Visiting Kentucky Downs? Make Nashville Your Home Base

Kentucky Downs and its racing meet have grown in stature over the years, so many horseplayers and fans have begun to explore the option of visiting the one-of-a-kind track in tiny Franklin, Kentucky. While the former Dueling Grounds track races under the rules of Kentucky racing, the tracks far turn sits about 3 furlongs from the border with Tennessee, only 45 minutes from Nashville. With its airport the logical place to disembark, and with Kentucky Downs running non-consecutive days, it makes perfect sense to combine a trip to the historic track with a visit to the honky-tonks, and everything else Music City has to offer.

Nashville has developed something of an “It City” reputation recently, and rightly so – our recreational and cultural options, including food and music and art, have exploded in the last five years after a steady build the decade before. There are dozens of “things to do in Nashville” or “places to eat in Nashville” lists easily found  in Google. You should read those. But, if I were planning to come to see races at Kentucky Downs on, say, September 10 and 12, this is how I’d plan my trip.

Thursday, September 10

10 AM – You’re landing in Nashville, handicapping materials studied on the plane. BNA – the B stands for Berry, not important – is one of easiest, most convenient airports in the US. You’ll be able to walk with your carry-on right into the car rental garage, no shuttles required. You’ll exit the airport area and briefly point your nose to toward Nashville before taking Briley Parkway North, headed towards Kentucky.

11 AM – On Briley Parkway headed North, you’ll begin to see signs for Opry Mills, the Grand Ole Opry, and the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. This would be a fine place to exit for lunch – Opry Mills (a huge mall) has plenty of chain restaurants that you’re familiar with and you’re in race mode. Park near the north end though so you can take the short walk to the Grand Ole Opry. Go peak your head in – it’s cool. Nothing will be going on, but cross it off your list. Another time perhaps.

12:15 PM – You’ve eaten, seen the Opry and you’re back on Briley Parkway N. Take I-65N toward Louisville. You’ll be in Franklin with 30 minutes to spare.

1:05 PM – Post time is in 30 minutes. Check out the casino, the source of all these purses. Decide if you want to be near the clubhouse (top of stretch) or the temporary area near the finish line. You’re at the race track – I don’t need to tell you how to enjoy your day.

5:30 PM – Time to roll back to Nashville. You’re going back against traffic so it won’t be too bad. You’ll pity those going the other direction, though.

6:30 PM – Check into your hotel. If you’re more of a downtown guy (gal, or couple), enjoying tourists and country music and people-watching, there are plenty of fine options, of which the Omni or Hilton are the best (but priciest). If you’re more low-key, and prefer more low-key nightlife options with locals and grad students in the crowd, I’d find a spot in Midtown near Vanderbilt. The Hutton or Hotel Indigo have a boutique flair, but you can find a Courtyard Marriott or Hampton Inn to your liking as well. I’m more the latter, so Midtown it is.

8:00 PM – Thursday night is popular, but people eat early in this town, so any place you find on those Googled lists should be able to seat you. After a travel day, though, I like to stick close to my hotel. Start off exploring Midtown with a craft cocktail at Union Common and enjoy it’s great service and Art Deco decor. I love eating there with a group, but you’ll also find a well-spirited crowd just up the street at Tavern on Broadway, and they’ll have the NFL opener between the Steelers and Pats on their big screen.

11:00 PM – If you haven’t retired for the night, a half dozen places in Midtown will have open-air patios and lively crowds to continue the night. Red Door, Losers, Winners, Soulshine, Rebar, Corner Pub; all have their charms. Red Door is the longest-tenured establishment but will have the most difficult-to-navigate crowd. Losers, Winners, and Rebar are all in a row and you can see what’s your speed. But if it’s one last beer or late-night bar food I want, I’d hit the Corner Pub Midtown for a local Yazoo brew and their famous cheese beans.

Friday, September 11

7:00 AM – Dude(tte)(s), you’re on vacation. Snooze button.

8:30 AM – You’ve snoozed, showered and changed and you have a whole day to check out Nashville. But, you’ve got the Kentucky Downs handicapping contest tomorrow and need to fit some study in the day. Hopefully you have printed out some materials because the DRF is hard to find in print in Nashville. Your Googled guides are going to tell you to head to Hillsboro Village to have breakfast at Nashville’s most famous breakfast spot, the Pancake Pantry. I do not love 30-minute waits to sit, so if you’re like me, you’ll want to head one block further to Fido, a locally-owned coffee shop with a fantastic breakfast menu. I love breakfast burritos but there’s plenty for every taste – being so near to Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, half the people in here will be studying. You and your PPs won’t be out of place.

10:00 AM – Your breakfast burrito was substantial and, faced with the day ahead, a little exercise may be in order. Nashville has a ton of parks and walking trails within minutes of downtown, but the two most popular are Radnor Lake and Percy Warner Park. Both are an easy drive, but Radnor’s the more naturally beautiful and smaller. Head south on 12th Avenue/Granny White Pike (the average number of names for any given road in Nashville is 1.5) and turn left on Otter Creek Rd. There are no signs (we like it that way).

11:30 AM – After your walk, you’re faced with a choice. You could head south, toward Franklin, TN, and make an afternoon of walking around its neat downtown area then driving out to some amazing countryside in every direction. Heading west will take you through Nashville’s Forest Hills and Belle Meade communities, with tree-lined boulevards passing by palatial homes, several occupied by stars of country music. I’d suggest heading back up Granny White/12th Avenue and into the up-and-coming 12 South neighborhood and its mix of restaurants and boutiques. Consult your lists again for stores (Imogene+Willie is most popular), but I definitely recommend Edley’s BBQ for lunch. It’s one of two superlative BBQ shops in town, sharing that distinction with Martin’s two blocks over on Belmont Blvd. If you’re so inclined at this time, you may enjoy a Bushwacker (basically a chocolate milkshake for adults) on the Edley’s patio and study some more. You can hop around several places in the neighborhood before heading back to your hotel for a nap.

2:00 PM – Nap time. Have I mentioned you’re on vacation? For those less inclined to midday slumber, though, you could use this opportunity to tour around Nashville’s downtown in a less crowded fashion. I highly recommend the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum – it really is more a museum of music, full stop, because “country” had so many influences and has influenced so many other genres. It’s awesome. Not four blocks away is the Ryman Auditorium (“The Mother Church”), which is as revered a music venue as any in the world. Seeing a show there is a bucket-list item, but that’s another trip.

4:30 PM – Before heading out for your evening, I might suggest strolling over to Vanderbilt University and briefly walking around the campus. The main campus is a National Arboretum and could easily lay claim to being the most beautiful urban campus in the country, with red-brick buildings nestled amongst magnolias and century-old oak trees. One hundred feet in, you’d never know you were in a city of a million people. It’s something else.

6:00 PM – Tonight’s the night to get out a little bit. Uber and Lyft are your friends in Nashville, because the cabs here tend to congregate at the airport and downtown, where the tourist density is highest. If you decide to make the trip to Nashville, make reservations at your Friday and Saturday night destinations as soon as you can, ideally after reading this. Three neighborhoods are great for going for dinner and drinks on a Friday night – Germantown (North Nashville) and Five Points and Eastland (East Nashville). If you want to try multiple places in a night, almost every restaurant has dinner service at the bar, which is great for trying multiple places. I dig all these places

  • Germantown – City House, Rolf & Daughters, 5th & Taylor, Butchertown Hall
  • Five Points – Margot
  • Eastland – Two Ten Jack, Rosepepper Cantina, Eastland Cafe

10:00 PM – Hopefully, you did a little bit of everything tonight but a big race day and handicapping contest is ahead. You may find a craft cocktail nightcap to your liking at Patterson House back in Midtown, or just something back at the hotel. Get some rest – there’s a big race day and contest tomorrow.

Saturday, September 12

8:00 AM – Wake up, get ready then walk two blocks to Noshville on Broadway, a classic diner/deli that is well-known for its breakfast offerings. It may only be there a short time longer, as Midtown is transforming in a hurry. Try the kosher pickles; yes, even for breakfast.

10:00 AM – You’re ready to retrace your steps back north to Franklin. It’s worth getting there a little early to get registered for the contest, get your space just right, and start simulcasting. It’ll be a big day.

6:00 PM – Time to say goodbye to Kentucky Downs, and hopefully you’re in the mood to celebrate. Downtown Nashville is the perfect place to do so. Head back to your hotel and get ready for the night.

8:00 PM – Take a short Uber ride or cab to the area known as the Gulch, about 4 square blocks of restaurants, bars, shops, and venues. The highest concentration of restaurants is on McGavock Street, and places like Adele’s (Southern), Moto (Italian), Virago (Sushi), and Kayne Prime (Steakhouse) require advance reservations. I recommend each of these places, but there are several more casual options in the same area.

10:00 PM – After dinner, take a cab or Uber to Nashville’s downtown, Broadway between 2nd and 5th Avenues. While you can find good country music in any of half-a-dozen honky-tonks, my favorite destinations are Tootsie’s, Robert’s Western Wear, and The Stage. The big secret to avoiding the long lines to get into these places? Go around back to the alley between these bars and the Ryman Auditorium. All the honky-tonks have front and rear entry/exit for safety reasons, and lines in the back won’t be very deep. There’s plenty to explore on Broadway and Second Avenue, so no need to stay in one place for too long.

1:00 AM – Head back to the hotel – I hope you’ve booked a mid-afternoon flight, and requested a late check-out.

Sunday, September 13

10:00 AM – Wake up and get ready – today will be about taking it easy before heading home.

10:45 AM – Walk the short distance from your hotel to the corner of Broadway and 19th Avenue to Hattie B’s. It doesn’t open until 11, but it’s popularity has meant a line out the door during most lunch hours. Getting there early will reduce your wait for Nashville’s most famous food item, hot chicken. Basically fried chicken with varying amounts and mixes of chili powders included in the batter and spice paste, hot chicken has exploded from a few small (but famous) purveyors a decade ago to a staple on restaurant menus in Nashville and throughout the South. Hattie B’s has found a niche in Midtown, and it’s a convenient place for you to try this uniquely Nashville meal.

12:00 PM – Nashville has a lot to see, so grab a Coke refill and drive around before heading to the airport. Centennial Park has Nashville’s full-size replica of the Greek Parthenon. Head south to check out some remnants of the Civil War’s Battle of Nashville or (further south) the Battle of Franklin. If there’s any little thing you missed

2:30 PM – Head to the airport, drop off your rental car, and check in. I hope you enjoyed your stay. Come back soon and do it all again.


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