Maryjean Wall learned a lot about the “Thoroughbred capital of the world” in 35 years as an award-winning racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. But it wasn’t until she retired and finished her doctorate in history at the University of Kentucky that Wall figured out how it came to be.
Kentucky’s domination of Thoroughbred breeding during the past century wasn’t really about the mineral-rich bluegrass and limestone water, although they certainly helped. It resulted from a chain of events during the turbulent decades after the Civil War that Kentuckians cleverly exploited.
It involved crafting an Old South image for Kentucky at the turn of the last century that appealed to the nation’s richest horsemen — and all but erased African- Americans from the picture. Wall pulls this story together in a new book, How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders (The University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)
I had heard pieces of this fascinating story for years. When Wall was still at the Herald-Leader and I was the managing editor, she would occasionally wander into my office and tell me about her research.
The finished book is a remarkable page-turner that earned glowing cover blurbs from some of the best historians of Kentucky and Thoroughbred racing. The book puts together many pieces of a complicated puzzle, and it is filled with well-documented stories that explain a lot about the evolution of Kentucky society and the horse industry.
Kentucky dominated Thoroughbred breeding in the early 1800s, thanks to its grass and water. But the Civil War devastated Kentucky’s economy; much breeding stock was killed, stolen by raiders or moved out of state for safe-keeping.
Northeast industrialists and Wall Street speculators emerged from the war as the nation’s richest men, and they embraced the “sport of kings.” They began buying the best mares and stallions and installing them on new farms in New York and New Jersey.
Kentucky breeders realized they were losing their grip on the industry and needed to attract that Northeast capital. But there was a problem: Kentucky had a well-deserved reputation for violence and lawlessness that scared away the tycoons who now dominated horse racing.
Kentucky was a Civil War border state that officially remained loyal to the Union. But as industrialization led to more anxiety and racism in American society, the public imagination was captured by “lost cause” nostalgia for an idealized Old South.
Until the 1890s, African-Americans had been some of the most successful jockeys and trainers. Jockey Isaac Murphy became a rich man. But as racism grew, blacks were forced out of all but the most menial horse racing jobs, not just in Kentucky but across the nation.
Wall writes that Kentucky breeders eagerly exploited this Old South myth to rebrand the state. Novelists and newspapermen started depicting a land of white-suited “Kentucky colonels” on columned verandas — a place where the living was easy for wealthy white people and black folks knew their place.
New York’s leading equine journal, Turf, Field and Farm, published by Lexington-born brothers Benjamin and Sanders Bruce, offered Northeast horsemen a steady drumbeat of Bluegrass boosterism.
That led several Northern moguls, including August Belmont and James Ben Ali Haggin, to start breeding farms near Lexington. Many more followed after anti-gambling forces outlawed racing in New York and many other states about 1910.
Modern Kentucky has many legacies from this period, including the large number of absentee farm owners and a professional class of bloodstock agents, trainers, veterinarians and others who have made horses a vital part of the state’s economy.
“I hope readers put this book down with a greater respect for the (horse) industry,” Wall said over lunch last week. Like many, Walls fears for the Thoroughbred industry’s future in Kentucky, but she thinks the solutions are more complex than the long fight over expanded gambling.
“It was never a given that the horse industry would stay here after the Civil War, and that is still relevant today,” Wall said. “The grass was never enough. And it’s still not enough.”