There may be only one American city that can credit its growth and prosperity to the color of its grass.
In fact, the Lexington area has a "triple threat" of benefits, as University of Kentucky animal and food sciences professor Laurie Lawrence explains. "A limestone-based soil [produces] pasture grasses high in a balance of calcium and phosphorus that provides an almost perfect amount of [nutrition] for growing horses," she says. "The climate is very amenable to grasses that do well, and we have a long growing season. Horses can live outside for a longer period of the year. The terrain is very rolling, so they can get a lot of good exercise running up and down the hills."
Currently there are 450 dedicated farms in the region, including 150 in Lexington/Fayette County. (The two governmental entities were consolidated in 1974.) Their offspring join the world’s best race competitors and become preferred stallions in many another setting.
Today, Lexington’s Keeneland Association track is where some of the world’s best Thoroughbreds run for the money. "We also get the best jockeys," says communications associate Amy Owens. She cites the biggest fall race, the million-dollar Shadwell Turf Mile, won in 2014 by Wise Dan, whose prize accumulation of $7.5 million made him the USA Horse of the Year. Many millions of dollars also change hands four times a year when Keeneland hosts the world’s leading Thoroughbred auction, attracting buyers from all 50 states and 50 countries.
Horse-related events crowd the local calendar and visitors are welcome to tour several horse farms, including one for retired champions and their brethren. But the year-round champion of equine attractions has to be the Kentucky Horse Park, a 1,224-acre horse "theme park" that’s home to 42 breeds.
For Robert Bratton, M.D., a top-of-the-list family activity starts at the horse park on a Sunday afternoon. "You get a big bucket of chicken and a blanket, and you go out and watch them play polo," he says. For the park itself, that’s only the beginning. Among visitor attractions are daily presentations of several breeds, horse-drawn tours and carriage rides, horseback and pony rides, three museums, an art gallery, the Hall of Champions Barn, steeplechase events, cross-country competitions and specialized breed shows.
Bratton, who practices urgent care and family medicine, is chief medical officer at the Lexington Clinic, Central Kentucky’s oldest and largest group practice, with more than 30 area locations and some 225 primary and specialty care providers. A Lexington native, Bratton earned his medical degree at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, then moved on to Rochester, Minnesota, for his Mayo Clinic residency, then to Jacksonville, Florida, for 14 years.
Then the Mayo leadership tapped him to chair the family medicine department at its Scottsdale, Arizona, location. He’s been back on "home ground" since 2008. "As you grow older," he says, "you appreciate your family and your hometown. So when this job became available, I applied for the position, and from there I was coming back to Lexington."
"It has been a good move for my family," he adds. "I have two teenage kids who are finishing up in school, and they thoroughly enjoy it." Although his daughter and son are in private schools, "mostly because it was more or less a cultural thing for them," Bratton notes that his years in public schools were very happy, and that Lexington is fortunate to have some outstanding schools.
The city itself did not stand still during his absence. He has been especially gratified at "a lot of changes downtown." Vintage buildings are undergoing renovations, especially the centrally located Victorian Square (aka The Square), and new restaurants are springing up.
Among new crowd-attracting events is Thursday Night Live, when restaurants bring tables outdoors and the area blossoms with music by local talent. A neighborhood restaurant boom started in 2012 with the renovation of an old factory. The city now boasts several new eateries, including Country Club, cited one of the best 15 new U.S. restaurants. Bratton’s continuing favorite, though, is a vintage-house-turned-restaurant, the Merrick Inn.
More than a hundred city parks, with six golf courses and a 12,000-square-foot skateboarding park, await those in search of healthy outdoor pursuits. With 11 miles of hiking trails, the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary combines recreational possibilities with scenic beauty. It runs along the Kentucky River Palisades.
The city’s history is also alive and well. Four vintage homes are open to visitors, including Ashland, the estate of Henry Clay, the city’s most famous citizen and long-time 1800s U.S. Senate leader.
Culture lovers enjoy the Lexington Philharmonic, the Kentucky Ballet Theater, Broadway road shows, traditional opera - and the Troubadour Concert Series featuring blues, jazz and folk music.
Some events take place at the University of Kentucky, not to mention the ever-popular games of the Wildcats, "the winningest program in college basketball history." "Everybody lives for basketball around here," says Bratton, but he adds, "We finally have a football team we can be proud of, too."
Not to be forgotten is the state’s unique brand of spirits, which has spawned a Bourbon Trail incorporating several Lexington-area facilities. The hugely profitable distilling operations are part of a state economy that has grown by the proverbial leaps and bounds, including the Lexington-area mix that includes divisions of Xerox, Toyota and Lockheed Martin. A Jif Peanut Butter plant churns out more of its yummy product than any other factory in the world, and Lexmark International, a 1991 IBM spinoff, manufactures printers and related equipment. Its worldwide headquarters are in Lexington.
Not least in the mix is UK with 14,000 employees, plus some 7,000 at UK HealthCare, its medical complex, which includes a trio of sectors covering research, education and clinical care and includes UK Chandler Medical Center, Good Samaritan Hospital and Kentucky Children’s Hospital. Among Good Samaritan’s notable services is the state’s second largest orthopedic and joint replacement program.
Baptist Health Lexington provides some of the region’s most advanced facilities, technology and capabilities, including in heart disease and cancer care. Physicians also help companies set up educational programs matching specific company needs.
KentuckyOne Health has more than 200 health care facilities in Kentucky and southern Indiana, including two Lexington hospitals, Saint Joseph Hospital and Saint Joseph East. Their cardiology, orthopedics and stroke care programs have received national recognition. Three major hospitals in Louisville are among the mix, and leaders are proud of the fact that Catholic, Jewish and academic heritages are part of the mix.
Meanwhile, back in the equine territory, Bratton says he’s probably as enthusiastic about the magnificent breeds as any of his fellow Lexingtonians, but he’s also well aware of the outlandish expense of owning one. Instead, he and his wife are proud owners of ponies and a mule. He says: "They’re a lot cheaper than a Thoroughbred."