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Thoroughbreds and bourbon

Agriculture.com Staff 05/10/2006 @ 12:28pm

The license plates on cars passing us featured the outline of a running horse and the words "Unbridled Spirit". Equine images are inescapable in Kentucky; it's as if horse worship has been declared the state's official religion.

My wife and I took a spouse tour that had been arranged by the Alltech company (hey, we're both spouses, aren't we?), an excursion that included a visit to Keeneland Race Course, a stud farm, and a bourbon distillery.

Keeneland lies just west of Lexington and is surrounded by a profusion of -- surprise! -- horse farms.

Our tour guide, who knew more about horses than horses know about horses, explained the wooden fences surrounding the farms. White fences, she said, indicate farms that are home to racehorses while black fences denote stud farms. "There's a lot more money in breeding than in racing," she intoned without even a hint of embarrassment.

At Keeneland we watched Thoroughbreds being put through their paces, horses that were world-class athletes in top condition. Their muscles rippled powerfully beneath the taut horsehide and the thrum of their hoof beats reverberated in our chests as they thundered past the viewing area.

Racehorses are WAY different than the ponies back home. Our horses, by comparison, look generally soft and overfed. Sure, there are some that eat right, work out religiously and maybe even become Pilates instructors. Such creatures are the exception, and tend to be so perky and energetic that you just want to smack them.

After learning more about Keeneland than any person should need to know, we headed for a nearby stud farm.

During the ride we chatted with a lady from Atlanta. "I've always loved horses," she confessed. "Our oldest daughter began to beg for a horse when she was twelve. We didn't know what to do; a horse is such a big responsibility.

"I talked it over with our old neighbor lady who said, 'Oh, honey, get the girl a horse! It'll keep her mind off'n boys better'n anything!' It worked, but almost too well. She didn't get married until she was 36!"

We arrived at Ashford Stud and were herded toward an elegant stone-clad building. "Whoa," said my wife, "Looks like we get to tour the mansion! I thought they would just show us the stables."

But the "mansion", we quickly learned, housed not people but -- you guessed it! -- horses.

Not just any horses, though. According the stud manager at Ashford Stud, these are some of the world's top Thoroughbred stallions. He was quite passionate, and prattled on and on about the bloodline of each horse. I paid scant attention as horses really aren't my thing.

My ears perked up when the stud manager divulged that one of their stallions, Giant's Causeway, earns a jaw- dropping stud fee of $300,000! And that he can service up to four mares per day! All for the cost of a bale of hay and a bucket of oats!

No wonder Giant's Causeway has a nicer house than I do! If I could somehow "borrow" him for just one day, all my financial worries would gallop off into the sunset. But before I could formulate a plan for sneaking a stallion onto a tour bus, we were informed that it was time to leave.

Our tour guide told us that a neighboring stud farm is owned by the emir of Dubai or some such. This Arab-owned farm and Ashford Stud often get into a bidding war at horse auctions, buying stallions for sums normally associated with the national debt. Good to know that some of those petrodollars are finding their way back home.

Our last stop was Buffalo Trace distillery, which had no trace of any buffalo save for a fake bison statue out front.

We toured their facilities and got to enter one of the warehouses where their bourbon is aged. Someone asked about the aromatic odor and we were told that it was "the angel's share", that is, bourbon which is evaporating out of the oak barrels. No wonder angels smile and sing!

Bourbon tasting was part of the tour, of course. "Isn't that good bourbon?" I was asked after I swallowed a sip of their firewater. "Best I've ever had," I replied, not revealing that it was the first time I had tried bourbon.

It seemed like the thing to do, so I bought a bottle of bourbon. That evening I went to a drugstore near our hotel to secure some supplies. I noticed that the drugstore had a liquor department, so I checked out their prices.

Three bucks! I could have saved three bucks by buying that same bourbon at the drugstore!

Such is the lot of a tourist. More about that next time.

The license plates on cars passing us featured the outline of a running horse and the words "Unbridled Spirit". Equine images are inescapable in Kentucky; it's as if horse worship has been declared the state's official religion.

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