For too long Central Kentucky's horse farms have been alluring but inaccessible. Like a gorgeous shop window with the store behind it off limits, they entice but frustrate visitors.
Some dedicated and forward- thinking members of the Thoroughbred industry have invested a lot of their own time, money and thought to form Horse Country in an effort to change all that.
It's a welcome initiative that promises to, at last, give visitors a chance to experience and learn about our signature industry.
The demand exists. Tens of thousands of people visit the area annually for horse-related activities, including race meets at Keeneland and sales there and at Fasig-Tipton, as well as the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and other Horse Park events. Both VisitLex and the Bourbon Trail, which attracts 750,000 visitors a year, say people who contact them often ask about how to visit a horse farm. The answer today is to contact a horse farm tour provider or call the handful of farms that accommodate visitors.
A group of farm owners considered all this, as well as the ongoing annual decline in Thoroughbred racing fans, and began to investigate a way to change both pictures.
They gathered $60,000 to get a team from the Disney Institute to come and evaluate whether we have the potential for a world class tourist draw centered around horses. Anne Sabatino Hardy, who has been hired as executive director of the new organization, said Disney told them what we who live here already know, "you have gold." But that came with a challenge —"you just have to do it right" — that led to almost two years of work and investment.
A non-profit was formed; a board elected; 24 partners pledged $10,000 each to fund the development stage; committees were formed to work on branding, web site development and pricing with the help of others, including Keene-land, The Jockey Club, Breeders' Cup, Fasig-Tipton and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association.
"This has all been very intentional," Hardy said.
They are close but want to get it right before rolling out a web site that allows people to seamlessly research, develop and book personalized tours online.
While a version may be ready to assist visitors here for the Breeders' Cup this fall, it will probably be early next year before the general public can sign on and book a tour.
The group is also developing best practices for the farms and equine hospitals opening their doors to assure visitors have a high quality experience and leave as fans.
This is an impressive, privately funded effort that promises to benefit the horse industry and the entire region.