All in the family
By Blake Dahlin

Each morning, Kevin Lay brings Lea and Blame, two stallions he cares for, in from their paddock. The routine includes a bath or a brush and a mane trim when needed.

Claiborne Farm is famous for being the home of Secretariat, often called the greatest racehorse that ever lived. But behind that legacy are people like Kevin Lay, whose passion and love for these animals has been a constant presence for decades.

Long before sunrise, Kevin is prepping stalls, gathering feed and grooming the two stallions he cares for at Claiborne. Four generations of his family have worked at the farm, looking after some of the most elite Thoroughbreds in the country.

Kevin began work at Claiborne on Dec. 7, 1993, one day before his 18th birthday. Now, nearly 30 years later, he’s still going strong, braving the elements, early mornings, and, at times, seven-day workweeks to care for the animals he calls “family.”

Kevin’s roots at Claiborne run deep. His grandfather and father both worked there. Now, he’s raising his kids at Claiborne. His two sons, Austin, 21, and Ryan, 16, have spent weekends and summers working part-time at the farm. His daughter, Allyson, 14, isn’t quite old enough to work at the farm, and time will tell if any of his kids decide to continue the legacy at Claiborne.

On a hilltop among the 3,000 acres of rolling pastures and mature trees, Kevin points to a few graves of horses he has had a special connection to: Relaxing, the first horse he laid hands on; and Danzig, the first stallion he worked with. He keeps a few old photographs on his phone, including one of his grandfather, Ben, with Danzig. And, of course, he has a photo of his grandfather with Secretariat.

For a brief time, he walked away from Claiborne, taking a job at an automotive parts factory. It didn’t take long for him to return, with a little help from his wife, Lesley. With her encouragement, Kevin asked for his job back and came home in 2007.

When he came back, Kevin knew this was where he belonged. “Claiborne is more than a horse farm," he says. "It’s a way of life.”

Rhythm and routine are a part of that life. And it's in those rhythms that Kevin builds a deep connection with the stallions he works with.

The horse he feels most connected with is Blame, a tall stallion with a strong personality. Kevin has been with Blame for about 13 years, watching him grow. When Blame was younger, Kevin could watch him from the window of his home on the property. Now, a picture of Blame hangs over the fireplace in Kevin's house.

When Kevin leads tours through Claiborne, he introduces the stallions as his “boys,” and he means it. For the stallion grooms at Claiborne, the success of the horse is something they relish, just as they do the successes of their own children. For Kevin and so many others at Claiborne, “the horses are family.”

The work begins early at Claiborne Farm. Kevin arrives at 5 a.m. to bring in the horses. He works through the elements year-round. "Your hands get so cold they're starting to throb, but you still got your job to do," he says. "You gotta go on."

Claiborne Farm has been in Bourbon County for more than a century, operating on about 3,000 acres of land outside of Paris.

After leaving Claiborne in 2004, Kevin took a job at an automotive parts factory. It was his wife, Lesley, who convinced Kevin to return. "It was the right choice," he says. "I'm sure glad she's smarter than me."

In the tack room of the barn where Lea and Blame are kept, a cabinet holds halters and supplies used to care for the stallions.

Kevin leads out War of Will, the 2019 Preakness Stakes winner, to show him to a tour group. He and the other stallion grooms lead tours through the farm each week. Visitors learn the storied history of the farm and conclude their tour with a visit to the grave of the farm's most famous resident, Secretariat.

When the stallions are "turned out," or taken out to their paddock each afternoon, Kevin begins "shaking the stalls." It's a process of cleaning out the muck and wet hay after the stallions have spent their morning there.

After 13 years together, Kevin and Blame have developed a strong bond. To Kevin, Blame is "family."

When Blame needs a mane trim, Kevin can stand on the ground and get to work. Lea, however, is a different story.

Of the two stallions Kevin cares for, Blame is the one who loves the water. Kevin likes to give each horse some warm water in the cool of the morning.