‘Horse Country’ and Tourism: Time To Work Together

by | 01.20.2015 | 11:46am

While the birth of Horse Country Inc., a non-profit to promote equine tourism in Central Kentucky, captured the public's attention last week, organizers say it has been a long time in the making.

The idea began, as so many great ones do, partly out of boredom. Brutus Clay, CEO of Runnymede Farm, had broken his ankle in a mountain biking accident and was spending a lot of time housebound. He jokes that he was driving his wife crazy, so she invited friends over to keep him company. One of those friends was Tom Bulleit, creator of the modern Bulleit Bourbon brand, and the two got to talking about marketing in their respective industries and how bourbon went from sin to signature.

“I was talking to Tom about how in the horse businesses we are so focused on selling horses, and we need to be focused on selling an experience,” said Clay. “And he looked at me with his eyes wide open and said, ‘That's the business we're in.'”


Clay recalled that in the 1970s, the public esteem of bourbon was low—it was seen as a cheap vice, rather than a carefully-crafted product steeped in tradition. To Clay, the bourbon industry's perception problem was not so different from that of horse racing; a recent McKinsey report found that only 22 percent of the general public had a positive impression of the sport, while just 46 percent of existing fans recommended the sport to their friends. Clay began constructing a white paper on the best ways for fans and tourists to step behind the fences of famed Central Kentucky Thoroughbred farms.

His fellow breeders instantly understood the importance of reaching out to the public—they just needed a better way to organize the process.

“You look and you see OwnerView, you see the racetracks working together, America's Best Racing; we're just a part of this whole industry initiative to provide an experience. Everybody's trying, and all of a sudden we're beginning to get some cohesiveness there,” said Mill Ridge Farm's Headley Bell, one of Horse Country's nine board members.

Though some farms such as WinStar and Three Chimneys have advertised public tours of their stallion barns, getting visitors through the door is a logistical challenge for many operations. Some farms don't have the available staff to conduct tours, and coordinating available times between the tourists and the barn crews can quickly snowball into a major project. Additionally, the horses have to be kept in their routines of training, grooming, turnout, and breeding shed runs.

Horse Country will be a central clearinghouse, advertising and booking tours for participating farms. Each farm will present a snapshot of its history, operations, and unique approach to raising horses. Horse Country's system aspires to be similar to that of the Bourbon Trail, which helps visitors organize trips through bourbon country, or alternatively provides them with a map and basic information about each distillery if they'd rather narrow their experience to a few. Horse Country might suggest an afternoon of several farm tours based on a fan's interest in anything from Midway-area farms to horses in training to farms with spectacular native trees and flowers. Veterinary clinics and sport horse farms will also be part of the initiative, broadening the network's appeal to more tourists.

The hope from board members is that visitors will develop a feeling of loyalty toward the farms they experience, giving them a new way to engage with the races. Farms plan to follow up with visitors by sending emails and photos when a horse from the tour enters a race or produces a new foal.

The board wants to appeal to families like mine, who patiently indulged a horse-crazy daughter dragging them several hundred miles to stare at as many Thoroughbreds as possible and ask questions of any horsemen who would stand still long enough to be pestered. Back in the early days of the Internet, the only way to connect with breeding farms was through a tour company, where customers usually joined a standard itinerary that was limited by whichever farm managers felt generous enough to open their gates. I got to see some fantastic horses that way, including Affirmed in his last few years at Jonabell (he tried to bite me, and I've never been so honored in my life), but I learned after a few years that the farms I was most curious about were not always able or willing to accommodate guests.

These days, when out-of-town friends ask where they can go to see stallions without embarking on a day-long tour, I know of just a handful of facilities equipped to book their own public tours. Horse Country will make the iron gates more approachable for the public but will also make the public more manageable for the hard-working folks behind them.

The tickets are estimated to be about $20 each, with $9 going to the farm to finance the in-house tour guide, $9 to the non-profit Horse Country, and $2 to a group like the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.

  • Concerned Observer

    This is a wonderful idea and we have so much to show-off and be proud of here in the Bluegrass.

    My only hope is that they do not reinforce the image that one needs to be a billionaire to participate in the horse racing sport. Horse ownership comes at many different financial levels and our sport needs owners, fans and participants at all points along the spectrum.

    One take away should be that horse farms are very environmentally friendly, and a great asset to any state. If more legislators understood this It might help our cause when horse friendly legislation is being considered all across the nation.

    • Old Timer

      Your second paragraph is quintessential in racing surviving. If we don’t have more owners coming in at all levels racing is going to have even smaller foal crops then we do now. This maybe the goal for many in the business (Barry Irwin) to make it so expensive that its forced to contract even more due to no horses competing.

      The last paragraph then encapsulates the first point you made, if there’s no one participating then how are we going to get legislatures to pass meaningful bills that help out the racing industry in any state or federally, we can’t.

      Good observations Concerned!

      • LL

        I am involved with two large leading partnerships but I also am involved locally with a private partnership so it can be done. With the large outfits I have had experiences that the smaller partnership can not provide, unless you are lucky enough to get “the big horse”. If you do your homework on local trainers, you can still have fun at a lot less expense than with the big outfits.

    • secondlife

      Good ideas, but instead of wishing legislators would pass laws friendly to the horse industry specifically, we need to get out of the general economic mess we are in before more people will ever be able to afford a race horse. Capital gains taxes and inheritance taxes have gone up, and more disposable income will now be sucked up by health insurance mandates and penalty taxes. Horse racing’s financial fortune seems to rise & fall with the rest of the economy.

  • secondlife

    They should also come up with something like this for horse farm and/or racetrack jobs. Like somewhere people could go for advice if they are looking for a horse job, or somewhere to do an internship that isn’t geared just towards young UK students getting equine degrees.

  • Garrett Redmond

    There are tour companies in Lexington with more experience of the business than anyone now
    with Horse Country. There are people in the State who put Bourbon in the public eye as a good product by making it a tourist attraction – the Trail. Surely it would have been much quicker to draw together some of these experienced people. Horse Country claims it had a two-year gestation period ! It labored and brought forth what exactly? A scheme that proposes charging
    $20 (not clear if that is per person, bus or car load) seems to be a bad way to start. Will parents with two children be asked to fork out $80 to look around a horse farm?
    As it is more likely the tour will be big farms, why not ask those wealthy establishments to contribute to the cost for a trial period? Learn how much demand there is for a free tour.
    With that knowledge it will be easier to decide if tourists are willing to pay something.
    I repeat what I said last week – bet it dies in infancy.

    • azeri1

      Garrett- twenty dollars is not a great deal of money to fork over if one is interested in seeing horse farms. People pay way more to take a family to an amusement park. Plus the fee is a price that includes the privilege of touring multiple farms. The industry needs the support and a non-profit is a much better way to go than giving the money to a private tour company. A non-profit can give back. Plus for every ticket providing ten percent to retiring TB organizations what’s not to like? We need to generate money for retiring Thoroughbreds and this is a great way to do it! The farms have been ivory towers in the past and coordinating visit times for even the one week in January they are open is prohibitory to many tourists.

      My first visit to Lexington and its horse farms was as an eight year old girl. Things were a great deal more open back then and it was the greatest vacation of my childhood! Now with all the need for security and protection needed to keep our TBs safe this is a great idea. If more people see premier horse farms at work, more people will take an interest in the sport of racing and sport horse world. Hopefully this will also educate people to the world of the OTTB and generate more support for OTTB adoption and retirement.

      • secondlife

        Actually $20 a person is a bit too much for one of these typical bus tours. At least at an amusement park you get to stay all day.

        People not familiar with the area may find it a convenient way to get around town without having to do the legwork themselves, but to be honest much of what you get on a bus tour is stuff you could do for free on your own (like watching morning workouts at Keeneland, or seeing a farm that already offers free tours like Claiborne or Winstar.) Visiting Old Friends only costs $10.

        I’ve done two bus tours with 2 different companies. One took us to a farm that was interesting for about 20-30 minutes, the rest of the trip was a small farm that was empty and had one stallion in a paddock, drove through the parking lot of the training center on Paris Pike, drove through the parking lot & backside at Keeneland (we didn’t get out since it was a race day & already crowded inside), then stopped at the farm that has Seattle Slew’s grave & looked at a pretty courtyard (boring!) Not really worth the $35 ticket if you ask me.

        I could see this working if they really want to focus the tours on horse things, and not just a generic tour of Lexington with a short horse farm visit thrown in, which seems to be the focus of most of the current tours.

        • togahombre

          fans have to feel like their a part of something great, if it’s 20$ or 20 cents, ask sports fans what they feel the first time they went to lambeau field, or wrigley field, old yankee stadium, old boston garden, that’s what fans want, fall in line with that and they’ll do all right, people pay to go to alcatraz!

      • LL

        We, too, visited when my daughter was young. Her favorite horse was Seattle Slew and we still have those pictures of her with Slew. Watching the foals romp in the fields was so much fun.

        • LL

          An addition to my previous post: we got into horse ownership and are still involved after 30 years. Joining partnerships allows even the “little guy” to be involved.

    • Politics101

      I wonder what their budget is for advertising, marketing, and public relations. Half-million? Million? Free ads in industry publications?

      • Garrett Redmond

        I suspect ‘they’ have not yet thought of such critical matters. Free ads in horse biz publications will not help toward stated objective: to bring NEW people into appreciation of horses AND THOROUGHBRED RACING. Those now reading industry publications are already aware.
        Reading many comments by people who have taken tours or made independent visits, makes me ask if any have become racing fans as a direct result ?
        Just incidentally, I am asking the Editors of these comments why they turn correctly written submissions into disjointed sentences and paragraphs ??

        • secondlife

          I was already a racing fan, but to be honest if I wasn’t already, I’m not sure the typical bus tour would have done much to turn me on to the sport. One tour guide even gave some incomplete & inaccurate info & seemed to focus excessively on the KY Derby rather than racing as a whole.

          I think the best experiences are when you can get up close with horses & see & pet them, not just look at them through a window. A friend once took me to visit the yearling division at a farm, and it was pretty cool to look at un-named yearlings, see who their sires & dams were, who they looked like, and try to guess which ones would sell for the most money at auction! But that’s not something most people would get to do unless they know somebody at a farm.

          And speaking of advertising, I’ve always wondered why breeding farms do TV commercials for their stallions during big network broadcasts when the general audience probably has no use for that type of marketing.

  • Gotchagold

    Wonderful idea! The best vacation I ever had was when I went to Kentucky in 1990. I worked on the phone at the time, so picking up the phone and asking nicely if my husband and I could visit just seemed natural to me. I got into see some of the greats and all were as kind as could be. (I guess being there between breeding time and foaling time was a good thing tool) Any way, this will always be my most favorite week long vacation I ever had and probably will be for the rest of my life. I went to the Derby a few years ago and that ranked up there as the best three day vacation ever thanks to our good friend Angelo. Every racing fan should go some time.

  • Brad Cummings

    I’ve been a huge fan of this since I first heard about it and really wish everyone behind Horse Country all the best. Exciting to see the industry work together like this. We should all be supportive of these efforts in whatever way we can.

  • Buckpasser

    It’s a good idea, but I’m sorry to see that neither Calumet nor Spendthrift are on the list. Years ago I saw Spendthrift on a tour given by Clem Brooks, their Farm Manager and Nahua’s groom. That day I saw Nashua, Swaps, Gallant Man, Never Bend, Decidedly, Raise A Native and Prince John. I also saw the great filly What A Treat with her Never Bend foal. The visit cemented my love for racing. And I have never forgotten it. I hope it works.

    • LL

      You must have been there when we were. I still have the postcards that Clem autographed.

      • Buckpasser

        More than likely. This was the summer of 1967 I believe, because I remember that everyone was talking about Raise A Native because of his world record yearling ( who became Majestic Prince)

  • anon

    $20 is absurd for one tour that will only last an hour or two. Many of the bourbon trail tours are free, with none (to my knowledge) more than $5 or $8, and that includes multiple free samples. And (to my knowledge) the farms that have tours now do not charge anything but voluntary tips for the tour guides. If the farms have gift shops they will make plenty of money there, and if they don’t, they should get one. I enjoy taking Lexington visitors to farms now but I will not be able to patronize them at a cost of $20 per person per tour.

  • ZenCy48

    If this could get Calumet to open its doors to the public again, I would happily fork over a lot more than $20.

  • Bill in StL

    A nice idea for those who want an easy way to see everything but don’t have regular access … $20 is OK if bus transportation to the various stops is part of the deal. One possible issue may arise in the Fall … as so many of the big name stallions are flown to the Southern hemisphere (e.g. South America and Australia) for breeding. Went to Three Chimneys a couple of years ago in September … beautiful place and the people there couldn’t have been nicer … but not many horses of note were there for viewing as a result. That said, hope things work out well for the new venture.

    • secondlife

      That’s why I wish more farms would give tours of other divisions. Fall would be a good time to see yearlings or weanlings and would add more variety.

  • Irene Davis

    We were in KY for the Breefees Cup some years ago and I called several of the farms to ask if we could visit, and all of them were very receptive to having us visit. It was impromptu, so I wasn’t sure we would get in to see these magnificent animals, but we were so pleased that each of them welcomed our visit. It was a wonderful experience and we got to see AP Indy, Malibu Moon, Vindication, etc. The farms included Lane’s End, Three Chimneys, etc. I treasure the photos we took that day and will always be grateful for the hospitality shown us at these wonderful farms.

  • Jody Gordon

    Why dont i see the latest recipient ( M. BLOWEN) of the eclipse award mentioned in any of these articles

  • Dan

    Reading Mr. Bell’s comments it seems the existing tour companies don’t exist. Non-profits don’t care about profits so why charge anything? Many of the farms listed don’t allow the existing tour companies in so why, suddenly, are they receptive to the public? Seems the “horse industry” is reinventing the tour wheel, and leaving the existing tour companies ( read tripadvisor for multiple favorable reviews) parked on the side of the track.

  • SusanKayne

    Common place in Europe. In the 80’s, on trips to Deauville it was the norm to tour farms and wineries throughout France … memorable to this day! In 2005, I was contracted by Tourism Ireland to create an episodic series featuring everything equine in a coast-to-coast tour of the Emerald Isle for the sole purpose of generating horse-related travel. People love horses and are fascinated with any behind-the-scenes opportunities. This could be a successful venture. I just hope the horses will reap a tangible benefit toward their well-being as a result.

  • Tour Person

    Speaking as a 20+-year veteran tour guide in Lexington, we initially felt that Horse Country, Inc.’s stated objectives were noble – bring more visitors to Lexington, and open up more farms for them to see. They paid the Disney organization thousands of dollars to find out if the horse industry would attract visitors! We could have told them what they needed/wanted to know for the price of a cup of coffee – but they NEVER asked. The $20 per person, per farm rumor has been included in the minutes of one of 3 meetings we guides had with Horse Country, so it’s “official”. That means that a family of 4 will pay $80 to visit ONE farm – probably for an hour. A tour bus operator will pay $800-$1,000 for his passengers to visit ONE farm. Where do we fit in? We’re slowly learning that we probably don’t. We have asked to be kept in the loop as Horse Country makes it plans. We have asked for some consideration on price, since we’d be some of their best customers. We have met a stone wall. Horse Country, Inc. may know horses, but they surely don’t know much about tourism. It’s our position that visitors will simply not pay $20/person to visit a farm, and tour operators will avoid Lexington, rather than pay Horse Country’s fee. We won’t be adding visitors, we’ll be discouraging the ones we already have. Hopefully, Breeders Cup will be their first, and last, gasp.

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