As the first Saturday of May looms on the horizon, its echo of past glories fills the air. If you've ever been in the Central Kentucky area near Derby season, you understand the excitement and colorful celebration that permeates the local environs. Personally, I've never been to the Derby - for, pretty much, two reasons only: money and a touch of snobbery. Yes, I will admit that I am not wealthy enough to purchase a new gorgeous outfit complete with elaborate hat to wear for one day, let alone purchase decent tickets in the stands. Here is where the snobbery comes in: I have never had a desire to attend the Derby by standing in the in-field. I know this is supposed to be one of the biggest parties of the year.....and the liquor flows just as freely in this giant grassy area surrounded by the track, but the weather gamble is just too much for me to consider spending any time there. Either the weather is great, and usually hot by early May - which means you roast with these beer crazed fans. Or, the weather is cold and rainy which makes it a muddy beer crazed fest. Either way, I prefer watching the race at home.....some years with a local group having a party, or other years, simply racing inside to turn on the tube just before post time.
However, I do have one special Derby memory that I can share: I got to personally meet Secretariat when I was about 12 years old. My family had not yet moved to Kentucky and while on a visit to Mamma & Pappa Watts' farm in Bourbon County, we met a woman at the Duncan Tavern (DAR Headquarters in Paris) who had been invited to visit with Secretariat in his retirement on Claiborne Farm. He was such a massive animal that we were all intimidated to stand next to him. The caretaker wanted to sit my 2 year old little brother on his back, but Mom would have none of that nonsense! I'm sure she had visions of that wild stallion racing off with her precious baby - after the powerful display of him racing down to the gate and skidding to a halt when we first arrived, I don't blame her at all! I'm also sure that Secretariat sneezed some beautiful green snot on her white skirt in retaliation. Horses are sensitive you know! One lesson learned that day.....he LOVED peppermint lifesavers!
To best celebrate this rich tradition, I have pulled some 18th century newspaper clippings from the Kentucky Gazette, published in Lexington (1795, I believe). I have also included a brief history of the industry which I wrote last year for a small online exhibit. Enjoy!
In 1775, George Rogers Clark extolled the beauty of Kentucky with the statement: “A richer and more beautiful country than this I believe has never been seen in America”. With the 18th century pioneer migration into Kentucky, the horse was a natural accompaniment. By 1789 the horse population of Kentucky had risen above the human population by 607 to make the horse population of the time 9,607. Not only were the pioneer conditions difficult enough to require the work of horses, but the gentle rolling bluegrass landscape was perfectly suited to the breeding and development of champion bloodlines.
By the late 18th century, racing a favorite horse was a widely accepted activity and only grew in popularity as a focus on the bloodlines developed. Along with the horse industry grew the development of large farming estates which solidified a hugely successful agricultural economy. Breeding horses for stamina and speed seemed to naturally evolve with the culture of the young state, with racetracks popping up in several surrounding counties.
Thoroughbreds first entered the territory by way of Virginia, with the first English bred Thoroughbred, Blaze, arriving here in 1797. Throughout the first half of the 19th century Kentucky horsemen continued to breed and race successful lines of Thoroughbreds. By 1850, the most famous of all 19th century racehorses, Lexington, was bred by Dr. Elisha Warfield and after an illustrious career nationally “begot more champions than any other stallion and led the nation’s sire list for a longer period than any other in history.” (Wharton p.27) Ironically, the bones of Lexington are a current source of issue as Kentucky is seeking to have them returned to the state from their current residence in the Smithsonian.
After the conclusion of the Civil War, the sport of racing horses had a quick decline as the sport was dominant in the south. However, it was not long before wealthier men of the northeast, familiar with the racing traditions of Europe, soon brought this sport back into popularity by building racetracks in the north. With Kentucky remaining the top breeding state in the country, it was only natural for a track to be built here in Kentucky which had not suffered the same level of war devastation as the rest of the south. By 1875, a new Louisville track called Churchill Downs was inaugurated with a new race, known as the Kentucky Derby.
For more information on this subject:
Book: The Horse World of the Bluegrass by Mary E. Wharton & Edward L. Bowen (1980)
Book: The Thoroughbreds by Barbara Berry (1974)
For more about the bones of Lexington: http://www.kentucky.com/181/story/725923.html
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