Horsing around in Kentucky’s Bluegrass

LEXINGTON, Ky. — I’m as giddy as a teenager at her first concert, waiting to catch a glimpse of her rock star crush. I am not alone. Some 20 of us are gathered around — cameras poised — waiting for the arrival of our hero.

When he comes out, he is just as handsome and regal as I knew he would be, and just as accommodating, standing patiently until all of us get a chance to have our picture taken with him. Then with a slight whinny, he indicates to his handlers that he is ready to be returned to his stall.

American Pharoah, the 2015 Triple Crown winner (the first in 37 years) and victor in the Breeders’ Cup Classic the same year, has traded in the race track (where he earned in the neighborhood of $9 million) for the stallion barn at Ashford Stud Farm just outside of Lexington. Here, he is paired up with equally pedigreed mares at $200,000 a pop.

In between his frolics with the fillies, Pharoah, whose uncharacteristically sweet nature has been compared to that of a friendly puppy, is happy to meet and greet his adoring fans.

Being able to see such a superstar up close and personal is now possible, thanks to Horse Country, a Lexington-based initiative that connects equines with humans.

In the past, the only way to see these Thoroughbreds was through a select few tour operators who were allowed privileged access to some of the farms’ barns and paddocks.

That has changed over the past two years, with farm owners coming to the realization that their business translates into a whole lot of other people’s pleasure. Currently, some 37 farms and equine attractions have signed on to the initiative.

It is now possible for anyone planning to visit the Bluegrass and wishing to learn more about its signature industry to go online and book a tour to the farm or attraction of his/her choice at www.visithorsecountry.com.

Horse Country kicked off in October 2015, coinciding with the Breeders’ Cup held that year at Lexington’s Keeneland Race Course. With American Pharoah — who had already racked up wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont — in contention, interest in Thoroughbred racing was high.

What better way to quench the public’s thirst for all things equine than to show them the rarefied atmosphere of Thoroughbred raising and racing in the Horse Capital of the World?

“We are so fortunate that we are able to work with horses every day, both on land that is breathtaking and with people who are passionate about their craft,” says Price Headley of Mill Ridge Farm, one of the founding members of Horse Country.

“We started this initiative so we could share our experiences and passion,” he says. “This will introduce more people to the sport and to the inspiring athlete that is the Thoroughbred.”

Horse Country participants work with Thoroughbreds on everything from good manners to finding a second career

Lexington and its surrounding Bluegrass Region offer visitors some of the most picturesque countryside in America. Lush rolling hills are dotted with red, green and blue-roofed barns and the black and white picket fences of nearly 450 Thoroughbred farms.

Some are boutique operations, while others — such as the legendary Calumet, which has produced eight Kentucky Derby winners, are mind-boggling in their grandeur.

Farms in both categories have signed on with Horse Country to allow visitors through their imposing gates. Among them are Winstar (Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Tiznow, the only two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, stand here); Claiborne (where the great Secretariat once stood at stud); Lane’s End (which Queen Elizabeth II has been known to visit) and Goldophin at Jonabell (where the Sheikh of Dubai keeps the stallions of his Darley operation).

On a beautiful June afternoon, I have booked the tour at 920-acre Pin Oak, a boutique farm owned by 91-year-old Josephine Abercrombie. At various times in her life, the peripatetic Abercrombie has been a ballroom dancer, boxing promoter and asparagus producer; the one constant in her life has been her love for horses.

On this day, Nancy Stephens explains to a small group of us how she and the rest of the Pin Oak Farm staff think it is part of their job to teach the 35 mares (and presumably the two stallions) who reside on the farm good manners.

Simplistically put, Stephens is in the matchmaking business, scheduling “dates” for the farm’s mares with stallions brought over from other farms. Surely, good manners are a prerequisite for ensuring a happy (and safe) outcome of their couplings.

Good manners are also on display as she tours us around the stable where the mares and their foals — 19 born on the farm this past spring — seem happy to see us. They give us friendly nickers from their stalls, and we are even permitted to stroke the most docile on their velvety noses.

The list of equine-related locations open to the public through Horse Country includes more than just the farms. At Hagyard Equine Medical Institute and Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, visitors can watch Thoroughbreds go through rehabilitation following an injury just as any athlete would.

Then there’s the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park. Unique among all the Horse Country participants, the center’s mission is to train Thoroughbreds who are no longer racing and are not considered top stallion prospects for a second career.

“Not every horse wants to be a racehorse,” says the center’s executive director, Susanna Massey Thomas.

“Horses have different ‘horse-analities’,” she says. “It is our job to work with them and see what they do want — whether it’s dressage, jumping, trail riding or as someone’s personal mount.”

On this day, Believer, a 4-year-old gelding, looks as if he wants to audition for a role in a TV commercial. Draped in Fourth of July regalia, which include red, white and blue streamers and an Uncle Sam top hat, he is being taken through his paces by one of the center’s staff members.

“We’re bomb-proofing him,” explains Thomas to the fascinating watchers, “we are getting him to trust us no matter what we ask him to do.”

That trust is essential as all of the horses being retrained at the center will be up for adoption, and Thomas is looking to make the perfect match between horse and rider. Past adopters have ranged in age from 14 to 77, and each must meet and be accepted by his/her prospective “equine best friend” before the adoption is finalized.

From storied farms where Thoroughbreds first get their start on wobbly legs destined for greatness to a facility dubbed the “Gold Standard” of horse rehab, re-schooling and re-homing, Horse Country offers visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the commonwealth’s most famous industry.

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