Sept. 25, 2019
Visiting the Kentucky Horse Park
Photos by Ryan Rehnborg
The first horse I ever owned lived on a bookshelf. Although I never rode him, I knew he loved to run from the way his black mane and tail streamed in the wind. His long bay legs stretched perpetually forward in a quest for more speed, testifying to the potency of his Thoroughbred bloodlines.
His name was Cigar, and as you may have guessed, he was made of plastic.
Fast-forward fifteen years later. On a steamy June morning in Lexington, Ky., I am sitting in the Hall of Champions gazebo in the middle of the world-famous Kentucky Horse Park, and I am about to meet Cigar – the real Cigar – in the flesh.
You may be wondering whether I am a celebrity. After all, not just anybody has the chance to meet the horse once described as “the incomparable Cigar.” Not just anybody can meet the “Racehorse of the Decade of the 1990s.” Not just anybody can stand in the same gazebo as the horse that won sixteen consecutive races – the first American racehorse to do so since Citation – and earned $9,999,815 in winnings over the course of his racing career. Right? Wrong!
As a visitor to the Kentucky Horse Park, you can meet Cigar – and other champion Thoroughbreds like him – in the Hall of Champions show, one of several daily presentations put on by the Park staff for the enjoyment of equine enthusiasts like you and me.
Nestled on 1,229 acres of grassy, rolling hills, the Kentucky Horse Park functions as the world’s finest equestrian facility and equine business park. Open to the public since 1978, the Park welcomes tourists through its gates nearly every day. The Park hosts hundreds of equine exhibitions each year, including the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and the Alltech National Horse Show. Home to more than 30 national and regional equine organizations, the Park has become “the epicenter of equestrian life, sport, and business” in America.
Whether you’re a professional horse trainer or simply horse-crazy, there’s something at the Kentucky Horse Park for you. Tickets to the park include admission to the International Museum of the Horse, a museum dedicated to the history of the horse and its relationship with humans, as well as the American Saddlebred Museum, made up of interactive exhibits and movies designed to showcase the American Saddlebred. Other indoor attractions include the Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries, an 8,000-square-foot children’s museum devoted to the world’s oldest breed of horse.
If you’re interested in engaging with real horses, young riders can enjoy pony rides, while older equestrians can explore the park on horseback with rented mounts from the Park stables. In the summer, trolleys pulled by some of the Park’s own draft horses provide ten-minute tours of the grounds. Finally, visitors to the park can purchase tickets to take horse farm tours around Lexington, visiting some of the world’s most famous Thoroughbred farms and meeting some of the best horses to ever set foot on the track.
While the Park is home to more than a hundred living horses, representing more than thirty different breeds, it also serves as the final resting place for some of the country’s most famous horses. Just inside the gates of the Park, a beautiful memorial statue stands guard over the remains of Man o’ War and several of his offspring, including War Admiral. A number of other beautifully sculpted statues are scattered throughout the grounds, marking the final resting places of other famous Thoroughbreds like John Henry and Alysheba. Like their living counterparts, these statues embody the beauty and grace of the American Thoroughbred. The statues’ stone manes float in eternal breezes, and sometimes the horses have been sculpted in mid-stride, each leg arrested in flight – just like my childhood model of Cigar.
The real Cigar, of course, still loves to run, but these days, his runs are limited to the green stretches of his retirement pasture at the Kentucky Horse Park. Though I am star-struck during our meeting, Cigar seems unimpressed with the oohs and ahhs of the crowd surrounding him, preferring, instead, to yawn in visitors’ faces, as he has done ever since he moved to the Park in 1999.
Overflowing with equine lore and brimming with horses, the Kentucky Horse Park serves as one of the best vacation spots for horse-lovers in the mid-south. And if you’re anything like me, you won’t want to miss the chance to meet Cigar – although you may find him more interesting than he finds you!
For ticket prices, parking fees, operating hours, and horse farm tour information, be sure to visit www.kyhorsepark.com. In ongoing celebration of its 35th anniversary, the Kentucky Horse Park will now give guests free admission to the next calendar day when they purchase a general admission ticket. Essentially a two-day ticket, guests will have more time to explore the park.
Check the website’s Calendar of Events for equestrian competitions that you might like to see while you’re in the park. For examples: August 7-11, the USEF Pony Finals; August 16-17, the USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals; August 10-14, Rocky Mountain Horse Assoc. International horse show; September 29-October 5, Paso Fino Annual Grand National Championship; October 4-6, Kentucky Classic Combined Driving Event.
While you’re in the Horse Park, be sure to visit the “Big Barn,” where on the hottest day, you’ll feel cool and comfortable. A fixture on the Walnut Hall Stud Farm when the Commonwealth of Kentucky bought it in 1971 to be the site of the Kentucky Horse Park, the original two-thirds of the “Big Barn” was built by John D. Creighton in 1897, where he raised Standardbred horses. In the 1920s, the 400-foot long barn was destroyed by fire. But in rebuilding, the owners of Walnut Hall enlarged it to 463 feet in length and 74 feet in width making one of the largest horse barns in the U.S.
In 2009, the Horse Park was awarded Federal Transportation Enhancement funding to reinforce the barn’s trusses and to create a carriage museum and a visitor center within the structure. Over the course of the project, approximately 18,000 bolts, nuts, and washers, 128 6x6 steel tube diagonal stall braces, 248 4x4 steel tube ‘y’ roof braces, 256 quarter inch thick steel plate wood joint reinforcements and 654 eight-inch steel channel or tube column brace reinforcements were used to shore up the barn’s truss system, saving this historic structure for future generations.
In addition to the Kentucky Horse Park, there are other horse sights/sites to visit around the area. For examples: Keeneland Race Course at 4201 Versailles Road is a national historic landmark and one of the most beautiful racetracks in the world. Live Thoroughbred racing takes place in April and October, and live Thoroughbred auctions are held several times a year.
The Red Mile harness racing track is Lexington's oldest existing racetrack, dating to 1875, and site of the Kentucky Futurity. Fall racing is August 7-October 9.
The Thoroughbred Center at 3380 Paris Pike is a working Thoroughbred training facility which houses around 1,000 horses. Visitors can learn about the working day and the care of Throughbreds in training. Tours are available April 1 – October 31.
Thoroughbred Park at 100 Midland Avenue is a 2.5 acre park dedicated to the Thoroughbred race horse and contains seven life-size bronze racehorses streaking toward the finish line. All the while broodmares, foals, and the stallion Lexington 'graze' in a nearby field. Jockey greats Randy Romero, Pat Day, Bill Shoemaker, Jerry Bailey, Don Brumfield, Chris McCarron and Craig Perret are all represented.
And just up the road in Georgetown, KY is Old Friends, racing’s living history museum. The 92-acre retirement farm is home for 55 former race horses, such as Saravana, 2002 Belmont winner; 1988 Eclipse winner Sunshine Forever; 1988 Eclipse Champion Sprinter Gulch; one of the sons of Damascus, Ogygian; & “Seabiscuit” movie star Popcorn Deelites.
If you still haven’t had enough “horsin’ around,” head west on I-64 to Louisville to the Churchill Downs Racetrack and the Kentucky Derby Museum. It’s only an hour and a half drive, and you will find numerous exhibits on racing in general and the Kentucky Derby specifically. You can see retired Thoroughbred Mine That Bird and his Miniature Horse buddy Winston. Visit the barns area and the “backside” where the 1400 stalls are usually full of horses during peak seasons. This tour is available through November 30.
If you want to take your own horse, there are many places where you can ride your horse through the natural and scenic areas of Kentucky. For a list of all the trails, visit www.kentuckytourism.com/things_to_do/horses/riding_trails.aspx
If you want to go riding and camping with your horses, Kentucky offers wilderness horse camps, where you can camp under the stars with your horse. For a list of these trails, visit: www.kentuckytourism.com/things_to_do/horses/horse_camps.aspx
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