Within minutes of Kentucky Lake, one of the Commonwealth’s biggest tourist attractions, is another spectacle surpassing anything in the state—and even the world—for a growing number of people. Driving east out of Calvert City on U.S. Hwy. 62, you might easily miss this attraction, but at the same time, you could be in danger of crashing your car if you do see it. It is not marked by a sign or what you might expect at a Thoroughbred horse farm—high plank or stone fences and metal gates marking the boundaries and entrance. It’s what’s beyond simple farm fencing that is striking. What you will see at Megson Farms is a herd of white Thoroughbreds—the largest herd of its kind in the country and, as far as anyone knows, the world.
To say the herd is unique is a considerable understatement; of 2.1 million registered Thoroughbreds in the world, only 49 have been officially listed as “white.” Additionally, you can count on two hands the number of white stallions internationally.
If the herd and the farm are the Commonwealth’s—and, really, Thoroughbred breeding’s—best-known secret, chances are they won’t be for long. More and more visitors come to Megson Farms from around the world, especially Japan, where white horses are revered in that country’s culture.
The origin of the herd and the unique niche the farm occupies in the world of Thoroughbreds read like something from a movie script and are as special as the sight of white Thoroughbreds charging around western Kentucky farmland.
It began with an 11-year-old girl, Valerie Megson, who was completely taken by the sight of a white Thoroughbred at the 2007 Keeneland November sale. Like many parents, Valerie’s mother, Berva, and her father, the late Paul Megson, couldn’t resist the tugging and pulling of their daughter demanding they see the horse. The Megsons ultimately bought the colt for a sum that the precocious young girl thought might mean the end of her college fund. Obviously, it didn’t for the current University of Kentucky sophomore. On the contrary, the purchase of that horse, Arctic Bright, may be a business decision that conceivably could make Megson Farms as well-known with some horse people around the world as Kentucky Lake is for sailboaters.
“She was googly eyed over this horse,” recalls Berva. “We wanted to get the kids more involved with the horses, and we thought this would be a good idea.”
Paul, far from being a newcomer to the horse business, had been a Thoroughbred trainer for many years (primarily on the Ohio racing circuit) and saw beyond the colt’s sparkling white coat. He recognized good conformation and the potential for a racetrack winner. Here is where the story, however, departs from a cliché of “rare white horse wins the Kentucky Derby” to something beyond a “good idea” and again, something out of a movie script … literally.
“We had him all ready and prepped to race, and that’s when Disney came out with their wranglers,” Berva says. That’s “Disney” as in Walt Disney Pictures, the production company for, among many other movies, The Lone Ranger. Searching, quite naturally, for equine talent in the Bluegrass State, movie production staff stumbled upon Arctic Bright, a natural casting selection for the movie about the masked hero. “He became a movie star before he could get to the racetrack,” Berva says with a laugh.
One horse does not make a herd, however, and this is where the Megsons came into contact with Dalene Knight of Painted Desert Farm in South Redmond, Oregon. The grandsire of Arctic Bright, Airdrie Apache (bred by former Gov. Brereton Jones and foaled at Jones’ Airdrie Stud near Midway), was a stallion on Knight’s farm.
“What [Knight] was trying to do was create a white horse that was going to be a good racehorse,” Berva says. “She was getting up there a little bit in age, and it was time to retire. She called me up and said, ‘I want you to take over my foundation herd, and would you be interested in keeping up with my breeding program?’ ” Paul Megson traveled to Oregon to look over and select the herd that would be transported to western Kentucky. It included mares as well as a colt, Arctic Bright View, like Arctic Bright, a grandson of Airdrie Apache. Both Arctic Bright View and Arctic Bright appeared in The Lone Ranger.
Surprisingly, Airdrie Apache was a chestnut with white patches—not solid white as one might expect. The critical factor in both Airdrie Apache and his offspring is the presence of a Sabino or KIT gene. One of about 20 different mutations in the KIT gene can occur to produce a white or partially white coat. Surprises in breeding go well beyond the expected formula of breeding a white stallion and a white mare to produce a white foal.
“Sometimes, if you have a solid black, a true black line, you can breed it with a white, and the white will over-dominate the black,” Berva says.
Among the herd at Megson Farms are solid white Thoroughbreds and some with black or bay (dark brown) spots as well as those that Berva describes as having “chestnut flaking.” “I’ve got a white horse—a little yearling—that’s all white that has a dark bay spot right on its rump,” she says. One of Knight’s foundation broodmares now owned by Megson Farms is a grand-daughter of Secretariat, reflecting the farm’s objective to raise not just white horses, but fast white horses.
Whomever the sire and dam are (father and mother in breeding lexicon), the coat of the offspring is a guessing game.
“I can probably take some of my horses from the Airdrie Apache line and breed to anybody with a pretty high percentage of getting either a white or a colored horse,” Berva says.
“The best part is: You never know what you’re going to get,” Valerie says.
“It’s like Christmas,” Berva adds.
In terms of business potential for Megson Farms, the breeding of white Thoroughbreds could mean a bountiful Christmas of sorts each foaling season for the Calvert City farm. There is the breeding aspect of the farm’s business, as it is home to the stallion El Romeo, a son of Storm Cat and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Phone Chatter. But breeding is not the only avenue for success as it is with most other Thoroughbred farms.
“We have a variety of people interested in them,” says Berva of the white horses on her farm. They include horse people involved in hunter-jumper competition and dressage as well as those interested in Paints, a horse breed that, as the name implies, is characterized by white or dark colored spots. White stallions on Megson Farms can be registered as both Thoroughbreds and Paints, adding to the business potential in breeding.
The appeal for non-racing horse people is twofold: “You have the Paint, the color, but you also have the athleticism and the way they’re built that is just Thoroughbred,” Valerie says. “They’re going to be more athletic and stronger than any other type of horse.”
If tourism alone is a business, then Megson Farms is already a success. Passersby will routinely stop and take photos, including some so mesmerized by the herd they will venture inside the pastureland. There are foreign tourists as well, some of whom call the farm before visiting and others who just show up.
A contingent of Japanese horse buyers on their way to Lexington once stopped to look at the Megson herd. “They were amazed at how many we had,” Berva says.
And more horses are on the way. Besides mares in foal on the farm, a 2-year-old colt, Kentucky Lake, currently is in training in Lexington. He is all white and will make his racetrack debut this year. Megson Farms also has entered into a partnership with a Canadian farm, Signature Stables, to breed mares to two of Signature’s all-white stallions.
The latter provides a glimpse into the fun of growing up on a Thoroughbred farm for an 11-year-old girl enchanted by a white horse as well as owning a “movie star.” When Arctic Bright View returned to the farm from Hollywood, Valerie, riding him as she had done before his travels west, did something that inadvertently gave him a cue. “I remember him just stopping and laying down, just like a camel would,” she recounts with a laugh.
For tourists, visits to the farm come to an end, of course. For the Megsons, each day is another day to look out a window and see a truly unique sight. When asked what it is like, Berva Megson smiles and simply says, “It is heaven.”