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The genteel precision of the immaculately fenced rolling hills tells visitors they've crossed into Kentucky. (Gene Burch)
The genteel precision of the immaculately fenced rolling hills tells visitors they've crossed into Kentucky. (Gene Burch)

Kentucky: Head into the heartland of thoroughbreds and bourbon Add to ...

“Why do our horses canter up every hill?” I finally asked Emily Dennis, who operates Big Red Stables near Harrodsburg, Ky.

“Because we let them,” she said with a smile. We had been riding in the up-hill and down-dale countryside southwest of Lexington, where the Kentucky River flows by 60-metre-high cliffs of ancient limestone.

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I had come in late fall to the area that bills itself “the horse capital of the world” and wanted to make riding part of the experience. Insurance costs have narrowed the number of riding establishments; fewer still are those that let horse and rider gather any speed.

It had rained hard for two days, the wind was up, the temperature down and I had been rethinking the ride en route to the stable. I arrived and there was Emily – wearing a cream wool cap with a short brim that gave her the look of a lass from County Clare (though her drawl was all Kentucky). She was warm and welcoming and led me to two tacked-up Tennessee Walking Horses.

The rain had stopped, the wind had subsided.

“Let's go,” I told her.

Emily has ridden this land since she was a girl. The family has 60 hectares and horse-trailered access to an additional 400 or so hectares at nearby Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill – a gorgeous restored historic site. The Dennis property is pasture and woodland with countless creeks, and we saw deer, wild turkeys, cardinals and blue jays as we rode past pin oaks, sugar maples and the gnarly-barked osage orange. We ended with a long sprint across a valley and up a little rise – “the fun hill,” as her son calls it.

At Big Red Stables, you sign a waiver: You ride at your own risk. But the horses are well-trained and sure-footed, and my horse – a 10-year-old mare named Shadow – struck me as fit and sensible and keen. The ride was a blast.

Six years ago, while researching a book on Secretariat – arguably the greatest thoroughbred racehorse who ever lived – I spent many mornings at dawn at the Keeneland Race Course near Lexington watching exercise riders “breeze” horses. I never tired of hearing that signature diddle-oop, diddle-oop, diddle-oop hoof-beat pattern as the horses thundered down the track.

This time, at Keeneland, I asked a rider, “What's it like to be coming down that stretch?”

“You know when you're in a plane on the tarmac,” she said, “and the jets kick in and you feel that acceleration? That's it.”

Visitors to the Lexington area, especially the horsey set, make a point of visiting farms to see favourite horses now standing at stud. I went first to Adena Springs, a 970-hectare operation that was designed by Frank Stronach, the Canadian entrepreneur and racetrack owner who made his fortune in auto parts. He won the outstanding-breeder award seven times in one decade – an unprecedented honour. Some farms here are steeped in history, but this one is almost brand new. Think brownstone and clock tower, think gatehouse with black bars, think what a German speaker would call spitze (a useful word that means peak or pinnacle).

Stallions at Adena Springs, as elsewhere, are paraded out to be photographed and admired, which must be tiresome. But a stallion has a good life otherwise.

That was certainly my sense at Three Chimneys Farm. To get there, you take Versailles Road (“Ver-sails,” they say here) and get off at Pisgah Pike. Flanked by elegant stone fences built by Irish immigrants in the 19th century, the road offers miles of black wooden horse fences, rolling hills and graceful antebellum mansions set well back – with pretty horses at the end.

In the stallion barn, I watched as stud groom Veronica Reed brought out Point Given, a handsome laid-back 17-hand chestnut who had won the Preakness and the Belmont in 2001. Later, it was the turn of Dynaformer – still feisty at the grand old equine age of 26.

“Never turn your back on a stallion,” Veronica warns.

Dynaformer sired the ill-fated Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2006 – by 6½ lengths. But he broke down in the Preakness and an extraordinarily high-profile and eight-month-long medical intervention to save his life ended in euthanasia.

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