Lexington’s first Breeders’ Cup was a big success; how could the next one be even better?

November 7, 2015
At the Breeders' Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen

At the Breeders’ Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Kip Cornett said he and his wife were at an airport in June when he read on his cellphone a column by Barry Weisbord, president and co-publisher of Thoroughbred Daily News.

Weisbord wrote that he opposed a decision by his fellow Breeders’ Cup board members to bring Thoroughbred racing’s annual world championship here. He thought Keeneland and Lexington were simply too small to handle it.

After he finished reading, Cornett, president of Lexington’s Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, called Weisbord. “Just watch us,” he said.

Weisbord published a follow-up column last Wednesday.

“I have three words to say: I was wrong,” wrote Weisbord, who resigned from the Breeders’ Cup board last summer. “Oh, wait… three more: It was spectacular. In fact, I couldn’t be more impressed with how Keene land, the Breeders’ Cup and Lexington handled the event.”

After lavishing praise on everything about last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup in Lexington, Weisbord ended his column with this: “So… when are we going back?”

The consensus seems to be that Lexington hit a home run last weekend. That doesn’t mean everything went perfectly. Mistakes were made and lessons were learned for next time. But most people assume there will be a next time.

With the exception of a messy logistical screw-up Friday at the Maker’s Mark Bourbon Lounge, Keeneland’s performance was nearly flawless, from the races themselves to traffic management and customer service.

Nobody sweats the small stuff better than Keeneland. For example, by the end of each Kentucky Derby, patrons at Churchill Downs in Louisville are wading through a sea of trash. But throughout each day of Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland’s army of green-uniformed employees quietly walked around cleaning up. “Are you finished with your plate, Sir?”

Even though there were a record 50,155 people on the grounds Saturday and 44,947 Friday, it felt less crowded than a Bluegrass Stakes Day. One reason was that Keeneland spent $5 million adding a lot of temporary seating and hospitality space.

Even though track attendance was down 3,217 from last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, ticket revenue more than doubled because of the demand for high-end accommodations at Keeneland. On-track handle was $20,611,114, up slightly from last year.

For the outside world watching Breeders’ Cup on television, NBC Sports’ gorgeous telecast amounted to a two-hour commercial for Lexington.

“I’m incredibly pleased,” VisitLex President Mary Quinn Ramer said. “I heard from a lot of people that they were blown away by our hospitality. I feel like we have made lifelong friends as a result of this event.”

Some downtown restaurants, bars and food trucks grumbled that they had hoped to do better than they did, but others who planned well were quite pleased.

“We had a great experience,” said Ben Self of West Sixth Brewery, which released a Breeders’ Cup Brown ale and hosted a beer dinner and “Beers and Bets” event.

Deborah Long, who owns Dudley’s on Short, hosted a private event Friday that filled her restaurant. She offered a price fixe menu Saturday night.

“We were very pleased,” Long said. “I think the city did a great job. Keeneland did a spectacular job. From our perspective, I don’t see how it could have been improved.”

Long said her business was slow Monday and Tuesday nights. Rainy weather was partly to blame, she thinks, but a lot of the reason may have been that Breeders’ Cup visitors started arriving later than many people assumed.

Cornett, who chaired the Breeders’ Cup Festival, agrees. They may have planned too many events to try to entertain visitors and involve Lexington residents in Breeders’ Cup. After all, the week also included Halloween and the Wildcats’ football game with Tennessee.

“We maybe over-prepared by about 30 percent,” he said. “It wasn’t as needed as we thought it would be.”

Still, many of those events were well-attended, such as the Feeders’ Cup food truck event, which sold out its 3,000 tickets, and three Lyric Theatre performances of Frank X Walker’s play about the great black jockey Isaac Murphy.

Cornett said organizers also could have spent less time recruiting private homes for visitors, some of which went unused. Many visitors who came on private jets spent less time in Lexington than expected. Others found their own accommodations through Airbnb.com.

As with the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010, the Breeders’ Cup showed that Lexington can host a big international event with aplomb.

“There are a lot of things everyone learned that will make it easier the next time around,” Cornett said. “But everyone in Lexington should be proud of what they did. We did everything we could to show we’re a world-class city, and it worked.”


Faces at the races: photos from Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup

October 31, 2015

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A Lexington landmark saved, but Georgetown treasure may be lost

April 14, 2015

150410OddFellows0064Ben Kaufmann, left, and Rob Rosenstein joked with each other April 10 while inspecting the 1869 Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 W. Main St., for the first time.  “As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein told Kaufmann. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

For people who care about Kentucky’s history, culture and irreplaceable architecture, the past week was one of highs and lows, thanks to two good guys and one who should be ashamed.

First, the good guys:

“Let’s chase the ghosts away!” Ben Kaufmann said as we entered the front door of the Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 West Main Street last Friday morning, setting off a burglar alarm.

Kaufmann, a real-estate investor and financial adviser, had bought the 1870 Italianate and Second Empire-style building 10 days earlier at a Master Commissioner’s sale and was getting his first look inside the $750,000 investment.

150127OddFellows0006The building housed Bellini’s restaurant until it closed Jan. 1. The building and restaurant owner, NGS Realty, was in bankruptcy last year and neglected the building. In late January, city Code Enforcement officers stepped in to board up missing and broken windows to protect the building and passing pedestrians.

Kaufmann and Rob Rosenstein, former owner of Liquor Barn, plan to renovate this landmark, designed by noted Lexington architect Cincinnatus Shryock, and then rent it, mostly as restaurant space.

Over the decades, the building housed offices, restaurants, bakeries, bars and stores, most notably Skuller’s Jewelry, which was there for more than 70 years. Skuller’s recently restored sidewalk clock has been a downtown icon since 1913.

The building’s hidden treasure is the third-floor ballroom, which hasn’t been used publicly for years because it lacked an elevator and modern stairway. But it may be the best-preserved part of the building, whose last major rehab was in 2000.

The white ballroom is stunning: 40 feet wide and nearly 60 feet deep, with a vaulted ceiling 25 feet high and original plasterwork. Tall, arched windows look out on Main Street, although the view is now dominated by the idle CentrePointe pit.

A quick inspection revealed few structural problems in the building and only a couple of small roof leaks behind the ballroom, where interior walls had been torn out for a renovation that was never completed.

The first floor, where Bellini’s operated, has beautiful mosaic tile floors, vintage tin ceilings and two long, handsome bars. The second floor also had been partially stripped out for renovation. It originally housed law firms and, in recent years, apartments.

“Watch out what you wish for, you might get it,” Kaufmann joked as he added up renovation costs in his head.

“As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein kept saying with a laugh.

These guys enjoy teasing each other, but they realize the Odd Fellows Temple is a diamond in the rough. When polished, it should be a hot property. Old downtown buildings have become the preferred location for upscale restaurants and bars.

Kaufmann and Rosenstein are good businessmen looking for a profit. But they also are doing Lexington a favor by saving one of its architectural gems, a place that holds generations of memories and should create many more in the future.

“This is an important building,” Kaufmann said. “I want to restore it to its original beauty.”

Lexington is lucky to have these guys. If only Georgetown were so lucky.

Sanders-Kocher copyScott County is about to lose its first brick house, a Georgian mansion that early Thoroughbred breeder Robert Sanders built on Cane Run Creek south of town in 1797. The house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

The property’s condition has deteriorated since a company owned by Kenneth A. Jackson of Kentuckiana Farms acquired it in 2007. The Scott County PVA values the house at $121,120 and its 25.5 acres at $202,299, according to the Georgetown News-Graphic. United Bank of Georgetown holds a mortgage on the property.

Preservationists say Jackson has rebuffed their attempts to help him protect the house or find a buyer at a reasonable price. Jackson recently sold adjoining parcels for development. A salvage crew has been removing fine interior woodwork — the house’s most distinguished feature — with demolition scheduled to follow.

Efforts to save the house did not appear to be fruitful by late Tuesday afternoon, said Jason Sloan, director of preservation for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

All indications are that the house will be torn down Wednesday, Sloan said.

Some people would say this is Jackson’s property and he should be able to do with it as he pleases. But when someone buys a National Register house of this significance, I think he assumes a responsibility to Kentucky’s heritage, whether he likes it or not.

To neglect this house for years and then demolish it in the hope of pocketing a bigger profit may be legal, but it’s not right.

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Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to Visitlex.com, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park (Kyhorsepark.com) or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information: Keeneland.com.

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information: Kybourbontrail.com.

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar: Bgcycling.net.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (lowerhowardscreek.org), Floracliff Nature Sanctuary (Floracliff.org) and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: Bluegrasswoodland.com or email campmeet@gmail.com.

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information: Venerabletrees.org.

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 


Lexington center finds new careers for retired race horses

April 28, 2014

140403MMSecretariatCenter0195Susanna Thomas, director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center, talked to Sullenberger, a former race horse who is being trained for a new role as a pleasure horse. “Sully” was recently adopted.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When the Kentucky Derby comes around each May, public attention focuses on the glamour of Thoroughbred racing. But reports of abuse and performance-enhancing drugs also have people asking questions about how those horses are treated — and what happens to them after their racing days are over.

Horses are living creatures, after all, not disposable commodities for gambling and sport.

“If the industry wants to survive, it can no longer treat after-care as a charity that can or cannot be supported,” Susanna Thomas said. “It’s a sustainability issue that will not go away.”

As director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park, Thomas works with a mostly volunteer staff to retrain about 40 retired racehorses each year for new careers as hunters, jumpers and pleasure riding horses.

Thoroughbreds have a reputation for being high-strung and hard to retrain. But Thomas said the problem is often not the horses, but people who lack the knowledge, skill and patience to help them make a difficult transition.

“It’s sort of like taking a soldier who’s been in heavy-duty combat in Iraq and putting him right into a job on Wall Street,” She said. “He’s going to want to dive under the table every time bells go off.”

The center was created in 2004 in a partnership between the horse industry and the distillery, which raised more than $600,000 for it through the sale of special bourbon bottles.

Thomas became the center’s director six years ago, bringing a diverse skill set and background to the job. Raised in New York City and Europe, she is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert K. Massie, a Lexington native, and Suzanne Massie, a Russian expert and presidential advisor who taught Ronald Reagan the phrase, “Trust but verify.”

140403MMSecretariatCenter0209AThomas had worked in journalism and non-profits. She is married to James Thomas, who before retirement in 2005 spent 41 years restoring Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. She has a degree in comparative literature from Princeton and speaks several languages. “Now I speak Equus,” she said.

Thomas has always been fascinated by the intellectual and spiritual relationship between people and horses.

“As a rider, I was never interested in chasing ribbons,” she said. “I was interested in how can I understand this animal better and be in partnership.”

She got a hint at her future when, as a child, she saw carriage horses being abused in Naples, Italy. Thomas told her parents that when she grew up she was going to come back and save them. “I didn’t do that,” she said. “But I save whatever horses I can here.”

The center’s 24-acre campus has a variety of facilities for teaching Thoroughbreds used to running lickety-split on flat dirt or turf to slow down and handle more varied terrain. There are hills, woods, a creek, a cross-country course, two specialty pens and a riding arena. A lot of time is spent getting horses to trust their new trainers and desensitizing them to noises and distractions.

“As a responsible trainer,” Thomas said, “you have to figure out a way to make the right way easy and the wrong way hard and to build (a horse’s) confidence so he’ll understand it better.”

When a horse is donated to the center for retraining and adoption, Thomas and her staff begin by assessing its physical and mental condition according to a system she developed.

“Every horse gets a horsenality assessment,” Thomas said, which helps determine its best future role, the most effective retraining methods and what kind of new owner will be a good match. Thomas won’t approve adoptions she thinks are a bad match.

The average horse spends two months at the center at a cost of about $2,000. Thomas keeps a “baby book” on each horse that includes its expense records. New owners are asked to cover those expenses as the price of adoption.

“The horse’s job is just to cover its expenses,” Thomas said, adding that the rest of the center’s $300,000 annual budget comes from grants and donations.

“Every horse that comes through us can go on to be an ambassador for this breed at any level in a variety of disciplines,” she said. “We’re talking from Pony Club to the World Equestrian Games.”

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Marketing campaign hopes to attract millennials to horse racing

April 9, 2013

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America’s Best Racing’s ambassadors, left to right, are Hallie Hardy, John Cox, Jose Contreras, Mary Frances Dale, Chip McGaughey and Victoria Garofalo. The bus tour began in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and ends at the Breeders’ Cup in Los Angeles in November. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

The centerpiece of The Jockey Club’s $5 million marketing campaign to attract more young fans to Thoroughbred racing rolled into Lexington this week.

A brightly painted hospitality bus with six horse-racing “ambassadors” between ages 22 and 27 is on a national tour. The tour began in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and will end in November at the Breeders’ Cup outside Los Angeles.

Before leaving Lexington for Louisville on Sunday, the bus will be at The Red Mile on Wednesday for the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club meeting, at Thursday Night Live at Cheapside with some well-known jockeys, in the parking lot of Tin Roof on South Limestone on Friday night, and at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday.

Kip Cornett, president of Lexington-based Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, said the campaign grew out of a McKinsey & Co. study that The Jockey Club commissioned three years ago.

It concluded that one of racing’s biggest opportunities to increase the fan base was by doing more with special events, such as the Kentucky Derby. The research showed that 1.8 million people ages 18 to 34 watch the Derby on television, yet they pay little attention to Thoroughbred racing most of the year, Cornett said.

So the Jockey Club created a strategy similar to ESPN’s GameDay events to reach young people. That included an advertising campaign; a website, Followhorseracing.com; and the bus with six ambassadors chosen from 150 videotaped applications.

Three of the ambassadors are from Central Kentucky; the others are from California, Georgia and Tennessee. All plan careers in the Thoroughbred industry and hope this gig will help them learn and make good contacts.

During the 17-stop bus tour, the ambassadors are trying to attract peers not only to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, but to the fashion, celebrity and party “lifestyle” surrounding it. They have given away a lot of souvenir jockey goggles and have registered hundreds of people for a contest to win an all-expenses-paid trip for four to the Derby.

The ambassadors identify young leaders and those with big social media followings in each city, take them to the local track and show them a good time in the hope that they will encourage their friends and social media followers to try racing.

The ambassadors also scout popular venues to take the bus — “places where people like us would hang out,” said José Contreras of Long Beach, Calif., who said he “started reading the Daily Racing Form before I could read books.”

“I’ve been surprised by how many people really want to talk to us,” said Hallie Hardy of Frankfort, an equestrian for most of her life.

When the bus was at the Florida Derby last month, Chip McGaughey of Lexington said young Miami leaders were given behind-the-scenes tours of Gulfstream Park and showed how pari-mutuel betting works. Based on the initial efforts, the strategy seems to be working.

“Winning them some money definitely helps,” McGaughey said.

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New Keeneland president wants to strengthen ties to community

October 1, 2012

Bill Thomason in the Keeneland Race Course paddock. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

Bill Thomason was on Keeneland‘s payroll for only a couple of years before he was tapped to become the association’s seventh president. But, without realizing it, he had been training for the job for more than three decades.

After finishing degrees in accounting and business at the University of Kentucky, Thomason went to work for the accounting firm Alexander Grant & Co. Soon, he was spending most of his time working for one client: Mill Ridge Farm.

Thomason left the firm in 1980 to become financial and administrative manager at Mill Ridge, where he worked closely for 28 years with owner Alice Chandler, a Thoroughbred industry leader and a daughter of Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley.

“We just really hit it off,” Thomason said. “What a great way to get involved in the business, to have a mentor like her. The way that she looked at life and the business, so forward-thinking. The way that she looked at the importance of the horse, which was the priority the farm set for everything we did. The way she thought through things, the way we thought through things together.”

Thomason, 56, spent those years racing and consigning horses for sale at Keeneland. But he said it wasn’t until he joined the organization as vice president and chief financial officer in 2010 that he realized how similar Chandler’s values were to Keeneland’s, especially when it came to service in the industry and community.

“I thought I knew Keene land from the outside, but I had no idea until I got in here the pride that everybody takes in this place and the obligation that they feel to this community,” he said.

Thomason has caught some lucky breaks since succeeding Nick Nicholson as president on Sept. 1. The Thoroughbred business is bouncing back after several tough years. Average and median prices were up by double-digit percentages during Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale. Keeneland says the 3,958 horses catalogued for the November Breeding Stock Sale show high quality.

I caught up with Thomason during the busy break between the September sale and the fall racing meet, which begins Friday. I wanted to hear his thoughts about Keeneland as a community institution, a role he said has changed little since Headley and others built the track 75 years ago during the Great Depression.

The founders’ goal was to create one of the world’s best race courses, serving the “horse capital of the world” with both quality entertainment and charitable giving.

The Keeneland Foundation has given more than $18 million in direct contributions to local charities over the years, although contributions have been down in recent years. With the economy improving, Thomason wants to do more, including bringing more segments of the community into Keeneland’s facilities.

“We’ve got 1,100 acres of an arboretum here that’s open 365 days a year; there are no gates and locks,” he said. “It’s a place the community feels an ownership in, and we take great pride in that.”

Keeneland now hosts several community events, including Picnic with the Pops and more than a dozen annual charity runs and walks. One of the biggest ones yet is planned for March 30, when the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon comes to Lexington. Thomason hopes to open the Keeneland Entertainment Center and recently restored Keene Mansion to more local groups.

Keeneland has formed a partnership with Greg Ladd of Cross Gate Gallery to host an annual sporting art auction, beginning in the fall of 2013, Thomason said. Keeneland hopes to leverage its auction staff and well-heeled clientele to eventually make it the world’s premier auction for equine art.

“We think it’s a natural fit for Keeneland,” Thomason said. Keeneland’s share of the profits will go to charity.

There also is a new Keeneland Library and Museum Foundation, created to accept donated collections and raise money to support and increase public access to the Keeneland Library’s vast equine archives. For example, the Daily Racing Form archives are being digitized for easier public access.

“We’re finding a lot of unique ways to use our existing plant for the benefit of community groups, to continue to let them touch this place and to be involved with the horse,” he said. “We are simply the caretakers of this very special place for the community and the industry. That’s how we see our role here.”

Bill Thomason

Background: Born September 1956; raised in London

Education: Bachelor of science in accounting, 1977, and MBA, 1978, both from University of Kentucky

Family: Wife, Barbara, and three daughters, Marcie (1980-2006), Melissa and Laura.

Community involvement: Former chairman, Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce (now Commerce Lexington) and First United Methodist Church board. Board service has included Bluegrass Tomorrow, Volunteer Center of the Bluegrass, Greenspace Commission, Lexington Philharmonic.

 

 


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


How Kentucky became the Thoroughbred capital

September 29, 2010

Maryjean Wall learned a lot about the “Thoroughbred capital of the world” in 35 years as an award-winning racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. But it wasn’t until she retired and finished her doctorate in history at the University of Kentucky that Wall figured out how it came to be.

Kentucky’s domination of Thoroughbred breeding during the past century wasn’t really about the mineral-rich bluegrass and limestone water, although they certainly helped. It resulted from a chain of events during the turbulent decades after the Civil War that Kentuckians cleverly exploited.

Maryjean Wall. Photo by Mark Cornelison

It involved crafting an Old South image for Kentucky at the turn of the last century that appealed to the nation’s richest horsemen — and all but erased African- Americans from the picture. Wall pulls this story together in a new book, How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders (The University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)

I had heard pieces of this fascinating story for years. When Wall was still at the Herald-Leader and I was the managing editor, she would occasionally wander into my office and tell me about her research.

The finished book is a remarkable page-turner that earned glowing cover blurbs from some of the best historians of Kentucky and Thoroughbred racing. The book puts together many pieces of a complicated puzzle, and it is filled with well-documented stories that explain a lot about the evolution of Kentucky society and the horse industry.

Kentucky dominated Thoroughbred breeding in the early 1800s, thanks to its grass and water. But the Civil War devastated Kentucky’s economy; much breeding stock was killed, stolen by raiders or moved out of state for safe-keeping.

Northeast industrialists and Wall Street speculators emerged from the war as the nation’s richest men, and they embraced the “sport of kings.” They began buying the best mares and stallions and installing them on new farms in New York and New Jersey.

Kentucky breeders realized they were losing their grip on the industry and needed to attract that Northeast capital. But there was a problem: Kentucky had a well-deserved reputation for violence and lawlessness that scared away the tycoons who now dominated horse racing.

Kentucky was a Civil War border state that officially remained loyal to the Union. But as industrialization led to more anxiety and racism in American society, the public imagination was captured by “lost cause” nostalgia for an idealized Old South.

Until the 1890s, African-Americans had been some of the most successful jockeys and trainers. Jockey Isaac Murphy became a rich man. But as racism grew, blacks were forced out of all but the most menial horse racing jobs, not just in Kentucky but across the nation.

Wall writes that Kentucky breeders eagerly exploited this Old South myth to rebrand the state. Novelists and newspapermen started depicting a land of white-suited “Kentucky colonels” on columned verandas — a place where the living was easy for wealthy white people and black folks knew their place.

New York’s leading equine journal, Turf, Field and Farm, published by Lexington-born brothers Benjamin and Sanders Bruce, offered Northeast horsemen a steady drumbeat of Bluegrass boosterism.

That led several Northern moguls, including August Belmont and James Ben Ali Haggin, to start breeding farms near Lexington. Many more followed after anti-gambling forces outlawed racing in New York and many other states about 1910.

Modern Kentucky has many legacies from this period, including the large number of absentee farm owners and a professional class of bloodstock agents, trainers, veterinarians and others who have made horses a vital part of the state’s economy.

“I hope readers put this book down with a greater respect for the (horse) industry,” Wall said over lunch last week. Like many, Walls fears for the Thoroughbred industry’s future in Kentucky, but she thinks the solutions are more complex than the long fight over expanded gambling.

“It was never a given that the horse industry would stay here after the Civil War, and that is still relevant today,” Wall said. “The grass was never enough. And it’s still not enough.”

If you go

Maryjean Wall will discuss and sign How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders:

■ 4 p.m. Oct. 2, Morris book shop, 408 Southland Dr., Lexington

■ 7 p.m. Oct. 5, Woodford County Public Library, 115 N. Main St., Versailles

■ 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7, Kentucky Historical Society, 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort


Bicycle-racing friends have the Derby of a lifetime

May 4, 2009

Phil Needham didn’t make it to Churchill Downs to see the horse he bred and foaled pull a stunning upset in the Kentucky Derby.

He had his own race to win.

Mine That Bird became the second-biggest long shot ever to win the Derby, covering the 1¼ miles Saturday in a little more than two minutes and two seconds.

A few hours earlier, Needham, 67, rode his bicycle 123 miles in six hours to win his age group in the 18th annual Calvin’s Challenge road race, which drew 210 cyclists to Springfield, Ohio.

Had the Georgetown resident not wanted to be done in time to see the Derby on television, he would have entered the bicycle race’s main event, where he set the record for his age group two years ago by riding 225 miles in 12 hours.

Needham’s racing partner was Bena Halecky, 50, of Lexington, whose 123-mile performance won her age group. She was named the best overall female racer.

“I went up to Louisville last Monday to see the horse work and meet the new owners and trainer, and I was very pleased with what I saw,” Needham said. “But the chances, you know, were very remote, 50-1. So because we had trained and planned for this race, we went to Ohio.”

It wasn’t the first time Needham has been wrong about Mine That Bird.

The Birdstone colt was athletic and strong. Needham’s wife, Judy, thought the yearling was promising. But Needham and his business partners decided to sell him.

“When the partners agreed to sell, we had the right to buy, but we let him go,” Needham said. “He brought $9,500, which was next to nothing. People spend millions trying to create a Derby horse.”

Needham had better instincts about Mine That Bird’s mother.

When Needham and Bill Betz ended their thoroughbred partnership last year, they decided to sell the mare Mining My Own at auction. But when the bids started coming in, Needham thought they were too low. He jumped in and ended up buying her for $8,000.

Needham and Halecky had been friends for years. Halecky, a Procter & Gamble executive, had urged him to buy P&G stock. “He said, ‘If I’m going to invest in your business, you need to invest in mine,” Halecky said. So she kicked in $4,000 for half interest in the mare.

As Needham and Halecky raced Saturday, the Derby was on their minds. They considered it an omen that their race was called Calvin’s Challenge and Mine That Bird was being ridden by jockey Calvin Borel.

“And then we kept seeing birds in front of us on the road and I kept yelling to Bena, ‘Mine That Bird!'” Needham said.

After their race, Needham and Halecky headed back to Lexington, stopping at a sports bar near Cincinnati to eat dinner and watch the Derby. The place was noisy, and the big-screen TV was hard to see. So it took them a few moments to realize that the impossible had happened.

“Finally, Phil looked at me and said, ‘We just won the Kentucky Derby!'” Halecky said. Soon their cell phones were ringing as friends called the congratulate them.

Several of their Bluegrass Cycling Club friends, who gathered to watch the Derby at Keeneland, bet and won big on the horse. But Halecky had put only a $2 bet on him. Needham didn’t bet anything, although his wife, who had always known better, put down $100 to win.

“It was one of the best Saturdays that anyone could ever have,” Needham said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Since ending his partnership with Betz, Needham has formed Needham Thoroughbreds, with interest in about 15 horses, including Mining My Own.

Needham had planned to focus more on his cycling.

He took up the sport a decade ago and has been riding competitively for seven years. He was sixth in his age group in the 24-mile time trial at the 2007 masters nationals. A first-place finish in last year’s Bluegrass State Games made him eligible to compete this August at the Senior Games in San Francisco, where he plans to enter the time trial and the road race.

“My goal is to be number one in my age group in the country,” he said.

But his 40-year career in thoroughbreds seems to have gotten a second wind.

The $8,000 mare he and Halecky own could now be worth millions if they sell her — or even sell part ownership in her — and perhaps even more in the long run if they keep her and breed her well.

Mine That Bird was the mare’s first foal. She also has a 2-year-old in training and a foal by her side, and she is pregnant with another. At age 8, Mining My Own could have 15 more years of productive life ahead, Needham said.

“Bena wants to continue to own her and have the fun; my wife wants to continue to own her and have the fun,” he said. “My best business sense tells me to keep at least 25 percent. I have to review that with my partner. I have to let the dust settle a little.”

As the dust was beginning to settle Monday afternoon, and it was beginning to rain, Halecky and Needham met near Georgetown for a bike ride through the countryside. They said they planned to ride 20-something miles, maybe more. After all, they had a lot to talk about.


Spring comes to Keeneland early in the morning

April 3, 2009

Before the sun is up, horses are on the track.

Riders in thick jackets and leather chaps ease them up the stretch and gallop them back down, around the turn.

Hooves pound. Steam puffs from big nostrils. The grandstand casts a giant shadow holding winter’s last chill.

Behind the rail, rows of green benches wait to be straightened. Their only occupants are the last fat drops of an overnight rain.

Men and women with rags carefully wipe each grandstand seat. Mop the floor. Hang the bunting. Above them, birds dart in and out, looking for a perch.

Down by the racing office, people stand with steaming cups of coffee. Many wear caps embroidered with the names of famous farms and recent champions. Three Chimneys. Big Brown.

Conversations are spiced with accents from down the road — and New York, and Ireland. Warming up yet, John? How have you been? Two exercise riders chat in French. Hot walkers speak Spanish. Between two owners, whispers in Japanese.

Some stare off into the distance, closely watching one of a dozen horses breezing by. Others pace with cell phones, telling someone far off that their horse looks good, is exercising well, will be ready to race. You should be here. Man, it is so pretty!

The rising sun casts a soft glow on flowering white trees and limestone walls. Freshly mown grass rolls out like an emerald carpet, rippled with the shadows of fences and trees. The track’s edge is a patchwork of budding green, flowering pink, forsythia yellow.

The stone-framed tote board and video screen forms a dark wall in the infield, waiting for a big jolt of electricity to bring it to life. Soon, it will chronicle the rise and fall of afternoon fortunes.

Out back, crunchy fine gravel leads to white block stables beneath severely trimmed trees. The remaining limbs reach skyward like arthritic fingers, waiting for leaves to hide their ice-inflicted wounds.

Outside the stables, grooms with white buckets of warm water carefully wash each tired horse. Steam rises from silky coats of chestnut brown and dappled gray. Ankles are carefully felt.

Many cars and pickup trucks are parked outside the stables, New York and Florida plates scattered among the Kentuckys. Old bicycles that were pedaled out Versailles Road in the dark stand propped against trees.

The track kitchen is alive with clattering plates and conversation. I’ll take the special. Sausage or bacon? Apples or grits? Coffee in a thick stone mug. That’ll be $5.26. Customers gaze at framed photographs of champions on the walls — and dream.

By mid-morning, sunshine reaches into the paddock and touches the big, white sycamore tree. Raindrops begin to dry off neatly trimmed boxwoods along the rail. A man with a leaf blower sweeps grass clippings from soft pavers.

A beer truck and an ice truck release their cargo. Kegs are stacked by concession stands and boxes beside rows of betting windows in the dim underneath of General Admission. Men with yellow ladders move from one rafter-mounted TV screen to another, pulling off fabric covers.

White metal tables, each with five chairs, stand beside pansies freshly planted in green washtubs. The sound of a sweeping broom echoes from a stone corridor that leads to the clubhouse. In a gift shop window, colorful Derby hats wait for just the right pretty head.

Soon there will be people; lots of people. Colorful dresses, navy blazers, khakis and bright ties. White parasols along the grandstand balcony. A sea of sunglasses and sunburns below.

Burgoo and beer. Crab cakes, fried green tomatoes and bread pudding bathed in sweet bourbon sauce.

It must be spring. It must be Keeneland.

Click here to watch a video of the sights and sounds of Keeneland by Herald-Leader photojournalist David Stephenson

Click on photos below to enlarge.