A GUIDE TO THE BLUEGRASS STATE - 1939
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"'My Old Kentucky Home' acted out before
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