger manufacturing facility and watch Major League bats being made. Before leaving the museum, every visitor is given a souvenir bat to take home.

About a half block away from the Louisville Slugger Museum on the opposite side of the street, is the Louisville Science Center. Here there are many permanent and temporary exhibits, labs, demonstrations, and an IMAX theater, all fun yet educational activities for learning more about the world of science.

The Louisville Science Center is structured on three floors. The first floor is devoted mainly to younger children seven years and under. There is a KidZone that my grandchildren loved. They were also intrigued by the temporary exhibit, Backyard Monsters, featuring oversized robotic bugs.

On the second floor a permanent exhibit, The World We Create, celebrates the creative thinking that makes scientific advancements possible. Here you can enter the challenging world of manufacturing, transportation, chemistry, architecture, physics, and engineering. You can design your own bicycle and experiment in the Inventor’s Garage.

On the third floor a permanent exhibit, The World Within Us, allows you to learn about “the incredible body that’s yours for life” by explaining human anatomy, physiology, health awareness, nutrition, and lifestyle behaviors.

The Louisville Science Center is wonderful for families. Every young person could spend endless interesting hours learning more about the world of science.

Louisville is a city of important history as well as charm. The Seelbach Hilton hotel in downtown Louisville, where I stayed, exemplifies as lot of that history and charm. The hotel opened in 1905 and has been a premier, luxury hotel ever since and appears on the National Register of Historic Places.

Here I was amidst turn-of-the-century artwork, antiques, and four poster beds, as well as state-of-the-art technology including high speed Internet access in all guest rooms and meeting rooms. The grand ambiance of this hotel, that was beautifully renovated in 2000, inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to use the Seelbach Hilton Louisville hotel as the backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding in “The Great Gatsby”.

This is Louisville’s only Four-Star and Four-Diamond hotel. It is only three blocks from the Kentucky International Convention Center and within walking distance of the River Front and arts district. A trolley stops right outside the hotel and circles the downtown area stopping at attractions. The hotel offers complimentary guest airport transportation.

The hotel also features Kentucky’s first and only Five-Diamond Restaurant, The Oakroom. My dinner in this elegant restaurant with its rich, hand-carved dark oak and brass chandelier interior was fabulous. There is also a separate dining area in the restaurant where legend has it Al Capone used to dine and where he had a hidden door through which he could exit if the police entered the hotel. I don’t know if there is any truth to this legend, but I can easily understand why nine U.S. presidents and figures like Al Capone stayed at this grand hotel and enjoyed dining at The Oakroom.

For more information: Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau,
1-888- LOUISVILLE (1-888-568-4784) toll-free, visitor information
www.gotolouisville.com

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