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Equestrian Facilities, Economic Impact

By Esther Zunker

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Rolex Stadium, a 7,338-seat arena built for the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games, is one of the reasons the 1,032-acre Kentucky Horse Park now hosts 200 events a year that attract attendance of more than 800,000.

If you live among the rolling hills of Lexington and its surrounding areas, you may have heard some facts and figures over the years about the economic impact of Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry. An official study completed in 2013 revealed the local equine industry was valued at around $3 billion to the Bluegrass State.

While the majority of those funds can be attributed specifically to Thoroughbreds, other breeds still play a highly important role. One facility that features a variety of breeds and attractions and hosts thousands of visitors annually is the Kentucky Horse Park.

The working horse farm and educational park has been open since 1978. While most local residents are at least aware of its existence, many may not realize just how vital the Horse Park has been to Kentucky over the years.

“It has a far-reaching impact,” said Kentucky Horse Park Executive Director Laura Prewitt, who took over the reins from Jamie Link July 1. “But the Horse Park is perhaps more known nationally and outside the state of Kentucky than in Kentucky. One of our efforts moving forward will be marketing the Horse Park by refreshing the brand … and what it means to our city and state.”

The 1,224-acre Kentucky Horse Park is considered one of the premier equestrian facilities in the world and hosts dozens of events year-round, including the Olympic-level Rolex Kentucky, the nationally renowned Road to the Horse, the prestigious National Horse Show, annual Pony Club competitions and High School Invitational Rodeo, and the annual BreyerFest convention for fans of model horses.

The park also is a venue for many other non-equine events, including track meets, cheerleading competitions and dog shows. In addition, it is the home of the National Horse Center, a collection of more than 30 national, state and regional equine organizations. The largest and best known among them is the United States Equestrian Federation, the governing body for all equestrian sport in the United States.

USEF just struck a deal to build a new 35,000-s.f. headquarters at the park and stay for at least 40 years, with an option to renew for 40 more.

The Horse Park hosts around 800,000 visitors per year, and generates more than $3.2 million in fee revenue from its 200 annual events. One of Prewitt’s immediate goals as executive director is to do a full economic impact study on the park.

“That’s something we’re going to be working on and it’s at the top of our list,” Prewitt said. “We want to get a better, true snapshot of the economic impact the Horse Park has on the state, city and surrounding areas.”

World Equestrian Games

The last time such a study was done on the Horse Park was after it hosted the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games – the first time that quadrennial international competition was held outside Europe.

The Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet conducted a study that measured the park’s FY 2010 economic impact at $180 million, including $18 million in state tax revenue. The World Equestrian Games itself had an estimated impact of $201.5 million, including $18.4 million in tax revenue.

“The Kentucky Horse Park is the premier equine tourist destination in the world,” said Don Parkinson, Cabinet of Tourism, Arts and Heritage secretary, “The horse park is a 1,229 acre equestrian facility with a working farm and is dedicated to ‘man’s relationship with the horse.’ The latest studies demonstrated that the Kentucky Horse Park contributes more than $149,000,000 in annual economic impact to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Additionally, the highest profile event at the Kentucky Horse Park, the World Equestrian Games in 2010, contributed over $200,000,000 in economic impact. The Kentucky Horse Park is a significant tourist attraction.

“In addition to hosting over 200 high profile equine events, the park is home to the International Museum of the Horse, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum,” said Regina Stivers, Cabinet of Tourism, Arts and Heritage deputy secretary, “The International Museum of the Horse is the most comprehensive equine museum in the world with rotating historical exhibits, in addition to a permanent collection of horse history. The museum serves as an outstanding tourist attraction on its own.” More than 419,000 visitors came to the park during the 16 days of competitions that September and October, and millions more people around the world watched some portion of the competition on television. State officials said the immediate benefits as well as the long-term gains of WEG justified the approximately $107 million in state, local and federal money spent on infrastructure improvements at the Horse Park.

Alltech Arena

In the years since WEG, the Horse Park has continued to benefit from the Alltech Arena built for the event, as well as the other improvements made throughout the park.

With roughly 5,500 permanent seats and more than 20,000 s.f. of exhibit space, Alltech Arena represents Lexington’s second largest convention space, behind Lexington Center. Outside of its equine shows and competitions, the space has seen events ranging from outdoor expos to weddings and high-school graduations. This spring, the arena hosted its first major concert when five-time Grammy nominee Hunter Hayes performed during the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in April.

“We have a great event space beyond being the world-class Kentucky Horse Park,” Prewitt said, adding that the Horse Park plans to book more concerts at the arena in the future. “We want to investigate utilizing the fantastic space we have when we’re not having equine events.”

Rolex Stadium

Rolex Stadium is the primary outdoor event venue in the Horse Park complex. The stadium seats 7,338 in its main grandstand but can accommodate up to 37,338 with temporary bleacher seating. The venue primarily is used for larger outdoor horse shows, concerts and other sporting events. It is the largest outdoor concert venue in Central Kentucky with a capacity of up to nearly 52,000.

Museums

The Kentucky Horse Park features two museums: the International Museum of the Horse, and the American Saddlebred Museum, the “Showplace for Saddlebreds.”

The International Museum of the Horse (IMH), a Smithsonian Affiliate, examines the role of horses throughout world history, from ancient times to today’s most popular sporting events.

The American Saddlebred Museum highlights the role Saddlebred horses have played in American history and culture. It features a large, research library, exhibits and a gift shop.

“One thing that’s a hidden treasure is that we have one of the best equine museums in the world,” Prewitt said. “It’s overlooked a lot because people want to see and pet the horses. I recently took my 15-year-old daughter and she said, ‘I can’t believe this is here. This is really cool.’ That’s the reaction a lot of folks have when they take the time to see the exhibits in there. It truly is a special place.” 

Other Horse Park Attractions

The Horse Park has several other attractions that help bring in thousands of visitors each year.

• The Hall of Champions features an elite group of Thoroughbred racehorse champions that reside at the park, including Da Hoss, Funny Cide and Go For Gin. These horses and other well-known Quarter Horses and Standardbreds are shown in daily presentations.

• The High Hope Steeplechase event provides the thrills of jump and flat racing to spectators one weekend each May. This year, the event benefited the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation and Central Kentucky Riding For Hope.

• The Horse Park Run/Walk Club meets every Monday from June 6 to Sept. 26 and features local craft beers, food trucks, information tables and horse meet-and-greets. The free event provides an opportunity for participants to take a scenic run or walk along a designated route through the Horse Park at their own pace.

• The Southern Lights Stroll takes place in late November and gives participants the chance to see the Horse Park’s popular holiday light displays on foot. The event is family friendly and benefits needy families and local animal shelters. 

• The Southern Lights Holiday Festival, which runs from late November to late December, has been offered for more than two decades. Presented by the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation, the four-mile driving tour of holiday lights attracts more than 120,000 visitors each year from across Kentucky and surrounding states. After driving through the lights, guests are invited to park and enjoy the attractions in the park’s interior, which offers local crafts, model trains and mini train rides, visits with Santa and an exotic petting zoo.

Partnerships with local veterinary clinics

The Horse Park utilizes the services of several different local equine clinics to help care for its many equine residents.

“All the veterinary services around us are really good partners,” Prewitt said. “It helps that we have multiple connections (with different veterinarians), because vets specialize in so many different areas. We’re so lucky with where we’re located in Lexington that we’re surrounded by the best equine veterinarians in the world. We have a great pool to go to when we need a specialty or just routine care.”

Looking toward the future

Prewitt, who has an extensive background in the horse industry, is dedicated to forming an improvement plan for the Horse Park as she settles into her new role.

Governed by the Kentucky Horse Park Commission, the Horse Park is part of the state parks system but has its own governing body and a private, nonprofit fundraising foundation. It operates independently from the Cabinet for Tourism, Arts and Heritage. Prewitt said the commission had recently formed a strategic planning committee that will put forth a strong strategic business plan for the future of the park.

“We want to also get our employees involved,” Prewitt said. “We want their input instead of just executive-level people telling the plan. We want to make it a team effort and for everyone to be on the same page for what the Horse Park should be.

“I want the Horse Park to grow in what we offer on the equine level and also grow in other areas. I want it to be a ‘come back to’ destination. We are working on refreshing our tag line. (The Horse Park) sells itself, but we want to refresh (its message) and get the word out on what all we have to offer.”

Prewitt grew up on a farm in Franklin County and attended the University of Kentucky. She held leadership roles at the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, Kentucky Off-Track Betting and the Breeders’ Cup Festival before being appointed to her new position at the Horse Park. 

“I’ve been coming out to the Horse Park since I was little,” she said. “My husband and I own a farm two miles from here, so it’s in my back door. I get what it takes to run a horse farm.”

Prewitt feels encouraged about the tasks and goals that loom before her at the Horse Park, namely because of the strong team behind her.

“It’s more than a job to them – it’s a passion,” Prewitt said. “I’m so thankful that everyone has been very gracious and welcomed me with open arms. That’s been the most positive thing about walking in. Everyone has taught me about their divisions and been patient with me. I’ve been very appreciative of their support and help.” ν

Esther Zunker is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]