The Keeneland September yearling sale this year featured thousands of beautiful horses, dozens of deep-pocketed buyers and one very unusual barn hand: Patricia Akiona, who not only worked for Mill Ridge for free, she actually paid her way from Snohomish, Wash., just to do it.
Working for the farm — let alone the sale — was her dream vacation, Akiona said.
That’s a first for equine tourism, said Anne Hardy, executive director of Horse Country, the industry’s effort to set up visits to Kentucky Thoroughbred farms.
Could mucking the stalls of pricey quadripeds become the ultimate horse fantasy camp?
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It’s clear experiential tourism is what people are looking for these days, Hardy said. Already Horse Country has accommodated requests for “custom” tours that replicate what a horse owner might get, including one-on-one visits with farm owners.
Some farms have added shuttles to let visitors see more of the property, others gift shops to cater to the desire for popular farm shirts employees wear. Taylor Made in Nicholasville has added a bar and restaurant.
The three-year-old organization, which started offering tours in 2015 when Keeneland hosted the Breeders’ Cup, has ramped up the number of farms involved and the offerings to visitors. In 2016, Horse Country sold about 21,000 tickets; so far this year, sales already are 30 percent higher.
“We’re investigating other types of things we can do,” Hardy said. “It’s going to take a while to figure out the mechanics but the tourism market wants that kind of thing, so we have that as idea to pursue.
“I would love to think that at some point the $20 tour that goes off every day is the basic one. We want to see what we can do that can surprise, delight and engage the guests.”
A tour was what hooked Akiona, a retired probation officer. She and her husband, Jon, a police office, first saw Mill Ridge this spring when they came to the Kentucky Derby.
“When I was booking our trip, one of the options was to add on farm trips, so I did,” Akiona said. Mill Ridge was their first stop. “We met Headley Bell, and the family there, and got almost a private tour.”
Founded by Headley Bell’s mother, Alice Chandler, Mill Ridge has been home to the mothers of two Kentucky Derby winners: Barbaro and Giacomo. And Kentucky Oaks winner Keeper Hill as well as 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace and countless other Grade 1 winners and their mothers.
Akiona had grown up around horses, has two off-the-track Thoroughbreds and even works as an equine nurse at a local veterinary hospital.
She knows the lingo: her grandmother used to “walk hots,” horses cooling off after a workout, at the now-defunct Longacres Racetrack, where Akiona also galloped horses at a girl.
So coming to the Derby had been on her “bucket list.” But it was Mill Ridge that she fell in love with.
“Having been a lifelong horse racing fan, I went off to school, had a family and a career, but there was always this piece missing. I wanted to be part of racing again. It sparked that,” she said. “So I reached out to Mr. Bell when we got home, thanked him for tour, said I’d love to come back, and they said they’d love to have me.”
She proposed to come back this fall, “maybe stay a couple of weeks on my own dime and have them show me the ropes.”
Bell was a bit surprised. September, with the massive annual yearling sale, is one of the farm’s busiest times.
But Akiona was just so passionate about the idea, he said.
“When she reached out to me, I was ‘wow’ how do you not make that happen?” he said. “I felt as if I was fulfilling a dream for her.”
Akiona arrived on Sept. 12 for a two-week stay in Kentucky, working at the farm and at the sale, holding horses for the farrier and helping with other chores. Bell and the staff have made her feel welcome, she said.
“She made it easy. I could see she was willing to do what it took,” Bell said. “She has fallen right in.”
One highlight, Akiona said, was taking a filly, Hip No. 1876, a gray yearling by Flatter out of Tikkarita, up to the sales pavilion and standing in the ring.
The bidding in the stopped at $37,000, so the filly didn’t sell.
Might that make the perfect souvenir of her trip?
“Oh, gosh, my husband would kill me,” she said. “His parting words to me were ‘don’t come back with a horse.’”
Bell said he could see potential for more such “fantasy” tourism experiences.
Mill Ridge already has hosted a lunch for one group of visiting business executives who also toured a bourbon distillery.
Horse tourism “has evolved,” he said. “What’s terrific about Horse Country is we are in its infancy and we are long term. There are tons of opportunities, there really are.”