"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.
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.
These million-dollar studs move from stall to pasture to breeding-shed appointments. To ride them, the thinking goes, is to risk too valuable an asset. But at Three Chimneys, stallions are galloped six days a week to keep them fit and to take off some of the edge. Case Clay, the farm owner, judges the risk of injury to the horse to be no greater than the risk that comes with turning horses out into a field. We talked about luck – how Penny Chenery came to own Secretariat by losing a coin toss and how luck and circumstance brought the great Seattle Slew to Three Chimneys. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing (the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont) in 1977 – while undefeated.
"The odds are stacked against us," Case said. "Strategically, one has to mitigate those odds."
The horses were running at Keeneland. After every race, grooms pulled off their tiny flat saddles and the horses threw off steam as the heat from their sleek bodies met the cold, wet air.
To start, I put $10 to win on a horse called Derivative and he led all the way. He paid out $48. I then lost the next four bets before calling it a day.
The odds are indeed stacked – against the horses too. I bunked one night at Old Friends B&B, owned by Mike Blowen and Diane White – both former columnists with The Boston Globe. What brought them here is a phrase much trumpeted and too seldom practised: love of the horse.
Mike had spent two years working part-time as a volunteer groom at the racetrack, thinking to improve his wagering skills. But he also saw thoroughbreds put on slaughterhouse trucks and he was determined to, one day, do something about it.
He was telling me all this as we toured his farm in the rain and the muck – but we were riding high and dry in a golf cart, a Samuel Adams Boston Lager rocking precariously in the cup holder. We said hello to a chestnut called Tinners Way, a son of Secretariat ("He eats more than any horse on the farm" – just like his daddy). Mike shouted greetings to two Canadian champions, Thornfield and Benburb. There are 62 horses on 21 hectares at Old Friends, many of them studs and all of them saved from slaughter. This is the only rescue-retirement facility in the country that accepts stallions.
"You would think," he told me, "that an owner who made millions from a horse would want to offer a cushy retirement to that horse."
Some owners do; many don't. Mike marvels at the kindness of certain owners and jockeys and donors, the volunteers who help at the farm, and eminent equine veterinarian Doug Byars who treats farm horses pro bono. But he is also appalled by the callousness of some owners.
Mike and Diane borrowed a million dollars to finance the farm and twice have faced bankruptcy. A towel hanging in their kitchen reads: Keep Calm and Carry On.
Bourbon and blood-horses (thoroughbreds) are the mainstay of the state economy. There are more barrels of aging bourbon (4.7 million) in Kentucky than there are citizens (3.7 million). One night, I took the advice of a bartender at the Horse and Barrel Pub (which boasts 90 choices of bourbon) and tasted Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon. It was almost as good as riding Shadow.
The Blanton's cork features the usual stopper but with a decidedly Kentuckian twist. At the top is a metal figurine of a horse and jockey racing. Bourbon and blood-horses: When I arrived at the Lexington airport, it struck me that just about every billboard was about one or the other.
The premier tourist attraction in the state is Kentucky Horse Park. If Walt Disney was as wild about horses as he was about animation, he might have created something that looks like this 485-hectare facility – a world-class equine competition grounds, working horse farm and educational theme park rolled into one. The park is all about the horse-human relationship.
The World Equestrian Games were held here last year and drew half a million spectators. The Horse Park has its own living champions, such as Cigar, Go For Gin and Funny Cide – a gelding who won the Derby and the Preakness in 2003. Prickly by reputation, he was led out and fixed me with his imperious gaze.
Horses invariably generate stories, and in horse-centric Kentucky one of the joys is simply sitting in the company of horse people and hearing what they had to say. A gifted storyteller, Mike Blowen told me about a certain retired jockey who religiously attends fundraisers at the Old Friends farm, delighting his audiences with his recollections. Like this one:
Now in his 70s, he was approached many years ago by a novice jockey who gushed at meeting his idol.
"Hey kid," the veteran told him, "you and I are in the next race and yours is the only horse I'm worried about. I'll put a thousand bucks in cash in your locker if you lay back a little."
"Oh," the young jock replied, "I could never be a part of anything like that."
(To understand the rest of his story, you need to know two things: One, jockeys do talk to each other during a race, and two, an "exacta" in racetrack parlance involves picking the first- and second-place finishers, in the correct order.)
In the race, the senior rider was six lengths ahead down the stretch but the young lad blew by him at the wire.
"Sorry," the rookie shouted.
"That's okay, kid," the jock shouted back. "I got the exacta."
My last evening in Kentucky, I was walking in Shaker Village when the sun finally showed itself and lit up the trees in burnished gold. On a tall 19th-century house, a great oak cast intricate black shadows that covered much of the white clapboard. I paused to admire the sight, unable to resist taking a photograph. Come back another day, the setting sun said. And I will.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: Old Friends isn't your average bed and breakfast (the view from my second-floor spacious bedroom was of a pond and horses in paddocks). Even if you don't stay here (they close for the winter), come for a visit. And check out their website for the many stories about this unique retirement home for horses who seem to know how lucky they are. From $150; Paynes Depot Road; oldfriends.equine.org; (502) 863-1775.
Gratz Park Inn: When I left at dawn Friday morning, the desk clerk organized my boarding passes. True southern hospitality. From almost $200; West Second Street; gratzparkinn.com; 1-800-752-4166.
Where to eat
Kentucky cuisine can be as rich as some breeders. At Keeneland, I had one bite of Kentucky Bread Pudding, with extra Maker's Mark bourbon sauce, and got a jolt of butter and sugar. A Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich makes poutine look like health food.
Sam's Restaurant (essentially a truck stop, lunch cost $5), Jonathan's Bluegrass Table at Dudley's On Short at the Keeneland clubhouse ( keeneland.com; 1-800-456-3412), and the Trustees' Office Dining Room at Shaker Village were all fabulous. Lexington cuisine has taken off in the past decade.
Always call ahead before going to any farm. Aficionados of racing are drawn to these tours, but so are those who simply appreciate the beauty of these animals and their often splendid digs.
For more information, check out the following:
- bigredstablesky.com; 859-734-3118
- kyhorsepark.com; 859-233-4303
- adenastallions.com; 859-987-1798
- threechimneys.com; 859-873-7053
- horsefarmtours.com; 1-800-976-1034
Lawrence Scanlan is the author or co-author of 11 books about horses, including The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, the World's Greatest Racehorse.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's note: The original version of this article contained the incorrect phone number for Three Chimneys. This vershion has been corrected.