Briefing #2: Into the Bluegrass
In search of the first crowdsourced racehorse, we arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, the equine capital of the world. We made a few friends, sipped our share of Bourbon, and have laid the foundation for our collective entry into the Sport of Kings.
The racehorse business has no off-season, even in winter.
The major Derby races are six months away, but in the barns and breeding sheds across the country, trainers and stallion managers and their backers continue to toil away in search of The Great One.
A great racehorse though, as we’ve learned, can come from anywhere: as the offspring of engineered pedigrees, the product of expert training, or a biophysical specimen of wonder that has a number of features like a balanced gait, alert set of eyes, or a massive left ventricle.
Last month, we ventured down into the heart of the world’s horse racing capital: Lexington, Kentucky, to meet with a few allies and begin our search for The People’s Horse, our campaign to crowdsource the first racehorse.
Already, we’d received a few offers. Not even to buy horses, but to adopt. Like Mr. Sharkbite. After learning about our campaign in Saratoga Springs, Sandra Lee, a Kentucky breeder and former airline pilot, contacted us about a four year old stallion she had in her barn. Mr. Sharkbite (featured below) had a great lineage, she told us, and even though he was four years old and had not yet been broken in yet (most horses are broken at age one), she was confident he could get to the track and win races.
“Be careful in the bluegrass,” Dan Hayden, a bloodstock agent and breeding expert warned us. “Everyone has a horse they want to sell you. Including me.”
Lexington is a land of contradictions.
It’s a small country town, with an extraordinary influx of wealth. The airport is tiny, and accustomed to the large private jets of Arab sheiks, billionaires and other fabulously rich owners who pilgrimage here throughout the year to buy and breed horses.
It’s not an accident that for over 150 years, Lexington has served as the ground zero for horse breeding. Even before horse racing migrated from England to the Colonies, the rolling hills of north central Kentucky were home to bison, horses and a host of other grazing animals.
The reason is Poa, the scientific name for bluegrass, which is believed to contain a higher concentration of calcium than other grass and is said to strengthen a horse’s bones. The high calcium comes from limestone deposits that formed underneath the bluegrass here thousands of years ago if not longer, and have turned Lexington into the world’s equine epicenter.
High calcium grass, of course, is not the only reason why race horse culture is centered here. Since the birth of the nation, horse racing had been centered on the East Coast, where colonists and settlers had adopted the sport from native England. But by the mid-1850’s, conservative politicians were seeking to outlaw gambling, which prompted race horse promoters to open tracks in the South, and specifically Kentucky, which welcomed the gamblers and their wagering handle.
Lexington was the name of a stud horse, a powerhouse that sired a large extended family that would go onto win the nation’s biggest races and paved the way for other breeders to set up their barns here over a century ago. Now, it’s impossible to look in a direction and not find a racehorse. In the airport. Along the highway. The street signs are all named after horses, and the pastures that lead out of town in every direction have horses grazing in the corners under their blankets, and seduce anyone driving by with the illusion that big dreams can come true here.
The centerpiece is Keeneland, one of the oldest racetracks in the country and a sales company that functions like a conservatory of horse-racing.
The gates to the track open as if welcoming visitors onto a rolling estate, and the landscape here looks like the oil painting of horses in the countryside that hang in hotel rooms and lobbies.
Ducking under the stone archways of the paddock is like stepping back around the turn of the century, a time when racing horses was among the most popular sports in the country. Not much has changed here, and the grandstand was filled with families who have made Keeneland (or “track” as they call it) part of the weekend ritual, holding up their babies at the finish line, snacking on the famous Bourbon Bread Pudding (we’ve put in for the recipe), and tasting a variety of local Bourbons, even beer aged in Bourbon caskets.
Here we met Sean Feld, who along with his father Bob Feld run Bullet Train, a bloodstocking outfit that picks horses out for clients at the sales, along with owning their own stable of horses.
“We look at everything, but a good front shoulder is key,” Sean said, as we shuttled between the races and sales grounds at Fasig-Tipton, the other powerhouse sales broker. Like Keeneland, the headquarters of Fasig-Tipton’s sale grounds open like an estate. There is no racetrack here, however, just an auditorium where gloved auctioneers bark off bids and prices, and a fairground of tents and prize rings where horse breeders from around the world come to sell their darlings.
Each day, Feld and his father inspected hundreds of horses, picking their favorites and prospects for clients or others they could re-sell or flip at sales the following year. It was a dizzying few days inspecting so many horses, and learning the various paths that we as prospective horse owners can take to purchase our first horse and create our collective stable. In our next report, we lay out the full lay of the land.