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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 ...

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.

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