A coalition of Bluegrass horse farms, vet clinics and equine attractions is launching a tourism initiative to make it easier for fans to get close to the area's beautiful horses.
Horse Country Inc., a not-for-profit business organization founded in June by about two dozen members, plans to establish an online booking service to connect tourists with a variety of horse-farm experiences.
On Wednesday, the group announced that Anne Sabatino Hardy has been hired as executive director. For now, Hardy will work out of the VisitLex convention and visitors bureau offices on West Main Street downtown.
The effort to establish a "Thoroughbred trail" is more than two years in the making and is modeled on the popular Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which links members of the Kentucky Distillers' Association and draws about 750,000 visits a year.
In fact, the board of the horse group consulted with the KDA on ways to reverse the decline in public interest in Thoroughbred racing, which is losing about 4 percent of fans each year, according to a consultant's report.
The Horse Country platform will allow Thoroughbred farms and other equine interests to coordinate tours and manage access, said Price Bell of Mill Ridge Farm in Lexington. He and his father, Headley Bell, were working on ways to drum up public interest at the same time that Brutus Clay of Runnymede Farm in Paris was thinking along the same lines.
The farms, together with VisitLex, began exploring the best ways to present their brand. "How do I get to see a horse farm?" is one of the top requests of visitors to Lexington, according to VisitLex.
A group of 27 horse farms put up about $60,000 to consult with the Disney Institute, which convinced them that they had a product worth selling..
"We don't really know the tourism field," Price Bell said. "Who is the guest, what do they want, and does the guest exist?"
Farms began to think in terms of telling their stories rather than just allowing guided tour buses on the property. That interest has led to a significant investment — $10,000 each — from about 25 equine entities to move forward.
Price Bell said that Horse Country plans to begin pilot tours with friends and relatives in the spring with the goal of launching paid tours this summer in advance of the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland in October.
The Breeders' Cup, The Jockey Club, the Kentucky Horse Park, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Keeneland, Fasig-Tipton and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association also have committed support. Participating farms so far include Adena Springs, Airdrie Stud, Ashford, Claiborne Farm, Crestwood, Darby Dan, Darley, Diamond A, Gainesway Farm, Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, Keene Ridge, Lane's End, Mill Ridge, Mount Brilliant, Pin Oak Stud, Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, Runnymede, Siena Farm, St. George, Stone Farm, Stonestreet, Taylor Made, Winstar Farm and Winter Quarter.
The efforts will complement work by other horse industry groups, such as Thoroughbred OwnerView and America's Best Racing, to renew interest in horse racing. "You only see the horse on the track for about 20 minutes," but the farm can tell the entire life story, he said.
Horse Country will survey visitors and measure success on increased social-media traction. And if one day that translates to more visits to the racetrack, so much the better.
"For years we looked at fan development as somebody else's problem," Clay said. "But we have the three most important things: the horses, the land and the people who are passionate about it."