A highly successful marketing campaign promoting Kentucky's bourbon distillers has inspired the leaders of the state's Thoroughbred industry.
In 1999 the Kentucky Distillers Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, to give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the art and science behind creating bourbon and to share colorful stories of the spirit's rich history.
Seeing the tremendous enthusiasm built around a process that is in its essence fermenting grain, local Thoroughbred farm owners realized they have a tremendous opportunity to tell a more-engaging story—not just in Kentucky, but nationwide.
"You have an almost 100% strike-rate in converting fans when people come out to the farms," said Price H. Bell Jr., who works alongside his father, Headley Bell, at Nicoma Bloodstock and Mill Ridge Farm. "When they see the horsemanship and learn how the foals are raised and how we help the horses to be competitive, that's the story of the farm. Once they've had that experience, they've made a connection you aren't going to make at the track."
Helping the farms tell their stories is the goal of a group of industry stakeholders that have banned together to form Horse Country Inc., a not-for-profit organization that aims to become a central booking outlet for tours of Kentucky farms, equine clinics, and local equine attractions. Current supporters include 25 farms and veterinary clinics along with Breeders' Cup, The Jockey Club, Keeneland, Fasig-Tipton, and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association.
Though still refining its execution plan, the group has come a long way toward knitting together a Horse Country Trail concept that will give fans greater access and a much improved experience at Central Kentucky farms and clinics than they've ever had in the past.
Up to now, tours have been handled either by local tour groups or run by the farms individually. Access could be hit-and-miss even for Central Kentucky tour outfits, and many farms wrestled with the logistics and cost of conducting tours while trying to run a business.
Horse Country Inc. is stepping in to help provide a central location for organizing tours—even among the professional tour operators—and also help educate farm owners and managers about the best way to tell their stories. A major step toward accomplishing that goal was taken a year ago when 25 Horse Country supporters put up $62,500—$2,500 apiece—to hire consultants with the Disney Institute. The Disney consultants spent two and half days in Central Kentucky visiting the farms.
"At the end of the visit, they all said they underestimated the experience," Bell said. "They told us, in honesty, they had thought they were going to be bored but found the story each farm had to tell compelling."
During their farm visits, the consultants got to see a foal being born. Since the visit, one of the Disney consultants has regularly contacted Mill Ridge to ask, "How is my baby doing?"
"She made a strong connection with this horse and that is what we're sharing, our passion for these animals," Bell said.
Nineteen Horse Country Inc. supporters then went to the Disney Institute in Orlando, Fla., where the consultants coached them in the principles of storytelling and merchandising. Disney consultants also gave the Kentucky horsemen a mock farm tour to offer ideas on making their own tours manageable and engaging.
A four-hour tour held in one barn told the back story of the horses used at Disney, the different breeds represented, the company's aftercare program, and the connection founder Walt Disney had with horses.
"We were totally entertained," said Brutus Clay, chief executive officer of Runnymede and a founder of the Horse Country Trail concept.
"Before we went down there, we didn't know how to envision our tour," Headley Bell said. "We figured we would have to drive the three-mile loop of the farm and get a van. We didn't how to orchestrate all that. At Disney we had a four-hour tour, with 45 minutes in one stall. All of a sudden it wasn't daunting at all. One idea led to another, and suddenly all the farms were exchanging ideas."
Support has continued to grow. The 25 stakeholders have now put up $10,000 each in seed money to create Horse Country Inc. and hire Anne Sabatino Hardy as its first executive director.
Clay said Thoroughbred racing cannot grow until it gets beyond a couple of misperceptions. Growing pari-mutuel handle, Clay believes, will not grow the sport, and farm tours cannot be treated as a vehicle to simply sell horses.
"If we simply try to compete against the casinos, we lose because there are more efficient ways to gamble," Clay said. "And we need to go from the business of selling horses to the business of selling experiences. That is what the bourbon industry has done so well."
Clay sees the Horse Country Trail as the entry point to an entirely new marketing campaign that could easily be adopted in other major Thoroughbred breeding states. From this concept can grow merchandising sales, new marketing relationships with racetracks, and fresh avenues through which fans can engage with the industry, he said.
"By making people fans of the farms, now you are making them fans of a team," Clay said. "Now you can let these fans know by e-mail alert when a horse bred by their favorite farm has been entered in a race near them and maybe they will go the track. We can do this by opening the gates."
Horse Country Inc.
Board of directors: Clifford Barry (Pin Oak Stud), Headley Bell and Price Bell Jr. (Mill Ridge Farm), Brutus Clay (Runnymede Farm), Dr. Luke Fallon (Hagyard Equine Medical Institute), Allison Hancock (Claiborne Farm), John Philips (owner, Darby Dan Farm), Mary Quinn Ramer (president, VisitLEX, Lexington's convention and visitor's center), Randy Thompson (Darley America), and Shannon Arvin (Stoll Keenon Ogden law firm).
Participating Farms and Clinics: Adena Springs, Airdrie Stud, Ashford Stud, Claiborne Farm, Crestwood Farm, Darby Dan Farm, Darley, Diamond A Farm, Gainesway Farm, Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, Keene Ridge Farm, Lane's End Farm, Mill Ridge Farm, Mt. Brilliant Farm, Pin Oak Stud, Runnymede Farm, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, Siena Farm, St. George Farm & Racing, Stone Farm, Stonestreet Farm, Taylor Made, WinStar Farm, and Winter Quarter Farm.
Other Supporters: Breeders' Cup, Fasig-Tipton, Keeneland, Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, and The Jockey Club.