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Kentucky Horse Park Definitely on Fast Track

May 10, 1987|NANCY HOYT BELCHER | Belcher is a South Pasadena free-lance writer .

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Thou shalt be favored above all other creatures, for to thee shall accrue the love of the master of the earth .

--The Koran

The creature mentioned is, of course, the horse. What other animal could be favored above all else, here in the beautiful Kentucky Bluegrass Country? Dog and cat lovers may disagree, but when was the last time you heard of a $35-million park devoted to Fido or Fluffy?

I overheard an official say that the state built the Kentucky Horse Park in part just to keep tourists from traipsing all over the property of the thoroughbred farms in the area.

I don't know if that's true, but certainly horse racing and raising horses are big business here. In 1985, more than $94 million, mostly betting, was spent at Kentucky race tracks, and it's estimated that the horse business's annual cash flow and investments away from the tracks exceed $1 billion.

I once owned a horse, a thoroughbred grandson of the legendary Man O' War. He came with impressive pedigree papers, but with a racing record so dismal that his granddaddy would have disowned him.

So I had a personal interest in visiting here. Man O' War is buried here, under a life-size statue of himself. Buried nearby is Isaac Burns Murphy, a black Kentucky jockey who won his first derby in 1884. He won 44% of all the races he rode in, a record unequaled by any other American jockey.

But you don't have to be smitten by horses to enjoy this impressive tribute to the animal. Even my usually anti-equine husband (he claims horseback riding causes appendicitis) had a good time. But 80% of the 250,000 visitors who come here annually know little about the horse; they leave considerably more knowledgeable.

One handler was parading and describing a famous thoroughbred racer when he was interrupted by a woman bystander: "What's a gelding?"

"A castrated male horse," called out the nonplussed young man. It's a question that's asked a dozen or so times everyday, he said.

The 1,032-acre park opened in 1978 on the site of the former Walnut Hall Stud Farm. This is no cheap, gimmicky theme-park show, but an elegant, first-class showcase of numerous barns (enough stalls to house 516 horses), two theaters (seating 420) and two museums. It's the Disneyland of horsedom and just as neat and clean, especially considering its primary residents aren't housebroken.

The architects modeled everything, from the picturesque white barns to weather vanes, on a typical Kentucky working horse farm. Then they perfected it with colorful graphics and computer technology, like the giant electronic media board (reminiscent of a racing tote board) in the Visitor's Information Center that provides visual and audible information about the day's activities.

Be sure to see one or both of the movies shown in the Visitor's Center's two wide-screen theaters. "Thou Shalt Fly Without Wings" is a 22-minute film portraying horses in pageantry and play, shot in 50 locations around the world. A 26-minute documentary about the Budweiser Clydesdales, "All the King's Horses," shows in the second theater.

The park's focal point is the 52,000-square-foot International Museum of the Horse, said to be the largest equine museum in the world. There you can find just about everything related to horses and to their relationship with man through 50 million years of history, starting with a model of the first equine, the 18-inch Eohippus.

Several Displays

One gallery is devoted to the horse in sport. Another houses a collection of 26 antique horse-drawn vehicles. A third exhibit displays 545 pieces of dazzling Calumet Farm trophies, representing more than 150 stakes winners such as Whirlaway and Citation. The glittering collection was appraised by Sotheby Parke Bernet at $3.5 million.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. donated another collection of 443 hand-carved miniature horses, carriages and wagons valued at more than $1 million. Most were created by master American woodcarvers around the turn of the century.

Many visitors become engrossed in the hands-on computerized displays and take part in quiz games. You can pick up bits of trivia that will stop a cocktail party cold: In ancient Rome, bookmakers dispatched the results of chariot races by carrier pigeons to off-track bettors; Cro-Magnon man ran horses off cliffs, then butchered and ate the casualties, and when Man O' War died, his body was embalmed and more than 2,000 people attended his funeral.

Outside the museum you can get around on a walking tour (wear comfortable shoes) or travel by a motorized tram service that stops at all the attractions. Or for an additional fee you can take a guided tour in a horse-drawn, five-passenger surrey or in an old-time shay.

In addition to scheduled events, working shops give demonstrations in day-to-day operations of a horse farm. You may catch the farrier shoeing a horse or the harness maker deftly stitching a Percheron's halter.

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