Becoming the Horse Capital of the World

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How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders

For those of us from Kentucky, it seems as though the bluegrass state traditions of attending the Spring and Fall meets at Keeneland and Churhill Downs and the Rolex Three-Day Event with a mint julep in hand and a fabulous hat on your head have been around forever. But in reality, the perception of Kentucky as a genteel and idyllic southern state is a rather recent phenomenon. Following the Civil War, Kentucky could have easily slipped into irrelevance, but with the magic of the bluegrass and limestone, emerged instead as the Horse Capital of the World.

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Max Watman of The Wall Street Journal delves deeper into the story of the state’s rise to the top of American horse racing as he reviews former turf writer Maryjean Wall’s new book:

courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

By MAX WATMAN

One could be forgiven for having the impression that when Daniel Boone crossed the Cumberland Gap in 1775, he looked out over the pleasant pastures of what would one day become the state of Kentucky and saw that they were demarcated by sturdy, curving fences. How could Kentucky ever have been anything but a peaceful paradise of bluegrass fields where thoroughbred horses frolicked under the indulgent gaze of mint-julep-sipping colonels?

Calumet Farm just outside of Lexington, Ky., where Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948) were bred. 

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As Maryjean Wall relates in “How Kentucky Became Southern,” the state’s familiar gentility is largely invented—and relatively recently at that. As the old joke has it: Civil War-era Kentucky didn’t secede from the Union until after the war was over.

There are those, of course, who think that Kentucky was fated to become, if not a Southern bastion, then at least a horse-breeding capital. Millions of years ago, Ms. Wall writes, ocean waters washed across the shallow shelf of present-day Kentucky, “bringing with them the millions of invertebrates that left behind a precious natural gift, their fossilized shells, which gave rise through the millennia to a particular form of limestone rock, the building block that horseman have long believed is critical to raising a strong-boned racehorse.” Phosphates in the limestone, according to the theory, fed the soil that fed the grass that fed the horses.

But a more prosaic explanation exists for Kentucky’s horse culture—and more generally for the state’s Southern-fried sensibility. After Boone blazed the Wilderness Road from Virginia into central Kentucky, settlers poured into the region. They were drawn in particular to a fertile 2,800-square-mile area known as the Bluegrass. Ms. Wall notes that at some remote point in the past—it’s not clear when—ancient forests and canebrakes were cleared and the good soil seeded with Poa pratensis, or bluegrass, which is not blue but is very good fodder. Horses seem to like it. The citizens of Lexington, Ky., raced horses up and down Race Street, but horse racing as we think of it was, until after the Civil War, a hobby of the wealthy.

After the Civil War—Kentucky sent soldiers to both sides—the North and its factories roared ahead of the South and its agrarian culture. The horsemen of Kentucky soon found themselves up against the titans of a new era. Most of the “new men” in thoroughbred racing “lived in the city of New York,” Ms. Wall writes, and they threw piles of money into tracks and meets in Saratoga, N.Y., and elsewhere in the Northeast—where they also built lavish horse farms.

Kentucky was further marginalized by its postwar reputation as one of the country’s most violent places. The Ku Klux Klan wreaked its racist violence, but there was also, it seems, a general lawlessness. In the 1870s the New York Times observed that even the “best society” in Kentucky “streams with gore” and that the state was a nice place to live if you liked “personal affrays and private assassinations.”

Alarmed by the growth of an industry of American horse breeding that seemed bound for the Northeast, boosters went to work polishing the state’s image. The brothers Sanders and Benjamin Bruce, publishers of a periodical called Turf, Field and Farm, tirelessly promoted the benefits of the state’s soil, water and bluegrass for producing racehorses.

But the state needed more than a public-relations campaign to change its fortunes. Toward the end of the century, Ms. Wall says, a combination of developments helped restore Kentucky’s equine reputation. The arrival of suddenly wealthy miners and oil-wildcatters from the West—men who didn’t care for clubby New York society—suddenly sullied the playgrounds of New York’s wealthy, showing up at Saratoga and winning races. New York’s racing elite needed a competitive edge, and they looked to Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the forces for public morality that produced the temperance movement also took aim at gambling, a key aspect of the Northeast’s horse-racing revival. “By the early twentieth century,” Ms. Wall writes, “social reformers had persuaded various state legislatures to shut down racing in many jurisdictions, most notably in New York.”

Horse-racing needed a more genteel image, and a new popular nostalgia for the Old South—expressed by writers such as James Lane Allen and Annie Fellows Johnston—make such an image possible. Displaced horse-owning New Yorkers bought up the small farms of the Bluegrass and built Greek Revival mansions typical of an early 19th-century plantation South that Kentucky, in fact, had never known. The smaller farms had typically been devoted to a variety of livestock and agriculture, but now the focus was “almost exclusively to breeding and raising racehorses,” Ms. Wall notes. An entire economy of associated businesses, from banking to blacksmithing, soon developed around the newly professional horse breeders.

Matt Winn’s brilliant marketing of the Kentucky Derby in the early 20th century was the capstone: The deal was done, Kentucky took its place as the center of American Thoroughbred breeding. Ms. Wall has seen her share of Derby runs—she was the turf writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader for 35 years, which is rather like being the White House bureau chief of the Washington Post. When the nation’s attention focuses on Churchill Downs again next spring and Louisville turns on the charm, we will now know—thanks to “How Kentucky Became Southern”—what exactly it is that we’re drinking to when we raise that first mint julep.

—Mr. Watman is the author of “Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine.”

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About University Press of Kentucky

The University Press of Kentucky has a dual mission—the publication of books of high scholarly merit in a variety of fields for a largely academic audience and the publication of books about the history and culture of Kentucky, the Ohio Valley region, the Upper South, and Appalachia. The Press is the statewide mandated nonprofit scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, operated as an agency of the University of Kentucky and serving all state institutions of higher learning, plus five private colleges and Kentucky's two major historical societies.

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