Visiting a champion

Imagine walking into Michael Jordan's house. You take a look at his trophies, he might offer you a beverage and then you pose for a picture. Naturally, your arm is slung around his shoulders.

Then you wake up, right? You can't just walk into the home of a famous athlete and bask in the glory of what they did on the court or track.

Unless, of course, that athlete happens to be a horse.

Although horse racing has a reputation for being less than accessible, in one area, it is vastly superior to other sports: visiting stars in retirement.

Although horse racing has a reputation for being less than accessible, in one area, it is vastly superior to other sports: visiting stars in retirement.

Short of having extremely well-connected friends, odds are you will never be invited to spend the afternoon with Michael Jordan or Brett Favre or Pete Sampras. It just isn't going to happen. But what many are beginning to realize is that if you want to hang out with a Kentucky Derby winner, most the time, all you have to do is ask.

With some exceptions, most farms have a system in place to accommodate fans. If you stop to think about it, that is a little mind-boggling. After all, these are all businesses that have insane amounts of money on the line. And yet, most are happy to show off the stars of the operation.

Over the years, I have had many a friend ask how you go about visiting a farm. From die hard fans to the merely curious, there really is something for everyone.

For those not comfortable visiting private farms (and even for those who are), the Kentucky Horse Park and Old Friends are two great options. The KHP is home to the likes of Cigar, Da Hoss, Funny Cide and Go For Gin, while Old Friends is home to many, many wonderful retirees. Both places are very educational, and they also happen to be located within about 10 minutes of each other.

For those who want to visit an actual farm but are not comfortable making travel arrangements, I would point you in the direction of one of the many horse farm tour companies that exist in the Bluegrass. Simply do a Google search, look at what each has to offer, and stay with what makes you the most at ease. Obviously, there is a cost associated with having someone else shuttle you from farm to farm.

For those who are interested in setting their own itinerary, it is totally feasible to do so. But before you set sail on your own farm tour adventure, I have some tips for you. These are based on my experiences visiting farms in the Lexington area, but apply to farms the world over.

One, decide which horses you most want to see and find out where they are. This may seem intuitive, but it is the easiest way to start building your itinerary. Much like trying to take in all of the Louvre in one trip is impossible, so is seeing every farm around. Prioritize.

Two, be flexible when you are making reservations. Farms usually have set times that fans can come visit. Sometimes that will mean you have to choose one farm over the other. Be prepared to do so. Also, don't be afraid to call and change an appointment time if a farm offers you multiple options and you later run into a conflict. The people you are speaking with don't think you are only coming to see their horse. But always, always make reservations.

Three, don't lie. Some farms are only open to breeders. It is unfortunate if that is the home of your favorite horse, but you have to move on. Sadly, some fans will lie just to get in. Most farms will call you out if you attempt to do this, which is embarrassing for everyone. And even if you do get in, don't believe for a second they actually believe you. If nothing else, usually the horses you want to see will give you away. Don't be that guy.

Four, buy a map. I realize that sounds old school, but farm roads and GPS devices are not always best buddies. Trust me (and countless others) on this. In addition to successfully finding the farm, a map will help you figure out what makes sense geographically if you book multiple farms in one day. In addition to the map, it is smart to have a list of phone numbers with you in case you get lost.

Five, be respectful. Different farms have different policies, and it is important you respect that. Some let you feed treats, some don't. Some let you have a picture taken with your favorite horse, some don't. They aren't trying to be mean; they are trying to keep you and their staff safe. Sometimes a horse is on a specific diet, sometimes they get nippy if they get treats, and some horses just aren't as friendly as others. Rules are in place for a reason, and if enough people ignore them, a farm may decide it is no longer with the risk of letting visitors in.

Six, be an ambassador. Chances are if you are planning your own itinerary, you are a pretty big race fan. That is fantastic, but be aware that you may not be the only one who shows up at the farm for a tour at your scheduled time. Sometimes you end up with someone who is there on business. Respect that. Sometimes you end up on a tour with people who don't know as much as you. Be nice to them. Don't ridicule them if they ask questions you deem silly. They are there, and they are trying to learn. Encourage that.

Seven, tip the grooms (or at least try to since different farms have different policies). If you can, give them a little something for their trouble. Being a groom is a hard job, and you are interrupting their day. Furthermore, most grooms are very proud of their charges. Don't be afraid to ask questions or admire the horse. How much you tip is based on what you can afford to give and how well you were treated. If someone goes above and beyond to make your visit memorable, acknowledge that.

Eight, write a thank you note. In my eyes, this is non-negotiable. It is the polite thing to do. Plus, if you want to visit again, it is a good way to have them remember you as fondly as you remember them.

If you want a farm to do something out of the norm for you, go out of your way to ask.

Nine, do your research. Before you even begin this whole process, take a glance at the calendar. Are you visiting during Kentucky Derby week? Perhaps during one of the major yearling sales? If so, be prepared to be told no. If it is a crazy busy time on the farm, many simply do not have the staff or the time to do tours. In fact, some farms will not do tours during breeding season at all, although most will. Plan accordingly. Also, some stallions shuttle during the off season, so make sure the horse you want to see is even in the country. Time of year can also work in your favor. During the breeding stock sales in November and January, many farms have open houses. You don't have to make an appointment, you can just show up during the given time frame and see the stallions.

Ten, be realistic. If Zenyatta tops your list, get used to disappointment. In general, broodmares are off limits to fans. There are many reasons for this and most are sound. Stallions are used to being shown off whenever a breeder is interested in them. It is part of their daily routine. Mares are a different story. They are off in giant fields with their buddies grazing the day away. This means several things. One, they are not on a part of the farm that is set up for lots of visitors. Two, catching them can be down right time consuming. Three, horses are very routine oriented, and no one wants to upset a mare who might be in the process producing the next great wonder-horse. There are some farms that will let you see broodmares and it never hurts to ask, but don't expect it.

Bonus tip: If you want a farm to do something out of the norm for you, go out of your way to ask. If you show up and unexpectedly want to see a horse that is not normally shown to the public, nine times out of 10 you will be told no. Take the time to ask ahead of time. Even better, write a letter to a head honcho explaining your request. If it is feasible and they have time to prepare, your odds of getting a yes go up. True story. Several years ago, a friend wrote to the head of a major farm asking if there was any way her friend could meet one of the recently retired mares. She explained why the mare meant so much to this particular friend and then gave the dates they would be in town. She received a letter back saying that as long as it was a quiet day on the farm, it might be possible. Turns out, it was a quiet day on the farm.

Hopefully this list will help anyone who is curious about visiting a farm. For those of you reading this thinking I have an "in" because of my job, you are only partially correct. It is true I have been very fortunate to visit with horses that are not part of normal tours. But for the most part, if I take friends to farms, I will try to book the visit in their name. I like to see how organizations treat the regular, everyday fan. Some do it better than others, and I remember that.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.