New Lexington Catholic High program shows students equine careers

December 3, 2012

Alex Cox holds a bag of steel wool on a string, which is drawn by the powerful magnetic force of an MRI machine used to diagnose horse injuries at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. Cox is part of the school’s Equine Academy, which tries to prepare students interested in pursuing careers in the horse industry. Photo by Tom Eblen

Alex Cox has been riding horses since he was 11 and hopes to be a jockey in a few years. But he wants to know a lot more about horses than just how to ride them.

So Cox, 14, decided to become one of the first 17 students in Lexington Catholic High School’s Equine Academy, a new four-year program designed to introduce young people to career opportunities in all aspects of the horse industry.

“I want to learn all about horses, how to keep them healthy and how the business works,” the freshman said. “It’s my favorite class by far. It’s really fun. When I grow up, I want to do something fun for a living.”

The program seemed like a natural for Lexington Catholic, said Steve Angelucci, the school’s president. Many students already were interested, because they rode or were from horse-industry families. Plus, the Lexington area offered an unparalleled opportunity for exposure to and partnership with major industry players.

The school has formed academic partnerships with the equine programs at the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College, as well as relationships with more than 20 local farms, organizations and companies, including Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park, Alltech, and two of the nation’s largest equine medical practices, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital and Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.

“We’re trying to create well-rounded professionals to be the next generation of leaders in the equine industry,” said Sarah Coleman, the academy’s director. The Ohio native previously was executive director of Georgetown College’s Equine Scholars Program.

“There are so many jobs out there involving horses,” Coleman said. “Being raised here, I think kids forget the novelty of this area. For a horse lover, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.”

Freshman Adriana DeCarlo, 14, doesn’t come from a horse industry family, but she has always loved them and has been riding since she was 4 years old. She thinks she wants a career involving horses, perhaps either in science or the Thoroughbred industry, but the academy has already been helpful.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “It has helped me take care of my own horse.”

The program calls for students to take eight equine courses over four years, including horse anatomy and physiology, health care, nutrition and management, reproduction and farm management, and equine business and marketing. Those classes are taught by Shannon White, general manager of Fares Farm and former hospital supervisor at Rood & Riddle.

The program includes many extracurricular lectures, field trips, speakers and shadowing, and mentoring opportunities. Students participate in service projects and must do a senior project.

On a recent field trip to Hagyard, the students got a tour of the horse hospital and spoke with several young veterinarians.

“Veterinary medicine is not a career,” Dr. Ashley Craig, a field care intern, told the students. “It’s a life choice.”

Dr. William Rainbow said he became a veterinarian after growing up in the industry and participating in Darley Flying Start, a two-year Thoroughbred leadership development program that allowed him to travel all over the world.

“I never thought mucking stalls would get me that far, but it did,” Rainbow said.

Perhaps the highlight of the tour for this group was Hagyard’s super-size, high-tech medical equipment — a walk-in hypobaric chamber for high-oxygen healing therapy and the huge MRI machine, with a magnet powerful enough to cause a bag of steel wool on a string to fly across the room.

Other extracurricular activities have included visits to Keeneland, Alltech and the Red Mile, as well as basic lessons in polo, vaulting and driving.

Coleman said horse industry people have been very welcoming to the students and supportive of the Equine Academy.

“Everybody I talk to says they wish they had had that when they were in school,” she said.

 

Online auction benefits program

Lexington Catholic’s new Equine Academy is having a fundraising “non-event” — an eBay auction — later this month.

Items for sale include an acoustic guitar signed by country music stars Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton; VIP events at Three Chimneys and Jonabell farms; a backstage pass to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; and a Storm Cat halter.

The auction site will go live at 8 p.m. on Dec. 9 at: Myworld.ebay.com/lchsequine. Bidding ends at 8 p.m. Dec. 16.

 

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Celebrate Kentucky horses Saturday at Hats Off Day

August 1, 2012

Saturday is Hats Off Day, the one time each year when you and your family can enjoy a free day at the Kentucky Horse Park and special activities celebrating the state’s large and increasingly diverse equine industry.

In addition to the usual park attractions, free special events begin at 4 p.m.: rides on the mechanical horses used to train jockeys, pony rides for kids, educational booths from horse organizations and a giveaway of souvenir caps from local horse farms.

In the stadium at 7 p.m., Dan James of Australia will put on an exhibition with two specially trained horses. Then there is the $50,000 Rood and Riddle Kentucky Grand Prix, a 25-year-old competition for top-level show jumpers.

A group of equine organizations and businesses, including Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, started hosting Hats Off Day in 2005 to call public attention to the industry and its economic impact. They say horses contribute $4 billion to Kentucky’s economy, create more than 80,000 jobs and have an $8.8 billion impact on state tourism.

More than 128,800 people participate in Kentucky horse farming, racing and equine businesses, the industry claims. The state is home to 320,000 horses — nearly one for every 14 Kentuckians.

But in just the eight years Hats Off Day has been held, Kentucky’s horse industry has seen dramatic changes, for good and bad.

When we used to call Lexington the “horse capital of the world,” what we really meant was that Kentucky was the center of Thoroughbred breeding and racing.

The Thoroughbred industry has gone through some well-publicized changes as farms consolidated; other states lured away Kentucky horses with bigger race purses and breeding incentives; and the global economic downturn of 2008 seriously dampened the demand for race horses.

Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry has stabilized and is beginning to bounce back. But it must find a way to compete with casino-financed incentives in other states and, ultimately, do a better job of marketing itself to create more fans.

While Thoroughbreds have struggled, Kentucky’s horse industry has become more diverse. Tom Riddle, a veterinarian and partner at Rood and Riddle, said the practice treated 82 breeds in 2006; this year, it will treat 108 breeds.

The growth has come in Saddlebred, reining, pleasure and especially hunter and jumper horses, attracted here by Kentucky Horse Park facilities built for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Last year, the National Horse Show moved here.

“Those facilities are without equal in the world,” Riddle said.

The sport-horse world is centered around Wellington, Fla., in the winter. But now, rather than moving to the northeast and Canada in the summer, many big players, such as Spy Coast Farm, are setting up shop here.

Most of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team members now in London, have competed at the Kentucky Horse Park. Show-jumping star Reed Kessler, at 18 the youngest Olympic team member ever, is now based in Lexington. Her family bought a 150-acre parcel of Cobra Farm, just down the road from the horse park.

Horse-industry diversification has prompted local equine businesses to adapt. Riddle said six of his practice’s 52 veterinarians now treat only sport horses, and two follow the circuit to Florida each winter.

Hallway Feeds not only has expanded to serve the sport horse market in Kentucky, but half of its business now comes from national and international sales — up from zero not too many years ago, company president Lee Hall said.

“We have instant credibility where ever we go because we’re from Lexington,” Hall said. “You can’t put a price on that.”

But unless the local Thoroughbred industry remains strong, Kentucky risks losing most of its equine economic impact, Riddle said.

When Riddle moved to Lexington in 1978, he remembers that there were more than 100 trotter and pacer stallions standing at stud in Central Kentucky. Now, almost all of the Standardbred studs and breeding mares have been lured away by incentives to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Canada. Along with them went millions of dollars for Kentucky’s economy.

“The demise of the Standardbred industry here needs to be a lesson for all of us,” Riddle said.

 

If you go

Hats Off Day

Where: Kentucky Horse Park

When: 9 a.m. Saturday. Special activities begin 4 p.m. Stadium shows begin at 7 p.m.

Cost: Free, includes admission to the Kentucky Horse Park, the International Museum of the Horse, the Hall of Champions, and the Parade of Breeds.

More information: Hatsoffky.com


Keeneland’s Nicholson on horse industry’s future

April 3, 2010

As the spring racing meet was about to begin, Keeneland President Nick Nicholson briskly walked the grounds to make sure everything was ready.

At the track’s last turn, he inspected the yellow forsythia hedge and tall magnolia trees. (He knows there are exactly 73 of them.) He pointed out new bushes in the infield that look as if they have always been there, and a maple tree in the paddock that won’t thrive no matter what the groundskeepers do.

Nicholson drove a visitor to the back of the racecourse’s 1,200 acres, to a nursery where trimmed shrubs stand ready should any part of the green hedges that spell “Keeneland” in the infield suddenly turn brown.

“You’re looking at the next generation of the parking lot there,” he said, pointing to a row of tall trees in the nursery. They are gradually being moved out to the parking lot to replace the giant pin oaks as they succumb to age and insects.

What does this obsession with landscaping have to do with horse racing and Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry? Everything, Nicholson believes.

That’s because the future of the horse industry that is so vital to Kentucky’s image and economy depends on developing a larger, younger and more loyal fan base. Nicholson thinks the years-long battle over expanded gambling has distracted the industry from that fundamental issue.

“Expanded gaming has taken on more of a role than I think it should have; I would love to think of a way to get it behind us,” he said. “It will never be a long-term fix or a total solution. It would just provide some capital at a time when the industry needs capital. It’s a means to an end. It’s not the end.”

Horse racing once flourished, in part, because it was the only way many people could gamble legally. Now there are plenty of quicker and cheaper ways, including lotteries, slot machines, Internet betting and casinos. Everyone wants in on the action, including politicians eager to avoid raising taxes.

“I often feel like a ping-pong ball in other people’s ping-pong games,” Nicholson said.

Unlike corporate racetracks, whose ultimate goal is to provide shareholders with a maximum return on investment, Keeneland is a non-profit association. Since its founding in 1936, the mission has been to support Kentucky’s Thoroughbred breeding industry through racing and sales to an increasingly international market.

“It’s the marketplace where the farmers bring their crop to market,” he said. “The reason we race is to determine which horses to breed to which horses.”

The income and jobs the horse industry provides Kentucky — from breeders and blacksmiths to restaurant waiters and equine artists — ultimately depend on the popularity of horses and racing, Nicholson said. That’s why he spends much of his time on efforts to improve racing’s credibility, from the integrity of the betting system to improved safety for horses and riders.

“For the new fan base we’ll build the sport on, safety is a threshold issue,” he said. “You can’t say (frequent death and injury) is part of the sport anymore. You’ve got to be doing everything you can do to prevent it.”

That means cracking down on horse doping and investing in such things as artificial track surfaces that are easier on horses’ legs and high-tech padding in the starting gate.

Growing horse racing’s fan base means providing a total entertainment experience — everything from exciting sport to good food, comfortable seats, beautiful landscaping, easy parking and friendly customer service.

During an orientation last Wednesday for some of the hundreds of green-jacketed retirees who work customer-service jobs at each racing meet, Nicholson told them: “You’re the secret ingredient in the recipe for what makes Keeneland special.”

To appeal to potential young fans, horse racing must market itself more creatively and embrace technology. Keeneland now has new season and annual passes, live online race video, race replays for cell phones and updates for both experienced and novice fans via SMS text, Twitter and Facebook.

Discreet remote-control television cameras have been installed in the paddock, and there’s a new TV camera platform behind the winner’s circle. “We want to create more of a Game Day atmosphere,” Nicholson said. “We’d like each meet to be like an international festival.”

The TVG network will have daily coverage from Keeneland this month. Churchill Downs in Louisville has partnered with NBC Sports for “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts that will include Keeneland’s Bluegrass Stakes on April 10.

The future of the Thoroughbred industry, Nicholson believes, depends on attracting more fans who become passionate about horses, not just about gambling. It’s about the pageantry and excitement of the sport, the intellectual challenge of handicapping, the thrill of betting a winner and the pleasure of an afternoon with friends in a beautiful place that looks as if it has always been there.

“More days of cheap racing won’t do it,” he said. “We must work with like-minded tracks to create an appealing product. We can’t compete with a casino, nor should we want to.”

Keeneland President Nick Nicholson shows a visitor the nursery hidden among the association's 1,200 acres where mature trees and shrubs are grown for the racetrack's well-groomed grounds. Photo by Tom Eblen

Keeneland President Nick Nicholson shows a visitor the nursery where trees and shrubs are grown for the track's manicured landscape. Photo by Tom Eblen


Would slots at tracks be long-term cure or poison?

June 25, 2009

I’ve had several seriously ill friends and relatives suffer through chemotherapy. They do it because it is a short-term poison that often results in a long-term cure.

With the General Assembly now meeting in special session, I can’t help but wonder if the proposal to allow slot machines at horse-racing tracks doesn’t amount to chemotherapy in reverse: a short-term cure that could turn out to be long-term poison.

It’s easy to dismiss some of the arguments for slot machines, such as balancing the state budget and funding new school buildings. Expanded gambling won’t pay for state government and education in the long run any more than it has in other states.

The proper way to do that is a modern tax system that raises enough money so Kentucky can invest in creating a successful 21st century economy and society. The only way to create that modern tax system is for citizens and politicians to be honest with themselves and one another, and make some tough choices.

The problem I have with gambling as a substitute for honest taxation is that it’s based on the myth of easy money.

Sure, slot machines at racetracks would prompt some Kentucky gamblers to lose their money here rather than in other states. It also might attract some out-of-state gamblers.

But a lot of that money would go into the pockets of gambling interests, soak up discretionary income now spent elsewhere in Kentucky’s economy and create more social costs. If slot machines at racetracks were a panacea, the states that now have them wouldn’t be struggling with many of the same problems Kentucky faces.

The only reason to even consider slot machines, in my view, is to preserve Kentucky’s horse industry. It is one of Kentucky’s claims to fame and a vital piece of an agricultural economy that protects irreplaceable rural land from development.

As the Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reported last Sunday and Monday, the horse industry’s arguments for slot machines may be overstated, but the problems are real. Kentucky’s race purses and breeder incentives are no longer competitive with other states. No business can survive if it’s not competitive.

While the horse industry’s public face may be the wealthy owners of Central Kentucky’s showplace farms, its heart and soul are the small breeders and owners, merchants, farriers, veterinarians and others who make their living in the industry. They will follow the money, and who can blame them?

For Kentucky’s horse industry to be healthy, racing and breeding must be economically competitive. Other states have become more competitive with money generated by expanded gambling. That might be a quick cure for Kentucky’s horse industry, but could it be a long-term poison?

The danger, as Cheves’ articles pointed out, is that slot machines at racetracks can go from subsidizing horse racing to crowding it out. Kentucky’s long-term economic interests aren’t tied to the owners of racetracks so much as to the horse breeders, owners and workers who depend on them.

Horse racing thrived during the 20th century because it was the only way many people could gamble. That’s no longer the case. There are now many quicker, cheaper and more accessible ways to gamble — and, it seems, new ones are being invented every day.

The only way for horse racing to survive is for the industry to build a fan base around the enjoyment of watching and wagering on competition among equine athletes.

Putting slot machines at racetracks would clearly be in the best short-term interests of both state government and the horse industry. But what about the long term? That’s the real issue the General Assembly must face.

In the long run, will slot machines improve Kentucky’s economy and quality of life or detract from it? Will they help save the horse industry or hasten its demise?