Mill Ridge & Nicoma News


January 15, 2015

FARMS UNITE IN HORSE COUNTRY by Michele MacDonald with the TDN

After more than two years of working together privately and obtaining advice from organizations
including the Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Institute, a group of America's leading Thoroughbred
studs and nurseries on Jan. 14 unveiled plans for a landmark project to unlock their gates and
promote horse breeding and racing to fans. Currently called Horse Country Inc. and funded by
an initial $10,000 pledge from each of 24 stakeholders, the project could take off with farm
tours and other horse-related experiences this fall in conjunction with the first running
of the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland Race Course. "This is just the beginning. We have a lot
to do," said Headley Bell of Mill Ridge Farm and Nicoma Bloodstock, one of nine board members of the
organization, which was legally created in papers filed with the Kentucky Secretary of State in June 2014 as a
501(c)6 non-profit sports league. "But we have built a base," Bell continued. "There was hardly a farm that we didn't get cooperation from after we approached them. It's been the most extraordinary experience. In my time in the industry, it's
been the first experience of cooperation in which everybody has been united--ever. Either it's the timing
or the need [for such promotional efforts]. Whichever it is, it is something everybody is excited about. They
understand that it's going to take time, but they're willing to commit. "I can say that we never once had a
misunderstanding in the time frame, which is quite remarkable," he noted. Bell's son, Price Bell, Jr., who also works with Mill Ridge and Nicoma, has been named president of the group. In addition to the Bells, other board members are Clifford Barry of Pin Oak Stud; Brutus Clay of Runnymede Farm; Luke Fallon, D.V.M., of Hagyard Equine
Medical Institute; Allison Hancock of Claiborne Farm; John Phillips of Darby Dan Farm; Mary Quinn Ramer of Lexington
Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Rusty Thompson of Darley America. Shannon Arvin of the law firm Stoll Keenon Ogden serves as secretary. So far, other farms that have joined the group include Adena Springs, Airdrie Stud, Coolmore's Ashford Stud, WinStar, Lane's End, Gainesway, Crestwood, Diamond A, Keene Ridge, Mt. Brilliant, Siena, St. George, Stone, Stonestreet, Taylor Made and Winter Quarter, organizers said. Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital also has joined as an initial stakeholder. Additionally, Breeders' Cup Ltd., Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton Co., The Jockey Club and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association have indicated support and are lending expertise on organizing committees, said Price Bell. The project will aim to cultivate fans for the sport of racing by allowing the public access to farms and many of the sport's biggest stars on a regular basis. "At our core, we're trying to share the beauty of the
Thoroughbred, which is what inspires us every day," he explained. "We're all in this industry because of the
horse, and for us, we feel that we can capture the best story of the horse. "Here on the farms, we can share
the story of the herd mentality - and how the race is the manifestation of those herd dynamics."
Clay said fans may find it difficult to connect with racing in part because the equine stars retire so quickly.
So, like the University of Kentucky basketball team retains its fans even when players move on to the NBA,
the farms will allow fans the chance to learn more about horses and become more emotionally invested in
the sport. "When we talk about Kentucky [basketball], it's our team. We have a stake in it. It's as if we own it. And
we do own it," Clay said. "The question we always ask is why can't we make people fans of farms? And you
do that by creating these emotional experiences when they come on to the farms and leveraging social media
to get them connected and then technology to keep them connected. We will use that to actually draw
them in to go to the races." People who have visited farms and seen the sires of racehorses, as well as popular racemares and stallions now in breeding careers, and who also have had the opportunity to meet breeders and owners "will feel like they have a piece of it, they are emotionally connected," to racing, Clay said. With the doors to farms open, Clay noted that "we want to talk about the aftercare and the veterinary care these horses receive, so we put a positive face on this industry and what we're about." In an effort to stimulate widespread participation in its effort, the organization has sent out hundreds of letters to other Kentucky farms, equine professionals and horse-related groups and is working on various levels of membership opportunities. Next steps for the Horse Country organizers as they
move the project forward include development of branding, which may involve changing the name; development of a website that will be the primary channel for the public to use in booking visits to farms, and development of merchandising and other initiatives. Leaders of the effort have also reached out to the office of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who both have indicated support, Headley Bell said.
In making their first public statements about the project, the group continued holding "coffee table"
discussions at the Keeneland Sale pavilion during the January mixed sale this week, meeting with individuals
and groups to define its initiative. They also announced the hiring of Anne Sabatino Hardy, previously the editor of Lexington neighborhood newspapers owned by Smiley Pete Publishing, as executive director. "Kentucky has a wealth of tradition and history in the equine industry, and visitors flock to our racing and sport facilities, but it's sometimes challenging to access the farms and clinics," Hardy said. "There is tremendous demand for experiences at those locations, and for encounters with the horse. "We believe that opening the gates and providing memorable experiences will make true fans of our farms and clinics. It's exciting to see those who steward this beautiful land and care for these incredible athletes coming together to support that effort." Coincidentally, leaders of the Horse Country project
began forming the idea separately, without knowing about their efforts that were moving in the same
direction. The Bells were working with the KTA while Clay, joined by Fallon and Phillips, was rallying support
of other farm owners. At a KTA meeting, Dell Hancock of Claiborne asked if they could join forces, and
afterward, the initiative gained momentum. While initially there had been some discussion about
free tours of farms, Clay pointed out that there should be a mechanism that would make the idea sustainable
and not a financial burden to the farms. The group agreed that the tours should require payment, and
members also began to explore other methods that have been utilized successfully by Kentucky's nowfamous
Bourbon Trail of distilleries. A number of the first farms to join in the discussion paid for the Disney Institute to evaluate their idea. Two institute representatives traveled to Kentucky, toured 11 farms and two veterinary clinics and went to the
races at Keeneland and, in Clay's words, "were blown away." In short, Disney officials told the farm representatives
that they clearly had a magic experience to sell to the public. Nineteen representatives of farms then traveled to
visit more with Disney officials in Orlando in June 2013. At that time, when the farm leaders clearly were
swayed by the positive feedback from Disney, Clay said his initial euphoria was clouded by a worry about how
they were going to make it become a reality. During a series of monthly meetings, farm officials beginning with the Bells of Mill Ridge, began to share how they tell their story to visitors, and soon, most in the group were highly enthusiastic as they began to realize the unique nature of their own farm stories. Additionally, by connecting the farms and horses in a
networked community, the story of the roots of racing and the long and colorful story of America's sporting
tradition becomes exponentially more compelling, Clay and Price Bell said. Advice from others also was significant, as was the agreement for a payment mechanism and merchandising opportunities for sustainability.
"[Keeneland President] Bill Thomason was clear. He said for this to be successful, the farms need to own
it," Clay recalled. "And if we build it ourselves and put in all this sweat equity, we have to ensure that it's
going to succeed. But when you start anything, it doesn't always go exactly to plan, does it? To overcome that, you have people committed to making it successful. By having all these farms involved in this process, we own it and we build it together. And by golly, we're going to make sure it succeeds." Looking ahead to the future, Headley Bell said if the group is not quite ready to begin offering tours through a website booking process by this fall, members will
wait for the appropriate time. Until then, they will begin a testing process in pilot tour programs during the
spring and summer. Long term, Price Bell said he envisions being able to share the concept with horse communities in other states. "We're starting in Lexington due to the high concentration [of farms and horses], but we hope to
build the playbook to give it our friends in Florida, Maryland and New York, because at its core, this is a
fan development initiative. We look forward to working with everybody," he said.