48 Hours in The Bluegrass: Part 1

Were we in Kentucky for 48 hours? We stayed three nights, so that isn’t quite right. But we only had two full days to take in the Bluegrass region — and believe me, it wasn’t enough.

We went to Lexington for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award reception, held at Castleton Lyons, a stunning Thoroughbred farm which is home to stallions Gio Ponti and Justin Phillip. (Since we saw Gio Ponti race several times, we were especially excited to meet him in person! Horse star struck!)

Keeneland's Walking Ring from the Phoenix Room

Keeneland’s Walking Ring from the Phoenix Room

My novel Turning For Home was a finalist for the award, along with two other books about horse racing. This was basically an awesome excuse to finally visit Lexington! We had driven through once years before and stopped at Kentucky Horse Park, where I walked on the cross-country course and found Ralph Hill’s name on the huge chalkboard of competitors from the year before (I was his groom at the time), but that was it. Now we had a little time to explore.

First: Keeneland Racecourse. Just driving to this racetrack was amazing, because outside its gates are the fabled white fences and cupolas of Calumet Farm. Drive through the grand old entrance and the grounds are exquisite, green rolling hills dotted with old trees. There’s even a library. A library. At a racetrack. I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of my heaven.

Sadly there wasn’t time on this trip to visit the library. We took a quick look around the paddock and walking ring (beautiful, like a palace, which is what racehorses deserve) and watched a race from the apron, and then we hustled upstairs to the Phoenix Room for lunch hosted by Castleton Lyons. The Phoenix Room overlooks the walking ring next to the paddock, which is lovely. There were lots of desserts, which was even more lovely. (I really like desserts.)

After lunch we had time for another race before hustling to get ready for the award reception, which was held above the stallion barn at Castleton Lyons.


Castleton Lyons - just another perfect breeding farm in Lexington

Castleton Lyons – just another perfect breeding farm in Lexington

At the award reception I was expected to stand in front of people and speak, something that my introverted little soul can’t quite cope with. Luckily I had two things: a little Jameson for courage, and whole lot of passion for my subject. Once I stood up and started talking about why I had written Turning For Home, everything was fine. I’m not sure what I said — something about retiring racehorses, something about how Thoroughbreds were the greatest athletes in the world, something about how much we love our horses, despite the way certain activists would like to portray Thoroughbred breeders and owners — but people applauded, which was nice.

My face on the wall at the book award reception.

My face on the wall at the book award reception.

The honors of the evening went to John Carter, author of Warriors on Horseback, a non-fiction book about jockeys. It’s impossible to feel any regret over not winning because John was Skyping in from England, and after he won, his wife brought his dachshund on-screen and waved its little paw at all of us in Kentucky. It was adorable. Totally worth letting John win this round!

After the award was announced, there was some more “mingling,” which is when I stood very quietly by a table and tried not to look like I was going to have a panic attack. The second half of the reception was much better than the first, though, because now people knew who I was, and wanted to come up and chat with me about the book, encourage me to write more and try again for the big prize in another year, and talk about off-track Thoroughbreds, and their own retirement stories.

It was really lovely to talk with some of the owners about how deeply they identified with my words. There are good horse-people in racing who are vilified with no warrant at all, simply because there are some bad people in the sport who don’t take care of their horses. It’s akin to painting every single show-jumper, or dressage trainer, or trail horse rider, with the same black brush because a former jumper or dressage horse or trail horse was found starving at an auction–and yet that doesn’t happen. That kind of pointless name-calling and groundless accusation is reserved for the horse racing business, and it’s ridiculous. It’s not just ridiculous, it’s genuinely hurtful for people who love their horses.

Anyway, back to the event.

The Castleton Lyons stallion barn has an amazing entryway with memorabilia devoted to Gio Ponti and Justin Phillips.

Including these beauties:

Eclipse Awards

Gio Ponti’s Eclipse Awards – first ones I’ve seen in person!


Absolutely lovely to see. I love the art and science of Thoroughbred breeding, possibly more than anything else in the world of horses. I’m hoping to visit Kentucky in the fall and make the rounds of stallion shows at the various farms — if I don’t make it back this year, I may have to do it in Ocala instead.

The whole night wound up with a late dinner. If you can imagine a lot of racing journalists sitting around eating cheesecake and drinking wine while talking Derby prospects, that was pretty much the evening. For a girl who doesn’t go to parties because she might have to talk to someone, listening to the conversation was pretty great.

That was the first half of our 48 hours in the Bluegrass. I’ll write up the second half later — it includes a visit to Three Chimneys, where I met Will Take Charge!

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