Louisville and the Road to the Roses

Updated: April 26, 2007, 8:46 PM ET
By Tony Guadagnoli | Special to ESPN SportsTravel

ico_orbitzLouisville: Plan Trip | Hotels | Flights | Derby tickets | City Guide

Say Louisville (Lou-a-vull, Looieville, but never with an "s") and the first thing that comes to mind is the Kentucky Derby.

Certainly Louisville revolves around the Run for the Roses like Earth revolves on its axis. But the city rates with any in the country for its sports legacy.

Inside Louisville
To help build your Kentucky Derby pilgrimage, consult our Louisville guide, which is replete with city overviews, including details on food and drink, hotels, sport experiences and major attractions.

And to offer you inspiration to go on a different sports-centric getaway of your own, employ any of our other City Guides.

It is home to Muhammad Ali and the Louisville Slugger. Add the Derby — no need for Kentucky, actually, since there is only one Derby — and it makes for a sports trifecta of Americana that is exceedingly difficult for any city to match.

Its sports legacy grows when you consider Harold "Pee Wee" Reese, Paul Hornung, Wes Unseld, Phil Simms and Darrell Griffith all grew up in the Louisville area.

Those with dietary concerns should note Louisville also serves as headquarters to Little Brownie Bakers (makers of Girl Scout Cookies), Colonel Sanders of KFC fame and Papa John's Pizza, while more than 90 percent of bourbons are produced in Kentucky. These should cover the basic food groups needed for Derby Week.

Additionally, Louisville's All-American legacy is enhanced by the cheeseburger, the first of which reportedly was served in the city in 1934, and "Happy Birthday to You," written by Louisville kindergarten teachers and siblings Mildred and Patty Hill in 1893.

It all sounds like one delicious adventure to this, the first race in the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. (The Preakness runs May 19 and the Belmont Stakes June 9.)

And despite the exorbitant prices and the hullabaloo over a mere two-minute ride around a track, the city really gets into "the chance of a lifetime."

"For 51 weeks you can run your horses backward here and no one would care," trainer Ben Perkins Jr. said of the Derby, "but this week they have to know everything."

As for the big event, unless you snagged one of the 55,000 seats for the 133rd running of the Kentucky Derby (Web site) a year ago, you'll likely have to settle for the $40 infield party May 5 at Churchill Downs (700 Central Ave., Web site) with 100,000 of your closest friends.

You'll see every manner of life, thousands of colorful hats and perhaps mud wrestling, but don't expect to see horseflesh all day unless it's on a large video screen. But, hey, the race is the fastest two minutes in sports, so you won't be missing much, right? To stake your claim of the best spot in the infield, however, you'll have to race like a thoroughbred since it's first-come, first-served.

Note that no umbrellas are allowed; your hat is your umbrella and your sun protection and maybe your glass for a mint julep, too.

For a "pregame" atmosphere on Friday attend Oaks Day (Web site), which honors the fillies and is one of the most underrated events in sports. The infield is open then, too, but at a slight discount ($25).

Still, Louisville has enough to do outside of the Derby that you won't be disappointed even if you never venture to Churchill Downs. Just have some patience and be prepared to pay jacked-up prices on just about everything. Many places have shortened hours or are closed on Oaks and Derby days; hey they want to experience the festivities as much as anybody else. But fear not, that is all part of the experience.

The Muhammad Ali Center (144 N. Sixth St., Web site) is Louisville's newest major sports attraction and a tribute to "The Greatest," featuring not only Ali's life as a boxer but his humanitarian and social contributions. Among the exhibits are a re-creation of Ali's Deer Lake, Pa., training camp, a full-size boxing ring and a video archive of 15 of his greatest fights. The center is open Derby Day (May 5) from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory (800 W. Main St., (Web site) will host the exhibit "Peanuts at Bat," with interactive games and activities for the entire family. Straight from the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., the exhibit will highlight America's Pastime through the eyes of Charlie, Lucy and Snoopy. Vintage memorabilia, comic strips and videos will be featured. The Slugger Museum features the world's largest bat (120 feet high, weighing 34 tons), and the factory has been making Louisville Sluggers since the 19th century.

Louisville Slugger Field (401 E. Main St.) is the home of the Louisville Bats, the Class AAA farm club of the Cincinnati Reds. One of the most attractive sites in Minor League Baseball, the stadium features a retro design highlighted by a restored "train shed" building, formerly the Brinly-Hardy warehouse. The Bats are out of town for Derby Week, but stadium tours are available Monday through Friday.

A trip to Louisville wouldn't be complete without basketball. Hoops House of Basketball (12101 Sycamore Station Road, I-64, Exit 17, Web site) is a 90,000-square foot facility with six hardwood courts. There are four high school regulation courts and two college regulation courts, complete with stadium seating, bleachers, benches, sky boxes and more for 3,200. The Hoops House also has several shops and offers aerobics, Pilates and yoga.

The Louisville Extreme Park (Clay and Franklin streets, Web site) is a 40,000 square-foot skate park open 24 hours and featured in Tony Hawk's Secret Skatepark Tour. The skate park is best known for a 24-foot full pipe (tobacco not included).

Unless you're a member, you won't be golfing at Valhalla Golf Club, the Jack Nicklaus-designed course set to host the 2008 Ryder Cup. But you can try Quail Chase Golf Club-East/South (7000 Cooper Chapel Road, Web site) or Covered Bridge Golf Club (12510 Covered Bridge Road, Web site) in Sellersburg, Ind.

While most of the action will be in Louisville, a jaunt to Caesar's Indiana (11999 Ave. of Emperors in Elizabeth, Ind., Web site), a 24-hour casino across the Ohio River, offers an alternative and also will be teeming with Derby visitors.

If you arrive in Louisville by May 2, be a part of a true Kentucky Derby tradition as the Belle of Louisville (Fourth Street Wharf, 401 West River Road, Web site) takes on rivals in the Great Steamboat Race from the Fourth Street Wharf downtown. The much-coveted Golden Antlers will be awarded to the winner. Ticket price: $126 per person; advance reservations are required. Boarding: 3:45-4:40 p.m. Departure: 4:45 p.m.

Consider a dinner cruise May 4 on the Ohio River aboard the Spirit of Jefferson, a shipmate of the Belle of Louisville. Tickets: With buffet, $36 adults, $34 seniors (ages 60 and up), $24 children (ages 3 to12); sightseeing only (sans buffet), $15 adults, $14 seniors, $6 children. Advance reservations are required for dinner. Seating is from 7:30-10 p.m.

Even if you are not lucky enough to attend one of the Derby's many social parties, there is no shortage of places to hang out. Louisville bars are open till 4 a.m.; some never close during Derby Week.

Lynn's Paradise Cafe (984 Barret Ave., Web site) is wonderful for brunch. Don't let the outrageous outside décor fool you.

For a fancy dinner, try Porcini's (2730 Frankfort Ave., Web site) You just might see Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Other good places for your main meal are Vincenzo's (150 S. 5th St., Web site) and Bourbons Bistro (2255 Frankfort Ave., Web site), which, as the name suggests, serves almost any choice of bourbon you can imagine.

While Fourth Street Live! (between Liberty Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, Web site) will be hopping with visitors, Bardstown Road — a strip of bars, restaurants and shops that runs to, and includes a portion of, Baxter Avenue — is where you're more likely to find the locals. In this area of the Highlands neighborhood, try Ramsi's Café on the World (1293 Bardstown Road, Web site). It features an eclectic menu and is open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

For sports bars, Saints (131 Breckenridge Lane, Web site) in the St. Matthews area is outstanding. Others to try are Buffalo Wild Wings (Web site), with six locations in the area, and Fox and Hound (302 Bullitt Lane, Web site).

For bars and other nightlife consider: The Back Door (1250 Bardstown Road, Web site), with some of the strongest drinks in town; Flanagan's (934 Baxter Ave.); Brendan's (3921 Shelbyville Road, Web site); Maker's Mark Lounge in Fourth Street Live! (446 S. Fourth St., Web site); The Seelbach Hilton bar (500 Fourth Ave., Web site); Molly Malone's (933 Baxter Ave., Web site); Red Lounge (2106 Frankfort Ave.); and The Jazz Factory (815 W. Market St., Web site).

Kentucky also is known for its centuries-old bourbon, and The Bourbon Trail (Web site) is a road trip designed around seven of the area's most-popular distilleries.

Not every company offers a tour of its actual distillery. But most tours are free (Woodford Reserve charges $5), and reservations are not necessary, unless there are more than 10 in your group. The trip could last all day if you intend to try all of the distilleries; but that's an unlikely option given time constraints (and considering you probably shouldn't be driving with that many shots of bourbon under your belt). Most of the trip is on winding backcountry roads.

If you've squandered your budget just getting to Louisville or used it on betting or bourbon, or both, consider the seventh annual Hillbilly Outfield Derby Bash (Web site). The bash starts at 6 p.m. Friday in Jim Hafendorfer's backyard, 12202 Old Shelbyville Road in Middletown on the east end of Louisville, and ends at 6 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 in advance or $45 at the door and include food, drinks and live entertainment. This party benefits the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The bash is not the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs, but it might just become another part of Louisville's famous slice of Americana.

Tony Guadagnoli, a free-lance writer from western Washington, contends Secretariat remains one of America's greatest sports heroes.

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