Storytelling Can Stir the Soul

How Stories are Transforming Tourism in the Bluegrass Region

He was less than remarkable at birth, a bay foal with a faint star born on Groundhog Day – one of thousands of Thoroughbreds foaled in Lexington’s Bluegrass Region in 2012. Although his sire had surged to second place in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, the colt’s dam was nondescript. She was purchased for a modest $250,000 and failed to win both races she started. 

The bay colt was consigned to the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Yearling sale in 2013 but potential buyers passed him by because of a minor injury that created a visible lump on his leg. As the bidding ended, the colt’s original owner, Ahmed Zayat of Zayat Stables, bought the young horse back for the posted minimum of $300,000.

“We felt he had a brilliance in him,” Zayat commented. “His demeanor, his aura, his conformation, the way he moved.”

The bay colt ran poorly in his track debut as a two-year-old but won both the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity and Frontrunner Stakes, earning him the title of American Champion Two-Year-Old Male Horse at the 2014 Eclipse Awards. A year later, the colt captured a wire-to-wire victory when he triumphed in the 2015 Belmont Stakes and became the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

This weekend, American Pharoah gallops into Lexington, Kentucky – arriving with the grandeur of royalty – to pursue the first ever Grand Slam title in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. 2015 is the first year the Breeders’ Cup has selected Lexington as its venue. Horse Country, Inc., a new not-for-profit tourism group, hopes to capitalize on the hoopla generated by American Pharoah and the championship to gain fans for racing and the Bluegrass Region.

“We have so many stories to tell like that of American Pharoah,” Anne Sabatino Hardy, Horse Country, Inc. executive director, told public relations professionals gathered in Lexington. “Storytelling helps us make an emotional connection – it makes an event or an occasion memorable.”

Horse Country, Inc. represents the membership and efforts of some of the most prestigious Thoroughbred farms in the industry joining resources with leading equine clinics and local equine attractions to create a unique horse experience for visitors. The group consulted with the Disney Institute early on to learn the principles of storytelling.

“For years, visitors would travel to Keeneland for horse racing and pass farms that were home to some of the greatest names in racing,” Sabatino said. “Yet they had no way to touch the horses, to see them up close and discover the industry’s stories.”

Now, Bluegrass Region farms, clinics and other horse attractions are swinging open their gates to provide visitors personal insight into the Thoroughbred industry – from breeding and foaling to conditioning, training and racing. Guests can stroke the velvety noses of mares and foals as they regale in tales of winners and hopefuls, triumphs and tragedies, courageous jockeys, determined trainers and the dedicated workers who tend to the horses and land.

Hopefully, the experience will transform visitors into horse race fans who want to return to the Bluegrass Region again and again.

Sabatino concluded with advice from the Harvard Business Review:

“A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.”

Note: Yes, American Pharoah includes a misspelling of the word Pharaoh. This was not deliberate (although it is memorable) and resulted from a mistake in the horse’s registration paperwork.


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