I spent 4 days in the 'horse capital of the world,' where the barns look more like estates and billionaires convene for the world's largest horse sale. Here's what life looks like in Kentucky's second-biggest city.

lexington kentuckyKatie Warren/Business Insider

Earlier this month, I flew from New York City to Lexington, the second-largest city in Kentucky.

Lexington, home to about 324,000 people, is known as "the horse capital of the world." There are more than 450 horse farms in the area, as well as the world's largest thoroughbred auction house, Keeneland.

I spent four days in the northern Kentucky city, and it became clear that life there revolves around the horse industry as well as, of course, bourbon.

Here's what it was like.

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Earlier this month, I spent four days in Lexington, the second-largest city in Kentucky.

Earlier this month, I spent four days in Lexington, the second-largest city in Kentucky.

Lexington, which sits in northern Kentucky, is home to about 324,000 people.

Lexington is served by the Blue Grass Airport, one of the smallest airports I have ever seen.

Lexington is served by the Blue Grass Airport, one of the smallest airports I have ever seen.

It has two runways and is served by four airlines: Allegiant, American, Delta, and United.

When I was in town, you could spot the Sheikh of Dubai's Boeing 747 parked out on the runway. It looked absolutely massive compared to the smaller planes at the airport.

I had hardly touched ground in Lexington's tiny airport when I realized just how deeply committed Lexington is to the horse theme.

I had hardly touched ground in Lexington's tiny airport when I realized just how deeply committed Lexington is to the horse theme.

Lexington is known as the "horse capital of the world" — and even at the airport, the city proudly displays its love of horses.

Lexington is known as the "horse capital of the world" — and even at the airport, the city proudly displays its love of horses.

This was far from the last horse-related decoration I would see over my brief stay in the city.

There are about 450 horse farms in the region, and about 150 in Fayette County (which includes Lexington) alone.

There are about 450 horse farms in the region, and about 150 in Fayette County (which includes Lexington) alone.

During my time driving around the Lexington area, I drove by dozens of horse farms. Most of them didn't look like farms, per se.

During my time driving around the Lexington area, I drove by dozens of horse farms. Most of them didn't look like farms, per se.

"We call them farms, but I tell people to think of them more as estates or ranches because they're just massive," Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLex, or the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, told me.

Riley Kirn of Bluegrass Sotheby's International Realty described Lexington's horse farms as "kind of like English country estates," with "gigantic homes" and "barns that don't look like barns."

These farms, which range from 500 acres to 3,000 acres, very rarely sell, Kirn told me.

"They're usually multi-generationally owned by families or they're owned by the billionaire crowd from around the world, like Sheikh Mohammed [of Dubai] or Prince Abdullah from Saudi Arabia."

Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai owns the 800-acre Jonabell Farm, which includes stallion barns, grazing paddocks, and multiple barns, and is home to some of the country's top stallions.

Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai owns the 800-acre Jonabell Farm, which includes stallion barns, grazing paddocks, and multiple barns, and is home to some of the country's top stallions.

Medaglia d'Oro, whose offspring won seven American G1 races (the highest level of thoroughbred racing) in a single year, lives on the farm, as well as Kentucky Derby winners Street Sense, Animal Kingdom, and Nyquist.

Claiborne Farm, one of the area's most prestigious horse farms, where famed racehorse Secretariat is buried, has drawn the attention of Queen Elizabeth II.

Claiborne Farm, one of the area's most prestigious horse farms, where famed racehorse Secretariat is buried, has drawn the attention of Queen Elizabeth II.

The queen, who is reportedly an avid horse racing fan, has visited Claiborne Farm twice.

The 3,000-acre farm in Paris, Kentucky — about a 35-minute drive from Lexington — offers walking tours of its stallion complex, which is home to one of the most expensive breeding stallions in the world, a retired racehorse named War Front.

If someone wants to breed their mare with War Front, they'll need to pay a $250,000 stud fee.

Lexington is also home to the Keeneland race track and auction house. Keeneland is the world's largest thoroughbred auction house. In 2018, it sold more than $377 million worth of horses.

Lexington is also home to the Keeneland race track and auction house. Keeneland is the world's largest thoroughbred auction house. In 2018, it sold more than $377 million worth of horses.

Keeneland hosts races on approximately 32 days per year, with eight to 10 races per day, as well as four thoroughbred sales annually in January, April, September, and November.

At Keeneland's September yearling sale, which I caught the beginning of while in Lexington, the most sought-after, year-old horses can sell for more than $1 million.

At Keeneland's September yearling sale, which I caught the beginning of while in Lexington, the most sought-after, year-old horses can sell for more than $1 million.

Buyers come from all over the world, including England, Ireland, France, and Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai attended the beginning of the sale and spent more than $13.2 million on six horses the first day of the sale, according to Keeneland.

Excel Communications' billionaire founder Kenny Troutt is another high-profile buyer. He owns Winstar Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, and owns horses who have won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

My first night in Lexington, I attended a glitzy party hosted by Keeneland to kick off their September yearling sale.

My first night in Lexington, I attended a glitzy party hosted by Keeneland to kick off their September yearling sale.

The party, which was attended by the elite of the horse world including thoroughbred buyers, sellers, and Keeneland executives, included a rare bourbon tasting and a Dom Perignon Champagne toast.

Lexington's downtown area is compact yet vibrant. The city was once known as the "Athens of the West" because by 1820, it was one of the most culturally dynamic cities west of the Allegheny Mountains, according to the city's tourism board.

Lexington's downtown area is compact yet vibrant. The city was once known as the "Athens of the West" because by 1820, it was one of the most culturally dynamic cities west of the Allegheny Mountains, according to the city's tourism board.

"It was just this really amazing concentration of intellectual pursuit [and] cultural pursuit," Ramer told me.

Lexington was founded in 1775, seventeen years before Kentucky became a state.

The downtown area has an artsy, laid-back feel.

The downtown area has an artsy, laid-back feel.

I spotted several art galleries (although it was Sunday, so they were closed) and lots of interesting street art.

Everything in Lexington seems to be horse-themed.

Everything in Lexington seems to be horse-themed.

On downtown signs displaying tourist attractions, there is a distinctive blue horse that's known as "Big Lex."

Legend has it that a horse called Big Lex once turned blue from grazing in the area's bluegrass pastures.

"Be on the lookout for a big blue horse as you drive around the backroads that are home to hundreds of horse farms in the area," reads the city's tourism website. "You might just see the legendary blue horse yourself."

Beyond the horse farms, horses are everywhere in Lexington, from the street signs and the city parks ...

Beyond the horse farms, horses are everywhere in Lexington, from the street signs and the city parks ...

... to the antique shops ...

... to the antique shops ...

... to even the law offices.

... to even the law offices.

Lexington is the banking, healthcare, and legal hub for more than half the state, Kirn told me.

As far as real estate goes, the typical home in Lexington sells for about $182,300, according to Zillow.

As far as real estate goes, the typical home in Lexington sells for about $182,300, according to Zillow.

The median listing price is $245,900.

But in some neighborhoods, such as Lexington's 40502 ZIP code, which includes the Chevy Chase and Ashland Park neighborhoods, homes can cost much more.

But in some neighborhoods, such as Lexington's 40502 ZIP code, which includes the Chevy Chase and Ashland Park neighborhoods, homes can cost much more.

The 40502 has all the "old wealth" homes in it, according to Kirn.

"It's got the best proximity to the old country club in town, Idle Hour Country Club," he said. "And it has a lot of older homes that are big or older homes that have been redone or small homes that have been added onto extensively and redone. And then there's also some big estate-type homes."

I spent a couple hours wandering through these neighborhoods and I saw plenty of large, stately homes — many that included red brick and white columns — shaded by tall trees.

I spent a couple hours wandering through these neighborhoods and I saw plenty of large, stately homes — many that included red brick and white columns — shaded by tall trees.

The neighborhoods were very quiet on a Wednesday mid-morning. The only people I saw were the occasional jogger, someone walking their dog, and gardeners and landscapers working in the yards.

Lexington is home to Transylvania University, a small, private liberal arts college in downtown Lexington.

Lexington is home to Transylvania University, a small, private liberal arts college in downtown Lexington.

In the fall of 2019, Transylvania University had about 946 students enrolled. Tuition and fees are $40,210 per year.

The city's primary educational institution, however, is the University of Kentucky, which has about 30,000 students and sits on 814 acres in the center of Lexington.

The city's primary educational institution, however, is the University of Kentucky, which has about 30,000 students and sits on 814 acres in the center of Lexington.

Tuition starts at about $22,000 per year for full-time, in-state students.

In addition to horse racing, Lexington is known for its basketball.

In addition to horse racing, Lexington is known for its basketball.

The University of Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball team is the most successful NCAA Division I basketball program in history by all-time wins, with 2,293 victories since 1903.

The university's home court is the Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington, which also hosts large concerts.

Right next to the Rupp Arena is the Hilton Lexington hotel, where rooms start at about $153 per night.

Right next to the Rupp Arena is the Hilton Lexington hotel, where rooms start at about $153 per night.

Nearby is the Hyatt Regency Lexington, where rates start at about $149 per night, and then there's the four-star 21C Museum Hotel, a boutique hotel combined with a contemporary art museum, where rooms start at about $200 per night.

For one of my nights in Lexington, I stayed at the Kentucky Castle, a literal castle on a hill on the outskirts of town that has a tumultuous past.

For one of my nights in Lexington, I stayed at the Kentucky Castle, a literal castle on a hill on the outskirts of town that has a tumultuous past.

A Lexington contractor started building the castle in 1969 but never finished it, and it sat abandoned for about 30 years, according to USA Today.

In 2003, a Miami lawyer bought the castle for $1.8 million and started renovating it, but a 2004 fire nearly destroyed the entire structure.

Finally, it opened as a luxury hotel in 2007.

Finally, it opened as a luxury hotel in 2007.

Today, rooms start at about $265 per night.

Of course, I couldn't visit Lexington without tasting some bourbon. "The bourbon industry is our rather signature industry in central Kentucky," Ramer of VisitLex told me.

Of course, I couldn't visit Lexington without tasting some bourbon. "The bourbon industry is our rather signature industry in central Kentucky," Ramer of VisitLex told me.

One afternoon, I drove out to the city's 25-acre Distillery District, which Ramer described as a "grittier but very cool part of Lexington" that was built on the site of two former huge bourbon distilleries.

Once an abandoned, blighted area until local entrepreneurs started revitalizing it in 2008, the Distillery District has since become a mecca of craft distilleries, breweries, bars, pizza joints, ice cream shops, and live music.

"On a fall evening, it'll be jam-packed with activities," Ramer said.

I stopped by the Distillery District on a Sunday afternoon, so it wasn't exactly jam-packed, but there were people there enjoying bourbon, pizza, and more.

I stopped by the Distillery District on a Sunday afternoon, so it wasn't exactly jam-packed, but there were people there enjoying bourbon, pizza, and more.

There was plenty of outdoor seating.

Many of the breweries and distilleries opened up to the outdoors — and were dog-friendly.

Many of the breweries and distilleries opened up to the outdoors — and were dog-friendly.

I stopped into Goodfellas Distillery, which serves more than 250 bourbons and also sells pizza.

I stopped into Goodfellas Distillery, which serves more than 250 bourbons and also sells pizza.

I told the bartender that I knew nothing about bourbon but I wanted to try some, and he made me an old fashioned, a classic cocktail made with sugar, Angostura bitters, bourbon, and a citrus peel.

I sipped my old fashioned outside in balmy 80-degree weather.

I sipped my old fashioned outside in balmy 80-degree weather.

Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

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