Louisville: Odds on Favourite

For most people, Louisville is synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. Here, we soak up the sights and sounds of the famous horse race, and take a punt on what else this US city has to offer.

For most people, Louisville is synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. Here, we soak up the sights and sounds of the famous horse race, and take a punt on what else this US city has to offer.

The moment in the winner’s circle when the top horse and rider receive honours, surrounded by proud owners wearing fine suits  and sunglasses, and women resplendent in peacock-plumed hats, is a moment when time stops. A picture snaps, a champagne cork pops. It may be the only part of the whole Kentucky Derby weekend when things are truly still. “During Derby Week, Louisville is the capital of the world,” the novelist John Steinbeck (author of classics such as The Grapes of Wrath) declared in 1956. “The Kentucky Derby, whatever it is - a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion - is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.”

The Derby, held on the first Saturday in May at the fabled Churchill Downs track, has enjoyed the longest uninterrupted run of any sporting event in United States history. It is where entertainers and politicians and high rollers and street hustlers feeling lucky all congregate in a burgoo stew (a Kentucky-style soup) of loud colours, fancy suits and beatific smiles. The event encompasses horses, food and fashion; it is a very old institution in a city that is very comfortably modern.

Every year, the Derby remains the biggest show in town. The aura of the event - the style, flash and charm of old-school horse culture - lingers over Louisville for the rest of the year.

Off to the Races

Whether you’re looking for a place to stay or a place to eat, start searching as soon as possible. With an estimated 165,000 at the track and thousands more arriving just to soak up the vibes, desirable choices are booked fast, and hotels triple or even quadruple their regular rates. You can’t go wrong booking a room at the classic Brown Hotel, a wide slice of old southern style, and the birthplace of a famous local delicacy, the ‘Hot Brown’ (an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich, bathed in mornay sauce). The 93-year-old hotel has housed the likes of Harry S Truman, Lily Pons and Joan Crawford. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear a swing band playing and crowds cheering that the war is over.

Immersing yourself in this rich history is one way to go, but fresh traditions can be found at the 21C Museum Hotel - a modern boutique hotel, built into five repurposed brick and cast-iron structures and filled with art. Which makes sense, for the 21C is planted on Museum Row in downtown Louisville. Nearby is the Frazier History Museum, the Louisville Slugger Museum and other cultural institutions. The restaurant at 21C, Proof on Main, is big on sustainable produce, putting a modern twist on traditional southern fare.

Although the Derby attracts most of the attention, the truth is that the program of events building up to it have become more popular. At one time the Kentucky Oaks - which takes place the day before the official Derby - was a beloved tradition among the locals as a day where you could see the track and horses without the level of intensity of the main race. But in recent years, the Oaks, in which three-year-old fillies compete, has been discovered by wealthy visitors who are treating the Derby more like a two-day event. So if you want to experience Churchill Downs Racetracks without the crush of humanity, a good bet would be to hit the track the day before the Oaks, which is a Thursday and known to locals as Kentucky Thurby. It is ‘just’ a race - which is to say a fine way to see the horses and sip some bourbon.

For the past two decades, the city has also celebrated Thunder Over Louisville (which happens two weeks before the great race). It’s a huge display, claimed to be North America’s largest assemblage of fireworks. A musical soundtrack in a variety of styles accompanies all the pyrotechnics and last year a crowd of some 700,000 people attended.

Louisville grew as a port city on the Ohio River and, in a nod to its past, the Derby Festival features the Great Steamboat Race. Back in the day, paddleboats were dressed up like wedding cakes to carry passengers on trips up and down the Ohio. Nowadays, it manifests with vintage boat the Belle of Louisville competing against the Belle of Cincinnati, in a race with a complicated scoring system.

Along with the boats, fireworks and thoroughbred racing, Derby time in Louisville is defined by the Pegasus Parade which, this year, will canter down Broadway on 5 May. There are marching bands, precision equestrian units, clowns and usually a camel or two high-stepping behind the giant, inflatable flying horse float, Pegasus.

The Derby City

The city itself is 238 years old, and is known for being the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the celebrated Humana Festival of New American Plays, Muhammad Ali and the rock band My Morning Jacket. Louisville is diverse and cosmopolitan. While some outsiders view it as southern to its core, many locals see their town as a big city that avoids easy classification. Take the food: while Louisville is famous for a hearty cuisine, its mix of influences has evolved over time.

I think what makes Louisville special is that there is not one definitive flavour,” says the highly acclaimed chef Edward Lee, owner of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood, and author of the book Smoke and Pickles. “Louisville straddles the northern end of the American South so, really, it is a beautiful amalgam of things - southern, yes, but also we share a lot of Midwestern traditions because we’re closer to Chicago than we are to Atlanta. Because we’re a port city we have a lot of influences, for example the German language is prevalent, having been introduced by European immigrants who were among the city’s founders. Also Louisville is distinct from other cities of the South because we’re not so heavily mired in tradition.”

Two neighbourhoods in which you can find great food and shopping are Germantown and the East Market District, or NuLu as it’s called. In NuLu, check out Decca, a restaurant housed in a restored 1870s building with a subterranean cellar, live music and a farm-to-table ethos. Germantown, about five kilometres south-east of downtown, is an old working-class neighbourhood predominantly settled by Germans, which has been rediscovered and renewed by creatives and young professionals. Lots of new restaurants are thriving here (Eiderdown, for example), and the suburb has become ground zero for beer aficionados. Visit Monnik Beer Co, which features an ambitious pub menu with Dutch overtones. While in Germantown, drop in on the 70-plus-year-old Check’s Cafe, an unpretentious institution beloved by locals that does a range of regional specialities such as bean soup and ‘hand rolled oysters’, which are actually deep-fried crumbed oysters.

For unparalleled views of the city, take a stroll over the Big Four, a footbridge that crosses the Ohio River from downtown. Continue walking to Jeffersonville and drop in on Schimpff’s Confectionery, a classic lolly shop where they make a fine version of the local delicacy, the Modjeska, a caramel-covered marshmallow.

Of course, during Derby time, you may not want to stray too far from the heart of the action. The Louisville-born writer Hunter S Thompson wrote in his book, The Great Shark Hunt, about the “Derby’s special vibrations”, an atmosphere of mayhem and merriment that echoes outwards. Those vibrations aren’t just there during the week-long celebrations; they last all year round, and touch anyone who takes the time to explore the city.

RJ Smith - Published in Voyeur May 2016
Quick Facts 
Population 4,425,092
Area 104,659 km2
Time Zone UTC −5/−4
Languages English
Currency American Dollar
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