LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — The state of Kentucky is known for horse racing: The Kentucky Derby is held in Louisville, Keeneland Race Course is in Lexington and the Bluegrass region is known as the "Horse Capital of the World." But why?
Almost every Kentuckian has their own version of an answer. Most starting by saying they think the title has something to do with the "blue" grass.
But according to local horsemen, the answer goes far beyond grass and back centuries.
It is something horsemen like Mill Ridge Farm general manager Price Bell hopes stays a Kentucky specialty for generations to come.
"A lot of the racing of horses was done in the northeast in New York, done by the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, the Carnegies," said Bell, who is also the Horse Country Board President.
But in the mid to late 1800s, those big-name families started to head south.
"As they develop their breed, they were looking for a place for these horses to be raised," said Bell.
Lexington caught their attention after developing a reputation as a place to raise horses during the Civil War.
Bell said, "In fact, Lexington the sire was smuggled out in the middle of the night to go up to the middle of nowhere Illinois because they were worried about him being stolen during the war."
That reputation prompted a move that changed the Commonwealth forever.
"The Vanderbilts and Whitneys came down and bought huge swaths of land along, along with the Haggins, and that kind of established Lexington as a nursery place."
A breeding ground made ideal by a few ingredients: "The good seasons we have, the good grassland we have, and then the expertise that was already here from when Lexington was just a frontier city," said Bell.
But nowadays, Kentucky produces equivalent or more horses than England and Ireland and it is not about just high society. It is about opening up the field gates to all.
"I think that we are so lucky to work with horses every day," he said. "And now, most Americans don't have that opportunity to be around horses, but that's just in the last generation."
That's why Bell says he helped found the non-profit Horse Country.
"I find more relatable moments to connect people with horses here on the farm than necessarily at the racetrack," he said. "Because I think at the racetrack, it's about that, that fitness and that grace and that superior athlete. And here is kind of the grounds for their development, and thus more kind of relatable moments for us to connect with."
The non-profit offers tours of nurseries, stallion operations, feed mills, veterinary clinics, and aftercare facilities all in the Bluegrass.
"There's something that's so human the connection between human and horse that's really powerful," said Bell.
The Horse Country tours give visitors a powerful up-close view that is meant to inspire the next generation.
If you have not started stamping your way through your very own "Horse Country" passport, go to visithorsecountry.com to sign up to visit horse nurseries, stallion operations, feed mills, veterinary clinics, and aftercare facilities. Bell said through Horse Country, "You'll find a one-stop-shop to access 26 different touring members."