Author Rachel Humphrey deep in Bluegrass Country at Spendthrift Farm with super stallion Into Mischief. (photo by Rachel Humphrey)
How I spent my summer (winter) vacation.
By Rachel Humphrey
Ever since I was a little girl, I lived and breathed Thoroughbreds. So much was the desire to immerse myself in all things racehorses, I studied a Bachelor of Equine Science, majoring in Breeding in college, instead of taking an Arts Degree, like most of my Alumni.
Even as I fell into other industries throughout the course of my working life, I never lost that passion for racehorses. So, when I decided to take a much-needed break after a very turbulent last four years, I settled on a visit to the USA.
I planned to go on my own, do what I wanted to do, go where I wanted to go. I had earmarked New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, then Los Angeles and with some possible time left over to spare, the thought dawned on me. This was my chance to realise a dream, if you will, to visit the place I had only ever seen from a distance, in magazines, books and television, as a horse-mad girl.
A place much like our beloved Australian Hunter Valley, where racing dreams are made, born, and sometimes broken. But more so, a place that serves as America’s beating heart of the Thoroughbred. That place was the Kentucky Bluegrass.
So, off I went.
Not knowing what to expect, yet full of expectation, I stayed in Lexington; nights filled with strong drinks and Southern food; the days filled with car rides, staring at the rolling green hills and the post and rail fences which go on as far as the eye can see. And I had the absolute privilege of seeing some of the world’s best horseflesh that inhabit these farms so steeped in Thoroughbred history.
I had just five days to visit as many farms as possible. In the end I got to visit eight properties in those five days.
Days (and indeed nights) between visits, were spent making and receiving phone calls, texts and emails, trying to organise appointments within a very short time frame. Everyday was absolutely flat out and the extraordinary time I spent Lexington was made possible and indeed memorable, thanks to some very special friends both here in Australia and in the U.S.
Arrival in Horse Country, U.S.A.
I flew into Lexington after five fun filled but hectic days in New York City (with a stopover in Atlanta, where I had the most amazing Blackened Catfish with beans and smoked turkey).
My first look at Blue Grass country came from the air; it looked like a patchwork quilt, in every hue of green imaginable and I was greeted with hot sun, the loud buzz of cicadas and a thick, humid atmosphere once I’d emerged from the airport terminal.
The first stop on my adventure was The Kentucky Horse Park, which is an absolute must for everything equine.
I’d unwittingly chosen to go on the hottest day of the week, that week, so the lush grounds and trees were a nice reprieve from the sticky heat.
I was greeted at the entrance by two bronze sculptures of two frolicking foals (Gwen Reardon’s “Frisky Filly and the Promise”) and further up the entrance path to the right, Edwin Bogucki’s magnificent bronze of Secretariat, the horse hot and wild eyed, seemingly dragging along his groom Eddie Sweat, with a stoic Ron Turcotte aboard.
The International Museum of the Horse was a fascinating and immersive tribute to the horse and his history. Taxidermized dioramas of the evolution of the horse; Legacy of the Horse, the Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries and The Horse in Sport are just some of the exhibits on display, which also include Affirmed: The Making of a Champion and Calumet Farm: Five Decades of Champions.
Other highlights were the opportunity to see artifacts such as halters belonging to Iceapade (who was a half-brother to the ill-fated Ruffian), Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed and Kentucky Derby winner, Funny Cide. A horseshoe, lock of hair and the breeding muzzle belonging to Man o’ War, the muzzle was also used for his son, War Admiral.
Both the Big Barn and Hall of Champions gave an opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the Park’s residents. The Big Barn has wonderful examples of some heavy breeds, including Jace, the 19.1 hand Belgian Draught and several others.
At the time of my visit, The Hall of Champions was home to Mr Muscleman, Western Dreamer, Won The West, Point Given and Marion Marauder.
Previous residents include Alysheba, Go For Gin, Cigar, Forego, John Henry and Funny Cide, who sadly passed just two weeks before I arrived.
I was extremely fortunate to spend some time with Point Given, as he passed two weeks after my visit. I spent about a half hour with him, feeding him peppermints, telling him how beautiful he was and sharing his misting fan, which was another reason I was reluctant to leave him.
On the afternoon of that first day, I headed out to the historic
In My Bucket: Claiborne Farm
This farm has been on my bucket list since I was a young girl, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. With all amenities in close proximity, the farm is cosy, unpretentious and whimsical; the surroundings are almost like stepping into a fairy tale.
I had booked the general tour and immersed myself in Thoroughbred history. The breeding and stallion barns stand as they have for decades, unassuming, simple and painted in the farm’s iconic white and yellow livery. There are no state-of-the-art facilities, no clinical sterility. Just a small barn where generations of champions have been conceived.
Our tour guide, Billy, took us to visit with Preakness Stakes winner, War of Will and Travers Stakes winner, Catholic Boy.
We also got up close with War Front, one of the last sons of the great Danzig. Aside from one other I met later, this stallion was the most obliging. He stood for pictures, pats and cuddles; no doubt swayed by the seemingly endless supply of peppermints! He is almost a facsimile of his sire, down to his markings, colour and relatively small stature but minus Danzig’s attitude. Despite his advancing age, he is no less popular with breeders, his 2024 fee is set at $100,000.
I strolled through the stallion barn staring in awe at the brass name plates on each stall door, Mr Prospector, Hoist The Flag, Nasrullah, Nijinsky II, Bold Ruler, Easy Goer, Danzig, Sir Ivor and of course, the name plate everyone was vying for a photo with, Secretariat.
Secretariat’s stall is now home to Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner, Runhappy.
The farm, like many others, retains name plates of each of the previous horses on each stall.
A number of the former occupants of these stalls now reside in Claiborne’s graveyard, a tranquil and reflective place and I left the customary penny on Secretariat’s headstone.
Next stop was Darley (Jonabell Farm). Founded by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the farm was named after a horse considered to be one of the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred, The Darley Arabian. It’s reported the horse was bought in Aleppo, Syria in 1704 by Thomas Darley – an English trader and emissary and the horse was sent to his family estate of Aldby Park in England, where he began his stud career.
Darley is home to eleven stallions including Street Sense and Medaglia d’Oro. The property is state of the art and has been extensively renovated to be so. It is the resting place of 1978 Triple Crown winner, Affirmed and Dubai World Cup winner, Street Cry, who shuttled to Australia for the Southern Hemisphere breeding seasons from 2009 to 2014. During his 2010 stint Down Under he covered the Al Akbar mare Vegas Showgirl, a mating which resulted in the champion race mare, Winx.
I met another honorary Australian in Medaglia d’Oro, who shuttled from the U.S to home from 2009 to 2017, resulting in 48 stakes winners from his pairings with Australian mares. I had arrived at the farm not a minute too soon, as the black horse was getting his daily exercise on the water treadmill, followed by a bath, both of which I got to witness and was a lot of fun to be included in the horse’s routine.
Bucolic Spendthrift Farm
Next visit was to Spendthrift Farm, again another tranquil property with big, green and shady trees and visitors are greeted in the driveway with a large bronze sculpture of Malibu Moon, a son of the late, great A.P Indy. (The legendary Nashua is also buried here on the farm).
Given time constraints and a large roster of 27 stallions, I viewed four-time Champion General Sire, Into Mischief, one of, if not the most in-demand sires in the country, with his 2024 fee set at $250,000. A fee justified, I would think, by his fifteen $1 million dollar yearlings sold at auction in 2023.
His restless demeanour meant no pats or peppermints, but it was wonderful to stand beside him. He is beautifully proportioned, with a nice shoulder and depth of girth.
I also saw 2020 Horse Of The Year, Authentic, another beautifully proportioned individual, whose 2020 Kentucky Derby rose garland is set into the floor under glass in the front office, with his halter and racing plates all surrounded by the silken Spendthrift colours, which is a fitting tribute to the horse’s efforts on the racetrack.
My private stallion parade finished with Omaha Beach, a son of War Front, who was a tough and classy racehorse, which he showcased in the 2019 Santa Anita Sprint Championship.
He has a lovely demeanour and moves beautifully. Physically he’s a little removed from some of the other War Front progeny; he is a little taller than I expected and very athletic.
Three Chimneys, Six Stallions
Three Chimneys was next and another farm which has been home to some truly great horses. The graveyard is situated on an open, grassy lawn and the headstones are set in a wide arc. Here is the resting place of Nodouble, a son of our very own Australian, Noholme, Slew O Gold, yet another Australian shuttler, Chief’s Crown; Capote, Wild Again, Rahy and Dynaformer, a stallion who was known to be aggressive and highly dominant in nature and extremely territorial about his stable and paddock.
From the six stallions on the roster, my viewing included 2017 Horse of the Year & Champion Older Dirt Male, Gun Runner, who has a great length of rein and plenty of scope.
The staff were also kind enough to parade Volatile (Violence – Melody Lady by Unbridled’s Song) and Sharp Aztec (Freud – So Sharp by Saint Liam).
Taking a break between farms, I headed out for a tour of Keeneland, a track that is in stark difference to anything we have in Australia, the main difference being the dirt track, as we predominately race on turf. The complex is decidedly old world, classy and charming. We were treated to view the sales complex, upper grandstand and got to meet with one of the outriders and her mount, the equivalent to our Clerk of the Course, whose main job is to chaperone the racehorses on and off the track. I met with the gorgeous Emoji, a Quarter horse with a friendly, quiet disposition and lovely kind eye. The Quarter horse, being bred for explosive speed over short distances are an ideal choice to work with Thoroughbreds.
Picturesque Coolmore – Ashford Stud
Like stepping into the history books once again, the farm is immaculate, beautifully landscaped and designed – simply picture perfect. The stallion barn here is something to behold; with its cathedral-like ceiling and hardwood panelled walls. Each stall has an impressive roster of past tenants. El Gran Senor, Storm Bird, Hennessy, Woodman and Grand Slam all once occupied the barn.
I was lucky enough to spend some one-on-one time with American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years after Affirmed. He was also crowned 2015 Horse Of The Year and 2014 Eclipse Champion Juvenile.
A big, imposing stallion with plenty of bone, a massive chest and big shoulders, he stands over a lot of ground. However, that was about as far it goes in terms of the horse being physically intimidating. I soon found out, he is, as my host Michael Norris put it, “1200 pounds of puppy dog” and indeed he was, the horse was kind, engaging and polite.
American Pharoah was beautifully summarized by Steve Haskin, for the Bloodhorse in 2015:
“….an icon; the personification of perfection – physically, mechanically, and mentally. In short, the ultimate racing machine.”
Unfortunately, Coolmore’s other Triple Crown winner in the barn, Justify, was already on his way back to Australia for the Southern Breeding season.
The stallion handling here is interesting. To avoid highly strung reactions from the stallions to being bought out for parades, viewings or just simply being moved around the farm, handlers use a halter with a nose chain fitted, so there is no expectation from the horse that there’ll be a visit to the breeding barn, and as such the stallions remain relatively docile (generally as docile as a stallion can be) but when the bit and bridle are put on, the boys know it’s time to go to work in the breeding shed.
I also got to visit with one of the farm’s retirees, Tale Of The Cat, another horse who spent time in Australia when he was younger; a stallion whose temperament is now a far cry from his rumoured past, difficult behaviour, he was nothing short of a gentleman with me. As of 2023, Tale of the Cat has sired 1,562 winners and 109 stakes winners from 2,687 named foals of racing age. He is now 28 years old, and his body is showing its age, but it was amazing to see him.
Legendary Darby Dan
I arrived at the iconic Darby Dan to a quiet day on the farm.
Visitors are greeted by the imposing plantation style mansion on the driveway to the right. After the usual greetings and introductions and surrounded by barn cats, I was taken to walk around the stallion and breeding barns. Both barns, much like the ones at Claiborne, have a cosy feel. All facilities are all set close by and the stallion complex is unassuming, the breeding barn is very simple. There is a large iron bell which sits just outside the doorway, which was once rung to announce an impending service.
Looking up the hill from the stallion complex, over the rolling paddocks, there is an old, two stall building flanked by two large paddocks. This building and the two paddocks were once the domain of the legendary notorious Italian champion, Ribot, whose territoriality and unpredictability led to his own private suite being built – which he almost destroyed on his first night in there, so the building was immediately decommissioned, with Ribot much preferring to live outside. Ribot is buried on the farm alongside his sons, the full brothers, His Majesty and Graustark.
From the roster of fourteen stallions here, I viewed Saratoga Special Stakes winner Copper Bullet, who entered stud in 2020. His first crop is rising four-year-olds, so we’ll watch their careers with interest.
I left Lexington immediately after my visit to Darby Dan, I was due to catch a flight out to LA, but not before making a last-minute dash to the Kentucky Horse Park, where I was able to secure a halter worn by Point Given, an ever so special memento. I hope to return soon, as there is so much more to see, do and experience.
My time there would not have been possible without the help of the following people, so to all, thank you.
Steve Haskin, Maribeth Kalinich, The Hyatt Regency, The Stagger Inn, The Kentucky Horse Park, Billy and everyone at Claiborne Farm, Kate Galvin, Mark Toothaker, Kendall Wucker, Charlie O’Connor, Michael Norris, Chris Baker, Veronica Reed, Stuart Fitzgibbon, Chris, Josie and Coleman Smelley, KBC Horse Supplies.
Extra Special Thanks: Peter O’Brien @ Segenhoe Australia.
And to Ray De Stefano, who was my guiding light throughout my whole time in the U.S.