- Associated Press - Thursday, April 19, 2012

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Shadowbox with a silhouetted Muhammad Ali. Grab a bat and take a few swings in a batting cage at the Louisville Slugger Museum. Dig into a Hot Brown at the place where the savory sandwich was created. Sip Kentucky bourbons at a hotel where Al Capone played blackjack.

Louisville is home to plenty of originals that liven up a visit to Kentucky’s largest city, best known for a 2-minute sporting event.

It’s the iconic horse track that overshadows everything else in town on the first Saturday in May. That’s when the Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs - where mint juleps flow, women sport flowery hats and sleek thoroughbreds race for immortality.

Visitors don’t have to be horse racing buffs to enjoy the charms of this city along the Ohio River.

The city usually is adorned in red, pink and white blossoms as springtime thoughts turn from following NCAA basketball brackets to handicapping the Derby. But this year’s unseasonably warm weather resulted in a showy, but early, bloom.

The spring greenery is always dazzling in the Bluegrass State. While in Louisville, visitors can stroll along Waterfront Park - the city’s 85-acre front yard. The expansive playground near downtown offers panoramic views of downtown and the Ohio River.

“This time of year, Louisvillians get so happy,” said local restaurateur Lynn Winter. “It’s like everyone comes out.”

Not far from the park, several museums are clustered within four blocks in the city’s downtown, which features an array of restaurants and shops. Among the most popular destinations are the Muhammad Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory.

The Ali Center showcases the boxing career of the former world heavyweight champion known as the “Louisville Lip,” and highlights his social activism and humanitarian causes out of the ring. Mr. Ali, who turned 70 in January, grew up in a West End neighborhood of Louisville.

The center replays his most famous bouts and features plenty of memorabilia. Visitors can shadowbox, punch a speed bag and lean into a heavy bag that lets them feel the power of an Ali punch. Other exhibits retrace Mr. Ali’s fight against war, segregation and poverty.

A short walk away, visitors can see workers crafting bats used by big leaguers. The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is a treasure trove of memorabilia that features bats used by Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams and other Hall of Famers.

Visitors can pick a bat, wood or aluminum, and take a crack in the batting cages.

“We have little kids and big kids alike,” said employee Tony Fowler.

The springtime pace in town can seem as fast as that on the track at Churchill Downs.

The big horse race may last only two minutes, but the pre-race celebration lasts weeks during the Kentucky Derby Festival.

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