By Chris McGrath
Across the world, the economic tsunami triggered by the pandemic has been stemmed, to some degree, by massive government interventions. But these can only go so far, whether in funds, duration or reach. Beyond those margins, many hugely deserving enterprises find themselves perilously exposed–and it will fall onto society, onto each one of us, to help determine which are worth saving.
Broadsided by this unaccountable emergency into a sudden, existential crisis, Horse Country is now turning to the community it serves and making its own case for salvation.
That's a chastening positional shift for an operation that had, by its own volition, appeared to be achieving inexorable momentum. But it's also one that can be made with the clearest of consciences, however you choose to quantify that “worth.”
In literal terms, you could point to over $1 million of known, direct investment in the business already made by converts made through Horse Country. (And who knows what other seeds may yet be germinating among 120,000 guests, from all 50 states and 22 other nations, entertained to date?)
But other gains are less tangible. What price, after all, can we put on evangelism for a sport so menaced by the misapprehensions of an increasingly urban society? As many as 73% of Horse Country guests have never previously or only occasionally been exposed to any equine experience. Even before being drawn into this global crisis, remember, the industry had spent much of the previous year struggling to demonstrate its commitment to the welfare of noble animals sometimes reduced by breakdowns and/or corrupt use of pharmaceuticals.
In reality, these different types of traction are actually continuous. Because whoever takes a Horse Country tour, whether as novice or aficionado, will come away knowing that the Bluegrass way of life starts and ends with the Thoroughbred.
For this is no artificial show, spinning some artful marketing message. The idea is simply to remove all barriers, real or perceived, between the horse and the world beyond the paddock rails. That transparency, that belief, has sustained dynamic growth through what remains, at no more than six years, the relatively brief history of Horse Country.
To Price Bell, whose family's Mill Ridge Farm has been a key partner from the outset, that trust–in the wonder of the Thoroughbred, and the candour of the experience–gives Horse Country seamless application. If anything, in fact, the disastrous severing of access during the pivotal tour season (wiping out projected revenue between March and June of $345,000, and stacking up refunds of $150,000) has only served to emphasize that reach. For the improvisation of virtual tours has given a staggering new dimension to public engagement, with over 2.5 million views in 12 weeks.
“What I'm so proud of is that we'd lost 40% of our budget, and all the pre-bookings for this year,” Bell says. “And instead of just saying, 'Woe is me,' we said, 'Okay, well, how do we keep pushing the mission?' Claiborne kicked off the first virtual tour and their series has generated over 550,000 views. Mill Ridge has had 430,000 views. It's been incredible.
“It was mid-March, and everyone was in a tailspin. So there was not a lot of planning. It was just, like, 'Hey, let's see if we can share the peace of these pastures with you.' And we had a ton of first responders and medical workers who wrote to say how much it meant to them, how they were going to the E.R. every day and how just being out in the field gave them peace.'”
That heart-warming feedback came from one end of the spectrum. But Bell was also gratified to receive enthusiastic messages from industry peers. One prominent breeder sent him a selfie while tuning out from the stresses of the day with a glass of bourbon and a virtual tour.
“That was a good touch point,” Bell says. “I thought, okay, if guys like this are consuming these, that's got to be good. This has to be worth continuing.”
Then there came a warm message from Tanya Gunther, after a friend had forwarded footage of Bell's father Headley illuminating viewers about the success of Glennwood Farm. She's a shareholder in Mill Ridge's stallion, Oscar Performance, so here was an alternative interaction during lockdown. Even in a time of mass alienation, Horse Country had shown–from exhausted nurses to important clients–an unfailing ability to connect.
It's sometimes been difficult, for the hosts of virtual tours, to know quite where they're going. “But in your gut it feels like the right thing to do,” Bell says. “And then you get all these moments, whether it be the front-line workers, or potential customers, or existing clients. And when you hear how much they enjoy it, you're like, 'Well, yeah, we got to keep doing this.'”
And that, again, has all been an exercise in transparency and confidence. There have been live feeds, live questions, live comments. There's no rehearsal, no window-dressing. And, judging from some of the comments received, the direct nature of that connection has won trust, hearts, minds. Here are a few samples:
“Seeing this behind-the-scenes operation will make watching racing more enjoyable for me.”
“This was wonderful… I hope you all will continue doing these even after social distancing is no longer a factor. For those of us who don't live close by it keeps us connected to the horses.”
“Thank you!!! Can't wait to see the foals from season one start racing!!!”
“We could never thank you enough for opening up the farm to us on these wonderful virtual tours. You made enduring this pandemic so enjoyable. I learned so much… What was so wonderful was learning the history of your family and the farm.”
“Hello from Seton Medical Center–I'm screening to [patient] visitors rt now!”
“You made my little grandniece so happy today by chatting with her. Thank you for making a little girl's day. Hope to see you all real soon in person.”
“All the foals I now feel as though I know, I will follow as they get to the track… I hope it may be a whole new market for the racing industry.”
Even in extremis, then, the project has been proving its value. But what has changed, temporarily but critically, is its viability.
Before the pandemic hit, Horse Country was on the brink of a confirmed sustainability. A maturing product had shown that it merited marketing spend, and enthused members were investing in making the experience better yet.
The belated resumption of tours, a couple of weeks ago, remains drastically confined by regulations on social distancing. As things stand, even with a very small payroll half-furloughed until September, the numbers will no longer add up this fall. And, should that happen, the open embrace of Horse Country will revert to the folded arms and averted gaze that discouraged outsiders in times past.
“To me, the great success story of Horse Country was that it had shown that it can be sustainable,” Bell reflects. “We weren't crowding an already crowded marketplace, with the annual fundraiser, annual gala, annual contribution. We came with a business plan that was sustainable, and thus could celebrate the wonderful work of all the incredible charities that so many of us support and not compete with them.
“And then the coronavirus happens. So, the question is: are we valuable enough, in this time of extreme need, for the industry to come together and help keep the lights on?”
Happily, that question should be less difficult to answer now that the necessary red tape has been unravelled to give Horse Country flexible charitable status and eligibility for tax-deductible donations. (The Bluegrass Community Foundation, as a 501 (c3) non-profit organization, is hosting a designated fund for this purpose.) That lifeline has come just in time for an organization hitherto dependent, for industry-wide benefit, on the dedication of relatively few partners–some of whom have in effect been contributing hundreds of thousands by deferring or renouncing tour payments.
“We don't know when we can get back to giving tours on a sustainable level,” Bell explains. “Members have been giving them for free for six to nine months, all the proceeds going to sustaining the organization. They've done a lot. Hopefully they can do more. But our hope is that our industry can recognize the value of what we're doing, and the need. Maybe you didn't get involved because you didn't have a farm, or maybe you do have a farm but didn't want tours. But now here's the opportunity, with this fund, that you can support us.”
Even as it was, sales were on track to exceed even a budgeted 36% increase in sales across the fiscal year. Horse Country had established a virtuous circle by which greater sales lead to more marketing, which leads to more sales and ultimately more evangelists for the industry. A meeting had accordingly been scheduled with a major industry organization, with a view to an injection of marketing funds, the very week of the shutdown.
“That's the great irony of it all,” says Bell ruefully. “There we were, kind of at that inflection point of starting to have a slight surplus of revenue that we could then pile back into marketing, into pushing our utilization. We had not wanted to ask for help; had not, perhaps, made a very good job of showing our vulnerabilities. As a start-up, you have to be scrappy; you like to work out your issues yourselves. And we'd almost gotten through that.
“We felt we had shown proof of concept, we felt we were growing. With one more member doing daily tours, we felt would really be able to get to the next level. To use Mill Ridge as an example, we hired an Experience Co-ordinator last year–and were on pace for her to pay for herself in a full year, because we'd seen such growth. That snowball was really starting to roll down the mountain. And then the pandemic happened.”
Hopefully, then, it's only a question of fire-fighting. Horse Country has already shown that it is a sustainable model, so long as it can negotiate this crisis. Now it just needs enough people to recognize not just the merit of what has already been achieved, but also the still greater potential suggested in the process.
After all, the whole premise of the tour–emulating the Bourbon Trail's model for sharing resources and insights–was that the community's sum can be greater than its parts.
Some members have stoked the engine throughout. Claiborne observed a tradition of openness from the outset, and duly produced the first virtual tour four days after the Horse Country office closed. Coolmore generously harnessed the windfall of public interest when welcoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Many members have been hiring specialist staff and/or upgrading tour facilities.
By no means everyone in our community is in a position to do these things. Yes, Horse Country is always eager for new members willing to operate new tours. But its appeal is to every single one of us. It wants us to show that community means commitment; to show that we are all stakeholders in a way of life that is the cultural and commercial signature of the Bluegrass.
Do we really want to go back to hiding behind a post-and-rail palisade, and asking every intrigued newcomer to show credentials first? For all we know, remember, any Horse Country bus rolling down the drive may contain some future magnate of our business, making his or her first ever visit to a farm. But any home run of that kind would just be a bonus. This is about the incremental gains, the sense of homecoming that can be awakened across all tiers of society.
And the stakes, now, cannot be stated too starkly. “The lights go off in September,” Bell says. “We don't think we can count on our existing business model until there's a vaccine or until travel really picks back up. So if you are inspired by the way we've been creating fans, the way we've been sharing the story of the horse, then we could really use your support right now. I hope that anyone touched by this industry will be able to say: 'I hadn't considered this organization as a need–but I can see how they're trying, I'm proud of what they're doing, and I want to keep them going.'”