Muhammad Ali Center

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  • The first Saturday in May is Derby Day in Louisville, but there's plenty to do in the city that doesn't involve horses
By Mike Harris
April 17, 2017

The Champ. The Greatest. The King of the World. Muhammad Ali.

Ali, who died last June, is from Louisville, Ky. While the Kentucky Derby is and will likely always be Louisville's showcase event, there's no question Ali is and will always be the city's most famous one-time resident.

On May 6, the Derby will be contested for the 143rd time at Churchill Downs, the venerable track with its iconic twin spires and place in the sport's history as home to the world's most prestigious horse race. The approximately two-minute event culminates what Louisville Magazine editor Josh Moss calls a two-week party. A crowd in excess of 150,000 will cram into Churchill Downs to be part of the scene and (maybe) actually see the race.

Many of those who don't go to the track will head to one of the countless parties being held at country clubs, private homes and bars around the city. But some who live there, and some who are visiting Louisville, may not care much about the Derby or horses. If they don't want to spend an idle day, there's plenty to do around town.

It should all begin with Ali.

Dylan Lovan, AP

Ali and his family lived at 3302 Grand Avenue from 1947 until 1961. Over the years, the home fell into disrepair but was restored right down to the pink exterior paint favored by Ali's mother Odessa Clay, and reopened on May 28, 2016 as the Ali Childhood Museum. The home is open on Derby Day and available to tour, though it might shut down early so those working there can get home in time to see the race. Check the website for the exact hours.

Downtown, visitors will find the Muhammad Ali Center (pictured atop this article), which a spokesperson describes as "a multi-cultural center and award-winning museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali." The center has 2 1/2 floors of various exhibits and will be open Derby Day, albeit like many places in town for shorter hours (9:30-1 instead of 9:30-5). It is also open the Sunday following the Derby from noon-5. A temporary exhibit there called Shining the Light focuses on women and gender equality and will still be on display on Derby Day.

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Ali died in Scottsdale, Ariz., and was laid to rest in Louisville. He's buried at Cave Hill Cemetery, which is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. seven days a week including Derby Day. There are maps available at the gate and the cemetery even has its own app that lets you take a self-guided tour of the grounds. Others buried there include Colonel Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame and the women who wrote Happy Birthday (Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill).

"We welcome the public here. We're literally the city's public park with monuments and gravesites," said Michael Higgs, the manager of the Cave Hill Heritage Foundation. "We're also an arboretum, with over 600 varieties of plants and trees. We have five lakes, with a collection of Canada geese to swans and mallards and wood ducks. There's a lot of wildlife here, too."

Louisville offers options that don't involve horses or Ali, too.

The Bardstown Road area of town is considered one of the area's better shopping and eating districts. "That, I think, is a must see," Moss said. You can walk there from Cave Hill Cemetery. Wrote Southern Living: "Don't miss shopping on Bardstown Road, one of Louisville's premier streets for browsing and dining."

Ed Reinke, AP

For those who prefer to stay in the downtown area, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory is a very popular attraction. Check the website or call for Derby Day hours. You can see how bats are made and even have one personalized.

Also downtown, the 21C Hotel and Museum is worth your time and definitely worth the cost (free). It is located close to the Muhammad Ali Center and is easy to find thanks to a large statue of David right outside. Even those not staying at the hotel are welcome to visit the lobby, which is a museum of contemporary art. The theme, a spokesperson said, is to have all the artists be among the living. Even the men's bathroom is considered a must-see part of the experience, along with the bar that is said to be famous for its bourbon selection. And when in Kentucky, bourbon is a must-have.

A fun place to visit away from downtown is Louisville Stoneware, where you can purchase stoneware (duh), take a tour and see how it is made and even make your own pottery. Normal hours are 10-4 but it will close an hour earlier on Derby Day so employees can get out to watch the race. Tours are not available on the weekends, but are available on weekdays at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Chances are you're going to get hungry during the day. Moss said the Louisville restaurant scene "is legit, it is really good." But he cautioned getting a reservation at night will be difficult. During the day, restaurants that are open are likely to be pretty wide open. As with anything else on Derby Day, call or check the location's website for exact hours.

What's good? A lot of places, it seems. Trip Advisor has its list. Moss and others in Louisville offered up a number of suggestions. Do note this list is not meant to be all inclusive or to slight any restaurants not listed. These are just a few of the places people who know Louisville seem to like a lot: The Holy Grale, The Silver Dollar, Proof on Main, Garage Bar, Royals Hot Chicken, Mayan Cafe, Feast BBQ, Toast, Harvest, El Mundo, Coals Pizza, Blue Dog Bakery, RedHog, Bourbon's Bistro, Jack Fry's, Wiltshire on Market, Butchertown Grocery, Hammerheads, The Manhattan Project.

Garry Jones, AP

If you do indeed want to see some horses or some horse racing, but don't want to mess with the crowds involved with the Derby, there are options for you, too. The Derby is the big deal of the weekend and the Kentucky Oaks, run on the Friday before the Derby, also draws a crowd of more than 100,000 people. Moss said a lot of local people head to the track on Thursday to get some live horse racing action in without the huge crowds. The day has even been given a name, Thurby (Derby and Thursday, get it?) and a page on the Kentucky Derby's website.

Hankering for the excitement of the Derby itself without the crowd? Head out to a suburban neighborhood and join what may be the best neighborhood party anywhere: The Hillbilly Outfield, held at the home of Jim Hafendorfer. He and some friends used to attend the Derby in the infield but 17 years ago they "got tired of the lines and the prices and inconvenience out there so we decided to create our own little thing in the backyard," he explained.

Courtesy of Jim Hafendorfer

It grew from a small gathering to "kind of a cult following," Hafendorfer said, and is now a weekend party that raises as much as $40,000 for its primary charity The Make-A-Wish Foundation. There are bands, food and drink and the racing is simulcast, though there is no wagering.

"You almost feel like you're at the track," Hafendorfer said. "We've had people get engaged, and divorced, at the party. People have brought their kids and now those kids have grown up. They know the Hillbilly Outfield as their Derby."

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