(CENTRAL KY. MARKET REVIEW) — Green pastures and gently rolling hills flanked by miles of well-kept wooden and stone fences are the raw ingredients of Central Kentucky horse country. These picturesque landscapes dotted with quietly grazing equine beauties affirms the region’s claim of Horse Capital of the World.
With more than 450 horse farms stocked with every breed imaginable, the Central Kentucky Bluegrass is distinguished as an international center for breeding, racing and sales, and as the home of the renowned Kentucky Horse Park.
The equine industry’s impact on Kentucky’s economy amounts to more than $6.5 billion annually, along with providing 60,494 jobs.
For many visitors, taking a horse farm tour tops the wish list. A horse farm tour can be a chance to visit Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winners, see the world’s most successful breeding operations, and marvel at the glorious life of a stallion.
Bringing Horse Country to the world
A good starting point for booking a horse farm tour is Horse Country Inc., a central booking outlet for member horse farms. Similar to the way the Kentucky Bourbon Trail connects tourists with distilleries, Horse Country connects visitors with the story of the horses, the land and the people of the Bluegrass region at more than 30 locations.
“We want people to get here and fall in love with the land, the horses, the people—everything that makes this region so unique from anywhere else on Earth,” said Anne Sabatino Hardy, executive director of Horse Country. “We host the general public and leisure travelers through tour operators locally, nationally and internationally.”
“Visit Horse Country is a nonprofit organization, and it is really an industry initiative where the farms came together, people who have a stake in the horse industry in Kentucky. It was formed to develop experiences on the farms,” Hardy added. “We put our services to the members, training them and making sure that they feel comfortable giving tours. We also do the back-office support—all the things that go into planning, arranging and keeping things safe and happy on the farms so that when people show up, they can have a great time and be a storyteller, which is what they’re really good at.”
Family-owned and operated Taylor Made Farm is typical of the gorgeous locations you will take in on a horse farm tour. Since opening in 1976, Taylor Made has grown from a small boarding farm into a worldwide leader in Thoroughbred sales and marketing.
“Kentucky is a happening place now,” said Duncan Taylor, president of Taylor Made Sales Agency. “Visit Horse Country is the horse industry’s version of the Bourbon Trail, where tourists are able to learn more about horses and horse racing. It’s a win/win scenario for everyone when the Thoroughbred industry takes a role in Kentucky tourism.”
“In the future, I believe we will see horse owners that say ‘I fell in love with Thoroughbreds when I toured a horse farm in 2016, 2017, etc. If I ever make enough money, this is something I want to do.’”
Smaller companies also offer tours. Unique Horse Farm Tours offers a tour of multiple farms in one outing, hosted by horse industry insider Shaun Washington.
Washington’s vast knowledge of the industry and his jolly storytelling style, along with his connections to the horse farm community and the horses themselves make his tour unique. On one of Washington’s tours, participants may visit farms that exclusively open their gates to tours led by Washington.
Up close and personal with horses
The Kentucky Horse Park is a great place to get up close and personal with horses. The educational theme park showcases the horse in daily equine presentations, horse-drawn tours, horseback and pony rides, and an array of horse shows and special events throughout the year.
Welcoming a half-million visitors each year, the Kentucky Horse Park is one of the most-visited tourism spots in the state. Visitors feel like they are at the center of the equine world with so much to see and do, because the park is actually a working horse farm that stretches over 1,200 acres.
Attractions include the International Museum of the Horse, a Smithsonian affiliate, recognized as the biggest and best horse museum in the world. The unparalleled collection of equine artifacts and special exhibitions highlight the history and lore of the special bond between horses and humans.
In the Kids’ Barn, activities include horse grooming, scavenger hunts and a jump course just for youngsters. The Breeds Barn is open from April through early November and features two Parade of Breeds shows performed daily. Every show provides an opportunity to come ringside and take photos, pet the performers and chat with the riders. In the Big Barn you can meet one of the draft horses during the demonstration that happens every day in the summer season. At the Hall of Champions, you will meet living legends in Thoroughbred and Standardbred history.
According to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, there are 238,027 horses in Kentucky—that’s one horse for every 18 people in the state.
Racing as it was meant to be
Each April and October, the world’s best Thoroughbred owners, trainers and jockeys converge at Keeneland Racecourse on the outskirts of Lexington to compete for some of North America’s richest purses. Keeneland is renowned for its idyllic setting and is a great way to experience the best traditions of racing.
The Keeneland Association was founded in the early 1930s by a group of prominent Central Kentucky Thoroughbred breeders with a goal, outlined in the original prospectus, to “create a model racetrack to perpetuate and improve the sport and to provide a course that is intended to serve as a symbol of the fine traditions of Thoroughbred racing.”
In addition to the spring and fall racing calendar, Keeneland is one of the few venues with the honor of hosting The Breeders’ Cup, a year-end event that features the best Thoroughbreds in every division of racing, competing in 14 different races for huge purses.
Keeneland and Central Kentucky earned rave reviews for hosting The Breeders’ Cup in 2015, 2018 and 2020. The prestigious event will return to Keeneland for 2022 on Nov. 4.
However, Keeneland is more than a beautiful horse racing track. It also plays an important role in Thoroughbred sales and the region’s economy.
In fact, Keeneland is one of the most prominent Thoroughbred auction houses in the world. It hosts four sales annually in January, April, September and November. For those who would like to experience this exciting facet of the Thoroughbred industry, the sales are free and open to the public.
Keeneland’s annual September sale kicked off with nearly a dozen million-dollar yearlings. Following an uncertain 2020, recent sales have been packed with excitement and record-setting transactions.
The Fasig-Tipton auction house has also reported new benchmarks for Thoroughbred sales in the region.
“It was a strong start to the 2021 yearling sales season,” said Fasig-Tipton President Boyd Browning of its 2021 yearling sale at Newtown Paddock in Lexington. “We were very encouraged, when we went to the farms to inspect yearlings, by the quality of horses we were seeing, and certainly the two-year-old sales were encouraging. I don’t think any of us [hoped] to surpass the 2019 numbers … so to be over 2019 is very, very encouraging.”
What makes Central Kentucky the perfect home for championship horses? Some say it’s the underground limestone deposits that filter into the water and push up bluegrass rich in calcium, which builds unusually strong bones in horses. Whatever the reason, you’ll enjoy your visit to the Horse Capital of the World.
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