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.
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