If you're thinking of coming to Lexington for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, Kentucky Derby or a day of racing at Keeneland, why not add in some time for one of the most unique sightseeing excursions you'll ever experience?
Starting this year, the public can get an insider's glimpse behind the fences and gates of Central Kentucky's iconic Thoroughbred farms and related businesses, seeing famous horses, mares and foals, and learn about everything from horse care and breeding to pasture management and architecture.
The non-profit startup, Horse Country, is the brainchild of some of the Thoroughbred industry's biggest names. Their goal was simple – offer guests unprecedented access to the inner-workings of Kentucky's signature industry while not creating an overwhelming burden on the businesses being showcased.
“We want people to fall in love with and engage with the Central Kentucky's horse industry on a deeper level,” said Anne Hardy, executive director of Horse Country. “These are working farms and businesses first and foremost. As we developed the plans and protocols for Horse Country, we were very focused on not wanting to interfere with that.”
The catalyst behind Horse Country were the findings from an in-depth study carried out by McKinsey and Company. Commissioned by The Jockey Club, the findings, known as the McKinsey Report, showed a number of sobering facts and predictions, including a steady decline in racing fans.
According to the report, the average age of racing fans is 51-years-old, as opposed to mainstream sports like football, baseball (both 43) and basketball (35). What's even more concerning is that the industry is losing more fans to simple attrition (i.e. they are dying off) than are being cultivated as new fans of the sport.
“I had just moved back to Lexington when the McKinsey Report came out and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association had formed a marketing committee to address the findings,” said Price Bell, one of the founders of Horse Country.
Price and his father (Headley Bell), Brutus Clay, and Dr. Luke Fallon began toying with the idea of how to share Kentucky's Thoroughbred heritage with the masses in a similar way to how California's Napa Valley has opened its wine industry to the public through tourism.
They rallied support from surrounding farms and veterinary clinics, as well as from Keeneland, and enlisted the help of the Disney Corporation to advise them on how best to present this Bluegrass gem to the public.
“Our member businesses are really gearing up to offer elevated, authentic experiences at their locations,” said Anne Hardy. “Whether it's a stud or a nursery, a clinic or a feed mill, we've worked hard to develop experiences that are sure to excite a sophisticated fan and also engage a potential fan with the horse and the sport.”
Recently, member farms and organizations completed a two-day training program with representatives from the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.
“The training focused on gracious hospitality and storytelling, so we're learning a lot as a team about how to engage in the tourism space as a way to support fan development, which is our number one goal.”
For the spring, Horse Country will offer tours of about ten locations, and tours can be booked for individuals or groups. Five additional farms can be visited exclusively with a guide or tour group.
“There are a range of choices for guests, which is great. They can opt to work with one of the great tour operators we have in our community on a group or private tour, or they can drive themselves,” said Hardy. “We're adding locations all the time and ticket sales have been incredible, with 3,800 tickets sold already!”
While the tour options at Ashford Stud to see their celebrity horses, including American Pharoah, are sold out through May, there are many other options still available.
“American Pharoah has certainly been an incredible ambassador for the sport, and for Horse Country,” said Hardy. “As with all members and locations, Coolmore at Ashford works really hard to include the fan favorites, but we don't make promises about any particular animal. It's such a privilege to be able to visit these locations and our guests have been really appreciative and happy to have the opportunity.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. While she currently has no plans to build an arc, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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