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KENTUCKY
A GUIDE TO THE BLUEGRASS STATE - 1939

KENTUCKY THOROUGHBREDS

WHEN Daniel Boone in 1775 brought to the Virginia Legislature a resolution to improve the breed of horses over in Kentucky County, he was voicing a determination that has persisted in the Bluegrass. And the Bluegrass has made Kentucky celebrated throughout the world for its fine horses.

The resolve alone would not have been enough, however, if the Bluegrass did not have a mild climate and 1,200 square miles of cherished land around Lexington peculiarly fitted to be the nursery of thoroughbreds. The long, easy roll of the land, with its firm, dry turf undisturbed by plows and harrows, with its pools of water and its clumps of open woods, seems to please the eyes and feet of both horses and men. Underneath this Bluegrass turf is a layer of rare Ordovician limestone, a shell deposit laid down millions of years ago when the region was an ocean floor. This limestone gives to the water and grass a high phosphorus and calcium content which builds light, solid bones, elastic muscles, and strong tendons in the horses that feed and drink here. Under these ideal conditions are developed the prime requisites of the Thoroughbred strength and fleetness. As a result, Kentucky-bred horses make up one-half of the winners on first-class American tracks, and a large majority of Derby firsts.

Kentucky has always been interested in horse racing and horse breeding. The first settlers in the Bluegrass were men from Virginia and the Carolinas, who brought with them over the mountains and down the rivers on flatboats strong, fast horses, tended affectionately and with care. As early as 1788, six months after the first edition of the Kentucky Gazette was printed, there appeared the first Kentucky stallion advertisements. One of them reads, in part:
The famous horse Pilgarlic, of a beautiful colour, full fourteen hands three inches high, rising ten years old, will stand the ensuing season on the head of Salt River at Captain Abe Irvins, Mercer County, and will cover mares at the very low price of ten shillings a leap, if the money is paid down, or fifteen at the expiration of the season; and twenty shillings the season in cash, or thirty shillings in good trade. . . .

None of these first stallions was good enough to improve the breed; but after about fifty years of importing sires and brood mares, Kentucky began to produce great Thoroughbreds. The first Thoroughbreds were English products. In England the strong, heavy Norman horses that had carried armored knights into battle were relegated by changing times to the fields, and the qualities of the light, fleet animals from the East were sought. Three great Eastern sires were imported into England the Byerly Turk about 1685, Barley's Arabian in 1704, and the Godolphin Arabian in 1730. Crossed with native mares, they produced the English Thoroughbred, a peerless runner. In England the Thoroughbred was improved until there were the three great stallions, Herod (1758), Eclipse (1764), and Matchem (1748), who established the three dominant male lines to which all Thoroughbreds belong.

America imported its first thoroughbred, Bull Rock, son of the Byerly Turk and grandson of the Arabian, in 1730. Within the next thirty years Virginia and the Carolinas had excellent Thoroughbred stock. Messenger was brought to America in 1768, and Diomed, winner of the first English Derby, in 1799. Messenger was crossed with American Thoroughbreds and native mares to produce the standard- bred, or light-harness horses trotters and pacers which, like the Thoroughbred, found their best home in the Bluegrass. The third of the light breeds for which the State became renowned is the American Saddle Horse, which developed after Denmark (an American thoroughbred foaled in 1839) was crossed with standard-breds and thoroughbreds. This breed, known for beauty, intelligence, and show qualities, is Kentucky's own.

During the War between the States Kentucky horses were demanded by both factions. Owners subsequently found their stables empty, and interest in breeding at a low ebb. Since it was costly to ship horses East and South for big money, Colonel Lewis Clark was sent to England to study breeding methods and to investigate the Derby, England's great sporting event. The result was the first Kentucky Derby, held at Louisville in 1875. Aristides galloped home for a purse of $2,850. The mile-and-a-half event (now a mile-and-a-quarter) was worthy of the Kentucky product. Succeeding Derbies focused attention on the State, and several wealthy Eastern owners, Milton Sanford and August Belmont among others, bought large estates and moved their stables to the Bluegrass where some of the best-known sires in America Man o' War, The Porter, Sir Galahad III, Blue Larkspur, and many others are spending their last days in the velvet. Every year about 15,000 people follow the arrow from Lexington to pay their respects to "Big Red," as Man o' War is affectionately called. Though insured for half a million, and guarded day and night, he likes nothing so much as retrieving a hat thrown across the paddock. His 25-foot strides soon discouraged competition and he was retired early. He once was clocked at 43 miles an hour during a workout, and his size and strength were such that he seemed never to tire. "Chicago" O'Brien, one of the greatest of plungers, once bet $100,000 on him to win $1,000. Smasher of five world records, his "get," including War Admiral, Crusader, Mars, American Flag, Edith Cavell, and Scapa Flow, are nearing the two-and-a-half million mark in winnings on the American turf. From the Bluegrass have come many of the great moneymakers of the track, among them Equipoise (d. 1938), the third highest stake winner in America, who earned $338,000; Gallant Fox, who took purses of more than $328,000; and Seabiscuit, who in 1938 passed the $340,000 mark.

The horse farms range in size from less than a hundred to two or three thousand acres. Many of the larger ones are financed by industrial fortunes. Despite spectacular individual earnings, such establishments rarely enrich their owners. Ten thousand dollars is a fair price for a yearling colt of distinguished parentage, and two thousand more each year will keep him in the pink; but even if he shows the stuff Derby winners are made of, he may never return his investment. The hazards of disease, injury, lack of speed, and temperamental obstacles, all unite to keep Thoroughbred breeding a sporting proposition.

A visitor in the Bluegrass sees stone walls and white plank fences rising and falling on an ocean of dark rich green to enclose paddocks and fields and formally beautiful homes, immaculate barns and Negro cabins as precisely arranged as in a blueprint. Great elms, and maples trees that sheltered early settlers as they made their way across the Great Meadow interrupt the endless flow of green pasture. An ingenious device on the gates makes it possible to open them from an automobile. The driver, if he is lucky, may be asked by a grinning stable boy to wait a few moments; then he sees a group of colts coming over a hill on their spindly legs. Prancing along, they are ushered gently on to a felt carpet that has been laid across the hard rock. "Horses first!" is the primary rule on the horse farm. The larger stables maintain a Tack Room, which is decorated with ribbons and silver cups and may have a bar. The Tack Room actually is designed to contain halters, stirrups, spurs, reins, and other horse equipment.

The story is told of a man who, seeing one of the thoroughbred stables for the first time, suddenly removed his hat and said in awed tones, "My Lord! The cathedral of the horse." The varnished stalls with polished metal trim and the tanbark aisles without a wisp of fallen hay are as neat as the cabin of a steamship. A stable boy leads out his royal charge. His attitude is that of a colored mammy toward the "white chile" in her care. He croons and chuckles, argues and cajoles, but never uses a whip. It is generally conceded that the horse "knows more than a pin-headed boy." Yet the stable boys and exercise boys have been carefully selected for their tact, skill, and disposition. Usually one man to every three horses is employed in the racing stables and one to ten on the breeding farms. There may be exercise boys, grooms who rub down the satin coats, jockeys, foremen, blacksmiths, veterinarians, bookkeepers and cooks, as well as a manager and trainer.

Methods of training and stable routine vary, but precision is the keynote of all stables. Colonel E. R. Bradley, of Idle Hour Farm, has a record sheet posted on the door of each stall where twice daily the horse's temperature, the amount of food he has eaten, and other facts of his behavior are recorded. The record is discussed with the veterinarian each night.

During the spring about 70 per cent of the brood mares on a farm will foal. Each receives the care of a maternity ward patient, for nothing must go wrong with the Thoroughbred baby. He spends his first summer in carefree fashion near his mother, and very soon his slender legs have grown sure and he loves to run. His feet are trimmed and watched for the slightest injury. He has been weaned at about 5 to 6 months, and is now becoming accustomed to a diet consisting mainly of crushed oats, with corn, bran, salt, and flaxseed in judicious quantities. Doses of cod-liver oil give him resistance to colds and help to build up his strength.

His first lessons begin early; he is broken to the halter when a few weeks old; as a yearling, about July, he learns the feel of bit, bridle, and halter shank. Slowly he becomes accustomed to the tack he must carry as a race horse. When he can be led around the stall thus equipped, he is ready for the paddock, where he learns to obey the commands of his rider.

New Year's Day is always his first birthday, though he may be actually only seven or eight months old. He may make his exciting debut any time after his second birthday. Since he is born to race, he may instinctively know the procedure. At first the boy lets him go along easily and observes his reactions to the track. By this time it is known whether the colt is calm or nervous, high-spirited or dignified, stubborn or tractable.

On a cool autumn day the yearling goes to work. For a few weeks he walks, trots, and canters up to as much as three and a half miles a day. He gets a few speed trials, generally at one-quarter mile. After his trials, he is let down until February 1, unless he is going to winter racing.

If the Thoroughbred comes from a long line of sprinters, he will probably never be nominated for the Derby, but he has plenty of opportunities at distances shorter than that famous mile-and-a-quarter. By his second winter, perhaps the most important molding period, he has usually given some indication of his racing possibilities. Sometimes he is three before all these things are determined. His speed, action, and conformation (the extent to which he approaches the level of excellence for his breed) do not always explain his performance; authorities agree that there are traits bequeathed him in the conglomerate blood of his forebears. Awkward little colts are often purchased on their pedigrees and on the expectation of development. The training period usually places the Thoroughbred in the company he shall keep; only a few are stars, but almost all take their places somewhere between Belmont and the "leaky-roof" circuits. More and more Thoroughbreds are seen in polo teams; some are sold for saddle horses or hunters. Before being placed at stud, regardless of his brilliant ancestry, a stallion has usually established his reputation on the race track, for his own capabilities should be proved to avoid perpetuating any possible weakness in the line.

Some weeks before the seasonal sales, the breeder selects the most attractive colts and fillies for a regime of diet and grooming that will enable them to appear to the best advantage. Picking a great race horse out of a string of yearlings is a gamble. Samuel Riddle paid $5,000 for Man o' War because the youngster "had a look"; today he stands at stud for that amount.

The new owner is usually given the privilege of naming the colt which must be done before March 1 of his two-year-old year. This is no simple matter. There can be no duplicates within a 15-year period, and with approximately 5,000 foals registered annually in the American Stud Book, ingenuity is taxed strenuously. Any number of names may be submitted to the Jockey Club; the owner is notified of the one allowed. Colts may be given names inspired by their ancestry, or associated with speed, courage, stamina, supremacy, luck, heroism, or plain whimsy. When Colonel Bradley bought the colt Bad News, he inquired why that name was attached to the animal. Said the owner, "I've always heard that bad news travels fast." Bradley had such good luck with his first two horses, Bad News and Brigade, that he gave all the others "B" names. In the colorful history of the Kentucky Derby he is the only owner who has taken four Derby firsts. Many Kentuckians will bet on the Bradley entries as a matter of course. Once a Negro admirer of the Colonel declared he would name his expected baby for the Derby winner. After two Bradley horses came down the track to take top honors, twin offspring in Louisville were promptly named Bubbling Over and Baggenbaggage Jones.

The language of the horse barns is simple. The size of a horse is measured in "hands"; a "hand" is four inches. An average horse of the light breed stands between 15 and 16 hands, as measured at the wither. A "foal" is a suckling colt or filly. "Filly" applies to a female four-year-old or less; "colt" applies to a male of the same years. A "maiden" is a race horse that has never placed first in a race. The term "stud" applies to the entire plant of a horse-breeding farm land, buildings, and livestock. "Imp." before a horse's name means that it is not American-born, but imported. Racing time is written "1:34 2/5," and is read "one minute, thirty-four and two-fifths seconds." Twenty years is considered a ripe old age, but many exceed that term by years, and a few have been known to live into their thirties.

Jargon of the track is extensive and baffling. A "high school horse" wins when the odds are high ; he is suspected of being able to read the board. If a horse is "pitched up," he is running in better company than usual. A jockey who "hand-rides" makes a rousing finish without resorting to whip or spurs. A "grafter" is a pet kept in a racing stable. A Kentucky horseman is called a "boot"; a "chalk eater" plays favorites; a "throat-latcher" consistently finishes second and seldom wins; a "tumble-bug" is a horse that likes to roll in his stall. Kentucky owners, like all American Thoroughbred breeders, are hoping for a repeal of the so-called Jersey Act, a rule set up in England in 1913, which declared some American Thoroughbreds "halfbred." Horses whose lineage cannot be traced in every line to horses already in the British Stud Book fall into this category. Since the blood of the illustrious Lexington (foaled in America) carries through a great many American Thoroughbreds, it automatically outlaws the strain. The rule was made to hamper our export trade with England at a time when racing reached a low ebb in the United States and owners were shipping their Thoroughbreds abroad. It has been suggested that a committee of experts select certain superior American horses and register them in the British Stud Book to redeem this country's Thoroughbreds from unfair discrimination.

Producing a Derby winner is the dream of every thoroughbred owner and trainer in Kentucky. When Colonel Bradley came to Kentucky to raise horses, he was told that it would take 15 years to breed a Derby winner; it took him just that long. The procedure starts several years before the Derby "in the imagination of some sportsman when he decides to match his knowledge of breeding and bloodlines against that of other horsemen." Joseph E. Widener knows the hazards that obstruct entrance into that exclusive society. In 1927 his colt, Osmand, was thought unbeatable, but he lost to Whiskery by a head. In 1935 one of his favorites, Chance Sun, broke down in training. In 1934 Peace Chance set a mile record before the Derby, but finished far behind Cavalcade. In 1936 Brevity, widely accepted as the favorite, lost to Bold Venture, a 20-1 shot.

The Derby is about the most popular sporting event in America. Since Matt Winn took over the management of Churchill Downs in 1902, the Derby has become a national fiesta with an economic importance that can hardly be estimated. In the dark spring of 1908 when Stonestreet and Sir Cleges seemed likely to languish in their stalls because of a ban against illegal betting, Colonel Winn dug down into the archives of Kentucky legislation and produced an old law permitting pari-mutuel betting. The day was won; the system became popular not only in Kentucky but also throughout the Nation. Winn encouraged bookmakers to open a winter book, which gave the Derby nationwide publicity. Land used for pasture rose in price the value per acre is three times that of the best Burley tobacco land the value of horses increased, and interest in breeding ran high. Winn's dream of attracting brilliant three-year-olds from all parts of the United States came true. Although there are older and larger stakes than the Derby, none attracts a more cosmopolitan crowd. It is the dramatic climax to the Kentucky legend, or, in the words of a wellknown sports writer,
"'My Old Kentucky Home' acted out before your eyes."
All roads lead to Louisville where 70,000 people spend more than a million dollars. Sleeping quarters cost all the way from one dollar for a room to a thousand dollars for a large house over the weekend. Justice relents, and rash and noisy revelers are smilingly indulged. All the juleps served in Churchill Downs Club bar on Derby Day would make a long, long drink. Ambassadors, Governors, and screen stars enter the stands with collegians and stenographers from bordering States, and all suddenly wish they had been born in Kentucky. Occasionally julep-husky baritones of city "big shots" can be heard when the crowd stands to sing "the sun shines bright ..." A million radios throughout the country are tuned to give the richest two-minute suspense of the year. A blanket of roses awaits another champion.

This information was Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers' Project
of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Kentucky - 1939

 



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