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

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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

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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.


Kentucky Derby infield tamer than my first one, but still a wild party

May 4, 2013

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 Patrick Just of Louisville takes a turn on an improvised water slide during an afternoon downpour in the infield at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. “You don’t do Derby,” he said. “Derby does you.”  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Like many people, I attended my first Kentucky Derby as a college student in the infield. Except I was an intern for the Associated Press, assigned to write a feature about one of the world’s biggest and wildest parties.

It was 1979, when Spectacular Bid won the 105th Derby, then the Preakness and fell just short of the Triple Crown. But that’s not what I remember most.

Derby Day was sunny and hot, and the infield was a “boiling sea of people”, just as Hunter S. Thompson described it in his famous 1970 essay, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. Alcohol flowed freely and, as the afternoon wore on, many a young woman became separated from her clothes. As I wrote in my story that day, the infield was a place where “you are liable to see almost anything — except perhaps the Kentucky Derby.”

I have been to 16 Derbys since then, and each year the infield seems to get smaller and tamer, even as the admission price has risen from $10 to $40. But the 139th Derby was proof that the infield is still quite a party — even on a day like Saturday.

For most of the day, it poured rain, but that didn’t keep people away. The Derby Day crowd was more than 151,000.

The wet weather wasn’t a problem for big-ticket Derby patrons, who enjoyed catered food high and dry in enclosed luxury suites above the track. Saturday was a good day to be rich or famous — or a guest of someone who was.

Outdoor grandstand seats were problematic. But the infield crowd just got wet. Very wet. Not that anyone seemed to mind.

The steady downpour quickly turned the infield into swamp. In the past, that wouldn’t have been a big problem. Although umbrellas have always been banned, infield regulars usually come equipped with large picnic tents.

But this year, citing security concerns in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Churchill Downs banned tents and coolers. Still, many people brought tarps that became makeshift tents, attached to the chain-link fence along the track’s edge or propped up on folding chairs. A few people managed to sneak in forbidden tent poles and stakes.

“I knew people would get creative,” said John Asher, the Churchill Downs spokesman.

While some in the infield tried to find shelter, many others didn’t bother. People walked around, drank and danced in the rain and mud.

“You’ve got to do it,” said Cathy Hanrahan of Louisville, who has been to six or seven Derbys and was enjoying this one dancing in the infield with friends while wearing a hat that looked like a lamp shade. “You can dry out tomorrow.”

Still, even on a dry day, the Derby infield isn’t what it used to be.

For one thing, the infield is a lot smaller. A big chunk of the real estate was taken in 1985 when Churchill Downs built the turf track inside the dirt oval. The whole front side of the infield is now taken by two-story enclosed and tented luxury boxes. And, each year, more and more vendor tents compete with fans for space.

The infield also is a lot tamer. Although it is harder to smuggle in booze, Churchill Downs makes it very easy to buy alcohol, from beer to mint juleps to champagne. But a multitude of cops keep patrons’ good times from getting out of hand.

There is little nudity anymore, even on a warmer, drier Derby Day than we had this year. Before Churchill Downs’ most recent renovations, the Herald-Leader’s work room was next to a room where Louisville police with high-powered binoculars scanned the infield looking for nudity and other misbehavior.

But none of this seems to have stopped the infield crowd from having a memorably good time, year after year.

“I heard it’s the most wild time you could find,” said Jesse Jerzewski, 26, of Buffalo, N.Y. “And I’m not disappointed yet.”

Jerzewski’s first Derby was doubling as his brother’s bachelor party. They and their poncho-clad friends were especially fond of mint juleps.

A big crowd of young people gathered around a huge plastic sheet, which became a well-lubricated water slide in the heavy afternoon rain. They dared each other to give it a try. Patrick Just of Louisville was among those who accepted the challenge.

“You don’t do Derby,” he said. “Derby does you.”

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Hippotherapy uses horses’ movement to help heal people

May 1, 2013

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Hallie Adams, 7, sits atop Wanda, a Norwegian Fjord horse, as she is led around the Central Kentucky Riding for Hope facility at the Kentucky Horse Park. Martha Wiedemann, hidden, Nancy Herring, front, and Kassie Smith lead the horse while therapist Lisa Harris, center, works with Hallie to improve coordination and balance and strengthen her muscles. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

This is Kentucky Derby week, the time each year when everyone is focused on horses that run fast for a living. So I thought I would write about horses whose job it is to walk slowly.

T-Ball and Wanda are hefty Norwegian Fjords who work at Central Kentucky Riding for Hope at the Kentucky Horse Park. They help heal the clients of Lisa Harris and Becky Johnson, two therapists at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital.

It is called hippotherapy — hippo is Greek for horse — and it is a relatively new method of therapy that is struggling for recognition with the insurance companies and government agencies that pay most medical bills in America.

Hippotherapy is not the same as therapeutic riding. In hippotherapy, a patient sits or lies on a horse’s back and does movements under the direction of a therapist as the horse is led around slowly by a handler and a side walker.

“The horse’s pelvis creates a movement that is very similar to our walking,” said Harris, who has been on the board of the American Hippotherapy Association. “Its motion is our strategy.”

130329Hippotherapy-TE0213The horse stimulates movement by the patient on its back. Hippotherapy helps many patients improve balance, flexibility and strength, especially in the neck, chest and abdomen. Core strength is important not only in helping patients walk, but in speech therapy, Harris said. The hippotherapy environment also can help improve sensory perception in children who struggle with it.

“It can be very helpful as part of a full treatment plan,” Harris said. “We have seen some adults and kids who haven’t walked before take their first steps, or haven’t spoken before say their first words.”

Harris has ridden horses since she was a child. Her mother, Nancy Herring, was the first executive director of Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, which since 1981 has offered other healing-related activities involving horses, including work with military veterans disabled while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Her father is George Herring, a noted historian and author at the University of Kentucky.)

In addition to a master’s degree in physical therapy, Harris has a master’s in equine biomechanics and a bachelor’s in animal science. So she naturally became interested in hippotherapy after it was introduced in this country from Germany and Austria in the 1990s.

Harris began offering hippotherapy in Lexington in 2002 after Cardinal Hill formed a partnership with Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, the state’s only premium accredited therapeutic riding center. She and Johnson, an occupational therapist, use the methods with about 25 clients a week.

Many of Harris’ clients are children. Hallie Adams, 7, of Paris, was born with cerebral palsy. Her mother, Ginger Adams, said the sessions have helped make her daughter much stronger. Once around Wanda, Hallie becomes more motivated to work her muscles.

“She’s super engaged on the horse, so anything the therapists ask her to do, she will do,” Adams said.

Carlos Taylor, 34, of Winchester, is using hippotherapy to help recover from a 2005 construction accident. He was helping to build a log house when scaffolding collapsed and injured his spine, causing him to lose feeling in his lower legs.

“I never thought I would get on a horse again,” Taylor said with a laugh. He said he twice tried horseback riding before his injury and was thrown off both times.

Taylor receives several kinds of therapy, but he said that after he began hippotherapy last year, he quickly noticed improvement in core strength and muscle control.

“It has helped a lot,” he said. “I never thought I would be where I am today.”

The American Hippo therapy Association is trying to increase awareness of its methods so more insurance companies and other health care reimbursement agencies will pay for patients to get it.

“There’s a lot of confusion out there about hippotherapy and how it is different from therapeutic riding, which is done by a riding instructor and not a therapist,” Harris said.

She said about half the insurance companies in Kentucky will reimburse for hippotherapy, but unlike many other states, Medicare and Medicaid in Kentucky will not.

“This is the horse capital of the world,” Harris said. “Not saying yes to this treatment strategy is kind of crazy.”

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Marketing campaign hopes to attract millennials to horse racing

April 9, 2013

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America’s Best Racing’s ambassadors, left to right, are Hallie Hardy, John Cox, Jose Contreras, Mary Frances Dale, Chip McGaughey and Victoria Garofalo. The bus tour began in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and ends at the Breeders’ Cup in Los Angeles in November. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

The centerpiece of The Jockey Club’s $5 million marketing campaign to attract more young fans to Thoroughbred racing rolled into Lexington this week.

A brightly painted hospitality bus with six horse-racing “ambassadors” between ages 22 and 27 is on a national tour. The tour began in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and will end in November at the Breeders’ Cup outside Los Angeles.

Before leaving Lexington for Louisville on Sunday, the bus will be at The Red Mile on Wednesday for the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club meeting, at Thursday Night Live at Cheapside with some well-known jockeys, in the parking lot of Tin Roof on South Limestone on Friday night, and at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday.

Kip Cornett, president of Lexington-based Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, said the campaign grew out of a McKinsey & Co. study that The Jockey Club commissioned three years ago.

It concluded that one of racing’s biggest opportunities to increase the fan base was by doing more with special events, such as the Kentucky Derby. The research showed that 1.8 million people ages 18 to 34 watch the Derby on television, yet they pay little attention to Thoroughbred racing most of the year, Cornett said.

So the Jockey Club created a strategy similar to ESPN’s GameDay events to reach young people. That included an advertising campaign; a website, Followhorseracing.com; and the bus with six ambassadors chosen from 150 videotaped applications.

Three of the ambassadors are from Central Kentucky; the others are from California, Georgia and Tennessee. All plan careers in the Thoroughbred industry and hope this gig will help them learn and make good contacts.

During the 17-stop bus tour, the ambassadors are trying to attract peers not only to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, but to the fashion, celebrity and party “lifestyle” surrounding it. They have given away a lot of souvenir jockey goggles and have registered hundreds of people for a contest to win an all-expenses-paid trip for four to the Derby.

The ambassadors identify young leaders and those with big social media followings in each city, take them to the local track and show them a good time in the hope that they will encourage their friends and social media followers to try racing.

The ambassadors also scout popular venues to take the bus — “places where people like us would hang out,” said José Contreras of Long Beach, Calif., who said he “started reading the Daily Racing Form before I could read books.”

“I’ve been surprised by how many people really want to talk to us,” said Hallie Hardy of Frankfort, an equestrian for most of her life.

When the bus was at the Florida Derby last month, Chip McGaughey of Lexington said young Miami leaders were given behind-the-scenes tours of Gulfstream Park and showed how pari-mutuel betting works. Based on the initial efforts, the strategy seems to be working.

“Winning them some money definitely helps,” McGaughey said.

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Beyond LFUCG: How Lexington could improve its brand?

March 2, 2013

I got a lot of response to last Sunday’s column. Many readers shared my dislike for Lexington’s clunky official name, Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, and its even more awkward acronym, LFUCG.

And then there was the silly sounding State of the Merged Government address, the annual speech the mayor gives at a high-profile luncheon sponsored by the Lexington Forum, a civic discussion group.

Why not, I asked, just call it the State of the City speech?

Board members of the Lexington Forum agreed, and, before the day was out, they had voted unanimously by email to change the name.

“We just felt like the old name was passé,” said Winn Stephens, the Lexington Forum’s president. “It was time to think of us all as the City of Lexington. Nobody with any marketing or public relations savvy would come up with a moniker like LFUCG.”

A few readers said they worried that a “city” emphasis might somehow devalue Fayette County’s strong rural tradition.

But others doubted that would happen. Ask anyone from elsewhere what they think of when they think of Lexington and the first things they are likely to mention are horses and green pastures.

lexsealOther readers took aim at the city’s official seal. To refresh your memory, the seal is a circle surrounded by the words “Lexington Fayette Urban County Government Kentucky.” Inside the circle are four local symbols: a horse shoe; tobacco leaves; 1775, when Lexington was named for the recently fought first battle of the American Revolution; and Transylvania University’s Old Morrison hall, a symbol of Lexington’s education heritage and historic architecture.

As government seals go, it’s not bad. But, as an all-purpose logo or flag, it doesn’t do Lexington justice.

“Could we redo our city’s flag?” reader James Bright asked in an email. “The current flag seems to be a history lesson that must be read to be understood. Learning is good. I am a teacher after all. But it is way too busy.”

Bright noted other cities, such as Chicago and Cincinnati, that have more elegant and inspiring flags.

I have always liked the flag of Washington, D.C., with its three stars and two stripes taken from George Washington’s coat of arms, and the flags of Louisville and New Orleans, which feature the traditional French fleurs-de-lis.

Bright suggested a competition among local artists to design a new city flag. That could be a good place to start.

Open design competitions often produce better (and less expensive) results than hiring a company to develop ideas. We saw an example of that recently, when the Town Branch Commons design competition attracted some of the world’s top landscape architects and produced impressive results.

Whatever local symbolism is chosen for Lexington’s flag should be adaptable to other “logo” uses, as is done with the fleurs-de-lis in Louisville and New Orleans.

The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau has gotten a lot of mileage out of the “blue horse” — the Pentagram design firm’s adaptation of Edward Troye’s 1868 portrait of the great stallion Lexington, rendered in Wildcat blue.

I think the blue horse is a brilliant symbol for promoting local tourism. But Lexington is more than a one-horse town. Despite the name Bluegrass and the popularity of University of Kentucky athletics, I see Lexington, with its lush farmland next to urban areas, as more of a green city than a blue city.

Image and marketing are important. They create a brand that both attracts outsiders and engenders pride among locals. Think about it: the guys behind the guerrilla “Kentucky Kicks Ass” promotional campaign have sold a lot of T-shirts.

Of course, Mayor Jim Gray and members of the Urban County Council have bigger issues to worry about, so this probably isn’t at the top of their agenda. There are pensions to fund, budgets to balance and water-quality problems to solve from all of that farmland converted into subdivisions over the years.

But it is good to put these sorts of ideas out for public discussion and debate. When we just leave it up to government, we can end up with things like, well, LFUCG.


Candlelight tours at one of Kentucky’s grandest Old South mansions

December 11, 2012

Ward Hall, completed in 1857, is considered one of the nation’s finest Greek Revival-style mansions. The foundation that owns the mansion is beginning a fundraising campaign for $850,000 in exterior renovations. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

GEORGETOWN — Central Kentucky has many elegant homes built before the Civil War, but Ward Hall is in a class by itself.

Completed in 1857 for planter and horseman Junius R. Ward, this massive mansion commands a hillside on Frankfort Road a mile west of Georgetown. Architectural historians have described it as Kentucky’s finest home, one of the grandest Greek Revival houses outside the deep South and among the 20 or so best mid-19th century buildings left in America.

“The national experts are really more excited about what we have here than are many of the locals,” said David Stuart, a Scott County lawyer and president of the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation. “It’s amazing that we sit about 12 miles from downtown Lexington and so many people are unaware of Ward Hall.”

The mansion, at 1782 Frankfort Road, is open for tours only one weekend a month, but there will be Christmas candlelight tours from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Dec. 22 and 23. Admission is $5, free for children 15 and younger. (More information: (859) 396-4257, Wardhall.org.)

Ward Hall was built by descendants of prominent Scott County pioneers who achieved fabulous wealth made possible by slavery.

Junius Ward (1802-1883) was the son of Gen. William and Sarah Ward. She was the sister of Richard M. Johnson, who was vice president under Martin Van Buren, 1837-41.

Junius Ward married Matilda Viley, whose family was instrumental in making Central Kentucky the center of Thoroughbred breeding and racing. Through the Viley family, Ward became a part-owner in the legendary race horse Lexington.

Ward acquired rich bottomland in Mississippi and became a wealthy planter. He built Ward Hall on 550 acres outside his hometown as a refuge from Mississippi’s summer heat. He had the money and taste to build the very best.

Measuring nearly 75 feet square and 40 feet high, Ward Hall has more than 12,000 square feet of space on four levels. It was built with an innovative plumbing system that collected rainwater from the roof.

Those last few summers before the Civil War changed everything, the Wards entertained the Bluegrass aristocracy in grand fashion. Parties were hosted by Matilda Ward and her niece, Sallie Ward, a famous Southern belle whose exploits — including four marriages and a much-publicized divorce — could have made the fictional Scarlett O’Hara blush.

After climbing 10 limestone steps past massive Corinthian columns, visitors would enter a 14-foot-wide hall with a 14-foot ceiling. They would be welcomed into a double parlor with Carrara marble mantels, walnut woodwork and Sheffield silver fixtures.

The silver chandeliers still hang from a distemper plaster ceiling which, after 155 years, retains its original coloring. A graceful elliptical staircase ascends from the center of the hall to huge second-floor bedrooms and a third-floor attic.

The Civil War ruined Ward financially, and his Kentucky mansion and its contents were sold at a bankruptcy auction in 1867. The home passed through several owners before the Susong family bought it and 156 acres in 1945.

The Susongs put the property up for sale in 2004, and a developer bought 116 acres.

Georgetown College stepped in to ensure that the mansion and 40 surrounding acres were preserved. A non-profit preservation foundation was created to buy the property for $957,000. The money came from federal and local government grants, plus $250,000 from developer Jim Barlow.

“The rare thing about the house is that it comes to us virtually intact,” Stuart said, noting how little was changed by various owners over a century and a half.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Ward Hall is in desperate need of repair.

The Kentucky Heritage Council has approved an $850,000 plan to restore the exterior to prevent further damage from the elements. The foundation will begin a fundraising campaign for that money next year.

An additional $2 million or so will be needed to restore the mansion’s interior and upgrade infrastructure systems. Plans to rebuild the once-famous stable and restore the outbuildings and grounds will take another couple million.

The foundation’s long-term goal is to open the property as a community center and living history museum depicting Kentucky plantation life just before, during and after the Civil War. But it won’t be a sentimental treatment, Stuart said.

“We’re not going to back away from the black American experience,” he said, noting that the basement-level service areas are as intact as the grand upper floors. “This house and plantation would not have existed without the enslaved.”

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New Lexington Catholic High program shows students equine careers

December 3, 2012

Alex Cox holds a bag of steel wool on a string, which is drawn by the powerful magnetic force of an MRI machine used to diagnose horse injuries at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. Cox is part of the school’s Equine Academy, which tries to prepare students interested in pursuing careers in the horse industry. Photo by Tom Eblen

Alex Cox has been riding horses since he was 11 and hopes to be a jockey in a few years. But he wants to know a lot more about horses than just how to ride them.

So Cox, 14, decided to become one of the first 17 students in Lexington Catholic High School’s Equine Academy, a new four-year program designed to introduce young people to career opportunities in all aspects of the horse industry.

“I want to learn all about horses, how to keep them healthy and how the business works,” the freshman said. “It’s my favorite class by far. It’s really fun. When I grow up, I want to do something fun for a living.”

The program seemed like a natural for Lexington Catholic, said Steve Angelucci, the school’s president. Many students already were interested, because they rode or were from horse-industry families. Plus, the Lexington area offered an unparalleled opportunity for exposure to and partnership with major industry players.

The school has formed academic partnerships with the equine programs at the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College, as well as relationships with more than 20 local farms, organizations and companies, including Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park, Alltech, and two of the nation’s largest equine medical practices, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital and Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.

“We’re trying to create well-rounded professionals to be the next generation of leaders in the equine industry,” said Sarah Coleman, the academy’s director. The Ohio native previously was executive director of Georgetown College’s Equine Scholars Program.

“There are so many jobs out there involving horses,” Coleman said. “Being raised here, I think kids forget the novelty of this area. For a horse lover, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.”

Freshman Adriana DeCarlo, 14, doesn’t come from a horse industry family, but she has always loved them and has been riding since she was 4 years old. She thinks she wants a career involving horses, perhaps either in science or the Thoroughbred industry, but the academy has already been helpful.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “It has helped me take care of my own horse.”

The program calls for students to take eight equine courses over four years, including horse anatomy and physiology, health care, nutrition and management, reproduction and farm management, and equine business and marketing. Those classes are taught by Shannon White, general manager of Fares Farm and former hospital supervisor at Rood & Riddle.

The program includes many extracurricular lectures, field trips, speakers and shadowing, and mentoring opportunities. Students participate in service projects and must do a senior project.

On a recent field trip to Hagyard, the students got a tour of the horse hospital and spoke with several young veterinarians.

“Veterinary medicine is not a career,” Dr. Ashley Craig, a field care intern, told the students. “It’s a life choice.”

Dr. William Rainbow said he became a veterinarian after growing up in the industry and participating in Darley Flying Start, a two-year Thoroughbred leadership development program that allowed him to travel all over the world.

“I never thought mucking stalls would get me that far, but it did,” Rainbow said.

Perhaps the highlight of the tour for this group was Hagyard’s super-size, high-tech medical equipment — a walk-in hypobaric chamber for high-oxygen healing therapy and the huge MRI machine, with a magnet powerful enough to cause a bag of steel wool on a string to fly across the room.

Other extracurricular activities have included visits to Keeneland, Alltech and the Red Mile, as well as basic lessons in polo, vaulting and driving.

Coleman said horse industry people have been very welcoming to the students and supportive of the Equine Academy.

“Everybody I talk to says they wish they had had that when they were in school,” she said.

 

Online auction benefits program

Lexington Catholic’s new Equine Academy is having a fundraising “non-event” — an eBay auction — later this month.

Items for sale include an acoustic guitar signed by country music stars Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton; VIP events at Three Chimneys and Jonabell farms; a backstage pass to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; and a Storm Cat halter.

The auction site will go live at 8 p.m. on Dec. 9 at: Myworld.ebay.com/lchsequine. Bidding ends at 8 p.m. Dec. 16.

 

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The story behind fabulous Spindletop Hall, now celebrating its 75th

October 9, 2012

Spindletop’s double staircase when the mansion was new in the late 1930s.  Photo Provided

Pansy Yount wanted only the best for herself and her daughter. So when Texas oilman Frank Yount’s widow decided in 1935 to buy a Kentucky horse farm and build a mansion, the result was jaw-dropping.

This month, Spindletop Hall celebrates the 75th anniversary of its completion and the 50th anniversary of its conversion into a country club for University of Kentucky faculty, staff, alumni and friends.

The Club at Spindletop Hall is hosting three anniversary events: a Texas barbecue on Oct. 19, a gala dinner dance on Oct. 20 and a horse and carriage brunch on Oct. 21. (Some tickets are available to the public; call (859) 255-2777 for more information.)

The 1,050-member club hopes to use the celebration to attract a couple hundred new members and raise money to continue restoring the mansion and improving the club.

“She’s a beautiful lady, but there are some things we need to address for the future,” club manager Gerald Marvel said of Spindletop Hall.

Among those attending the events will be Kathryn Haider of suburban Chicago, who has her own name for Spindletop: Grandma’s house. In a telephone interview, Haider recalled idyllic summers spent at Spindletop: fishing, riding ponies and spending time with her grandmother.

“She was an absolutely wonderful woman,” Haider recalled. “I just adored her. She was a great mentor to me.”

Spindletop is named for the salt dome near Beaumont, Texas, that became a fabulously rich oilfield after Anthony Lucas drilled the first “gusher” in 1901. Initial reserves played out within a few years. But Miles Franklin Yount, a mechanically inclined Arkansas farm boy who moved to Texas to seek his fortune, thought there was more oil to be had if only he could drill deep enough. In 1925, he did.

Yount died in 1933. When his Yount-Lee Oil Co. was sold in 1935, his widow and teenage daughter, Mildred, received a fortune that today would be worth about $208 million. Pansy Yount decided to move to Lexington and indulge her passion for American Standardbred horses.

She bought Shoshone Stud and several surrounding parcels off Ironworks Pike north of Lexington and renamed it Spindletop. As the centerpiece of the 1,066-acre farm, she built a 45,000-square-foot mansion that cost the equivalent of about $17 million today.

Durability was a priority: a massive foundation and steel beams supported the brick-and-stone building, which even had “fireproof” concrete decking in the attic and roof.

“It’s almost built like a bomb shelter,” said David Graham, a recent club president.

Yount imported craftsmen from Europe to carve woodwork, mold plaster and paint art on the walls. In the entrance hall, there were enormous curved staircases. The huge Gothic library had a hammerbeam roof and a mantel salvaged from an English castle. Yount built a music room for her talented daughter, whose instrument collection included a concert harp and two Stradivarius violins.

The music room also housed the console for a Kimball reproducing organ, which could be played manually or with paper rolls of “recorded” music. It sent music throughout the mansion, which was literally designed around it. The club has begun restoring the organ.

Pansy Yount was a strong-willed woman who could be both demanding and generous. Lexingtonians were shocked in October 1942 when she donated Frank’s Duesenberg, one of the most expensive automobiles of the time, to a World War II scrap drive.

Haider recalled the time her grandmother went Christmas shopping at Woolworth’s on Lexington’s Main Street. She was especially well treated by the sales ladies, so she invited them all out for dinner at Spindletop.

“Grandma treated them just like royalty,” she said.

Yount was too independent and egalitarian to get along with some of the wealthy elite of Beaumont and Lexington. Although she had little formal education, she developed excellent taste and a voracious appetite for books.

“She was extremely independent, and a very savvy business woman,” Haider said. “She thought out everything she did. If some people didn’t like it, she didn’t care.”

In 1949, Young married her farm manager, horse trainer William Capers “Cape” Grant. They divorced a decade later, and she had decided to move back to Texas.

When Yount decided to sell Spindletop, she called Lexington friend Fred Wachs, then publisher of the Herald and Leader, for advice. He suggested she donate it to the university. UK President Frank Dickey flew to Texas and negotiated the sale of the farm and mansion for the gift price of $850,000, payable over 10 years.

Yount died in 1962, the year UK converted her mansion and 50 surrounding acres into a private club with a dining room, tennis courts, swimming pools and other amenities. Over the years, other land has been used for offices and facilities for UK agriculture and energy research.

UK owns the mansion, which is operated by the club. They both contribute to maintenance and improvements. Haider said she is pleased with the interest they are now showing in preserving Spindletop Hall.

“Everyone is so devoted to the place,” she said. “That home is truly a gift to Kentucky.”

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Raising money to repair Floral Hall, Lexington’s historic ’round barn’

October 2, 2012


Floral Hall was designed and built by John McMurtry in 1882. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Floral Hall is one of Lexington’s most- photographed landmarks.During the past 130 years, the octagon-shaped building on Red Mile Road just off South Broadway has housed gardeners and gamblers, doughboys and some of America’s best trotting horses.

Many people assume Floral Hall is owned by the city, state or the adjacent Red Mile harness track. They would be wrong.

The Stable of Memories Inc., a non-profit foundation, has been the hall’s custodian since the early 1960s, struggling to keep it beautiful. The hall now houses American Standardbred horse memorabilia and an equine archives. It also is rented for events.

“It’s like any old house,” said Kit Glenn McKinley, president of the foundation and owner of R.E. Fennell Co., a 110-year-old tack and leather goods shop beside Floral Hall. “It always needs something.”

In recent years, the foundation has spent $47,000 to restore the cupola and $12,000 to recondition the three-story brass chandelier that hangs in the center of the barn. Now, the foundation is trying to raise $87,000 to replace rotting wooden support beams and make other structural improvements.

The foundation will hold an auction to raise money before the 120th Kentucky Futurity races at The Red Mile on Sunday.

“Our goal is to educate people about this building,” McKinley said. “We want everyone to know about it and enjoy it.”

John McMurtry, a noted 19th-century Lexington architect and builder, designed and constructed Floral Hall in 1880-82. It was commissioned by the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical Association to serve as a floral exhibition hall for what was then the local fairgrounds.

Lexington’s fairgrounds had been at Maxwell Spring on what is now the University of Kentucky campus, but it was heavily damaged by Union troops during the Civil War. After the war, the federal government paid the association $25,000 in damages. The money was used to buy new fairgrounds land where The Red Mile is now, and $5,000 went toward Floral Hall’s construction.

The building was designed so flower arrangements could be displayed in tiers along the walls. Judges could stand in the center and compare entries without having to wear out their necks.

Trotting horse races were held at the fairgrounds beginning in 1875. And because Floral Hall was then just outside Lexington’s city limits, bookmakers moved there from the downtown Phoenix Hotel when the city outlawed gambling.

The Kentucky Trotting Horse Breeders Association took over ownership of the fairgrounds in 1896, creating what is now known as The Red Mile track. The exhibit hall was converted into stables, and the distinctive cupola was added.

Horses were sheltered on the first and second floors — the high-steppers apparently had little trouble climbing a ramp — and grooms slept on the third floor. During World War I, the horses were replaced by doughboys as the barn became a military barracks.

But by 1960, Floral Hall was in sad shape. The wooden third floor and cupola were gone, as was much of the roof. A group of horse industry leaders created the foundation, which assumed control of the building and a slim three-foot buffer of real estate around it.

The third floor and cupola were rebuilt after wooden support beams in the center of the barn were replaced with steel. When Lyndhurst mansion, a McMurtry design from the 1860s west of Rose Street between High and Maxwell streets, was demolished in the mid-1960s, the three-story brass chandelier from its rotunda was hung in the center of Floral Hall.

Since then, the old barn has housed a collection of sulkies, carriages and other Standardbred horse memorabilia. Two finished rooms on the second floor contain trophies, paintings and books chronicling the breed’s history.

The barn’s dirt floor was paved two decades ago, making it a better location for receptions and other events. The Red Mile handles leasing arrangements.

“There are probably a thousand paintings of the round barn because it’s just such a gorgeous building,” said Richard Stone of Sadieville, a foundation member. “Whether you’re interested in horses or not, this is a beautiful landmark that we don’t want to be lost.”

If you go

Fund-raiser for Floral Hall

What: Before the 120th Kentucky Futurity races at The Red Mile, the foundation overseeing Floral Hall will host silent and live auctions at the site.

When: 10 a.m. Oct. 7

Where: The building is adjacent to The Red Mile, 1200 Red Mile Rd., Lexington.

Cost: Admission is free, and all proceeds go toward the building’s restoration project.

Learn more: Floral Hall is open to visitors this fall from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays or by appointment. Call (859) 254-2814 for details.

 

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New Keeneland president wants to strengthen ties to community

October 1, 2012

Bill Thomason in the Keeneland Race Course paddock. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

Bill Thomason was on Keeneland‘s payroll for only a couple of years before he was tapped to become the association’s seventh president. But, without realizing it, he had been training for the job for more than three decades.

After finishing degrees in accounting and business at the University of Kentucky, Thomason went to work for the accounting firm Alexander Grant & Co. Soon, he was spending most of his time working for one client: Mill Ridge Farm.

Thomason left the firm in 1980 to become financial and administrative manager at Mill Ridge, where he worked closely for 28 years with owner Alice Chandler, a Thoroughbred industry leader and a daughter of Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley.

“We just really hit it off,” Thomason said. “What a great way to get involved in the business, to have a mentor like her. The way that she looked at life and the business, so forward-thinking. The way that she looked at the importance of the horse, which was the priority the farm set for everything we did. The way she thought through things, the way we thought through things together.”

Thomason, 56, spent those years racing and consigning horses for sale at Keeneland. But he said it wasn’t until he joined the organization as vice president and chief financial officer in 2010 that he realized how similar Chandler’s values were to Keeneland’s, especially when it came to service in the industry and community.

“I thought I knew Keene land from the outside, but I had no idea until I got in here the pride that everybody takes in this place and the obligation that they feel to this community,” he said.

Thomason has caught some lucky breaks since succeeding Nick Nicholson as president on Sept. 1. The Thoroughbred business is bouncing back after several tough years. Average and median prices were up by double-digit percentages during Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale. Keeneland says the 3,958 horses catalogued for the November Breeding Stock Sale show high quality.

I caught up with Thomason during the busy break between the September sale and the fall racing meet, which begins Friday. I wanted to hear his thoughts about Keeneland as a community institution, a role he said has changed little since Headley and others built the track 75 years ago during the Great Depression.

The founders’ goal was to create one of the world’s best race courses, serving the “horse capital of the world” with both quality entertainment and charitable giving.

The Keeneland Foundation has given more than $18 million in direct contributions to local charities over the years, although contributions have been down in recent years. With the economy improving, Thomason wants to do more, including bringing more segments of the community into Keeneland’s facilities.

“We’ve got 1,100 acres of an arboretum here that’s open 365 days a year; there are no gates and locks,” he said. “It’s a place the community feels an ownership in, and we take great pride in that.”

Keeneland now hosts several community events, including Picnic with the Pops and more than a dozen annual charity runs and walks. One of the biggest ones yet is planned for March 30, when the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon comes to Lexington. Thomason hopes to open the Keeneland Entertainment Center and recently restored Keene Mansion to more local groups.

Keeneland has formed a partnership with Greg Ladd of Cross Gate Gallery to host an annual sporting art auction, beginning in the fall of 2013, Thomason said. Keeneland hopes to leverage its auction staff and well-heeled clientele to eventually make it the world’s premier auction for equine art.

“We think it’s a natural fit for Keeneland,” Thomason said. Keeneland’s share of the profits will go to charity.

There also is a new Keeneland Library and Museum Foundation, created to accept donated collections and raise money to support and increase public access to the Keeneland Library’s vast equine archives. For example, the Daily Racing Form archives are being digitized for easier public access.

“We’re finding a lot of unique ways to use our existing plant for the benefit of community groups, to continue to let them touch this place and to be involved with the horse,” he said. “We are simply the caretakers of this very special place for the community and the industry. That’s how we see our role here.”

Bill Thomason

Background: Born September 1956; raised in London

Education: Bachelor of science in accounting, 1977, and MBA, 1978, both from University of Kentucky

Family: Wife, Barbara, and three daughters, Marcie (1980-2006), Melissa and Laura.

Community involvement: Former chairman, Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce (now Commerce Lexington) and First United Methodist Church board. Board service has included Bluegrass Tomorrow, Volunteer Center of the Bluegrass, Greenspace Commission, Lexington Philharmonic.

 

 


Woodford adventure center expands programs, public profile

August 15, 2012


Mikhail Proctor assisted McKayla Gardner in a vaulting move on Diesel, a Thoroughbred/Clydesdale cross, in the indoor equestrian arena at Adventure Center of the Bluegrass in Woodford County. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

VERSAILLES — For an organization with a 575-acre campus that serves about 12,000 people a year with a wide variety of activities, Life Adventure Center of the Bluegrass is not very well known.

“We call ourselves the best-kept secret in Central Kentucky, and that is probably true,” said Byron Marlowe, one of the program directors. “I grew up in Nicholasville and had never heard of it before I came to work here.”

The non-profit center traces its roots to the Cleveland Home, a Versailles orphanage started in the late 1800s, and Life Adventure Camp, created in Estill County in 1975 to instill confidence and self-esteem in at-risk youth.

The center now has a broad mission statement: It “engages, educates, and empowers our community to build respect, responsibility, and self-esteem through teamwork, communication, and environmental stewardship using hands-on learning in a natural setting.”

The center has started several programs aligned with that mission, and it is trying to raise its public profile, Marlowe said. The center has a new Web site (Lifeadventurecenter.org), is about to hire a new executive director and is expanding its programs.

The center will host its first adventure race, the Bluegrass Challenge, on Aug. 25. Teams of two or three people will race by hiking, canoeing and mountain biking to complete a series of objectives between 9 a.m. and noon. The competition will have male, female, co-ed and family divisions. The entry fee is $50 a person.

“I designed this as the ultimate race I would like to race in,” said staff member Chris McEachron, an avid adventure racer. Each team will get a map and 14 checkpoints to reach and accomplish problem-solving tasks. “We could have 200 teams and none of them could have the same experience.”

For the third year, Life Adventure Center will host what it calls Kentucky’s largest corn maze — 16 miles of paths cut through a six-acre cornfield, where maze designers have used global-positioning satellite technology to create a giant mural visible from the air.

The maze will be open Sept. 14 through Oct. 21. Admission includes hayrides, concerts, a pumpkin patch for little kids, a ropes course and other activities. (More information: Kycornmaze.com)

The center rents its facilities to companies and other groups for retreats, plus conducts activity sessions for school groups, military families and married couples in a series of “Play Date With Your Mate” weekends.

The corn maze and adventure race will help raise money for the center, which benefits from an endowment that covers more than half of programming costs. Other costs are covered by participant fees, grants, rentals and donations.

That allows the organization to offer educational programs to the public at affordable prices, plus provide scholarships for young people who otherwise couldn’t afford these experiences, Marlowe said.

When I visited Life Adventure Center earlier this month, the Carroll County High School girls’ volleyball team was spending an afternoon of team-building on one of the camp’s most popular facilities: a treetop challenge course of cables, a climbing wall and zip lines. Last year, 90 groups with 2,000 people used the challenge course.

Another popular program is equestrian instruction, which includes horseback riding and vaulting for children and adults in indoor and outdoor riding arenas, plus dozens of acres of meadows.

Vaulting — basically gymnastics on horseback — is an old European sport that has gained popularity here since the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, said Kara Musgrave, the equestrian program director.

Other school groups come for environmental education classes, which include wildlife and wildflower areas and a teaching garden.

“Some of the inner-city kids have never been in the woods before,” Marlowe said. “This really captures their imagination.”

There are primitive campsites and cabins, 15 miles of hiking trails, an outdoor picnic pavilion and a new assembly building for year-round indoor activities. The building is one of the first in Woodford County to be designed and built according to high environmentally-friendly LEED standards, Marlowe said.

While the center wants to continue reaching out to all segments of the Central Kentucky community, character-building for children will remain a primary focus.

“A portion of what we do is for the kids who need it and can’t afford it, the at-risk groups,” Marlowe said. “But all kids are at risk for something. All kids have influences that could turn them in a bad direction.”

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Quillin Leather & Tack has kept owner in harness for 30 years

August 12, 2012

Wayne Sterling sewed one of the 17,000 horse halters that Quillin Leather & Tack makes each year. Below, owner Ralph Quillin. Photos by Tom Eblen

PARIS — Ralph Quillin grew up in Lexington as the son of a doctor. While studying at Sayre School and Transylvania University, he thought he would become a doctor, too. Then, he said, “One thing led to another.”

He got married, had three children and became a paramedic with the Lexington fire department, where he worked for 23 years.

On his days off, Quillin taught himself leatherwork. Preppy leather-and- needlepoint belts were popular in the late 1970s, and Quillin and his wife, Sally, made and sold a lot of them.

Then, after he bought a farm in Bourbon County, Quillin figured he could teach himself to make horse halters. He was soon making and selling so many that his wife evicted his noisy sewing machine from the house.

Quillin rented a shop in Paris and outgrew it, then rented another and outgrew it.

Now, he says, Quillin Leather & Tack is the nation’s largest mom-and-pop harness shop, celebrating 30 years in business.

Since 1988, Quillin and his 10 employees have worked from an old house that has been enlarged every way it can be. The main floor is a sprawling showroom. In a cramped basement workshop and former upstairs bedrooms, workers hand-craft 17,000 halters a year, plus thousands of belts, key tags, dog collars, checkbook covers and other items. All come with custom-engraved brass plates.

After halters, the company’s most popular items are harness-leather belts with brass plates for the owner’s name. Every man in Central Kentucky seems to wear one, a handy precaution against bourbon-induced memory loss.

The company has outfitted such Thoroughbred greats as Secretariat and Storm Cat. Regular customers include Claiborne, Stone and Darley farms. But most sales now come from beyond Kentucky — half by mail and phone and a quarter online at Quillin.com.

Quillin attributes his company’s success to high-quality products, reasonable prices and good customer service.

The shop goes through about 450 cowhides and 1,500 pounds of brass a year, Quillin estimates. Each piece of leather and brass plate is hand-cut and shaped. A computerized engraving machine personalizes each plate, which is then drilled, polished, inked and riveted in place by hand.

Harness leather comes from Thoroughbred Leather in Louisville. It is thicker than normal and tanned so it turns just the right color of brown when dipped in oil. Other leather and most solid-brass hardware comes from Weaver Leather in Ohio.

While there are about a dozen popular sizes and styles of halters priced from about $20 to $80, Quillin says the shop regularly makes about 200 variations. “We’re like short-order cooks,” he said.

Custom orders have included elaborate horse-rescue slings and halters for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ giant Clydesdales. “Damn, those were big halters,” Quillin said.

The three sewing machines that are used to make halters were patented in 1904, but business systems run on a network of Apple Macintosh computers. Employees, not machines, answer the telephone, and email and Facebook queries usually get a response within a couple of hours.

“People are dumbfounded,” said Quillin, who answers email some evenings. “What else am I going to do? There’s nothing on TV.”

Quillin said annual sales are now in the low seven figures after a rough few years. The 2008 economic crisis led to a dramatic decrease in Thoroughbred foal crops. Then, Sally Quillin died of breast cancer in May 2010.

There is now a breast cancer awareness sign on the company’s front lawn. For the past two years, Ralph Quillin has made pink halters for the fillies running in the Kentucky Oaks.

Sally Quillin was always “the face of the company,” he said. “You just don’t realize how much your wife does until she’s not there.”

At age 61, Quillin figures he has a few more years of harness-making in him. One of these days, he might take on a partner to run the business. Then he can spend more time raising prize Angus cattle on his Bourbon and Nicholas county farms.

Quillin’s two daughters and his son have successful careers, and he knows none of them wants to come home to run a leather shop. Hillary is a meteorologist in Texas. Katherine is senior field engineer on California’s Oakland Bay Bridge. Ralph Cutler Quillin Jr. is a surgeon in Cincinnati.

“My dad’s a doctor and my son’s a doctor,” Quillin said. “I’m either the dumb one in the family or the smart one.”

 


Telling Blue Grass Airport’s story: Lucky Lindy, QEII and you

August 5, 2012

Piedmont Airlines’ first passenger flight from Lexington, on a DC-3 bound for Cincinnati, was Feb. 20, 1948. In 1965, Piedmont flew the first passenger jet flight into Blue Grass Field. File photo

If anyone doubted that Lexington needed a better airport in 1928, they were set straight by America’s most famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh.

When “Lucky Lindy” made a surprise overnight visit to Lexington at the height of his fame, he had trouble even finding the municipal airport, Halley Field, a converted pasture off Leestown Road where Meadowthorpe subdivision now stands.

More than 2,000 people watched Lindbergh leave the next morning. His five-passenger Ryan monoplane — similar to the famous “Spirit of St. Louis” he flew on the first solo non-stop Atlantic crossing — almost crashed on takeoff.

“Lindy Plane Barely Misses Trees at Hop Off,” The Lexington Leader reported with a front-page banner headline. “Lindy Says Lexington’s Airport Too Small for Present Aviation Needs.” How embarrassing.

That is one of many colorful stories Fran Taylor has discovered while doing research for a book Blue Grass Airport has commissioned to chronicle the history of the airport and aviation in Central Kentucky. Taylor wants help finding more great stories.

Everyone is invited to bring pre-1980 photos and mementos to the airport terminal’s lobby from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. A videographer will record oral histories, and a photographer will take pictures of special items. Prizes will be given for the best story, memento and photo.

“It’s a really rich history,” Taylor said, adding that the Aviation Museum of Kentucky at the airport has been a great resource. “Blue Grass Field was like the Forrest Gump of airports. If it happened nationally, it happened here in a big way.”

Although airplanes might have used a grassy meadow off Richmond Road as early as 1917, the first real local airstrip was Dr. S.H. Halley’s field, which opened in 1921 and became the municipal airport in 1927. After Lindbergh’s close call, Cool Meadow Field was built in 1930 on Newtown Pike, where Fasig-Tipton’s Thoroughbred auction facility is now.

It was at Cool Meadow that Lexington Airways offered flying lessons and Irvin Air Chute Co. tested parachutes it manufactured here, according to research by Frank Peters, an aviation museum volunteer. Airmail service began in 1939. Blue Grass Airlines offered regional passenger service a couple of years later.

When World War II began, the Army built a flight training facility that became Blue Grass Field across from Keeneland Race Course. The Army turned it over to the city and county in 1946, and the first terminal was dedicated that fall by Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace and president of Eastern Airlines. Eastern and Delta Air Lines began passenger service with Douglas DC-3s.

Renamed Blue Grass Airport in 1984, the 1,000-acre facility now serves more than 1 million people — and several hundred horses — each year.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has made several trips through Blue Grass Airport, which also has been host to Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, and hundreds of movie stars and other celebrities. You know Keeneland sales are in session when Arab royalty’s Boeing 747s are parked nose-to-nose on the tarmac.

But did you know that the first air freight shipment from Lexington was a package of butter sent to President Harry Truman in 1945? Or that the supersonic Concorde made a stop in 1989? Or that the airport played a role in the nation’s most notorious hijacking?

Three hijackers with pistols and hand grenades took over a Southern Airways DC-9 with 31 people aboard in November 1972, demanding $10 million. They made stops in several cities, including Lexington, where the hijackers ordered a ground crewman to strip to his underwear while refueling the plane. After 30 hours and 4,000 miles, the plane landed in Cuba, where the hijackers were captured.

Everyone remembers Blue Grass Airport’s saddest day: Aug. 27, 2006, when Comair Flight 5191 crashed on takeoff, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.

But aviation has shaped Lexington’s collective memory in more subtle ways, too.

I remember, as a child, getting dressed up to see my father off on an annual business trip. We would stand in the old terminal hall, surrounded by photographic murals of the bluegrass landscape, and wave as Dad boarded the plane and it disappeared into the clouds. It always left me wondering how such a big machine filled with people could possibly fly.

If you go

Blue Grass Airport history project

What: Public is asked to share stories, mementoes of airport

Where: Blue Grass Airport terminal lobby, 4000 Terminal Dr., Lexington

When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Aug. 11

Information: (859) 425-3105, Bluegrassairport.com.


Celebrate Kentucky horses Saturday at Hats Off Day

August 1, 2012

Saturday is Hats Off Day, the one time each year when you and your family can enjoy a free day at the Kentucky Horse Park and special activities celebrating the state’s large and increasingly diverse equine industry.

In addition to the usual park attractions, free special events begin at 4 p.m.: rides on the mechanical horses used to train jockeys, pony rides for kids, educational booths from horse organizations and a giveaway of souvenir caps from local horse farms.

In the stadium at 7 p.m., Dan James of Australia will put on an exhibition with two specially trained horses. Then there is the $50,000 Rood and Riddle Kentucky Grand Prix, a 25-year-old competition for top-level show jumpers.

A group of equine organizations and businesses, including Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, started hosting Hats Off Day in 2005 to call public attention to the industry and its economic impact. They say horses contribute $4 billion to Kentucky’s economy, create more than 80,000 jobs and have an $8.8 billion impact on state tourism.

More than 128,800 people participate in Kentucky horse farming, racing and equine businesses, the industry claims. The state is home to 320,000 horses — nearly one for every 14 Kentuckians.

But in just the eight years Hats Off Day has been held, Kentucky’s horse industry has seen dramatic changes, for good and bad.

When we used to call Lexington the “horse capital of the world,” what we really meant was that Kentucky was the center of Thoroughbred breeding and racing.

The Thoroughbred industry has gone through some well-publicized changes as farms consolidated; other states lured away Kentucky horses with bigger race purses and breeding incentives; and the global economic downturn of 2008 seriously dampened the demand for race horses.

Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry has stabilized and is beginning to bounce back. But it must find a way to compete with casino-financed incentives in other states and, ultimately, do a better job of marketing itself to create more fans.

While Thoroughbreds have struggled, Kentucky’s horse industry has become more diverse. Tom Riddle, a veterinarian and partner at Rood and Riddle, said the practice treated 82 breeds in 2006; this year, it will treat 108 breeds.

The growth has come in Saddlebred, reining, pleasure and especially hunter and jumper horses, attracted here by Kentucky Horse Park facilities built for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Last year, the National Horse Show moved here.

“Those facilities are without equal in the world,” Riddle said.

The sport-horse world is centered around Wellington, Fla., in the winter. But now, rather than moving to the northeast and Canada in the summer, many big players, such as Spy Coast Farm, are setting up shop here.

Most of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team members now in London, have competed at the Kentucky Horse Park. Show-jumping star Reed Kessler, at 18 the youngest Olympic team member ever, is now based in Lexington. Her family bought a 150-acre parcel of Cobra Farm, just down the road from the horse park.

Horse-industry diversification has prompted local equine businesses to adapt. Riddle said six of his practice’s 52 veterinarians now treat only sport horses, and two follow the circuit to Florida each winter.

Hallway Feeds not only has expanded to serve the sport horse market in Kentucky, but half of its business now comes from national and international sales — up from zero not too many years ago, company president Lee Hall said.

“We have instant credibility where ever we go because we’re from Lexington,” Hall said. “You can’t put a price on that.”

But unless the local Thoroughbred industry remains strong, Kentucky risks losing most of its equine economic impact, Riddle said.

When Riddle moved to Lexington in 1978, he remembers that there were more than 100 trotter and pacer stallions standing at stud in Central Kentucky. Now, almost all of the Standardbred studs and breeding mares have been lured away by incentives to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Canada. Along with them went millions of dollars for Kentucky’s economy.

“The demise of the Standardbred industry here needs to be a lesson for all of us,” Riddle said.

 

If you go

Hats Off Day

Where: Kentucky Horse Park

When: 9 a.m. Saturday. Special activities begin 4 p.m. Stadium shows begin at 7 p.m.

Cost: Free, includes admission to the Kentucky Horse Park, the International Museum of the Horse, the Hall of Champions, and the Parade of Breeds.

More information: Hatsoffky.com


Five generations of family vets have cared for horse racing’s stars

July 30, 2012

Luke Fallon of Hagyard Equine and intern Jackie Snyder check a mare in foal at Castleton Lyons farm. Alicia MacDonald holds the horse. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Dr. Luke Hagyard Fallon is a fifth-generation Lexington horse doctor. What led him to keep up the family tradition?

“Lack of originality,” he joked.

“We never learned any better,” added his father, Dr. Edward Hagyard Fallon.

But his mother’s explanation seems more logical.

“It’s in our bloodline,” Priscilla Fallon said.

That’s the way it works with successful horses, so why not with the people who care for them? Luke Fallon, one of 17 partners in Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, has a pedigree that’s hard to beat.

The institute, which calls itself the world’s oldest and largest equine veterinary practice, was founded by Fallon’s great-great-grandfather, Dr. Edward Thomas Hagyard. It is considered the third-oldest family business of any kind in Lexington, after Milward Funeral Directors and Hillenmeyer Nurseries.

E.T. Hagyard was a British-born doctor’s son who studied veterinary medicine in Scotland and Canada before being summoned to Kentucky from his Ontario home in 1875 to save a prize shorthorn bull in Winchester named the Eighth Duke of Geneva. Hagyard did such a good job treating the bull’s gastrointestinal distress that local cattle and horse breeders persuaded him to stay.

Hagyard opened a veterinary practice in Lexington in 1876 that has been operated by his descendants and their partners ever since. The family’s patients have been a who’s who of Thoroughbred racing history: Man o’ War, Domino, Whirlaway, Citation, Affirmed, Secretariat, Storm Cat and many more.

But Luke Fallon’s pedigree doesn’t stop there. His parents grew up on legendary Lexington horse farms their fathers managed.

Ed Fallon, 80, who retired from veterinary practice more than a decade ago after developing Hagyard Equine’s 108-acre campus on Iron Works Pike across from the Kentucky Horse Park, grew up on Beaumont Farm, then the 2,400-acre spread of Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley.

Priscilla Fallon’s father, Arthur Roberts, a well-known American Saddlebred trainer, managed Winganeek Farm. Her family also includes top Thoroughbred trainer John T. Ward Jr., a third-generation horseman and executive director of the state racing commission.

“All of that comes together to create a nice tradition in Central Kentucky that I’m privileged to be a part of,” Luke Fallon said.

Fallon, 42, joined the Hagyard practice in 1996 after graduating from Cornell University’s veterinary school exactly 40 years after his father. In the span of their two careers, equine medicine has changed dramatically.

Hagyard treats all breeds of horses “and the occasional llama,” Luke Fallon said. But when Ed Fallon started out, he treated a lot of work horses and trotters, whose numbers have declined dramatically.

Now, after decades with Thoroughbred breeding as the focus, the practice is working more with sport and pleasure horses, with five of the firm’s more than 60 veterinarians devoted to them.

A big part of Hagyard’s business now is preparing more than 700 horses a year from the Keeneland sales for international shipment— something all but unheard of a few decades ago.

Equine medicine has seen big scientific advances, too.

“When I got out of school, we did everything out of the back of our car,” Ed Fallon said. Surgeries were rare because almost all work was done in the field.

Hagyard vets did some of the first equine surgeries, such as taking bone chips out of racehorses’ ankles, the Fallons said. Medical advances have enabled pregnancies to be diagnosed earlier and mares to be bred more often.

Field work is still a backbone of the practice, with Hagyard’s 36 vehicles logging more than 1.6 million miles annually. But about 6,500 surgeries are performed each year at Hagyard’s high-tech clinic, which has MRI machines for spotting leg injuries and a hypobaric healing chamber big enough for a horse to stand in. The practice treats about 2,500 internal medicine cases and about 500 critical-care foals.

“We now have a lot more tools at our disposal,” Luke Fallon said. “And we’ve been blessed with good owners who have been very trusting and let us try new techniques.”

Although Central Kentucky’s horse industry faces many economic challenges, Fallon expects it to rebound and continue benefitting from advances in veterinary medicine.

But will there continue to be a Hagyard descendant treating those horses?

The odds might be good. Fallon has two sons and a daughter, ages 3, 5 and 8.

“They all love horses already,” he said.

 

 Fifth-generation equine veterinarian Luke Fallon, right, with father, Ed, and mother, Pricilla.

Luke Fallon and Jackie Snyder unload equipment for checkups at Castleton Lyons Farm.

Luke Fallon checks a 45-day-old horse fetus during an exam of a mare at Castleton Lyons Farm.

Dogs in Castleton Lyons farm manager Jamie Frost’s truck provide an audience as veterinarian Luke Fallon checks mares.

Veterinarian Luke Fallon checks on a mare and her ill foal at Hagyard Equine Medical Center.


Agony to ecstasy in a week at Three Chimneys Farm

May 12, 2012

Case Clay, left, and Robert Clay pose with the newest star sire at Three Chimneys Farm, Flower Alley, father of 2012 Kentucky Derby Winner I’ll Have Another. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

MIDWAY — Florists’ trucks have been entering and leaving the manicured grounds of Three Chimneys Farm a lot over the past two weeks.

First, they came with condolences. Dynaformer, the farm’s star sire at $150,000 a pop, was euthanized April 29 on what would have been the ninth birthday of his most famous son, the late Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Barbaro.

Dynaformer had suffered an aortic valve rupture two weeks earlier. The 27-year-old stallion’s foals, which included 130 stakes winners, earned more than $105 million on the track.

Last week, the flowers came in celebration. Only six days after Dynaformer’s death, I’ll Have Another, a son of the farm’s young sire Flower Alley, won the Kentucky Derby, impressively chasing down Bodemeister just lengths from the wire.

“When he started coming down the stretch, we started yelling and we haven’t recovered,” said Three Chimneys’ founder, Robert N. Clay, whose voice was still hoarse Thursday morning.

“That week is, in a way, a microcosm of the sport,” Clay said. “There are heartaches and then these incredible highs. That’s what keeps us all going.”

The landmark week was also a microcosm of Three Chimneys’ 40-year history, added Clay’s son, Case, 38, who in 2008 became the farm’s president and chief operating officer.

Robert Clay bought 100 acres along Old Frankfort Pike from a doctor in 1972 and put 10 stalls in an old tobacco barn. Over the years, he and former president Dan Rosenberg built Three Chimneys into one of the legendary breeding operations.

Three Chimneys has consigned about $500 million in horses at public auction, and its sires’ progeny have earned nearly $1 billion. The farm now has more than 1,800 acres, 100 employees and 400 horses — nine stallions, 225 mares and their foals and yearlings.

“We’ve been blessed with a lot of good ones,” Robert Clay said of the farm’s stallions. “We got a break with Seattle Slew, who was here 17 years.”

But the key to long-term success, his son added, was having great young stallions waiting in the wings.

“Seattle Slew died and Dynaformer and Rahy picked it up,” Case Clay said. “Dynaformer dies and Flower Alley gets a Derby winner six days later. It’s indicative of the strategy of Three Chimneys, which is to fill the stallion roster with who we think are going to be the next stars. We didn’t expect it to happen within six days, but it’s very encouraging.”

In addition to finding places to put flowers, Case Clay spent much of last week selling mating seasons to Flower Alley.

“We’ve been selling about eight a day, and it’s only Thursday,” he said. The Clays decided not to raise Flower Alley’s $7,500 stud fee for the rest of this season, but will decide in November how much to increase it based on how well his offspring do before then.

Flower Alley may not even be the biggest young star in the barn. Big Brown, which won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, sees his first crop of foals race this year. “We’re getting a lot of calls from trainers saying, ‘I like my Big Brown’,” Case Clay said.

Big Brown is now the farm’s priciest sire at $35,000. The Clays hope he and Flower Alley will help Three Chimneys continue to bounce back from 2009-2010, when their farm and the rest of the Thoroughbred business suffered a slump.

“We feel like the industry’s hit bottom and hopefully is on its way back up,” Robert Clay said. “We’re in an industry that’s driven by discretionary wealth, really. Nobody has to have a horse in a recession.”

Case Clay is proud of his management team, a mix of veterans and young talent, which has managed to increase auction sales each year despite the economy. Three Chimneys does about 20 percent of its business overseas, with an office in Tokyo and representatives in England and France.

“The production side of the industry may get smaller than it has been,” Robert Clay said. “But there’s still going to be a demand for the top-quality horses.”

Case Clay’s job now is to figure out how to meet that demand. “Does Flower Alley pick up Dynaformer’s shoes?” he wondered aloud. “Does Big Brown?”

Sitting in his office on a beautiful spring morning, leaning against a pillow embroidered with the motto “Nothing’s Easy,” Robert Clay said fate can be fickle in this business — and fortunes can change in an instant.

The day Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby, Clay had his binoculars trained on the runner-up, an incredible filly he bred. Just as she crossed the finish line, Eight Belles broke both front ankles and had to be euthanized minutes later.

“There are highs that are really, really high and there are lows that are really, really low,” he said. “You can go from agony to ecstasy in this sport in two minutes. But that’s what makes it exciting, fun and a life’s work.”

Three Chimneys Farm near Midway is celebrating its 40th year. Robert Clay started the farm in 1972. His son, Case, became president in 2008, succeeding Dan Rosenberg. Photo by Tom Eblen

Dynaformer was famously ill-tempered. Robert Clay, the owner of Three Chimneys Farm, said Dynaformer would become so irritated when one of his stablemates was shown to visitors that he would kick the steel bars on his stall door, bending several of them. Photo by Tom Eblen

 


Kentucky Derby 138: The day at Churchill Downs

May 5, 2012

LOUISVILLE — Oh, the humanity! Oh, the humidity!

After a stormy night, the sun shone brightly on Churchill Downs all day Saturday as a record 165,307 sweltering fans turned out for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. They got a good show for their trouble, as I’ll Have Another blew past front-runner Bodemeister to win the $2 million purse.

The two-minute race capped a day of partying and networking that began long before Mary J. Blige, all decked out in red, rocked The Star-Spangled Banner to several interruptions of applause.

The beer-for-breakfast crowd arrived early in the infield, hoping to stake out a prime spot to pitch a tent, spread a tarp and set up lawn chairs. Many of the groups of families and friends have been coming back to the same spot for years, if not decades.

“I’ve always wanted to come,” said Tony Sirkin, a furniture store owner from Chicago who at mid-morning was trying to lay claim to one of the few remaining patches of green until a group of friends could arrive. “It’s something you’ve got to experience.”

His goal for the day? “To meet my future wife,” Sirkin said.

Nahru Lampkin of Detroit had the same goal Saturday as at his 17 previous Derbys: make a good day’s living as an entertainer. A fixture in the infield, he plays bongo drums and makes up hilarious rhymes about passing fans in hopes of encouraging them to drop some cash in his bucket.

“We come every year to seek this guy out,” Joe DeJohns of Chicago said of Lampkin. “This guy is really, really good.”

High above the infield and grandstand, in the air-conditioned comfort of the luxury suites overlooking the track, well-heeled groups of family, friends and business associates mingled.

For many at the Derby, it was a long day of glad-handing and networking. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler stopped by the Jockey Club suite of 21c Museum Hotel, the Louisville-based company that recently announced plans to open its third location, a hotel in Lexington, in what has become a small chain of boutique hotels.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer had a hectic day, greeting people, presenting an undercard trophy and entertaining 24 economic development prospects whom he declined to identify.

“It’s a great way to show off our city; you couldn’t ask for anything better than this,” Fischer said. “They always come away favorably impressed.”

Gov. Steve Beshear worked the crowd, which included a visiting group of other Democratic governors from Maryland, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina. When the other governors gathered in a suite, the hall was filled with their dark-suited security guards staring at each other.

Scattered throughout the Downs were celebrities, including Cindy Lauper, Debra Messing and Miranda Lambert. Head and shoulders above them — in both stature and popularity — were members of the championship University of Kentucky basketball team. They wandered through rooms posing for photos with fans before making their way to the Winner’s Circle to help present the Derby trophy.

The Millionaire’s Row crowd included many familiar Kentucky faces: House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Alltech’s Pearse and Deirdre Lyons, Toyota’s Wil James, lawyer and politico Terry McBrayer, and developer Woodford Webb.

The Derby is a fashionista’s paradise. Women seem to compete to see who can wear the tightest dress, the highest heels and the most bodacious hat. Among men, the competition seemed to be for the loudest sport coat, although Jim Leuenberger of Shawano, Wis., took things a step further. He attracted a lot of attention in the paddock with a bright red suit and matching bowler hat.

“I saw a guy last year with a yellow suit,” said Leuenberger, who was attending his 18th Derby. “He told me about a Web site where you can get any color. I’ve always wanted a red one.”

Many Derby regulars get their kicks by wearing outrageous hats sure to attract attention and photographers.

The first time Jan and Scott Baty of Traverse City, Mich., came to the Derby six years ago, she put a plastic pink flamingo on her hat. Her hats have gotten bigger and fancier, but she has stuck with the theme.

“This is our first year with a double-flamingo hat,” said Scott Baty, whose own Panama straw hat was covered with roses. “We ran out of singe-flamingo options.”

But few attention-seekers had it as hard as Tracy Lindberg of Chicago, who was in the infield for his 29th Derby wearing a 50-pound stuffed horse he called Seabiscuit on his head.

“I usually can wear it two or three hours tops,” Lindberg said. “I’ve done an hour, though, and I already can’t feel my neck.”