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Kentucky Horse Country On Assignment
Kentucky Horse Country On Assignment
Kentucky Horse Country
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By Shane DuBowPhotographs by Melissa Farlow

Million-dollar miscarriages have Kentucky horse breeders running scared.

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By Derby day, unbeknownst to the giddy masses at Churchill Downs, a line of trucks bearing dead horse babies had formed outside Lexington's equine autopsy lab. And the lab, inundated with carcasses, had scrambled to make space, lining freezers and hallways with overflow horseflesh. Hours later, while Monarchos broke for the roses and all the gents in seersucker and ladies in hats fingered their bets, a common sight around Lexington became the flash of a vet-bound pickup, blood-spattered barn hands performing frantic mouth-to-mouth on stillborn foals in back. Which is about when this plague, which would come to be known as mare reproductive loss syndrome (or MRLS), hit Crestwood.

* * * * * *

Further confirmation of the plague's return doesn't come until later that week, a harried call from one of the region's many wide-roving vets (some of whom drive 6,000 miles [10,000 kilometers] a month), the 29-year-old Jeanette McCracken, or Dr. J. She's a sharp athletic blonde who likes to say, upon a first meeting, "What, you were expecting someone with an Afro who could dunk?" She's known to some as the vet who once spied a panhandler in need of money for "food and pet shots" and so pulled over to hand him an apple and vaccinate his dog. Now she sounds frazzled, almost weepy, and she speaks of perhaps not buying a house here as she'd planned, because if things continue to go badly, "the whole industry might have to relocate," given all the reports of fetal losses flooding in from Bourbon and Fayette and Woodford Counties to name but a few.

The response, at many farms, is dramatic. Where once some put off felling cherry trees (the caterpillars' favorite roost) because the work would be costly and no MRLS link had been proved, now even the most elegant farms, like Lane's End, owned by Will Farish, ambassador to the United Kingdom, buzz with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of chain-saw work. And every spare minute is given over to defensive chores like respraying fence lines and bringing in mares. What more can be done? At Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum's lavish Shadwell Farm, a small army of pickers has been mobilized to prune every caterpillar nest from the trees. More generally (and less expensively), the answer seems to be to carry on as usual, which, about now, means a lot of mingling at catered parties and running off with the kids—who traditionally get some Derby time off from school—to Churchill Downs.

From the backside, the track's profile suggests the lines of a Mississippi paddleboat. On the infield, the grass fills with bellowing college students, many of whom seem happiest when chugging sweet mint juleps and baring their chests. In the jockeys' room, short men with exquisite balance and gorilla-grip handshakes lounge about in towels, their lockers full of enough sugarless gum, strong cigarettes, and mouthwash to let you know that a) you're still in Kentucky where tobacco is king, and b) the practice of "flipping," or throwing up to make weight, still goes on. It's Derby day, and the jocks I spy in passing include Mark Guidry, the languid veteran from Louisiana, shortly after an interview in which he held up his callused palms and said, "I ain't got no baby hands, baby." The celebrated and serious Pat Day is here too. And the fidgety Puerto Rican jock Willie Martinez is tugging at his silks, after an interview in which he mumbled a few rap lyrics—"I got my mind on my money and my money on my mind"—before quietly explaining how it feels to go down in the pack, with your bones breaking under hoof and the taste of blood in your mouth. "This was two years ago, and I was afraid I'd punctured my lung, man, like I was gonna drown in my own blood. You forget how powerful these animals are. But I've got friends who've been paralyzed, and so now, any race I walk away from, I'm like, 'I'm so lucky,' you know?"

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Online Extra

Get the latest news on the 2003 spring foaling season and an update on MRLS, a disease that causes miscarriages in mares.


Debate over the wisdom of adding slot machines at horse racing tracks is picking up speed in different parts of the United States. What concerns do you have about gambling? Join the discussion.

Final Edit

An image of a horse racing aficionado enjoying a day at the races made the grade as this month's Final Edit.


Would you approve of gambling in your state?

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Kentucky's horse country is located in the heart of the state's Bluegrass region, known as the Inner Bluegrass.  This region encompasses approximately 2,400 square miles (6,200 square kilometers) around Lexington and is what many Kentuckians think of as "the Bluegrass." But the physical geography of the Bluegrass region, which extends to the Ohio River and down through the center of the state, is defined by its underlying limestone and shales of the Ordovician period, about 500 million years ago. The Inner Bluegrass sits on the oldest of the limestone, which is especially rich in calcium and phosphate, nutrients that create good pasturelands. And where you find good pasturelands, you find horses!

For more information on the physiographic definition of the Bluegrass, see

To read other definitions of the Bluegrass and learn what you can do while visiting the region, see

—Mary Jennings

Did You Know?

Related Links
The University of Kentucky's Department of Veterinary Science: Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS)
Get the latest on MRLS by reading reports, asking experts questions, and signing up for e-mailed updates.

The Jockey Club
Keeper of the official registry of all Thoroughbred foals and a great source for Thoroughbred statistics.

The Bloodhorse
A magazine on all things racehorse related and a wealth of information on the industry in general.

Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders
Participate in forums and link to more sites through this group that welcomes you to the "Horse Capital of the World."


Conley, Kevin. Stud: Adventures in Breeding. Bloomsbury, 2002.

Reigler, Susan. Fodor's Compass American Guide: Kentucky. Random House, 2001.

Thalheimer, Richard, and Robert Lawrence. The Economic Loss to the Kentucky Equine Breeding Industry from Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS) of 2001. Department of Equine Business, University of Louisville, 2001.

Ulack, Richard, and others (eds). Atlas of Kentucky. The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.


NGS Resources
Clooney, Nick. "Kentucky Bluegrass," National Geographic Traveler (October 2001), 110-11.

Jarrett, Mary. "In the Heart of Kentucky Horse Country," National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1990), 120-34.

McCarry, Charles. "Heart of the Bluegrass," National Geographic (May 1974), 634-59.


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