Just past sunrise, standing beside a white planked fence looking out over a field of green, the celebrities of Lexington begin slowly walking toward me. Yearling Thoroughbreds _ chestnut brown and black _ they make their way to the fence, allowing me to touch their velvet-soft noses and admire their shiny coats and friendly dispositions.
Although the world of thoroughbreds is a complex blend of breeding, training and racing, this moment is simple: contact between human and horse. It is the reason thousands of visitors journey to the heart of Bluegrass Country every year.
Leaving Interstates 75 and 64 behind, they drive quiet country roads to enjoy the beauty of horse farms, the pleasing pattern of miles of white and black board fences, the thoroughbreds grazing on far-off hillsides.
For an even closer look, a visit to one of these farms in the Lexington area can be arranged through the Greater Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau.
For instance, Clem Brooks offers a glimpse of life at Spendthrift Farm, where he has been employed since 1941.
Showing a small group of tourists through the barns, past horses' grave markers and close to stallions that will pass their genes to a new generation of racing history, Brooks introduces the visitors to the important business of horse breeding and racing. They follow Clem along paved paths, listening to his recollections of life on the farm and the horses he obviously loves.
"He was a good horse," Brooks says as he pats one of the many granite grave markers on his tour. Slowly he walks over to a paddock _ a one-acre plot of land given to each stallion _ and he points to a horse munching grass at the far end of the fenced area. Brooks lists the horse's accomplishments on the race track and in the stud-fee business, all in the same breath.
Kentucky Horse Park
Although visiting a horse farm is a great way to begin to understand the horse business, the most popular destination in Lexington is the Kentucky Horse Park. Part farm, part theme park, it is both entertaining and educational.
The 1,032-acre park opened in 1978 as the world's only park dedicated to people's relationship with the horse. All horse breeds are honored here. Several types from around the world are featured during the Parade of Breeds, held several times a day April through October. From miniature horses pulling a beautiful handcrafted wagon to a Russian Bashkir, whose hair grows to 4 inches in length during the winter months and curls into ringlets, this parade is not to be missed.
Another excellent attraction is the International Museum of the Horse, which relates the history of horse breeds over some 50-million years of history. On the second floor, visitors can use computer terminals to call up information on the 63 breeds featured.
Another highlight is a room filled with 30 horse-drawn vehicles representing the range of 19th-century transportation. Yet another exhibit fills several rooms: 560 gold, silver and crystal trophies. "Calumet Farm: Five Decades of Champions" also includes paintings that help tell the story of that famed Lexington farm.
In the Hall of Champions, some of the world's greatest racing horses graze: John Henry, the leading money-winning gelding of all time ($6.5-million); Kentucky Derby winner Bold Forbes; Rambling Willie, the greatest pacer in the history of Standardbred racing; and Sgt. Pepper Feature, champion quarter running horse.
The American Saddle Horse Museum, located just outside the entrance of the horse park, holds exhibits that explain why this horse _ America's oldest registered breed _ was developed for the pure pleasure of riding.
Keeneland Race Course
Just past 8 a.m., standing beside the rail at Keeneland Race Course, a small gathering watches as Thoroughbreds go through their 20-minute workouts. Their mighty bodies trot only feet away as they warm up, turn around and then run around the track.
Although visitors can see racing only in April and October, the rest of the year horses are boarded and trained here, giving guests an ideal opportunity to watch the training process firsthand. Workouts begin at 6 a.m. and last until about 9:30 a.m.
Marilyn Thorbahn is a freelance writer living in Hebron, Ohio.
IF YOU GO
The first step in planning your visit is a call to the Greater Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 84 LEXKY.
If you want a personal tour, give guide Joan Combs a call at (606) 269-1721. Her knowledge of history as well as the horse industry is astounding.
The Kentucky Horse Park is just off Interstate 75 at exit 120 and is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Monday and Tuesday Nov. 1 through mid-March, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day). For more information write: Kentucky Horse Park, 4089 Iron Works Pike, Lexington, KY 40511, or call (606) 233-4303.
The American Saddle Horse Museum is at the entrance to the Kentucky Horse Park and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. June through August, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year and closed Jan. 1, Nov. 26 and 27, Dec. 24, 25 and 31. For more information call (606) 259-2746.
For information about Keeneland racing and morning workouts write: Keeneland Association Inc., 4201 Versailles Road, P.O. Box 1690, Lexington, KY 40592-1690, or call (606) 254-3412.