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Tour of Champions

Hermitage Farm and the Kentucky Derby Museum for the win with a grand new tour

 

By Laura Ross
Photos provided by the Kentucky Derby Museum and Hermitage Farm

 

Hermitage Farm sits just outside of Louisville in Goshen, Kentucky, on a pristine patch of 800 acres of rolling hills and verdant farmland that is dotted with prized Thoroughbreds and is steeped in historical significance. It’s been home to Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star, and countless other equine champions through the decades.

The farm is a busy working Thoroughbred operation and in 2020, opened a thriving agro-tourism venture that includes Barn8 restaurant, tours, events, bourbon tastings, art and more. It’s the next step in the farm’s storied 150-year legacy of greatness. Hermitage Farm’s owners know a thing or two about placing a winning bet, and it was a natural spark to bring together the farm and the Kentucky Derby Museum to showcase the importance of horses, Kentucky and the Derby.

“The Kentucky Derby Museum has around 300,000 visitors per year, and once they go through the history of racing, they want to see horse farms,” explained Steve Wilson, owner of Hermitage Farm, with his wife, Laura Lee Brown. “Until we opened Hermitage Farm and planned this tour, Museum visitors didn’t have that option. It seemed like the perfect marriage for Hermitage and the Museum. It’s always been our desire to have this partnership where you can follow the horse from being born through winning the Kentucky Derby.”  

The new Hermitage Farm and Kentucky Derby Museum Tour came out of the gate in early April at the Museum, located at Churchill Downs. 

“It’s the full immersion experience,” Wilson added. “You’ll see real horse barns, mares and foals. No matter what time of year it is, there is something going on with the horses. We are a nursery for champions. It’s a cycle of babies and yearlings, where they’re handled, primped, weighed and prepped for the Keeneland sales in fall.”

Hermitage Farm is anchored by a pre-Civil War era mansion that sits on the National Register of Historic Places. Owned from 1936 by legendary Thoroughbred breeder Warner Jones Jr., Hermitage Farm produced winners of the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, Breeders’ Cup and nearly every other stakes race. Wilson and Brown saved Hermitage Farm in 2010 from suburban development and placed it in an agricultural conservation easement, which will protect the land in perpetuity. 

“Our focus on the working farm and tourism keeps the farm alive,” Wilson said. “People understand Kentucky when they come here.”

“We are excited to see the tour come to fruition,” said Rachel Collier, Director of Communications for the Kentucky Derby Museum. “Tourism in Kentucky has taken a huge hit because of the pandemic, and anything we can do to bring more people great experiences, we will do that. And, it’s just so beautiful on the farm,” she added, “It offers a full day, jam-packed with everything Kentucky in one visit.”

Guests who register online for the Hermitage Farm/Kentucky Derby Museum tour will enjoy an adventure that explores the best of Kentucky’s horse heritage. The tour begins at the Kentucky Derby Museum at 9 a.m. where guests will meet their private tour guide, who will take them on a special Churchill Downs track tour where they witness a morning workout. 

“Hearing the hooves hit the dirt, and hearing the horses breathe as they run past is just incredible, and an experience you don’t often get to see,” said Collier. “Once they watch the morning workout, they’ll return to the Museum and get the full experience of watching our signature surround film, ‘The Greatest Race.’” The film, a highlight of any trip to the Kentucky Derby Museum, is shown in one of the world’s only 360-degree, 4K high-resolution theaters. 

Guests then have time to explore the two floors of exhibits and history in the Museum and check out the gift shop, before boarding a bus for Hermitage Farm, located in Oldham County, about 40 minutes from Churchill Downs. Once at Hermitage, a private guide will help visitors explore the many gardens and greenhouses, with an emphasis on farming practices and sustainability for the rich expanse of land.  

For a true example of farm-to-table sustainability, guests will be treated to lunch at Hermitage’s restaurant, Barn8. The restaurant, located in a beautifully and creatively renovated horse barn, sources food from Hermitage Farm gardens and a state of the art, computerized greenhouse built specifically for Hermitage. It also features ingredients from other local and regional farm operations. 

A bit after noon, visitors on the tour will reconvene for the highly anticipated Thoroughbred tour, where they will see the Thoroughbred paddocks, carriage room and trophy room. Next, a special treat will include the chance to meet and take pictures with Hermitage Farm’s prized Lipizzans. The tour ends with a Thoroughbred parade, where the handlers will lead the horses past the guests for a close view of the spectacular animals, before guests depart for the Kentucky Derby Museum, arriving back at the track around 3 p.m.

“It’s a really well-rounded experience,” said Collier. “If you’ve visited the Museum and done one of our tours here, and you’re wanting more, you’ll get that experience in person at Hermitage Farm. It truly helps explain why Kentuckians are so crazy about horses.”

The Kentucky Derby Museum is always looking to enhance the visitor’s experience, and its partnership with Hermitage Farm provides the perfect outlet to build on the stories told at the Museum. “Hermitage Farm has been a great partner for the Museum because they believe in what we do here, and we wanted to provide that special experience for our visitors,” said Collier. 

Kentucky Derby Museum fashion exhibition “Railbird Runway.”

“In the past, if you were looking for a horse farm to tour, you probably needed to drive to Lexington,” added Wilson. “Unless you’re spending several days in Kentucky, it’s hard to schedule something like this. We are just down the road, and we are the only Louisville-area farm that has had a Derby winner, Dark Star in 1953.” 

The Hermitage Farm and Kentucky Derby Museum Tour runs Tuesday-Saturday from April-November. Transportation is provided by Mint Julep Experiences. For more information on ticketing and pricing, visit hermitagefarm.com. COVID-19 protocols and safety measures are strictly followed. 

“We want to preserve and promote this wonderful history, give people a chance to learn and enjoy a quintessential Kentucky experience, and maybe drink a little bourbon and have a little fun,” said Wilson. “It’s one thing to walk through a museum, and see the track, but to actually be on a living breathing farm really brings it home.”