CentrePit wrap will have photos of Lexington scenes and characters

October 3, 2015

How can Lexington hide CentrePit from Breeders’ Cup visitors later this month?

Well, it can’t. The colossal hole is 40 feet deep, a city block square and has two tower cranes poking out of it.

But the creative team at Cornett advertising is working furiously to make sure visitors see something more interesting than a stalled development.

Clay Gibson and Tim Jones have been gathering photos from the Lexington Herald-Leader, the University of Kentucky and other archives. About 150 of those images will be assembled into a fabric mural that will wrap the CentrePointe fence.

In addition to hiding the weed-rimmed pit, the mural will offer a visual diary of Lexington’s history, culture and characters, along with Randy Steward’s giant hand-lettered words: “Lexington, Kentucky, Horse Capital of the World”.

Lynn Imaging’s Monster Color will print the 7-foot-tall mural in 25-foot sections, for a total of 1,335 feet around the block’s perimeter along Main, Upper, Vine and Limestone streets.

The Webb Companies, which has been trying to build the mixed-use CentrePointe project since 2008 and recently turned it over to another developer, gave permission for the project.

“We want to reflect on who we were, who we are now and maybe who we want to be,” said Kip Cornett, president of Cornett and organizer of the Breeders’ Cup Festival. “For out-of-town visitors, it will show there’s a little spice to this town.”

Sure, there will be the typical landscape, horse racing and basketball photos. But the mural also will have pictures of people such as Keeneland odds-maker Mike Battaglia, the great jockey Eddie Arcaro and the Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

There are photos of University of Kentucky basketball greats, including a joint portrait of coaches Adolph Rupp and Paul “Bear” Bryant during that golden era when both the basketball and football teams were national powers.

Semi-historical moments include the first Camry rolling off Toyota’s Georgetown assembly line and the recently restored Skuller’s clock on Main Street after it was blown down by a storm in the 1970s.

There is a picture of Anita Madden, Lexington’s former queen of over-the-top parties. And one of the real queen: Elizabeth II of Great Britain, on the first of her many trips to Central Kentucky.

There are photos of other famous visitors, too: Presidents Kennedy, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon; actors Judy Garland, Gregory Peck, Pat Boone and Elizabeth Taylor; writer Hunter S. Thompson speaking at UK; and Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing his muscles for students at Bryan Station High School.

There are photos of long-gone buildings that once defined Lexington’s skyline: Union Station, the Ben Ali Theatre, Stoll Field and the old Lexington Roller Mills factory that stood where Triangle Park is now.

Historic moment photos include the 2003 ice storm, the castle on fire, Vietnam war protesters marching down Main Street and Prohibition-era policemen pouring bourbon down the drain — an unthinkable act in modern Lexington.

Team Cornett has been searching for just the right images of famous and colorful characters such as first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, jockey Isaac Murphy, artist Henry Faulkner, sports announcer Cawood Ledford, actor Jim Varney, madam Belle Brezing and Carlos “Little Enis” Toadvine, the “world’s greatest left-handed upside down guitar player.”

More recent figures in the photographs include longtime philharmonic conductor George Zack, sportscaster Tom Hammond, former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, blues guitarist T.D. Young and Crank & Boom ice cream entrepreneur Toa Green.

There are modern scenes from restaurants, the farmer’s market, craft breweries, Cup of Common Wealth coffee shop and the urban agriculture non-profit Foodchain. And don’t be surprised to see a Parkette po-boy or Charlie’s fish sandwich.

“For locals, it’s a good reminder, a good history lesson,” said Gibson, the young designer assembling the mural. “Especially for people of my generation who don’t know all these nuggets.”

The Breeders’ Cup Festival is paying for the mural from its sign budget, Cornett said. He didn’t know the exact cost, but said Monster Color is printing it at a discount. His goal is to have it up by Oct. 18.

The mural will be sturdy enough to stay up long after the Breeders’ Cup ends Oct. 31. That’s good, since there is no telling how long CentrePit will continue to be a blot on Lexington’s landscape.

This is a draft of several long sections of the mural that will wrap the fence on the CentrePointe block in time for the Breeders' Cup Festival. Each row of images will be 54 inches high as part of a 7-foot-high wrap that will be 1,335 feet long. Image courtesy of Cornett

This is a draft of several long sections of the mural that will wrap the fence on the CentrePointe block in time for the Breeders’ Cup Festival. Each row of images will be 54 inches high as part of a 7-foot-high wrap that will be 1,335 feet long. Image courtesy of Cornett

Civil War general’s home featured on annual Bourbon County tour

September 29, 2015
Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Photos by Tom Eblen

Historic Paris-Bourbon County’s annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford’s Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Photos by Tom Eblen


PARIS — This year’s Historic Paris-Bourbon County house tour Sunday is at the boyhood home of one of Kentucky’s most-interesting and least-known Civil War generals, who ended his short life as an American diplomat in South America.

Nobody is sure when the Greek Revival mansion called Houston Dale was built. The best guess is around 1840, when the farm belonged to Henry Croxton, the son of a wealthy Virginia planter, and his wife, Ann.

For the past 36 years, Houston Dale has been the home of Thoroughbred breeder Phil T. Owens, who restored and added onto the mansion just west of the Paris bypass.

While building Houston Dale, the Croxtons probably lived in a circa 1790s log cabin now restored behind the mansion. The couple would have needed more room: they eventually had 12 children. They also had 20 slaves to work their farm.

John Thomas Croxton

John Thomas Croxton

Slavery was a subject of disagreement between Croxton and his eldest son, John Thomas Croxton, who was born in 1836 and went off to Yale in 1854. They argued about it in letters, with the younger Croxton explaining that he favored the gradual emancipation and deportation of slaves.

Anti-slavery views were not popular among white people in Bourbon County then. Nearly half the population was enslaved blacks, whose labor produced a rich agricultural bounty for their owners.

After graduating from Yale and earning a law degree from Georgetown, Croxton returned to Paris in 1859 to practice law. The next year, he was one of only two men in Paris to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln’s election sparked the Civil War, and Croxton was quick to join the Union cause. He recruited troops for the 4th Kentucky Infantry, of which he was elected lieutenant colonel.

Over the next five years, Croxton’s superiors repeatedly praised him as a skilled and fearless officer who fought despite several battle wounds. He was promoted to colonel at age 24, brigadier general at 27 and given an honorary promotion to major general for gallantry

Croxton saw action at many battles, including Perryville, Chickamauga, Nashville and Atlanta. He led a daring raid across Alabama that captured Tuscaloosa and eliminated one of the Confederacy’s last supply centers. After the war, he spent a year as military commander of central Georgia.

In 1866, Croxton returned to Paris, where he had built a house on Cypress Street. He practiced law, farmed, chaired the state Republican party and helped start a Republican newspaper, the Louisville Commercial.

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Croxton as the United States minister to Bolivia. But a year after taking the post in 1873, he died in La Paz of tuberculosis at age 37. He is buried in Paris Cemetery.

After Croxton’s death, Houston Dale was owned for many years by James Hall, a prominent farmer.

In 1979, Owens was planning to buy a horse farm and build a new “old” house. He had just gone to Colonial Williamsburg to study traditional architecture when his father told him Houston Dale was for sale. He bought it.

Owens renovated the mansion, which has foot-thick brick walls and most of its original floors and woodwork. He added a wing to each side for additional space and bathrooms. Owens also restored the log cabin, where his mother lives.

He also built a swimming pool, a pool house and a garage with an apartment that looks more like a colonial-style guest house from the front.

Between the mansion and Houston Creek is a stone wall along what appears to be an old road. Built into the wall with big limestone slabs are steps and a platform, apparently for stepping out of a carriage or stage coach.

Owens and his wife, Michelle, recently put the 9,665-square foot house and surrounding 31 acres on the market for $1,675,000. She said they want less house and more land to expand their broodmare stock and run cattle.

“It will be hard to leave,” Owens said of Houston Dale, recalling the first time the late Lexington horseman and philanthropist W.T. Young Jr. visited.

“He said, ‘If I lived here, I’d never leave home,'” Owens said. “It is a special house.”

If you go

Historic Home Tour

When: 2 p.m. — 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4

Where: Houston Dale Farm, 2328 Fords Mill Rd.

Why: Annual benefit for the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

Cost: $10 members, $15 public. Children younger than 17 free.

More info: (859) 987-7274 or Hopewellmusuem.org.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens bought the house in 1979 and renovated it.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. This is the dining room. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The dining room at Houston Dale includes original woodwork.


Phil and Michelle Owens and the youngest of their three children, Jack, 4, pose in the dining room of Houston Dale, their circa 1840 house near Paris. The house was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Phil and Michelle Owens and the youngest of their three children, Jack, 4, pose in the dining room of Houston Dale, their circa 1840 house near Paris.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. This is a dining area in the kitchen, which features an original stone fireplace. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

This is a dining area in the kitchen, which features an original stone fireplace.


Steps and a landing to help passengers get on and off carriages and stage coaches was built into a stone wall beside Houston Dale, site of Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Steps and a landing to help passengers get on and off carriages and stage coaches was built into a stone wall beside Houston Dale.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Houston Dale was the boyhood home of Union Gen. John T. Croxton.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. He built the back of the garage, which faces the house, to look like a guest house. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Owens built the back of the garage, which faces the house, to look like a guest house.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The dining room at Houston Dale.

At the Red Mile, horse racing’s ‘evolution’ looks like a casino

September 26, 2015
Instant racing machines in Lexington's first legal gambling parlor at Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram

Instant racing machines at the Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram


I went to the Red Mile last week to check out what the 140-year-old harness track calls “The Evolution of Horse Racing.”

It was sunny and mild, the kind of afternoon I hope for each April and October so I can slip away to Keeneland for a few hours. I love to watch the horses run, place a few bets and soak up the atmosphere.

This afternoon, the weather didn’t matter. Horse racing had evolved indoors. I found a cavernous hall filled with 902 machines that flashed and chimed amid pulsing background music.

The man at the front desk said this $42 million facility had been busy since it opened Sept. 12. I must have caught a lull. There were only a couple of dozen patrons, an even mix of men and women, blacks and whites. Most were older than me. A few had canes; at least two used walkers.

The next thing I noticed was there were no horses. Amazing! Horse racing had evolved to the point that horses were no longer necessary.

When I walked in, the man at the front desk issued me a “rewards” card on a red lanyard, an instruction sheet and a $5 voucher. I chose a machine with a comfy seat near the bar and got started.

That’s when I saw horses, or at least grainy images of them. They were in videos that flashed briefly on the machine’s tiny screen after I placed a bet and pushed a few buttons.

The machines looked like slots. The hall looked like a casino. I had to remind myself that this joint venture of the Red Mile and Keeneland was really The Evolution of Horse Racing, presumably “as it was meant to be.”

What distinguishes these machines from slots, proponents say, is that they are forms of pari-mutuel wagering, and winners are chosen by the outcome of thousands of previously run horse races rather than by random number generators.

I placed a bet on the machine and chose my numbers — the order of finish for three horses that once raced against one another. To help me choose, I could look at charts indicating past performances of the horse, jockey and trainer.

I lost my first couple of free voucher dollars trying to figure out how the machine worked. On my third bet, lights flashed and bells clanged and the machine told me I was a winner. I printed a voucher and discovered I had won $84, although I’m not sure how.

I tried a couple more machines before deciding it was a good time to cash my voucher and call it a day.

The Family Foundation, a conservative activist group, has gone to court to challenge the legality of these “historical racing” machines. The case before Franklin Circuit Court is complex, and it likely will take a couple of years to decide.

The legal question comes down to whether these machines are pari-mutuel wagering, which is legal in Kentucky, or slots, which are not. Can something that looks and quacks like a duck actually be an evolved horse?

If the tracks lose in court, they may have recovered their investment by then. The General Assembly also could change the law. Legislators may not want to give up this new source of tax revenue, not to mention the 200 new jobs at the Red Mile and more at facilities near Henderson and Franklin.

I have nothing against gambling, when it is enjoyed responsibly by people who can afford it. But from a public policy standpoint, gambling encourages a “something for nothing” mentality among politicians and voters that a modern, progressive state can be created without raising anyone’s taxes.

Many horse people argue that expanded gambling revenue is essential to the survival of their industry. I understand their concern. Without the promise of this new facility, the Red Mile probably would have been redeveloped years ago. Neither harness nor Thoroughbred racing are as popular as they once were.

However, the experiences of other states show that when expanded-gambling revenue starts flowing, politicians lose interest in subsidizing the horse industry.

There are no easy answers to preserving Kentucky’s signature horse industry. But horsemen could take pointers from the once-struggling and now-thriving bourbon whiskey industry: Improve your product and do a better job of marketing to make it more popular.

Otherwise, it can be a fine line between evolution and devolution.

From cheap seats to expensive suites, a picture-perfect Derby

May 2, 2015
Fans watched races from the Jockey Suites balconies at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Fans watched races from the Jockey Suites balconies. Photo by Tom Eblen


A picture-perfect spring day brought a record crowd of 170,513 people to Churchill Downs for the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. And what a spectacle they saw.

The most important two-minutes of the day belonged to American Pharoah, the favorite who won the $2 million mile-and-a-quarter race for 3-year-olds.

But there was so much more to see: Women in tight dresses, plunging necklines and hats that could qualify as architecture. Men wore either the finest or most garish suit they could find, often topped with a straw hat.

As always, it was a colorful sea of humanity, with everyone doing their best to have a good time. And, for many I talked to, it was their first Kentucky Derby.

“We’ve been having a lot of fun,” said Graham Yost, the Canadian screenwriter who created and is executive producer of Justified, the hit television series set in Kentucky, which just finished its six-season run in April.

Yost and his wife, Connie, were wined-and-dined in Lexington earlier in the week, but still weren’t quite prepared for their first Kentucky Derby.

“We had heard about the hats, but until you see them… ” Yost said. “Kentucky has become a huge part of our lives.”

“This is one of the best spectacles of all,” added singer Mac Davis, who was sharing the Yost’s table on Millionaire’s Row.

Far below the celebrities, in folding chairs beside an infield fence, Susan and Bob Syphax were experiencing their first Derby, too.

Seven months ago, they moved from California to Pulaski County and decided this was the year. So they dressed in their finest outfits and plucked down $60 each for general-admission tickets.

“I always wanted to go to the Derby,” she said. “I didn’t care where we sat; I just wanted to be here.”

James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo., and six of his buddies from around the country flew into Louisville this week for their first Derby — and an early bachelor party before his Aug. 1 wedding.

“We came to see the race and hopefully get me to my wedding eventually,” Roberts said. “We’re having a blast. Now we’re ready to win some money on horses.”

“It’s been on our bucket list,” said Lee Vigil, who was here from Albuquerque, N.M., with his wife, Stella. “This is our 41st anniversary, so we thought we could come celebrate it at the 141st Derby.”

Cathy Dewberry and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, spent much of their first Derby wandering the infield and photographing other women’s hats.

“What brought us here was the hats,” Simpson said from beneath a big turquoise and white one of her own.

“We love every bit of it,” Simpson added. “We will be back.”

High above the infield in the Jockey Suites complex, corporate executives used the day to entertain guests and clients in high style.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray started the day in the suite rented by his family firm, Gray Construction, but he quickly started roaming Churchill Downs with Jamie Emmons, his chief of staff.

“This is a day when you can have a chance to quickly see a lot of people who have influence in Lexington and Kentucky,” Gray said. “It’s a long day, but a beneficial one.”

Derby day was also a good payday for thousands of service workers and vendors at the track.

Darrin Hildebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, was making and selling hand-rolled cigars for $15 each about as fast as he could roll them. Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore and his son, Luke, each got done and, after long draws, pronounced them good.

“We’ll go through 1,000 by the time it’s all said and done,” Hildebrand said.

The warm, sunny weather also meant brisk business for mint julep vendor Rob Hawkins. Three hours before the Derby, he had already sold a dozen cases.

“It’s never a bad day at the Derby,” he said as he rushed back for another case. “But when you have weather like this, everybody wants a drink.”

Dining room patrons on the fifth floor of the Jockey Suites line up for food at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Dining room patrons on the fifth floor of the Jockey Suites line up for food. Photo by Tom Eblen

Darrin Hindebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, lights a cigar he just made for Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore at the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday.  Hildebrand, who learned how to make cigars 22 years ago, later made one for Kluttz's son, Luke, left. HIldebrand said he would end up making about 1,000 cigars at Derby and Oaks, which sold for $15 each. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Darrin Hindebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, lights a cigar he made for Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore at the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Hildebrand, who learned how to make cigars 22 years ago, later made one for Kluttz’s son, Luke, left. HIldebrand said he would end up making about 1,000 cigars at Derby and Oaks, which sold for $15 each. Photo by Tom Eblen

Big-hatted spectators gather in the paddock at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Big-hatted spectators gather in the paddock. Photo by Tom Eblen

Fan photos from early in a beautiful Kentucky Derby day

May 2, 2015
Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. "I always wanted to go to the Derby," she said. "I don't care where I sit. I just wanted to be here." They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. “I always wanted to go to the Derby,” she said. “I don’t care where I sit. I just wanted to be here.” They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O'Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O’Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Photo by Tom Eblen

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. "We're all about the hats," Simpson said. "But we love every bit of it. We'll be back."  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. “We’re all about the hats,” Simpson said. “But we love every bit of it. We’ll be back.” Photo by Tom Eblen

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

A case of Pappy helps add glitz to Derby wine auction and gala

April 28, 2015

The Lexington Cancer Foundation will have its 10th annual Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala at Donamire Farm on April 30. This photo was taken at the 2014 event. Photo Provided

The Lexington Cancer Foundation will have its 10th Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala at Donamire Farm on Thurday. This photo was taken at the 2014 event. Photo Provided


A bottle of hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle has become a hit at many Central Kentucky charity auctions, sometimes fetching bids of $1,000 or more.

So here is one reason the Lexington Cancer Foundation‘s Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala is one of the state’s fanciest Derby parties: It will auction an age-mixed case of a dozen bottles of the high-priced bourbon, plus a limited-edition Scottish crystal decanter filled with even more.

Kristi Martin, the foundation’s executive director, wouldn’t say who donated the Pappy or how much she thinks it might sell for. But I would expect several five-figure bids from the 400 guests Thursday night. After all, tickets to this sold-out gala at Donamire Farm cost $700 per couple.

Other auction items may bring even more than the Pappy. There are University of Kentucky basketball season tickets; a U2 concert in Chicago; a breeding season with an Ashford Stud sire; a Breeders Cup package; golfing at Pebble Beach; and luxury trips to Rome, Argentina, Mexico, Napa Valley, Las Vegas and Wyoming.

The wine auction gala has become a popular fundraiser for the foundation, which by the end of this year will have made more than $3 million in grants and donations to cancer-fighting organizations throughout Kentucky since 2004, Martin said.

At least half the attendees will come from out-of-state, she said, including a large Silicon Valley contingent that includes Kevin Systrom, the founder and CEO of Instagram. Graham Yost, creator of the hit TV series Justified, also will be there.

But compared to some other Derby parties, this isn’t a star-studded event — unless you are a wine connoisseur.

“Some high-level groups are coming in now, and that’s wonderful,” Martin said. “But what we have found out over the years during Derby week a lot of celebrities want to be paid to come, and that’s something we would never do.”

Brenda Rice, the wife of Lexington attorney Brent Rice, started the foundation in 2004 after a family member was diagnosed with cancer. She talked with friends she had volunteered with for other causes over the years and discovered many of them also had been touched by the disease.

“I thought, how can we make the biggest impact?” Rice said. “I knew what these women were capable of when their hearts were in it.”

The foundation is run by a 50-member board of women volunteers, with help from another 50 “junior” board members. Each year since 2005, the foundation has made an average of more than $280,000 in grants to a variety of hospitals, researchers and cancer-related programs throughout Kentucky.

The private foundation receives no state or federal funds, but has attracted a long list of corporate and individual sponsors, whose donations significantly cut the cost of putting on the wine auction and gala.

A key to the event, Martin said, has been its ability to attract top vintners. Each year, more than a dozen wineries spend about $50,000 each from their marketing budgets to participate. This year’s vintner chair is Will Harlan of the Harlan Estates family in Napa Valley. He now has his own label, The Mascot.

“The event has grown over the years as word has gotten out,” Martin said. “The level of wineries that we’re able to attract is phenomenal.”

Festivities begin Wednesday with six private dinners for top sponsors at foundation patrons’ homes. Vintners have a trade fair for area restaurateurs and wine merchants Thursday morning to promote their products, which will be served that evening at the gala with food catered by The Apiary.

After a Friday breakfast at Keeneland, guests are offered tours of horse farms and Woodford Reserve Distillery before dinner for vintners and top sponsors at the Iroquois Hunt Club. For those who want to attend the Derby on Saturday, the foundation helps them arrange to buy tickets.

“They get a wonderful experience of Kentucky during the Derby season,” Martin said. “And they help us raise money for our mission.”

The foundation’s other major fundraiser this year will be the fourth annual Roll for the Cure, a bicycle tour Aug. 22 in partnership with the Bluegrass Cycling Club.

New book chronicles colorful history of Lexington’s Iroquois Hunt

April 18, 2015

150329IroquoisHunt0115ADr. Jack van Nagell, joint-master of fox hounds for the Iroquois Hunt Club, leads the beginning of a hunt on his Fayette County farm March 29. Van Nagell is the current president of the national Masters of Fox Hounds Association, the first Iroquois club member to hold that post. Photos by Tom Eblen 


The Iroquois Hunt Club is one of those Lexington institutions most longtime residents have heard of, but few know much about.

It has always seemed like an odd bit of British tradition in the Bluegrass, these colorfully well-dressed equestrians who chase their barking hounds through the rugged farm fields along the Kentucky River.

Christopher and Glenye Oakford explain much of the mystery in their new book, The Iroquois Hunt: A Bluegrass Foxhunting Tradition (The History Press, $20). This thoroughly researched and well-written account describes the peculiarities of fox-hunting and traces the history of the third-oldest of the nation’s 160 hunt clubs.

Over the years, the club’s membership has been a who’s who of Lexington society. And the clubhouse is one of Fayette County’s oldest industrial buildings: Grimes Mill, built on Boone Creek in 1807.

“Even if you’re not interested in fox-hunting, we tell the story of these people who played a big part in the town,” said Christopher Oakford, a freelance writer who grew up around fox-hunting near Salisbury, England.

He met his wife, North Carolina native Glenye Cain Oakford, at a fox hunt in England. She is an equestrian journalist, longtime Lexington resident and Iroquois member since 1993.

The cover of "The Iroquois Hunt" by Christopher and Glenye Oakford.While people have hunted with hounds for centuries, fox-hunting acquired its now-traditional dress, lingo and complex etiquette in Victorian England as newly rich industrialists sought to create their own gentry, the Oakfords write.

The Lexington Hunting and Riding Club was founded in 1880 by Gen. Roger Williams, a businessman, soldier, buddy of Theodore Roosevelt and all-around character. The club’s name is thought to have been changed sometime in the 1880s to honor Iroquois, a horse that won the English Derby in 1881.

The club became inactive in 1914 while Williams was away on military duty, but it was restarted in 1926 by a group of prominent men. They included Maj. Louie Beard, later a founder of Keeneland, and Leonard Shouse, owner of the Lafayette Hotel, now city hall.

“We tried to give a glimpse of Lexington through several eras,” Glenye Oakford said, “and write about how fascinating some of these characters were.”

In 1928, the group bought Grimes Mill, thinking a clubhouse would give their organization the structure and longevity its predecessor lacked.

The rustically elegant building with three-foot-thick stone walls has lounging area on the first floor and a dining room on the second. Each member has a little padlocked cabinet in which to store liquid refreshment for after a hunt or during social events three times a month.

The Iroquois has hunts most Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from fall through early spring, but this year’s snow played havoc with the schedule.

I got to attend the last hunt of the season, on a Sunday afternoon at the end of March. It was at the farm of Dr. Jack van Nagell, joint-master of fox hounds with the club since 1997 and current president of the national Masters of Foxhounds Association, the first Iroquois member to hold that post.

Some club members belong for the socializing, others for the riding. But dedicated hunters love to watch and listen to the hounds work as they chase the scent of a red fox — or, more commonly now, a coyote — across the landscape.

“It’s watching them work together, getting to do what they have been bred for centuries to do,” Glenye Oakford said.

What happens to a fox or coyote when it’s caught? Well, it doesn’t happen very often, she said. In fact, she has never seen it in her years of hunting.

But the hunt provides a service to farmers by keeping coyotes scattered, she said. When they get together in packs, they have been known to attack livestock and pets.

“The purpose of the hunt is to watch the hounds puzzle out the scent of a coyote’s line, and the hunt typically ends when the hounds can no longer follow that scent, either because the coyote has eluded them or because scenting conditions have become unfavorable,” she said.

Coyotes and foxes are often good at eluding their noisy pursuers, Oakford said, recalling the time she watched the start of a hunt in England.

“After the hunt moved off, we drove up the road and saw a big, beautiful red fox sitting by the road and watching the hounds and the field ride by across the road and down a hill,” she said. “That fox sat for a long time … then he trotted off very nonchalantly in the opposite direction.”

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Glenye Oakford’s video of the Iroquois Hunt Club:

Iroquois Hounds from Glenye Oakford on Vimeo.

A Lexington landmark saved, but Georgetown treasure may be lost

April 14, 2015

150410OddFellows0064Ben Kaufmann, left, and Rob Rosenstein joked with each other April 10 while inspecting the 1869 Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 W. Main St., for the first time.  “As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein told Kaufmann. Photos by Tom Eblen


For people who care about Kentucky’s history, culture and irreplaceable architecture, the past week was one of highs and lows, thanks to two good guys and one who should be ashamed.

First, the good guys:

“Let’s chase the ghosts away!” Ben Kaufmann said as we entered the front door of the Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 West Main Street last Friday morning, setting off a burglar alarm.

Kaufmann, a real-estate investor and financial adviser, had bought the 1870 Italianate and Second Empire-style building 10 days earlier at a Master Commissioner’s sale and was getting his first look inside the $750,000 investment.

150127OddFellows0006The building housed Bellini’s restaurant until it closed Jan. 1. The building and restaurant owner, NGS Realty, was in bankruptcy last year and neglected the building. In late January, city Code Enforcement officers stepped in to board up missing and broken windows to protect the building and passing pedestrians.

Kaufmann and Rob Rosenstein, former owner of Liquor Barn, plan to renovate this landmark, designed by noted Lexington architect Cincinnatus Shryock, and then rent it, mostly as restaurant space.

Over the decades, the building housed offices, restaurants, bakeries, bars and stores, most notably Skuller’s Jewelry, which was there for more than 70 years. Skuller’s recently restored sidewalk clock has been a downtown icon since 1913.

The building’s hidden treasure is the third-floor ballroom, which hasn’t been used publicly for years because it lacked an elevator and modern stairway. But it may be the best-preserved part of the building, whose last major rehab was in 2000.

The white ballroom is stunning: 40 feet wide and nearly 60 feet deep, with a vaulted ceiling 25 feet high and original plasterwork. Tall, arched windows look out on Main Street, although the view is now dominated by the idle CentrePointe pit.

A quick inspection revealed few structural problems in the building and only a couple of small roof leaks behind the ballroom, where interior walls had been torn out for a renovation that was never completed.

The first floor, where Bellini’s operated, has beautiful mosaic tile floors, vintage tin ceilings and two long, handsome bars. The second floor also had been partially stripped out for renovation. It originally housed law firms and, in recent years, apartments.

“Watch out what you wish for, you might get it,” Kaufmann joked as he added up renovation costs in his head.

“As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein kept saying with a laugh.

These guys enjoy teasing each other, but they realize the Odd Fellows Temple is a diamond in the rough. When polished, it should be a hot property. Old downtown buildings have become the preferred location for upscale restaurants and bars.

Kaufmann and Rosenstein are good businessmen looking for a profit. But they also are doing Lexington a favor by saving one of its architectural gems, a place that holds generations of memories and should create many more in the future.

“This is an important building,” Kaufmann said. “I want to restore it to its original beauty.”

Lexington is lucky to have these guys. If only Georgetown were so lucky.

Sanders-Kocher copyScott County is about to lose its first brick house, a Georgian mansion that early Thoroughbred breeder Robert Sanders built on Cane Run Creek south of town in 1797. The house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

The property’s condition has deteriorated since a company owned by Kenneth A. Jackson of Kentuckiana Farms acquired it in 2007. The Scott County PVA values the house at $121,120 and its 25.5 acres at $202,299, according to the Georgetown News-Graphic. United Bank of Georgetown holds a mortgage on the property.

Preservationists say Jackson has rebuffed their attempts to help him protect the house or find a buyer at a reasonable price. Jackson recently sold adjoining parcels for development. A salvage crew has been removing fine interior woodwork — the house’s most distinguished feature — with demolition scheduled to follow.

Efforts to save the house did not appear to be fruitful by late Tuesday afternoon, said Jason Sloan, director of preservation for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

All indications are that the house will be torn down Wednesday, Sloan said.

Some people would say this is Jackson’s property and he should be able to do with it as he pleases. But when someone buys a National Register house of this significance, I think he assumes a responsibility to Kentucky’s heritage, whether he likes it or not.

To neglect this house for years and then demolish it in the hope of pocketing a bigger profit may be legal, but it’s not right.

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Land-use decisions in rural Fayette County require delicate balance

March 28, 2015

BooneCreekBurgess Carey rides a zip line at his controversial canopy tour, which city officials shut down. The dispute prompted a three-year examination of ways to add more public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County which is ongoing. Photo by Tom Eblen


A tightly managed, three-year effort to expand public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County started coming unwound Thursday as the Planning Commission prepared to vote on it.

Several commission members expressed concern that the proposed zoning ordinance text amendment, or ZOTA, which they and the Urban County Council must approve, would be too restrictive.

They started offering amendments, then put off the matter for more discussion until May 21 and a possible vote May 28. The delay was wise, because these complex zoning decisions have implications far beyond recreation.

The challenge with the ZOTA is striking the right balance of private property rights, public access and the long-term preservation of horse farms, other agriculture and an environmentally sensitive landscape that the World Monuments Fund has recognized as one of the most special and endangered places on earth.

It is important to note that the ZOTA wouldn’t change rules about what property owners can do on their land for their own enjoyment. It affects only new public recreation and tourism-related land uses, both commercial and non-profit.

Part of the problem with the ZOTA process has been that it grew out of a nasty dispute between Burgess Carey and some of his neighbors in the Boone Creek area off old Richmond Road.

Carey has a permit to operate a private fishing club on his property in Boone Creek Gorge. But he expanded it into a public canopy tour business, in which people toured the gorge from treetop platforms using zip lines and suspension bridges.

Neighbors opposed the business, and city officials shut it down.

Carey’s aggressiveness antagonized officials and made it easy for opponents to brand him an outlaw rather than debate the merits of having a canopy tour on Boone Creek. That’s a shame, because it is a well-designed, well-located facility that the public should be able to enjoy.

The Boone Creek dispute prompted the ZOTA process and made it contentious from the beginning. One result was that the city task force created to study the issue wasn’t as open as it should have been to public participation and diverse viewpoints. Hence, last week’s Planning Commission fireworks.

Suburban sprawl is incompatible with animal agriculture, especially high-strung racehorses. Development takes the Inner Bluegrass region’s valuable agricultural soils out of production.

That is why Lexington in 1958 became the first U.S. city to create an urban growth boundary. Without it and other rural land-use restrictions, horses and farms could have been crowded out of Fayette County years ago.

Farmers are understandably concerned about any nearby commercial development. But some other people think it is unfair for traditional agriculture to have a monopoly on rural land use.

The balancing act gets even more complicated in the environmentally sensitive and ruggedly beautiful land along the Kentucky River Palisades. It is an ideal place for low-impact outdoor recreation and environmental education. But most public access is restricted to the city’s Raven Run Nature Sanctuary.

Preserving these natural areas is complicated, because they need constant care to stop the spread of invasive plant species, especially bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper euonymus, which choke out native vegetation. It is a huge problem.

Much of the land along the river is owned by people dedicated to its care and preservation. Many spend a lot of money and effort fighting invasive species.

But, as a matter of public policy, it is risky for Lexington to count on landowners’ wealth and good intentions forever. It makes sense to give them some business opportunities to help pay for conservation, especially since much of this land is not suitable for traditional agriculture.

Most Fayette County rural land is zoned “agriculture rural.” The ZOTA proposal would create a new “agriculture natural” zoning option along the river with some different permitted uses.

Much of the debate about the ZOTA’s treatment of both zones is about what land uses should be “primary” by right and which should be “conditional,” requiring approval by the city Board of Adjustment. The conditional use process allows for more site-specific regulation, but it can be cumbersome for landowners.

Carey’s lawyer, John Park, who lives on adjacent property along Boone Creek, points out that poor farming practices in that area can be more environmentally destructive than some commercial and recreational uses. But state law gives farmers a lot of freedom from local zoning regulations.

One criticism of the ZOTA proposal — and other parts of Lexington’s zoning code, as well — is that in trying to regulate every conceivable land use to keep “bad” things from happening, the rules aren’t flexible enough to allow “good” things to happen.

These are complicated issues with a lot of good people and good points of view on all sides. More frank and open discussion is needed to reach something close to a community consensus.

Increasing public access to rural recreation and tourism is important, both for Lexington’s economy and quality of life. But it also is necessary for preservation.

People protect what they love. Finding more ways for people to connect with this irreplaceable landscape and agrarian-equine culture will nurture that love.

Frontier Nursing University marks 75 years, from horse to Internet

October 7, 2014


A Frontier Nursing Service nurse visits a family in the 1930s. Photo provided. Below, Frontier Nursing University President Susan Stone. Photo by Tom Eblen


HYDEN — In her 1952 autobiography, Wide Neighborhoods, Mary Breckinridge told how she started Frontier Nursing Service here in 1925 to show how nurses also trained as midwives could make a big difference in rural health care.

Breckinridge, who died in 1965 at age 84, could not have imagined just how wide her old neighborhood would become.

The nurse-midwives she sent out on horseback to remote cabins in the mountains of Leslie and Clay counties were trained in England until World War II made travel there impossible. So, in 1939, Breckinridge started a small school for midwives, who deliver babies.

That school is now Frontier Nursing University, which is celebrating its 75th year as the nation’s oldest and largest school for nurse-midwives. Its graduates work in all 50 states and seven foreign countries.

Frontier also is marking 25 years as a distance-learning institution. It pioneered many of the online methods now beginning to revolutionize all higher education.

Many students, faculty, alumni and supporters were in Kentucky over the weekend for anniversary festivities. Events included a gala in Lexington, where Frontier has its administrative offices, and tours of the campus in Hyden, which coincided with the town’s annual Mary Breckinridge Festival.

The celebration not only marked an illustrious past, but also a promising future.

141001FrontierU0008Mary Breckinridge would seem an unlikely pioneer of health care for the rural poor. She was a society lady, born into one of Kentucky’s most distinguished families. Her father was a congressman and ambassador to Russia; her grandfather was Vice President John C. Breckinridge, whose statue stands in Lexington’s Cheapside Park.

But Breckinridge was living in rural Arkansas when her two children died young, and she blamed inadequate medical services. Already trained as a nurse, she volunteered in France after World War I and saw the difference nurse-midwives made there.

Breckinridge went to England for midwife training, then dedicated the rest of her life to improving public health in Eastern Kentucky by focusing on young children and their mothers.

Because there were few good roads here then, Frontier Nursing Service’s uniformed nurse-midwives rode horses to places such as Confluence, Cutshin and Hell-for-Certain. They carried medical equipment in their saddle bags, delivered babies and staffed community clinics. For serious cases, there was a doctor at the small hospital Breckinridge helped build on Thousandsticks Mountain overlooking Hyden.

After World War II, Eastern Kentucky’s population declined as the region modernized. Jeeps replaced the last Frontier horses in the 1960s. After the area hosted clinical trails for the birth-control pill, the birth rate plummeted.

By the 1980s, Frontier nurses mostly provided home health care to elderly people and staffed Mary Breckinridge Hospital, which was sold to Appalachian Regional Healthcare in 2011. The school for midwives struggled until it ventured into distance learning in 1989.

Susan Stone was a student in that first distance-learning class for midwives. She became a faculty member in 1993, remembering how she was told to buy a bigger mailbox because distance learning then meant a lot of packages and postage.

Stone has been president of Frontier Nursing University since 2001, and she has led dramatic growth made possible by the Internet, an expansion of degree programs and an increased demand for graduates.

Frontier had about 4,000 graduates in the first 75 years. Now it has 1,500 students enrolled in several master’s and doctoral nursing programs in addition to midwifery. Annual admissions have had to be capped at 700.

The average Frontier student is a 35-year-old registered nurse. More than 90 percent are women, and 70 percent live in rural areas. They come to the Hyden campus only two or three times: for a few days of orientation, a few days of clinical simulations and, if they wish, for their graduation ceremony.

“Our target is nurses who live in rural areas and want to stay and serve in those areas but want a graduate degree,” Stone said.

Students study online with 96 faculty members scattered across the country and do clinical work in their own communities. “We’ve been able to recruit a high-quality faculty because we don’t make them move,” Stone said.

Stone thinks the demand for nurse-practitioners and nurse-midwives will continue to increase because of trends in the health care industry. She sees Frontier continuing to change to meet needs.

“One of the things we teach our students is entrepreneurship,” she said. “Sometimes what is needed is just not there and you have to create it.”

For example, one of Stone’s future goals is to offer training for psychiatric nurses, who are in big demand but short supply in rural America.

“Mary Breckinridge’s whole idea was that this would be a pilot project and there would be replications,” Stone said. “It’s just amazing when you look at what our graduates are doing. They really are going to change the face of health care.”

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Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 


There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to Visitlex.com, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park (Kyhorsepark.com) or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information: Keeneland.com.

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information: Kybourbontrail.com.

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar: Bgcycling.net.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (lowerhowardscreek.org), Floracliff Nature Sanctuary (Floracliff.org) and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: Bluegrasswoodland.com or email campmeet@gmail.com.

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information: Venerabletrees.org.

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 

NY photographer explores historic Bluegrass homes in new book

May 24, 2014

140525KyBook0009The walled garden and orchard at Gainesway Farm was added by owner Antony Beck, a longtime friend of photographer Pieter Estersohn.  Beck suggested that Estersohn do the book, Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country, which has just been published.  Photo by Pieter Estersohn / Courtesy of Monacelli Press


Central Kentucky’s grand mansions and horse farms have been fodder for pretty picture books for more than a century, at least since Thomas A. Knight’s Country Estates of the Bluegrass came out in 1904.

Of the many books I have seen, the best has just been published: Pieter Estersohn’s Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country (Monacelli Press, $60).

The photographs are stunning, as they should be. Estersohn, 53, is one of America’s top “shelter” magazine photographers. He has shot covers for Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Southern Accents, Metropolitan Home and many other big magazines. This is his 23rd book.

140525KyBook0008What makes this book especially interesting and authentic are the places Estersohn chose to photograph. There are only a few of the usual suspects, too important to omit: Waveland, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

Many of the other 15 properties are not well-known, even to many Kentuckians, but they are some of the most precious architectural gems of the Bluegrass. That didn’t happen by accident. Estersohn had inside help.

In a telephone interview, Estersohn said he and Antony Beck, owner of Gainesway Farm, have been best friends since they were 19. The New York-based photographer said he and his son, Elio, 10, have been visiting the farm regularly for years.

“It’s sort of like our home away from home,” he said. “It’s just such a magical environment to be on that farm. Antony’s landscaping is amazing.”

Beck suggested the book, and Estersohn quickly agreed. For more than a year, the photographer made quick trips to Kentucky between other jobs, scouting locations and making pictures. The initial focus was on equine culture, but the emphasis soon shifted to the much-loved examples of historic preservation Estersohn found.

“I wanted to find a balance,” Estersohn said, “between some things that were more humble and some things that were more extravagant and some things that were really over the top.”

Beck opened doors for Estersohn, and his key local contact was antiques dealer Gay Reading, owner of The Greentree Tea Room. Reading, who wrote the book’s well-informed introduction, has a curator’s eye and extensive local connections.

“He wanted a variety of styles and periods, and I chose places I thought were special and different,” Reading said. “Unless you’re a friend, you don’t get to see many of these gems. They are places where people are really living.”

140525KyBook0006Estersohn said he was charmed by the houses he photographed, their owners and the houses’ varied stages of restoration. He was especially impressed by Ward Hall in Georgetown, one of the nation’s largest and finest Greek Revival mansions.

Other highlights were Walnut Hall, where Margaret Jewett has preserved the ornate Victorian decorations her grandfather put there in the 1890s, and Elley Villa, an elegant Gothic Revival mansion near the University of Kentucky campus that was condemned before being lovingly restored by James and Martha Birchfield.

“I loved Mary Lou’s place,” Estersohn said of the 1792 farmhouse restored in the 1960s by horsewoman and socialite Mary Lou Whitney. “It’s sort of like a time piece. It’s a very specific expression of decoration, which I think is amazing.”

Other featured properties include Gainesway Farm; the Simpson Farm in Bourbon County, built in 1785 as a pioneer station; Welcome Hall near Versailles; Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate in Mercer County; Overbrook Farm; the Alexander Moore and Thomas January houses downtown; and Liberty Hall in Frankfort.

Estersohn photographed Botherum as its new owners, garden designer Jon Carloftis and Dale Fisher, were beginning their restoration. And he was moved by the much- damaged Pope Villa, the most significant house designed by America’s first great architect, Benjamin Latrobe.

“For Pope Villa, I hope we can elicit some financial attention so that it can be further renovated,” Estersohn said. “It is a very, very, very important piece of American architecture.”

Estersohn said he photographed the houses with a large-format digital camera. He used mirrors to even out natural light and illuminate dark corners and cavernous rooms.

Each chapter is accompanied by text that is well-researched and tightly written. Inexplicably, though, there is no text with the final chapter to explain the Iroquois Hunt Club.

“I thought the biggest challenge was going to be enrolling people to have their private residence shot, which is oftentimes the issue shooting for magazines in New York,” Estersohn said. “But I think there was such a regional pride and appreciation. Every single person was enthusiastic and wanted to contribute to the book.”

The photographer said what he enjoyed most about this project was “developing a very intimate experience” with the Bluegrass.

“I really feel like I know the area,” he said. “I can get around there very easily now. I know all the pikes. I know how to say Versailles.”

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Derby Day at Keeneland: all that was missing was live horses

May 3, 2014

140503Keeneland-DerbyTE0124Derby Day at Keeneland was a laid-back affair. Photos by Tom Eblen


Billy Hargis of Danville got to Keeneland early on Kentucky Derby Day to stake out a bench and start studying the program in the hope of picking a winner.

“I’ve been coming to Keeneland for a long time, since I was 16,” said Hargis, 64, adding that it is his favorite place to be on Derby Day because of the family atmosphere and smaller crowd.

“I went to Louisville once,” he said. “All I saw was a horse’s tail.”

Before long Saturday, Hargis had plenty of company. A picture-perfect day brought 19,344 people to the Lexington racetrack, which had everything a Kentucky Derby fan needed — except actual horses.

The horses were on TV screens, including the big one across the track in Keeneland’s infield. Spectators gathered in the stands and on the plaza benches below, picnicked in the paddock and tailgated in tents and RVs outside the gates at perhaps the world’s largest Kentucky Derby party outside Churchill Downs.

Jeff and Lisa Kayes have been coming to Kentucky from the Buffalo, N.Y., area each first Saturday in May for 18 years to catch the Derby action. Only four of those years were actually spent at the Derby in Louisville.

“We’ve done that; the riff-raff in the infield gets old,” Jeff Kayes said of Churchill Downs. “This is more laid-back.”

Keeneland has long allowed people to gather at the track for Derby, but it started making a bigger event of it in 1995. Now, as many as 20,000 fans come each year, wearing fancy hats and toting picnic supplies.

There was a hat contest, children’s activities and plenty of beer, mint juleps, other refreshments and souvenirs for the adults. For $5 admission, it was quite a show for both horse fans and people-watchers.

Debbie and Bill Viney of Georgetown set up a family picnic in the paddock with son, Tom, who lives in Louisville, and his daughter, Allie, 10. They were all dressed up, enjoying the sunshine and games of corn hole until it was time to eat.

“This is great,” Tom Viney said. “I’ll come to Keeneland seven days out of seven vs. going to Churchill.”

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Kentucky Derby’s little sister has her own style

May 3, 2014

140502KyOaks0020A giant, new video screen at Churchill Downs emphasizes the feeling that the 140th Kentucky Oaks on Friday is like one big reality television show.  Photos by Tom Eblen


LOUISVILLE — Whenever friends from out-of-state complain about how Kentucky Derby tickets are expensive and hard to get, I tell them about the Kentucky Oaks.

Both races have been run for 140 years, but until a few years ago, the Friday event for 3-year-old fillies was a secret Kentuckians kept to themselves.

The Oaks is no longer a secret. The crowd of 113,071 that saw the favorite, Untapable, win by 4½ lengths Friday, was the third-largest ever. But the Oaks is still a less costly, less crowded and less crazy day at the races.

Neither Oaks nor Derby may be the same again, though, thanks to Churchill Downs’ newest addition. The Big Board is a 90-foot-wide video screen that rises 170 feet above the backside and is visible throughout the track. When the sound is cranked up on its 750 speakers, the multimedia experience can almost rival the human and equine circus that surrounds it.

Several months ago, my younger daughter called wanting advice about getting Derby tickets. Shannon lives in New York now but was coming home to meet up with Lisa Currie, her pen-pal of 20 years, who was flying in from Australia.

Lisa wanted to go to the Derby, but was easily persuaded that the Oaks might be more fun. It is the same with Australia’s famous Melbourne Cup, she said. She and other locals prefer to go on one of the preliminary race days.

Walking around Friday, I found a lot of people who have discovered the Oaks’ charm.

“I like the Oaks better, although we’ll be here tomorrow, too,” said Denise Needham of Long Island, N.Y., who was here for her fourth Oaks-Derby weekend. “It’s just as much fun, but less crowded. And it’s for a good cause.”

She was referring to Churchill Downs’ partnership with the Susan G. Komen organization, which has made Oaks Day an annual celebration of breast cancer survival and awareness.

Before the big race, there is a parade down the track of breast cancer survivors chosen from all over the country. Almost all of them wore pink. But, anymore, almost everyone wears pink to the Oaks.

“I get to wear pink and not get judged,” Rickey Spanish of Des Moines, Iowa, said with a laugh. He was wearing a pink shirt, pants and feather boa, and his Iowa friends were similarly attired.

“Today is all flash,” Spanish said. “Tomorrow, I’ll just wear a regular old suit to Derby.”

All of that pink has helped make the Oaks as good a people-watching event as Derby Day.

“The horses are OK, but the people are more interesting,” said Kitty McKune of Louisville, who stood people-watching as her husband, Mike, filmed the paddock crowd with a small video camera.

“Derby weekend brings out the best in everybody,” said Mike McKune, who shocked his wife by buying and learning how to tie a bow tie to go with this suit.

Frequently overcast skies and temperatures that barely broke into the 60s caused many men to lose their suit coats to women who draped them over their fancy dresses. Gusty winds had many women keeping at least one hand on their big hats.

“It was supposed to be warm!” said Katie Daniel of Louisville, who walked through the paddock wearing Daniel Nusbaum’s suit coat.

The weather definitely put a dent in beer sales, said Andre Williams, who said he has been hawking cold ones at Churchill Downs on Derby weekends for more than 10 years.

“They keep saying it’s too cold to drink cold beer,” Williams said, noting that his fellow vendors selling champagne and vodka “Lily” cocktails seemed to be doing better. “But it will pick up some the later the day goes.”

Judging by all of the crushed beer cans I walked over after the big race, he was right. By Saturday morning, though, they will all be gone so an even bigger, crazier crowd can leave many more beer cans. Derby Day is supposed to be much warmer.

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Lexington native takes active role in New York carriage horse fight

April 29, 2014

hansenChristina Hansen, a driver and spokeswoman for New York City carriage drivers, returns Star to a stall in New York’s Clinton Stables on Jan. 28. AP photo by Richard Drew.

Christina Hansen grew up in Lexington liking horses, but not having much to do with them. She didn’t learn to ride until she went to graduate school in North Carolina.

Hansen now earns a living as a horse carriage driver in New York’s Central Park and has become the public face of opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign to ban horse-drawn carriages that have long been a fixture in the city.

Animal rights groups back de Blasio’s plan. But Hansen’s allies include actor Liam Neeson, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the American Horse Council and the editorial pages of New York’s three big newspapers, which rarely agree on anything.

The scrappy tabloid New York Daily News has turned the issue into a crusade, with almost daily reports labeled, “Daily News Save Our Horses Campaign.”

Quinnipiac University’s respected poll recently reported that New Yorkers want to keep carriage horses by a three-to-one margin.

“He had no idea what he was getting into,” Hansen said of the new mayor. “It’s a lot harder to eliminate a business that’s been there for 156 years and is heavily regulated than he thought.”

I caught up with Hansen, 33, on Tuesday. She was back in Lexington to see her mother, Elizabeth Hansen, chair of Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Communications, inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. It was clear that some of her mother’s media savvy had rubbed off on her.

Hansen became a carriage driver almost by accident. After graduating from Emory University, she went to the University of North Carolina to study history, thinking she would be a college professor like her parents. Her father, Gary Hansen, teaches sociology at the University of Kentucky and is chair of the Community & Leadership Development program.

After earning her master’s degree, Hansen decided academia wasn’t for her. When her husband, art historian Peter Clericuzio, went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, she followed him to Philadelphia. With an interest in history and horses, she found work as a carriage-driving tour guide.

Hansen loved the job, but was shocked when people would roll down their car windows and curse her for “animal cruelty.” It made her realize that many people outside Kentucky never see horses or know anything about them.

In 2009, Hansen helped a friend, fellow Philadelphia carriage driver Pam Rickenbach, start Blue Star Equiculture in Palmer, Mass. The non-profit helps working horses in need of rescue and is a retirement home for Philadelphia and New York carriage horses.

That was Hansen’s introduction into advocacy, and she soon found herself recruited by friends to attend meetings of an anti-carriage group in New York to learn their strategy. The following year, she moved to New York to drive a carriage.

Soon after she arrived, there was a well-publicized accident involving a carriage horse that dumped his driver and two passengers in Columbus Circle. Nobody, including the horse, was seriously hurt, but the accident became a turning point in the debate.

Because other industry spokesmen were unavailable, Hansen drove her carriage to Columbus Circle and offered herself for interviews. The next day, drivers welcomed the media into their stables to show how well the horses were being cared for.

Since then, Hansen has been a principal spokesman for the city’s 300 carriage drivers, who earn middle-class livings by working their 200 horses. The two men Hansen drives for are second-generation carriage owners and drivers.

Animal rights groups, including the ASPCA and PETA, claim carriage horses are being mistreated and have no place in a crowded city. The mayor has suggested replacing horse-drawn carriages with electric, antique-looking cars, which has drawn opposition from the Central Park Conservancy.

Hansen argues that horses have been living and working in New York as long as people have, and the carriage industry has a good record for safety and horse care. The city regulates stable conditions and requires that horses get five weeks of pastured vacation each year and retire at age 26.

“The best way to insure the welfare of a horse is for them to work, to have a job,” she said. “This is what they have been trained to do.”

Hansen’s media experience over the past two years could position her well for a career in public relations. But she plans to continue driving a carriage.

“This is what I was meant to do,” she said. “I’m still teaching history, to people who are on vacation and happy, and I get to hang out with a horse all day. The carriage is my desk and I have an 834-acre cubicle that is one of the greatest parks in the world.”


Lexington center finds new careers for retired race horses

April 28, 2014

140403MMSecretariatCenter0195Susanna Thomas, director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center, talked to Sullenberger, a former race horse who is being trained for a new role as a pleasure horse. “Sully” was recently adopted.  Photos by Tom Eblen


When the Kentucky Derby comes around each May, public attention focuses on the glamour of Thoroughbred racing. But reports of abuse and performance-enhancing drugs also have people asking questions about how those horses are treated — and what happens to them after their racing days are over.

Horses are living creatures, after all, not disposable commodities for gambling and sport.

“If the industry wants to survive, it can no longer treat after-care as a charity that can or cannot be supported,” Susanna Thomas said. “It’s a sustainability issue that will not go away.”

As director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park, Thomas works with a mostly volunteer staff to retrain about 40 retired racehorses each year for new careers as hunters, jumpers and pleasure riding horses.

Thoroughbreds have a reputation for being high-strung and hard to retrain. But Thomas said the problem is often not the horses, but people who lack the knowledge, skill and patience to help them make a difficult transition.

“It’s sort of like taking a soldier who’s been in heavy-duty combat in Iraq and putting him right into a job on Wall Street,” She said. “He’s going to want to dive under the table every time bells go off.”

The center was created in 2004 in a partnership between the horse industry and the distillery, which raised more than $600,000 for it through the sale of special bourbon bottles.

Thomas became the center’s director six years ago, bringing a diverse skill set and background to the job. Raised in New York City and Europe, she is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert K. Massie, a Lexington native, and Suzanne Massie, a Russian expert and presidential advisor who taught Ronald Reagan the phrase, “Trust but verify.”

140403MMSecretariatCenter0209AThomas had worked in journalism and non-profits. She is married to James Thomas, who before retirement in 2005 spent 41 years restoring Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. She has a degree in comparative literature from Princeton and speaks several languages. “Now I speak Equus,” she said.

Thomas has always been fascinated by the intellectual and spiritual relationship between people and horses.

“As a rider, I was never interested in chasing ribbons,” she said. “I was interested in how can I understand this animal better and be in partnership.”

She got a hint at her future when, as a child, she saw carriage horses being abused in Naples, Italy. Thomas told her parents that when she grew up she was going to come back and save them. “I didn’t do that,” she said. “But I save whatever horses I can here.”

The center’s 24-acre campus has a variety of facilities for teaching Thoroughbreds used to running lickety-split on flat dirt or turf to slow down and handle more varied terrain. There are hills, woods, a creek, a cross-country course, two specialty pens and a riding arena. A lot of time is spent getting horses to trust their new trainers and desensitizing them to noises and distractions.

“As a responsible trainer,” Thomas said, “you have to figure out a way to make the right way easy and the wrong way hard and to build (a horse’s) confidence so he’ll understand it better.”

When a horse is donated to the center for retraining and adoption, Thomas and her staff begin by assessing its physical and mental condition according to a system she developed.

“Every horse gets a horsenality assessment,” Thomas said, which helps determine its best future role, the most effective retraining methods and what kind of new owner will be a good match. Thomas won’t approve adoptions she thinks are a bad match.

The average horse spends two months at the center at a cost of about $2,000. Thomas keeps a “baby book” on each horse that includes its expense records. New owners are asked to cover those expenses as the price of adoption.

“The horse’s job is just to cover its expenses,” Thomas said, adding that the rest of the center’s $300,000 annual budget comes from grants and donations.

“Every horse that comes through us can go on to be an ambassador for this breed at any level in a variety of disciplines,” she said. “We’re talking from Pony Club to the World Equestrian Games.”

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Winter’s last gasp reinforces the joy of springtime in Kentucky

April 15, 2014

Mahan-KeenelandA horse is exercised at Keeneland after Tuesday’s snow. Photo by Mark Mahan. Below, snow melts off a tulip at Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky. Photo by Pablo Alcala.


We should have known this winter would not give up easily. But I just smiled when I woke up Tuesday to that little last gasp of a snow storm.

I smiled because I had already seen, felt and smelled the warm promise of spring. I had a sunburn from the weekend. And I knew that there is no better place to enjoy springtime than in Kentucky.

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the new season arrive on the tiny blooms of Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and rare snow trillium. The rugged creeks that feed into the Kentucky River Palisades harbor a unique array of spring wildflowers, both common and endangered.

Wildflower hikes are offered by such places as the Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve and the Salato Wildlife Education Center. But opportunities are limited, and the flowers are fleeting.

More common wildflowers can be enjoyed on lawns whose owners eschew toxic chemicals. My yard is awash in purple violets. The grassy median that divides my street has patches of white spring beauties. The grounds at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, have been so covered with spring beauties that it looked as if the snow had arrived there early.

TulipThe lilac bushes beside my front porch have made it a fragrant place to relax on warm evenings and watch my neighbors dust off their bicycles and take a spin.

Last weekend was a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with some of my cycling friends. Sunshine and perfect temperatures made it feel like late May, although our out-of-shape bodies kept reminding us that it was only early April.

We rode a 35-mile loop Saturday past manicured horse farms in Fayette, Scott and Bourbon counties, then enjoyed a late lunch at Windy Corner Market, where a steady line of customers stretched out the door for hours.

Sunday’s ride was more ambitious: 50-something hilly miles from our Lexington homes to Berea. A few steep climbs and a constant headwind showed who had and who had not kept in shape over the winter. I had not. As we crossed the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry, a crew member serenaded us with his guitar. Birds took over the musical duties as we pedaled along Tate’s Creek on the other side, admiring redbud trees in full bloom.

We stopped for lunch at Acres of Land winery, the road up to which required climbing acres of steep asphalt. We needed the rest before continuing on to Boone Tavern for a round of iced tea on the veranda.

Madison County showed a visiting friend from Atlanta a more rugged view of Bluegrass beauty than he had seen the day before. Sadly, though, many back roads were littered with plastic bottles and fast-food cups tossed from passing vehicles. As Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

While we were biking, many others were enjoying one of my favorite spring venues, Keeneland Race Course. Saturday’s weather made it no surprise that nearly 40,000 people attended the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the second-largest crowd in history.

I haven’t been to the races yet this season, but I have been to Keeneland. When I can manage to pull myself out of bed an hour before daylight, I like to go out there, walk around the backside and watch exercise riders warm up that day’s competitors on the track. It is one of the best free shows in Lexington.

As the rising sun fully illuminates forsythia and dogwood, and as Keeneland’s equine athletes are being cooled off and groomed, I walk to the Track Kitchen for the sort of delicious breakfast cardiologists disapprove of.

As I finish writing this, the last remnants of the snow have melted off my front yard. The budding leaves on my tulip poplar and the giant sycamore across the street look twice as big as they were yesterday. It will be at least six months before they turn color and fall, big as dinner plates.

So long, winter. Don’t be in any hurry to come back.


A beautiful state, forever challenged to live up to its potential

September 28, 2013

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

The view from Indian Fort Mountain near Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen


Every state is unique. So what makes Kentucky so special?

To begin to answer that question, you must go back to 1750, when the first land-hungry white Virginians crossed the Appalachian mountains to see what was on the other side. What they found created quite a buzz.

John Filson, who published the first book about Kentucky in 1784, boasted that it was “the new Eden … like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey.” A frontier preacher is said to have explained heaven to his flock as “a Kentucky of a place.”

Of course, this was long before strip mining and strip malls.

Still, people continue to be awed by Kentucky’s beauty: lush mountains, rolling meadows, scenic rivers, vast limestone caves and manicured horse farms.

Kentucky’s fertile land has always made it an agriculture powerhouse. The Bluegrass region’s karst geology and calcium-rich soil is the foundation for two signature industries: strong-boned horses and pure water for bourbon whiskey.

Originally, Kentucky was considered the West. When the Civil War came, this citadel of slavery remained in the Union. Once the Union won, many Kentuckians sided with the Confederacy. Go figure.

But Kentucky has often been a paradox. For example, 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey (and, really, all that’s worth drinking) is made in Kentucky. Yet, you can’t legally buy it in more than one-third of the state’s 120 counties. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t consumed there.

Kentuckians love to eat, too, from spicy Western Kentucky barbecue to the delicately flavored cucumber spread of Louisville known as benedictine. Ask people on the other side of the world what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply: “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”

Kentuckians tend to be friendly, independent, fun-loving, stubborn and resistant to change. The local cultures we have created vary widely from the Cumberland mountains to the Jackson Purchase. The common denominator seems to be a passion for basketball.

Unless we are from one of the state’s larger cities, Kentuckians tend to identify themselves by their native county. And we have more and smaller counties than almost any state.

But we still love our little towns. We have given many of them colorful names, such as Red Bird, Hi Hat, Cutshin, Mousie and Fancy Farm. Occasionally, imagination has failed us and we have copied the names of European cities, but we have insisted on pronouncing them differently.

During its first decades of statehood, Kentucky was often a national leader and innovator. But the state seems never to have fully recovered from the Civil War and the human slavery that caused it. For a century and a half, Kentucky’s progress has always seemed like three steps forward, two steps back.

Still, some of us think Kentucky is capable of being a national leader rather than a persistent laggard. Kentuckians are hard workers, blessed with a central location, abundant resources and a beautiful place to live — when we don’t insist on messing it up.

The name Kentucky is derived from languages of the American Indian tribes we took this land from, but nobody is sure what it really meant. Some say it meant “dark and bloody ground.” Others say, “the land of tomorrow.” While a lot has happened to support the first theory, I choose to believe the second.

Now, would somebody please pass the barbecue and freshen my bourbon? We have a lot of work to do after dinner.


Equus Run Vineyards’ success has been about much more than wine

June 17, 2013


Cynthia Bohn started Equus Run Vineyards in Woodford County 15 years ago as a retirement business for when she was ready to end her 30-year career with IBM as a computer engineer and marketing executive. The business now makes 15 varieties of wine and has a successful event business at the 48-acre winery. Photos by Tom Eblen


MIDWAY — Cynthia Bohn lived all over the country, as well as in England and the Netherlands, during her 30-year career as an IBM computer engineer and executive. Collecting wine became her hobby.

So, when she began planning for a retirement career, Bohn thought it might be fun to start a winery in Kentucky, where she had grown up in Louisville and on a Hart County tobacco farm.

“It was like a hobby that became a passion that became a business,” said Bohn, whose Equus Run Vineyards just celebrated 15 years in business and is about to launch a major expansion.

Although Kentucky had the nation’s first commercial winery in 1799, there were only three wineries operating in the bourbon state when Bohn started planning her business in the mid-1990s. Now, Kentucky has 67 operating wineries, with more on the way.

“It’s a very viable business model if you run it as a business,” she said.

Bohn said that after three flat years during and after the Great Recession, her revenues were up 17 percent in 2012 and 23 percent this year.

Equus Run now produces about 9,100 cases a year of 15 varieties of wine. The grapes come from her own eight acres of vineyards, and from contract growers in Western Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and California.

“There’s no way I could grow everything I need,” she said, noting that some grape varieties don’t do well in Kentucky’s soil and climate. Plus, having growers elsewhere is “sort of like an insurance policy” against unpredictable Kentucky weather, she said.

But Bohn has discovered that it takes more than grapes and good wine to make a successful winery of her size.

“The key thing with us is we diversified,” Bohn said as we sat on a deck outside her tasting room overlooking her vineyards — and gardens and sculptures and a putting green and an amphitheater. Coming soon: bike trails.

“We are in the hospitality and tourism industry; we just happen to sell wine,” she said. “It’s all about the experience. It’s about a day in the Bluegrass. It’s about a lifestyle, not just wine.”

In addition to the recreation facilities and places for hosting weddings, receptions and corporate events, Equus Run schedules programs where visitors can enjoy art, music and even learn to fly fish.

An equine artists’ group will be coming to the winery this summer to paint. Several “foodie” events are scheduled, including a shrimp boil and a “pizza and pinot” evening. There is a dinner theater series built around murder mysteries.

Several non-profit groups use Equus Run’s facilities for fundraisers. The winery donates the facilities and keeps only the revenues from alcohol sales, Bohn said.

“It’s been a great model,” she said. “It has worked for them and it has worked for us.”

Equus Run’s biggest annual event is this weekend: the 10th annual Francisco’s Farm Arts Festival, produced in conjunction with the Lexington Art League and Midway Renaissance. This is the third year Equus Run has hosted the regionally acclaimed arts festival, which was formerly at Midway College. Bohn expects as many as 10,000 people to attend.

She is looking for more ways to expand Equus Run, which now has 16 employees. She recently bought 10 acres across Moore’s Mill Road to add to her 38-acre property.

Until now, Bohn has been the winery’s sole owner. But she said she is partnering with local investors to build new hospitality venues and wine-production facilities to replace the ones in a former tobacco barn she has outgrown. Other future plans include finding a partner to offer regular food service.

Equus Run is surrounded by several horse farms, and Bohn said she tries to be a good neighbor by doing such things as ending concerts at 9 p.m., rather than the required 11 p.m.

“I love my neighbors; they are wonderful,” she said. “We could have easily been shoved aside. Instead, they embraced us. I think that speaks highly of the community.”

Bohn thinks businesses such as Equus Run can play a valuable role in increasing tourism in the Bluegrass, as well as just making this a more fun and interesting place to live. Personally, it is not only a good retirement business, but a lot of fun.

“You’ve got to love people, and you’ve got to love dealing with Mother Nature and her erratic weather patterns,” said Bohn, who added that tending grapes isn’t nearly as hard work as the tobacco-stripping she did as a teenager. “I very affectionately say I started with dirt and I have now retired with dirt.”

If you go

Francisco’s Farm Arts Festival

When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. June 22, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 23

Where: Equus Run Vineyards, 1280 Moores Mill Rd., Midway

Admission: $10 per vehicle.

More information: Lexingtonartleague.org, Equusrunvineyards.com

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Alltech Symposium offers glimpse of the future of food production

May 27, 2013


José Ignacio Martínez-Valero, left, shaved ham as Lucas Montero served cheese to attendees at Alltech’s annual international symposium in Lexington on Tuesday. They represent Ibericos COVAP, a line of traditional Spanish gourmet products produced by a farmers’ co-op near Córdoba, Spain. Photo by Tom Eblen


I spent some time last week at the Alltech Symposium, Lexington’s biggest annual international event that many people have never heard of.

Alltech, the Nicholasville-based animal health and nutrition company, has put on this flashy educational conference for 29 years as a way to strengthen relationships with its customers in 128 countries.

This year’s symposium attracted about 2,000 people from 72 nations, plus about 400 Alltech employees from around the world.

Honestly, animal nutrition is not something I would normally find very interesting. But I leave this event every year fascinated by innovative ideas.

The symposium looks at the future of food and agribusiness from the perspective of natural systems and processes, which has always been Alltech’s approach. That approach has become fashionable in recent years as consumers worry more and more about chemicals and genetically-modified organisms.

This year’s symposium featured several technologies Alltech is working on, such as producing algae for nutritional supplements.

Two years ago, Alltech bought one of the world’s largest algae-making plants, just off Interstate 64 near Winchester. Pearse Lyons, Alltech’s founder and president, said the plant is now producing 10,000 tons of algae a year and is already too small to meet the company’s needs.

Lyons thinks algae could become more popular than fish oil as a major source of docohexaenoic acid, or DHA, a popular nutritional supplement thought to slow the decline of brain function as people age. With the fish oil market now at about $1 billion, Lyons sees opportunity.

The symposium’s theme this year was “Glimpse the future in 2020.” In addition to algae, presentations and panel discussions focused on such topics as growing antibiotic-free poultry, farming at sea, finding financial rewards in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and learning to embrace regulation.

“Enough is enough,” the regulatory session’s thesis statement said. “If we do not regulate ourselves, the FDA or the European Union will regulate us. Learn how to embrace regulation.”

Alltech thinks successful businesses won’t just come from new ideas and technology. There are big opportunities in better marketing and distribution of high-quality traditional foods that offer nutrition and unique tastes.

My favorite booth at the symposium’s World Market trade show this year was Ibéricos COVAP, a farmers’ cooperative near Córdoba, Spain. Farmers there have for centuries been producing gourmet cured ham from free-range Ibérico pigs that grow fat on acorns from the forests of the Sierra Morena mountains.

The co-op already distributes its products in New York and Los Angeles. Now, it sees opportunity in middle America, beginning with Kentucky, where cured country ham has been a delicacy for generations.

“We are looking for big opportunities we think we have in this area,” said the co-op’s director, Emilio de León y Ponce de León.

Based on how symposium attendees were devouring delicious samples of thin-shaved ham and Spanish cheeses, Ibéricos COVAP may have some opportunities.

Alltech used to offer the symposium as a free or low-cost event for customers. In the past, Lyons said, Alltech absorbed the costs. Now, each person pays hundreds of dollars to attend.

This year’s symposium, which cost more than $1 million to produce, may come close to breaking even, Lyons said. In the future, he added, it could become a profit center. That is because Alltech’s customers find value in the symposium’s educational sessions and networking opportunities.

“What we’re striving to have is a real joint venture with customers — a real meeting of the minds that creates a win-win situation,” said Lyons, an Irish-born entrepreneur who moved to Lexington in 1980 and started Alltech in his garage. “There are huge returns for international business people willing to work together.”

Those opportunities are a big reason Alltech has been expanding its business in recent years from animal nutrition supplements to human nutrition supplements and high-quality food and drink.

The privately held company doesn’t release financial figures, but Lyons said sales this year will approach $1 billion. About 30 percent of that revenue came from acquisitions.

Lyons, who turns 69 on Aug. 3, said he expects the company to make many more acquisitions in his quest to achieve annual revenues of $4 billion in his lifetime.