Business

By literally opening their gates, Kentucky horse farms hope to create more fans

Michael Blowen petted Ruhlmann as a tour group watched at his Old Friends facility for retired Thoroughbreds near Georgetown in 2006. Old ​Friends received a $5,000 donation recently from Horse Country, a new effort to increase horse-related tourism in Central Kentucky.
Michael Blowen petted Ruhlmann as a tour group watched at his Old Friends facility for retired Thoroughbreds near Georgetown in 2006. Old ​Friends received a $5,000 donation recently from Horse Country, a new effort to increase horse-related tourism in Central Kentucky. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Lexington tourism officials say the most frequent question they were asked for decades was this: “How can I get on a horse farm?”

A few farms always welcomed visitors, especially if they were handled by a professional tour operator and didn’t get in anybody’s way. But others saw them as a potential liability, more trouble than they were worth. Wasn’t that what the Kentucky Horse Park was for?

My, how times have changed.

Horse Country, a non-profit consortium of 36 Central Kentucky farms and other equine organizations, celebrated its “grand opening” Wednesday. But tours actually began during Breeders Cup last October. Since then, Horse County has sold more than 20,000 tour tickets at about $20 each, far exceeding expectations.

Visitors have come from 49 states and five countries, said Ann Sabatino Hardy, Horse Country’s executive director. Seventy percent of them toured more than one location, and 43 percent have returned for more trips, she said.

The goal isn’t so much to sell tour tickets as to “support fan development through guest experiences.”

People these days value special experiences as much or more than possessions. Thoroughbred fans don’t just want to watch races, they want to go behind-the-scenes. Horse Country’s pitch: “Our gates are open.”

The idea of Horse Country began about five years ago with a group of young Thoroughbred executives, including Brutus Clay of Runnymede Farm and Price Bell of Mill Ridge Farm, whose families have been in the business for generations.

Like many people, they knew the industry needed to attract a larger, younger and more diverse fan base to compete with other sports and entertainment options.

“As breeders, we once felt fan-development was somebody else’s responsibility,” Bell said.

But they realized that the farms, veterinary clinics and feed mills had great stories to tell about how horses are conceived, born, nourished, cared for and trained to become glamorous competitive athletes.

What the Thoroughbred industry needed was a compelling, economically sustainable fan-development vehicle, similar to what the Kentucky Distillers Association had done so well with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Things got rolling in 2014 after members kicked in $10,000 each for start-up costs and leaders visited two of the hospitality industry’s top think tanks: the Disney Institute in Florida and the Biltmore Center for Professional Development in Asheville, N.C.

Clay and Bell said the breakthrough came when Disney executives asked if Horse Country members wanted to give the tours of their facilities or hire others to do it for them.

“That was a big mental shift, realizing it was important to tell our own story,” Bell said. “Nobody loves the farm more than the farm owners. It’s surprising how much joy I get out of giving tours. The enthusiasm of the guests is amazing.”

So far, 22 of the 36 Horse Country members offer tours, which are booked through the website Visithorsecountry.com. In addition to 29 farms, members include Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, Hallway Feeds, Fasig-Tipton, Keeneland, The Jockey Club and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Inc.

Horse Country’s timing couldn’t have been better after American Pharoah last year became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years and the first-ever Grand Slam winner.

Bell thinks Horse Country has the potential to attract fans to individual farms, including many local residents who may not have felt welcome in the past. This spring, Horse Country plans a series of free “meet the neighbors” tours for people who live near farms.

“We want the community to have more ownership in the industry,” Bell said. “We want them to think of our farm as their farm.”

Because Horse Country is a non-profit, some proceeds will go charity. At Wednesday’s celebration at Winstar Farm in Woodford County, a $5,000 check was presented to Old Friends, a racehorse retirement facility. It was chosen by a ballot of Horse Country visitors during Breeders’ Cup last year.

Horse Country is an important milestone for both the horse industry and Kentucky’s $13.7 billion tourism economy, said former Keeneland President Nick Nicholson.

“We tried this 30 years ago and couldn’t get it done; we tried 20 years ago and couldn’t get it done,” Nicholson said. “It takes a lot of cooperation, and I really admire what they’ve created. It will be good for the industry and good for the community.”

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