Paying more than lip service to Louisville

A bit of travel advice here for the US sports fans among you: Louisville, Kentucky.

Paying more than lip service to Louisville

I finally made it to the hometown of Muhammad Ali over the past weekend and discovered a city with an incredible cross-section of sporting passions.

This is of course the city that lies smack bang in the middle of the basketballing heartland of Northern Kentucky, right by the banks of the Ohio River.

Being an arch-contrarian, Louisville stands up as a brazen pocket of Cardinals red in a state dominated by the blue of the University of Kentucky.

The rivalry is absolutely intense and you don’t have to travel far outside the city boundaries before the royal blue of the Wildcats consumes everything.

But there is enough adoration of the University of Louisville inside the city to keep a proud tradition going strong. The millions pumped into the basketball stadium are only dwarved by the many more millions of dollars taken up by the football team’s arena near the river that shapes the border with Indiana.

Someone always says that long winters of pure bordeom spawn a deep basketballing tradition in this cluster of midwest states. I couldn’t find a Kentuckian that could disagree.

Without a top level professional team of their own, they must direct their attentions northeast to the Cincinnatti Reds or north to the Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers or north-west to the Chicago Bears.

In that vacuum, college sport has thrived filling the void left between the first Saturdays of every May when Churchill Downs hosts the Derby.

The attention had already moved on to the Preakness by the time we landed so Churchill Downs was more akin to a summer meet at Tramore. There was a good vibe amongst the not insignificant crowd but of course way down from the 160,000 or so revellers who showed up there on May 2.

A kind lady at the gates ushered us in for free and pointed us in the direction of the parade ring and the famous old stand which looked beautiful as dusk drew in.

The racing was of course mediocre but that wasn’t the point. Nor did it matter that the stands were only a quarter full at most. The history of the place is deeply significant and gives real spirit to a poor section of town.

Depending on who you ask, of course, Louisville is either more famous for the greatest heavyweight of all time, the Kentucky Derby or the baseball bat it has provided to Major Leaguers since 1905.

A trip to the Louisville Slugger factory in the downtown section of the city is a true ode to times past.

Not least because the ash favoured by the makers and the players they have signed is on the verge of being wiped out in North America. It’s a desperately sad state of affairs and the tree has not survived the ruthless spread of the Emerald Ash Borer in the midwest.

The museum - as does the sport and bat it is dedicated to - pays tribute to the past in other ways too. Old machines have been preserved to compare and contrast the way the bats used to be manufactured meticulously to the way they are produced today, faster and with very little degree of error.

The exact specifications of the big name players that have signed on to hit home runs with the Louisville Slugger can be carved out in just half a minute.

And when comparing the heavy, dense model preferred by Hank Aaron when he was clearing the fences in the 1960s and 1970s to the lighter bats preferred by modern day stars like David Wright, the juxtaposition of new and old is most marked.

Of course, then you’re full of confidence when you head for the batting cages. I was no match for the embarrassingly slow 55mph pitch, hitting one out of the 10 throws that came my way.

There is one thing that conservative Kentucky cannot countenance, however, and that is gambling outside of the hallowed Churchill Downs.

Across the river in Indiana, gambling is permitted on riverboats. But, as a taxi driver explained to me, the River Ohio is mostly under the control of Kentucky.

So Indiana was caught in a bind back in the days - just over a decade ago - when the gambling boats could only operate when moving. Navigating the tight sliver of Indiana water was tricky enough but when it came to turning back for home, the real problems started.

The Kentucky border was being infiltrated by the u-turn and the national guard was soon called in. In a bizarre example of state v state politics, an emergency session of the Indiana congress tried to head off any threat of an altercation with their neighbour’s National Guard.

“Kentucky played right into their hands,” our taxi driver explored, roaring with laughter. Indiana got what they wanted - stationary gambling boats - and Kentucky went back to worrying about basketball and the genteel horse racing in May.


Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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