The area between Louisville and Lexington Kentucky (in which Frankfort is roughly in the center) is more than history. It is also the center of Kentucky Bluegrass county—home to more than 450 horse farms, more than 90 Saddlebred farms (on which show horses are raised and trained) and over 250,000 horses. These farms produce some of the most famous thoroughbreds in horse racing history, including many Kentucky Derby winners and even Triple Crown winners (the legendary Man O’ War, is buried a few miles away in Lexington).
Riding past many of these beautiful farms, with their stately homes, large barns, acres of pasture and miles of surrounding black fences is lovely enough. We, however, wanted a closer look at what goes on in these farms. So we took a tour of one of the largest and most successful of these Winstar Farms.
Although a number of the leading thoroughbred farms offer tours, we did ours at Winstar. Unfortunately, due to Tom’s inexcusable miscalculation of the start time of the tour, we missed almost half the tour that explained the history of the farm and the many roles it plays in breeding, raising, training, rehabilitating and retiring thoroughbred racehorses.
As fate would have it, however, we arrived just in time for the visit to and explanation of one of the breeding sheds, where retired studs meet and mate with expectant mares that can be brought in from around the world for a chance (actually up to three chances per mating fee) to become impregnated by a stallion with a suitable pedigree, composition and racing record. The rooms, are large, lined with cushions and soft hay and the horses themselves wear pads for protection in case of an accident or stray kick. And, since the three-to-five minute act and its results are so costly and important, each step is closely monitored and chaperoned by six to eight people and each act is viewed and recorded by three cameras, each placed at a strategic angle in the shed. After all, the horses themselves may be valued at well over a million dollars apiece and can easily charge $30,000 to $60,000 (or occasionally much, much more) per rendezvous.
We then visited the preparation hall, where mating schedules are kept and continually updated and where horses are carefully washed, checked for fertility, padded and prepared for their encounter.
Then to the stables where we got to meet some of the championship horses and the people who tend to them (as by feeding and trimming their hooves) and exercise them. Stallions such as Bodemeister (second place in the Derby and winner of the Belmont Stakes) and Overachieved (winner of the Arkansas Derby and runner in the Belmont Stakes) and are much in demand—sometimes as many as four times a day, seven days per week. And they not only serve a domestic clientele, but also a foreign one, as during their mating trips to Australia, South American and Europe. Some stallions, in fact, are valued much more highly overseas than at home. More than Ready, for example, earns more than twice as much per session in Australia as in the U.S.
Such valuable horses are well tended and generally quite pampered. After all, they often have breeding lives of up to ten years. Carpe Diem, for example, whose racing career was ended by a knee chip suffered in his Derby Run, know breeds with more than 150 mares per year. No wonder these stallions seemed content. Is it any wonder that as the time for the afternoon session approaches, the stallions stallions start looking out their windows to watch for the vans that carry the mares to the stable.
Each horse has its own large (16-by-16 foot) stable, continually filled with fresh hay, and has free run of two to three acres of pristine bluegrass pastureland. They are regularly exercised by running free and by being ridden an average of about once a day. They are regularly examined by trainers and vets and are treated to water spas for relaxation and therapy.
Unfortunately, we were unable to visit Ashford Farms, the largest of the local horse farms, and the current home of last year’s Triple Crown Winner, American Pharaoh. We did, however, see the farm’s beautiful barn and grounds. We also learned of the current life of its most highly prized stud. As we were told, he currently commands $200,000 per performance and is fully booked through year. He is apparently, even more busy in retirement than when he was training for his races.