Hearing the word “Kentucky” immediately brings to mind images of racehorses and a glass of bourbon – an image reinforced by a drive through the Bluegrass past distilleries and horse farms. But did you know you can get up close and personal with both through the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and now Horse Country?
While the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has been going strong since 1999, Horse Country is still a fairly young company. Started in late 2015, Horse Country was created to allow fans to tour Lexington, Ky., area racing-related attractions and currently boasts a list of more than 20 tour locations from farms to veterinary clinics to a feed mill, with more being added every day.
America’s Best Racing recently sat down with Horse Country’s Executive Director Anne Sabatino Hardy to talk about Horse Country, the unique opportunity bourbon and horse racing presents visitors to the Bluegrass and how the area is quickly becoming the region’s Napa Valley.
Can you tell us a bit about Horse Country?
Horse Country is a not-for-profit organization that was formed by the farms, clinics and even a feed mill in Kentucky as a way to serve the fans and guests who visit and want to provide authentic, engaging experiences at their locations. It's a fan development initiative because we really believe that, if folks have the opportunity to visit with our equine athletes, the people that raise them, on the land that has nourished them, you can't help but fall in love a little bit. It's a way to tell the story of the horse from foaling barn to finish line - and even after! We recently began working with the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center to show how important retraining and aftercare are - that's a really fun interactive tour. And we're launching exclusive behind-the-scenes tours with Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton as well.
What makes Horse Country so unique?
I think the priority that's been placed on the guest experience makes this effort really special. We, and our membership, are committed to providing a special experience, with the insider's touch. Guests on Horse Country tours are hosted by folks who work on the farms and at the clinics, who interact with the most intimate parts of their location; and they're storytellers - real characters; you get to touch, smell, sometimes even taste (if you hit up Hallway Feeds!) all these different elements of Kentucky's Horse Country. It's also just so cool that our members came together and formed this organization on their own - because it was that important to them to host guests in a sustainable and hospitable way.
How does the combination of bourbon and horses make the Bluegrass a must-visit?
How can you beat what we have here in Kentucky?! It's really fun to see the rest of the world getting to know us better. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has done an incredible job of promoting one of Kentucky's signature industries and delivering on that with great guest experiences, we hope we can follow their lead. We know that one of the bits of feedback from attendees on those tours is that they love driving through Kentucky's horse country - now you can get behind the gates in an intimate way. No matter the season, there's something exciting to experience - we have world class racing at Keeneland, the excitement of the sales there and at Fasig, plus you can see where it all happens at our iconic locations. It's really bucket-list level.
We see Horse Country talked about as a part of the Americana experience, can you elaborate more on that?
Horse racing is deeply ingrained in our history not only in Kentucky, but the whole United States. There's a lovely nostalgia associated with racing, and a day at the races is exciting and aspirational, but that's just one part of it. Being able to experience everything that leads up to it offers a peek into the true agricultural roots of racing, and the relationship between the horses and their caregivers that is so endearing and inspiring. Not only that; racing is called the "Sport of Kings," but it's also a great equalizer - everyone has a shot; even the person holding a $2 ticket.
5. What has your favorite part of growing Horse Country been?
We gather feedback from our guests and ask them what they love and what can we do better - my favorite thing is the feedback we get from those folks who have chosen to take their vacations and spend their time in Kentucky. I love that we get to be a part of that and hear their stories. The mom who brings down her girls who ride off-track Thoroughbreds to see their horse's sire, or the family visits where generations share in this bucket list opportunity to bond over a love of the horse and the sport.
Maybe the best is someone happens upon one of our tours and is surprised and delighted enough to go to the track or watch the races on TV - that's magic. On a recent tour at Keene Ridge, a nursery farm in Lexington owned by Ann Bakhaus, the group was able to hear about the farm and land, interact with mares and foals, and share in all the dreams that Ann and her team have for these young horses, and all the love they have for their mamas. But the kicker came at the end of the tour: the group reconvenes in the little cottage and Mary Midkiff (the tour guide) turns on the television for an upcoming race with one of Ann's horses running in it, and her horse wins! Some of these folks had never been to the races before or watched them on TV and this is their first experience? You can't do better than that.
6. What can fans expect when going on a Horse Country tour?
Guests can expect the gates to open, to be warmly welcomed and to hear some good stories about our great athletes - past and future. We hope it's a memorable, photo-worthy, bucket-list experience that helps you fall in love with the horse, the sport and Kentucky.