City Portrait

Meet the Locals: Lexington

The Thoroughbreds: Five influential locals worth watching

Dr. Everett McCorvey, Opera Champion

If you ask Everett McCorvey, the traditional roster of Lexington obsessions—horses, hoops, and bourbon—may be due for an update. “We have worked really hard over the years to get opera on that list,” he says. As a professor of voice and director of opera at the University of Kentucky, McCorvey has made huge strides in that direction, luring faculty from the Metropolitan Opera, persuading young talent to choose UK over Juilliard, and building up the opera program’s endowment from zilch to nearly $5 million. Himself a tenor, he has sung at the Met and the Kennedy Center. “A city is in so many ways not as viable if the arts are not present,” he says. “What would New York be without the arts? What would Chicago be? The major cities are major because of their arts and culture.”

Ted Bassett, Race Maestro

“A gracious touch of elegance” is how James E. “Ted” Bassett III describes the thousand or so lovingly groomed, lush acres that surround Keeneland racetrack. Many admirers would apply those same words to Bassett himself. Tall and patrician in bearing, the former longtime president and chairman of Keeneland, who at the age of eighty-eight now serves as its trustee emeritus, is often described as an ambassador of horse racing and a linchpin in the sport’s progress. But in person and in his 2009 autobiography, Keeneland’s Ted Bassett: My Life, he tends to deflect attention to Keene-land itself, speaking often of the organization’s “feeling of obligation and responsibility to the community.” “Keene-land opened the doors of the racing world to me,” Bassett acknowledges. “It’s just a privilege to have been associated with it.”

Dr. Pearse Lyons, Business Magnate

Spend some time in Lexington these days, and you’ll hear plenty about the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. You may also enjoy a bottle of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (brewed locally by Alltech), or an after-dinner snifter of Bluegrass Sundown (a bourbon-spiked coffee liqueur, also from Alltech), or an Alltech Black Angus steak. Notice a pattern? If you’ve never heard of Alltech before, Pearse Lyons hopes to change that. In 2007, the Irish-born founder of the thriving local biotech firm announced that Alltech (which he started in his garage thirty years ago) would pony up $10 million to become the title sponsor of the upcoming Games, viewing them as a vehicle to thrust not just Alltech but also Kentucky into the international spotlight. Meanwhile, his company has recently branched out from animal-feed ingredients into somewhat more glamorous pursuits. Coming in September: Pearse Lyons Reserve, an Irish-style Kentucky malt whiskey.

Barry McNees, The Hip Developer

In 2005, shortly after Barry McNees began plans to revitalize a crumbling industrial corridor near downtown Lexington, a local historian asked him what he planned to do with the Old Tarr distillery. McNees replied, “The what?” He quickly learned that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the neighborhood was home to at least three distilleries and played an important part in the city’s bourbon heritage. Step by step, forty-one-year-old McNees is overseeing the renaissance of the Lexington Distillery District. Already Buster’s nightclub and Barrel House Distilling Co., makers of Pure Blue vodka, have brought new energy to Manchester Street, and a creekside walking trail, another boutique distillery and restaurant, and a Bourbon Education Center are all in the works. “This end of town has really been under the radar for a generation or more,” McNees says. “There are buildings that are just itching to have something new happen.”

Debbie Long, The Restaurateur

To see Debbie Long in the dining room at Dudley’s on Short, is to see a consummate hostess in her natural habitat. While greeting guests by name and exchanging air kisses, she seems to know at any given moment exactly what’s going on at every table. “This has just been my life,” she explains. A Louisville native who graduated from UK and then decamped to Colorado for several years, she returned to Lexington and opened Dudley’s in 1981. Last fall, a potential crisis—losing the lease for the spot Dudley’s had occupied for twenty-eight years—ended up breathing new life into the business. In March, Long reopened near Rupp Arena, the Lexington Opera House, and a blossoming array of other downtown restaurants and bars. “We love this location,” she says. “It’s right in the heart of everything.”