Lexington’s first Breeders’ Cup was a big success; how could the next one be even better?

November 7, 2015
At the Breeders' Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen

At the Breeders’ Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen


Kip Cornett said he and his wife were at an airport in June when he read on his cellphone a column by Barry Weisbord, president and co-publisher of Thoroughbred Daily News.

Weisbord wrote that he opposed a decision by his fellow Breeders’ Cup board members to bring Thoroughbred racing’s annual world championship here. He thought Keeneland and Lexington were simply too small to handle it.

After he finished reading, Cornett, president of Lexington’s Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, called Weisbord. “Just watch us,” he said.

Weisbord published a follow-up column last Wednesday.

“I have three words to say: I was wrong,” wrote Weisbord, who resigned from the Breeders’ Cup board last summer. “Oh, wait… three more: It was spectacular. In fact, I couldn’t be more impressed with how Keene land, the Breeders’ Cup and Lexington handled the event.”

After lavishing praise on everything about last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup in Lexington, Weisbord ended his column with this: “So… when are we going back?”

The consensus seems to be that Lexington hit a home run last weekend. That doesn’t mean everything went perfectly. Mistakes were made and lessons were learned for next time. But most people assume there will be a next time.

With the exception of a messy logistical screw-up Friday at the Maker’s Mark Bourbon Lounge, Keeneland’s performance was nearly flawless, from the races themselves to traffic management and customer service.

Nobody sweats the small stuff better than Keeneland. For example, by the end of each Kentucky Derby, patrons at Churchill Downs in Louisville are wading through a sea of trash. But throughout each day of Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland’s army of green-uniformed employees quietly walked around cleaning up. “Are you finished with your plate, Sir?”

Even though there were a record 50,155 people on the grounds Saturday and 44,947 Friday, it felt less crowded than a Bluegrass Stakes Day. One reason was that Keeneland spent $5 million adding a lot of temporary seating and hospitality space.

Even though track attendance was down 3,217 from last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, ticket revenue more than doubled because of the demand for high-end accommodations at Keeneland. On-track handle was $20,611,114, up slightly from last year.

For the outside world watching Breeders’ Cup on television, NBC Sports’ gorgeous telecast amounted to a two-hour commercial for Lexington.

“I’m incredibly pleased,” VisitLex President Mary Quinn Ramer said. “I heard from a lot of people that they were blown away by our hospitality. I feel like we have made lifelong friends as a result of this event.”

Some downtown restaurants, bars and food trucks grumbled that they had hoped to do better than they did, but others who planned well were quite pleased.

“We had a great experience,” said Ben Self of West Sixth Brewery, which released a Breeders’ Cup Brown ale and hosted a beer dinner and “Beers and Bets” event.

Deborah Long, who owns Dudley’s on Short, hosted a private event Friday that filled her restaurant. She offered a price fixe menu Saturday night.

“We were very pleased,” Long said. “I think the city did a great job. Keeneland did a spectacular job. From our perspective, I don’t see how it could have been improved.”

Long said her business was slow Monday and Tuesday nights. Rainy weather was partly to blame, she thinks, but a lot of the reason may have been that Breeders’ Cup visitors started arriving later than many people assumed.

Cornett, who chaired the Breeders’ Cup Festival, agrees. They may have planned too many events to try to entertain visitors and involve Lexington residents in Breeders’ Cup. After all, the week also included Halloween and the Wildcats’ football game with Tennessee.

“We maybe over-prepared by about 30 percent,” he said. “It wasn’t as needed as we thought it would be.”

Still, many of those events were well-attended, such as the Feeders’ Cup food truck event, which sold out its 3,000 tickets, and three Lyric Theatre performances of Frank X Walker’s play about the great black jockey Isaac Murphy.

Cornett said organizers also could have spent less time recruiting private homes for visitors, some of which went unused. Many visitors who came on private jets spent less time in Lexington than expected. Others found their own accommodations through Airbnb.com.

As with the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010, the Breeders’ Cup showed that Lexington can host a big international event with aplomb.

“There are a lot of things everyone learned that will make it easier the next time around,” Cornett said. “But everyone in Lexington should be proud of what they did. We did everything we could to show we’re a world-class city, and it worked.”

Faces at the races: photos from Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup

October 31, 2015














Brothers’ Mongolian Saturday wins colorfully at Breeders’ Cup

October 31, 2015
Dressed in traditional costume, brothers Tserenjigmed Dagvadorj, left, CEO of the Mongolian conglomerate Max Group, and his brother, horse trainer Ganbaatar Dagvadorj were there to root for their horse Mongolian Saturday in the Breeders Cup at Keeneland on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Dressed in traditional costume, brothers Tserenjigmed Dagvadorj, left, CEO of the Mongolian conglomerate Max Group, and his brother, horse trainer Ganbaatar Dagvadorj were there to root for their horse Mongolian Saturday in the Breeders Cup at Keeneland on Saturday. Photos by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The most colorfully dressed owner and trainer at Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup were brothers Tserenjigmed and Ganbaatar Dagvadorj, whose horse Mongolian Saturday won the Turf Sprint.

Wearing traditional Mongolian dress, they and their party of about 20 people from Mongolia attracted a lot of attention in the grandstands.  The brothers run Max Group, a major business conglomerate in Mongolia. Ganbaatar Dagvadorj also is a successful horse trainer in a nation known for talented horses and riders.

The brothers began trading skins and furs underground in the late 1980s during the last years of Soviet domination, according to Forbes magazine. Now, their company includes supermarkets, fast-food franchises, hotels and construction companies.

Wearing traditional dress, Mongolian wrestler Dambii Ragchaa used a smart phone to videotape a race Saturday at the Breeder's Cup. He was among about 20 people from Mongolia there to root for Mongolian Saturday in the Turf Sprint. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Wearing traditional dress, Mongolian wrestler Dambii Ragchaa used a smart phone to videotape a race Saturday at the Breeder’s Cup. He was among about 20 people from Mongolia there to root for Mongolian Saturday in the Turf Sprint.


Dressed in traditional costume, brothers Tserenjigmed Dagvadorj, right, CEO of the Mongolian conglomerate Max Group, and his brother, horse trainer Ganbaatar Dagvadorj were there to root for their horse Mongolian Saturday in the Breeders Cup at Keeneland on Saturday. The gold medallions on Ganbaatar's sash represent gold medals in Mongolian horse races. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Dressed in traditional costume, brothers Tserenjigmed Dagvadorj, right, CEO of the Mongolian conglomerate Max Group, and his brother, horse trainer Ganbaatar Dagvadorj were there to root for their horse Mongolian Saturday.


Hitches seem few as Keeneland shines during its first Breeders’ Cup

October 30, 2015
An outrider and police officer exchange glances in the Keeneland paddock before the first race on Breeders' Cup day Friday. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

An outrider and police officer exchange glances in the Keeneland paddock before the first race on Breeders’ Cup day Friday. Photos by Tom Eblen


Keeneland, which has spent 79 years building an international Thoroughbred sales and racing powerhouse, earned the final jewel in its crown Friday by hosting the 32nd Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

The first of two days of racing came off with few hitches under mostly cloudy skies with temperatures in the 50s.

Breeders’ Cup purple replaced Keeneland green as the color of the day, but bright fall leaves offered some competition.

Keeneland spent $5 million to add temporary buildings and seating for an extra 10,000 spectators, and that kept the track from being uncomfortably crowded during its biggest day of racing ever.

A record number of fans for the first day of a Breeders’ Cup, 44,947, came to the track and to hospitality areas on Keeneland’s grounds. The crowd is expected to be even larger Saturday, when the most prestigious races are scheduled.

Customer service seemed to be at Keeneland’s usual high level, with one big exception: A reserved-seating mixup at the Maker’s Mark Lounge left some early arrivals angry when Kentucky state troopers were brought in to ask them to move.

Traffic, parking and shuttle systems operated smoothly for the most part.

“Honestly, it was easier than a normal day at Keeneland,” said Nyoka Hawkins of Lexington. “I think they’ve done a fabulous job. I bought a parking pass, and we just drove right in. It was shocking.”

Lexington received high marks from out-of-town visitors, said VisitLex president Mary Quinn Ramer. They especially enjoyed being able to get close to famous horses and tour farms while they were here. “Our four-legged celebrities are being well-adored this week,” she said.

Ramer said people from 16 nations attended the media party Thursday night. From the grandstand seat where she was hosting Garden & Gun magazine publisher Nancy Carmody, dozens of private jets could be seen parked across Versailles Road on the Blue Grass Airport tarmac.

“I’ve talked to horsemen and horsewomen from all over the world, and they’ve said our hospitality has been second to none,” Ramer said. “It’s a really big deal for Lexington to host this global audience, and we seem to be right good at it.”

Alex Lloyd-Baker, an insurance executive from London, England, agreed. He flew in Thursday from Santiago, Chile, and was staying with Lexington friends Tony and Debbie Chamblin. He planned to leave Sunday to fly to Australia for the Melbourne Cup, that nation’s biggest race.

“I’m having a wonderful time here,” said Lloyd-Baker, who attended the 2014 Kentucky Derby but had never seen a race at Keeneland. “This is just fantastic. It’s a beautiful race course, everyone is so friendly, and it’s the top quality of racing in the world.”

Several floors below Lloyd-Baker’s table overlooking the paddock, along the track rail in the general admission section, Rob Krebs of Berkeley, Calif., and Peter Valencic of Cleveland sat on a bench that they arrived early to snag.

The old high school buddies had decided a little more than a week ago to come to the Breeders’ Cup, and they easily found $100 general admission tickets online.

“Keeneland is a great place; they know how to do it right,” Valencic said. “It’s great they’re finally getting to host the Breeders’ Cup.”

Valencic said he was at the 1973 Kentucky Derby when Secretariat won the first leg of his Triple Crown. He and his friend were eager to see American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, run in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Martha and Tony Rezeli of Saylorsburg, Pa., had been to Keeneland before and were excited to return for the biggest weekend in its history.

“We just got back from Las Vegas and said, ‘Let’s go to Breeders’ Cup!” she said. “We didn’t do so well there, so we’re hoping to do better here.”

Nick Nicholson, retired Keeneland president, said he was impressed by how things went, even though he had nothing to do with it. “They worked together so well with the Breeders’ Cup, and the winner is the fans,” Nicholson said. “I’m proud of us.”


Martha and Tony Rezeli of Saylorsburg, Pa., checked out the program Friday at Keeneland, where they were attending their first Breeders' Cup. "We just got back from Las Vegas and said, 'Let's go to Breeders' Cup!" she said. "We didn't do so well there, so maybe we'll do better here." Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Martha and Tony Rezeli of Saylorsburg, Pa., checked out the program Friday at Keeneland, where they were attending their first Breeders’ Cup. “We just got back from Las Vegas and said, ‘Let’s go to Breeders’ Cup!” she said. “We didn’t do so well there, so maybe we’ll do better here.” 

Margalee Conlee of Lexington, left, takes a selfie of her and Melissa Turner of Prestonsburg at Keeneland on Friday during the first day of Breeders' Cup. The two are hat designers. Their business is called Headturners. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Margalee Conlee of Lexington, left, takes a selfie of her and Melissa Turner of Prestonsburg at Keeneland on Friday during the first day of Breeders’ Cup. The two are hat designers. Their business is called Headturners. 



With Breeders’ Cup coming, black jockey Isaac Murphy gets his due

October 13, 2015

The most celebrated jockey in Lexington this month won’t be riding in Keeneland’s fall meet, or afterward at the Breeders’ Cup.

In fact, he died 119 years ago.

Isaac Burns Murphy, a black Kentuckian who was the most successful jockey in Thoroughbred racing history, will be the focus of a series of free public programs and events Oct. 20-24.


Isaac Murphy. Keeneland Library photo

The celebration begins Tuesday with a lecture at the Lyric Theatre by Pellom McDaniels III, an Emory University professor, former professional football player and author of the 2013 biography The Prince of Jockeys.

The Kentucky Horse Park on Thursday will unveil a newly engraved tombstone for Murphy, who is buried there. Later that afternoon, new interpretive panels will be unveiled at the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden in the East End.

I Dedicate This Ride, former Kentucky poet laureate Frank X Walker’s play about Murphy, will be performed at the Lyric Theatre on Friday and Saturday nights. Also on Saturday, a new memorial will be dedicated at Murphy’s original gravesite at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.

Each day that week, McDaniels will be speaking at the Lyric to local school groups and showing them an exhibit of photo and text panels about Murphy. The panels will remain on display in the theater’s gallery through Dec. 11.

“Isaac Murphy is a wonderful figure in history, for a lot of reasons,” McDaniels said.

Murphy was born into slavery in Frankfort four days after the Civil War began in 1861. After his father died in Union Army service in 1865, Murphy was raised in Lexington by his mother and grandfather.

Murphy became a jockey at age 14 and rode in the Kentucky Derby 11 times, winning three of them, in 1884, 1890 and 1891. By his calculations, Murphy won 628 of his 1,412 races, a 44 percent victory rate that has never been equaled. In 1955, Murphy was the first jockey to be inducted into the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. He died of pneumonia in 1896.

McDaniels, 47, is from San Jose, Calif., and played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. After retiring from football, he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in American studies from Emory University in Atlanta, where he is now an associate professor of African American studies.

McDaniels said he discovered Murphy while working on his doctoral dissertation about the role of black athletes in the 20th century, when racism made sports one of the few areas where black men could advance.

In looking at the roots of that phenomenon, he discovered black athletes in the 19th century who were revered by white Americans before the Jim Crow era led to systematic discrimination.

Pellom McDaniels III, an associate professor of African American studies at Emory University and former professional football player, is the author of The Prince of Jockeys, a biography of Lexington native Isaac Burns Murphy. Photo provided

Pellom McDaniels III. Photo provided

The star among them was Murphy, a celebrity described in the white press as an “elegant specimen of manhood.” He was lionized for his good looks, his intellect and his gentlemanly behavior.

“I thought it was very interesting that this man coming out of slavery would be in newspapers being represented as this quintessential man,” McDaniels said.

By the end of Murphy’s career, though, discrimination was marginalizing accomplished blacks who had made gains during Reconstruction, including athletes.

Previous biographers speculated that Murphy’s polish came from his association with whites in the horse industry. But McDaniels thinks a more likely explanation was Lexington’s black community, which was quite advanced for that time.

“The community was thriving,” he said. “There were businesses and very well-educated people there, lawyers and doctors.”

McDaniels thinks Murphy’s life story is a great teaching opportunity, especially for young people.

“Sports history is an opportunity to teach, especially young men, about these different nuances of social and economic and racial history,” he said

Murphy was a professional athlete who knew how to handle success with grace and responsibility — something rare now as it was then. His success brought fortune as well as fame, and Murphy and his wife, Lucy, lived in a Third Street mansion about where the Isaac Memorial Art Garden is now.

“He and Lucy had plenty of opportunities to leave Lexington and go to California and New York and Chicago, but he kept coming back home,” McDaniels said. “I think he came home because the people in Lexington knew him. They were his family and they helped him maintain his rootedness.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 3, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lexington center finds new careers for retired race horses

April 28, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Veteran sign painter creates art from Lexington, racing nostalgia

August 5, 2013


John Cox, owner of Thoroughgraphics, shows a copy, at right, he is making of an old sign from the Nashua Room at the old Hialeah racetrack in Hialeah, Fla. Cox said he acquired several old Hialeah signs years ago when the sign company he worked for was hired to replace them.  Photos by Tom Eblen  


John Cox’s artwork is a shot of nostalgia for anyone who lived in Lexington or followed Thoroughbred racing during the decades after World War II. His paintings are literally signs of the times, recalling the famous and infamous.

Cox’s hand-painted signs look as though they spent decades at such places as Joyland Park, Stoll Field, Scott’s Rollarena, Comer’s Restaurant or Keeneland.

Remember the Library Lounge, that swinging singles bar in the 1970s? Or the Red Lion Lounge, which featured the “exotic” dancer Chesty Morgan? And don’t forget Boot’s Bar, where headliners included the Fabulous Table Toppers and Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, upside down, backwards guitar player.

Longtime racing fans may recall the Citation Room at Hialeah Park in Florida, the Boots & Saddle Bar across the street from the track or Greentree Stable, Payne Whitney’s New Jersey farm that was a Thoroughbred powerhouse in the 1920s.

“I had had several people who asked me to make them a sign that looked like it was old, from some memory they had,” said Cox, who since 1982 has owned and operated Thoroughgraphics, a Lexington sign company.

Cox was soon making “new old” signs for gifts. Since late last year, he has been showing and selling his pieces at Gallery Hop. His work is now on display at Congleton Lumber Co.’s new showroom, 1260 Industry Road, and at his website, Newoldsigns.com.

Cox left last week for Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Saratoga Race Course is celebrating its 150th year. His company will be making modern signs for its many customers there, and he has made some “new old” Saratoga-themed signs for sale through Lexington’s Cross Gate Gallery.

“It’s a unique niche,” said Cox, 54, who began his career hand-lettering signs for Johnson Sign Co. in the 1970s while a student at Lafayette High School.

130723OldSigns0102Cox had always been interested in calligraphy, and he studied art at the University of Kentucky. Because many of his fraternity brothers were in the horse business, he focused on that industry. His customers now include farms, tracks and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga. He just finished making metal plaques for the newest group of Hall of Fame inductees.

Other than Cox’s artwork, little hand-painting is still done at Thoroughgraphics, which has a lot of modern technology for making all kinds of signs, from huge printers to computer-controlled wood routers.

“There are lots of different ways that are better and longer-lasting now than painting signs,” Cox said, adding that “when they took the lead out of paint, it didn’t last as long or hold its color very well.”

That technology would make it easy to reproduce old-fashioned sign images. But that wouldn’t be the same as what Cox does. His hand-painted letters show brush strokes, and he makes each piece look old and authentic with creative use of sandpaper, varnish and sometimes even a little dirt.

“I don’t try to pass them off as being old,” he said. “If you look at the back of them, you can see they’re brand-new materials.”

Cox said his signs are a mixture of authenticity and imagination. He researches a place, looking for photographs of old signs there. If he finds a design he likes, he copies it. Or he may use imagery from old promotional materials, such as matchbook covers.

For other signs, Cox simply makes up a design appropriate to the era — how he would have done the job, if only he had been around then to do it. Most of his pieces are inspired by signs from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Cox has collected more than 100 antique signs that cover the walls of his workshops at Thoroughgraphics. There has been a resurgence in public interest in old signs. There is even an American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.

Most of Cox’s “new old” signs sell for $200 to $400, although he is asking $2,000 for a large Keeneland sign painted with gold leaf.

Cox said he has enjoyed showing his work, because people come up and tell him great stories about their memories of the places depicted in his signs.

“It’s a great creative outlet for me,” he said. “And people seem to really enjoy them.”

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

May 4, 2013


 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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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.

A beautiful afternoon for a record Kentucky Derby crowd

May 7, 2011

LOUISVILLE —The weather forecasters were wrong, thank goodness.

The sun was shining bright on a perfect spring afternoon as a record crowd of 164,858 stumbled over the words to My Old Kentucky Home before seeing Animal Kingdom win his first race on dirt to take the 137th Kentucky Derby.

Brief periods of rain earlier in the day didn’t faze the biggest Derby crowd in history. The field was wide open, and, as always, horses were just part of the attraction. The Derby is a big party, a peerless networking opportunity and a colorful pageant of women in tight dresses and bodacious hats.

For hours leading up to the so-called greatest two minutes in sports, Kentucky’s captains of horseflesh and industry wined and dined those lucky enough to receive invitations from them.

“It’s such a selling opportunity for the state,” said Alltech founder and President Pearse Lyons. He and his wife, Deirdra, sat on Millionaire’s Row with John Petterson, senior vice president of Tiffany & Co., who said construction of his company’s new plant in Lexington is on schedule for completion in July.

“The whole state of Kentucky has been good to us,” said Petterson, attending his first Derby. “This is a wonderful place to do business.”

Executives from Mexico and India were among those being entertained by state officials hungry for investment.

Proeza of Monterey, Mexico, owns three automobile parts factories in Kentucky that employ 1,200 people. “We hope to increase employment,” said CEO Enrique Zambrano, who was loving his first Derby. “We come from a family that loves horses, and this is an experience.”

Across the table from Zambrano was Rewant Ruia, director of Essar of Mumbai, India. “I think it’s a fabulous event,” said Ruia, who said his conglomerate employs 10,000 people in North America, including coal miners in Kentucky. “To be honest, I did not expect the Derby to be so big.”

Across the track and far below the luxury suites, the infield crowd had arrived early to set up tents against the predicted rain. They partied the day away, progressing from $7 breakfast Budweisers to $10 mint juleps.

“The atmosphere, the people, the party,” said Ken Keske of Charlotte, N.C., when I asked why he keeps coming back every year. His Derby outfit included a furry viking helmet.

Nearby, Karolyn Cook of New Jersey and two girlfriends from New York and North Carolina were sporting lovely dresses and elegant hats. They sat on a blanket in the infield, snacking on potato chips. “My mother is stationed at Fort Knox, so this was the thing to do,” Cook said.

Tim Rask came from Iowa City, Iowa, for his seventh Derby, his fifth wearing a bowler hat topped with a tall arrangement of red roses that required almost perfect posture. “All that finishing school paid off,” he joked.

Rask keeps coming “because it’s the greatest time to be had in the country,” he said. “It’s great fun to make a fool of yourself once a year.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who took office in January, was enjoying his first year as Derby host. “People love coming here and they all leave with a smile on their face,” he said. “It’s fun to be part of that.”

When I saw Fischer, he was shaking hands on Millionaire’s Row and introducing people to Lt. Gen. Ben Freakley, who is overseeing a big expansion and mission change at Ft. Knox that in the past year has expanded the base’s payroll by $45 million.

“You see these beautiful ladies in these fabulous hats and then a dude in a T-shirt,” said Freakley, who was attending his first Derby. “This is America. We’re all celebrating what we are as a country. It’s pretty neat.”

It’s also a pretty neat day to be a Kentuckian, said Central Bank President Luther Deaton.

“It showcases Kentucky and what a great place we live,” he said. “We’re the luckiest people going.”

Kentucky Oaks goes pink for breast cancer awareness

May 6, 2011

LOUISVILLE — The Kentucky Oaks has grown from Louisville’s day at the races into a spectacle almost as big and colorful as the next day’s Kentucky Derby. And the color of the Oaks is most definitely pink.

Many women at Churchill Downs on Friday wore pink hats and dresses. Men wore pink jackets and ties. The track bugler and outriders traded their red coats for pink ones. Balcony railings below the Twin Spires are wrapped in pink fabric. Even the tractors that pulled sleds to smooth the dirt track were pink. All for a good reason: breast cancer awareness.

For the third year, the track donated $1 from each Oaks Day admission to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and $1 from the sale of each Oaks Lily beverage to Horses for Hope.

More important than raising money, though, was raising awareness of breast cancer, the second-leading cause of death among Kentucky women. About 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the state each year.

Oaks Day is ladies’ day, after all, where fillies run for the lilies in the featured race. And before Plum Pretty held off St. John’s River to win the 137th running of the Oaks, there was a special parade in front of the grandstand.

A crowd of 110,100 spectators, the third-largest in Oaks history, cheered as 137 breast cancer survivors walked with a friend and family in symbolic victory over the disease. The survivors were chosen by the public from nominees whose stories were posted on the Kentucky Oaks’ Web site. More than 30,000 votes were cast.

“It’s very emotional,” said Gina Robinson of New Albany, Ind., who was diagnosed 15 months ago and was there with her husband, Dan. “He looks good in pink, doesn’t he?”

Robinson participated in last year’s parade, too, and found it deeply emotional. “I thought I had it all together until everyone started cheering and I lost it,” she said.

“It’s a big responsibility to represent so many people,” said survivor Angie Brown of Shelbyville, who said she was there to show that young women can get breast cancer, too. “It’s not just your mom’s or your grandma’s disease.”

Brown, 36, was diagnosed and began aggressive chemotherapy when she was 24 weeks pregnant with her third daughter. It was a scary time, but she recovered and her daughter, now 20 months old, wasn’t harmed by the treatment

Hugh Campbell of Louisville, the only male breast cancer survivor in the parade, was nominated by his daughter, Emily, who walked with him. He wore pink pants and, like the women, carried a lily.

“I try to keep it out there that men get this disease, too,” said Campbell, who was diagnosed in December 2007 and has had five recurrences. “I have met several other men with it in the Louisville area, but most men don’t want to be out front about it.”

Like many women, Campbell first noticed a lump in his breast. But unlike many men, he went to a doctor to see about it. He knew what it might be. Campbell’s mother had survived breast cancer, and he had been active in the Komen organization on her behalf since 1997.

“I knew it was out there for both women and men,” he said. “I just didn’t want it to be me.”

Cheering them on was P.J. Cooksey, the all-time leading female jockey until Julie Krone surpassed her number of victories. Cooksey won 2,137 races and overcome a lot of hardship during her 25-year career in a male-dominated sport. But her biggest challenge and victory was over a breast-cancer diagnosis almost 10 years ago.

“It’s no longer a death sentence, especially with early detection,” Cooksey said. “It means a lot to me to see racing get behind this cause in such a big way, because you reach so many women in this state when you connect women and horses.”

Besides, she said, “I love all the pink!”

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Keeneland chiefs share behind-the-scenes stories

March 25, 2011

Bill Lear, left to right, a Keeneland trustee who was the moderator, former Keeneland Presidents Ted Bassett, Bill Greely and current President Nick Nicholson shared a laugh. Photo by Charles Bertram

Keeneland changes constantly, yet never seems to. Behind stone walls and an image of timeless tradition, the elegant race course has faced one challenge after another.

To kick off its 75th anniversary, Keeneland invited Lexington’s business community to breakfast Friday to hear President Nick Nicholson and his two predecessors swap behind-the-scenes stories.

Nicholson, president since 2000, was joined by Ted Bassett, who became president in 1970, and Bill Greely, who succeeded him in 1986. They entertained a Commerce Lexington crowd of 185 people with tales of triumphs and troubles — and all the funny things that happen when you play host to movie stars, tycoons, Arab sheiks and European royalty.

“We worked hard, but we played hard, too,” Greely and Bassett both said.

“The biggest difference between then and now is we no longer play — we just work, work, work,” Nicholson added, sending the other two into gales of laughter.

Bassett recounted Keeneland’s founding on a shoestring budget in 1935, the middle of the Great Depression. Horsemen Hal Price Headley and Louie Beard wanted a racing venue to replace the old Kentucky Association track near downtown, which had closed in 1933. Their unorthodox vision was to create a non-profit institution to benefit the sport and the community.

After Bassett arrived in 1968, after heading the Kentucky State Police, he added barn space to bring in more horses for racing, and a new sales pavilion to boost the horse auctions that are the Keeneland Association’s bread and butter.

Although steeped in tradition, Keeneland has always been an innovator, opening with the state’s first electronic tote board. Bassett added the state’s first turf track in 1984, where half of Keeneland’s stakes races are now run.

Bassett resisted installing a public address system. Like the founders, he didn’t want to disturb Keeneland’s ambiance. The PA system came under Greely, in 1997, which Bassett jokingly reminded the crowd — several times.

“I had almost all of the support of the board,” Greely replied.

Innovations have continued under Nicholson, from high-tech electronic systems to a synthetic track surface that has reduced injuries to both horses and riders. Still, Nicholson is passionate about maintaining Keeneland’s timeless beauty, down to tiny details of the landscaping.

“We take our traditions seriously,” Nicholson said. “We take our trees seriously.”

Keeneland also takes its Clubhouse dress code seriously, but that, too, has evolved. Denim is still not allowed, though, as actor Joe Pesci found out once when he showed up wearing jeans.

Bassett recalled that the prohibition against women’s pant suits ended in 1975 after Anita Madden, the flamboyant owner of Hamburg Place farm, wore one and was told she must have a dress. So, she stepped in the ladies room and removed her pants. Her suit jacket became her dress.

Two of Bassett’s favorite Keeneland guests were actress Elizabeth Taylor and Queen Elizabeth II. The queen’s visit in 1984 had Bassett worried, although she turned out to be a friendly guest and knowledgeable horsewoman.

“She was very easy to talk to,” he said, although there were some anxious moments when she lost a shoe under the table at lunch. Who should retrieve it?

“He got Queen Elizabeth, but I got Ashley Judd,” Nicholson said. And Charlize Theron, whose photograph standing beside Nicholson during her 2009 visit is reproduced in Keeneland’s new 75th anniversary book.

Nicholson recalled taking Judd and her husband, race car driver Dario Franchitti, to meet some famous jockeys at Keeneland. They compared notes about their two racing sports, and Franchitti concluded that racing horses was more difficult, Nicholson said.

Nicholson said Keeneland has faced big challenges under his watch, beginning with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which occurred the morning of what he had expected to be one of Keeneland’s biggest-ever auction days. The economic slowdown that followed the attacks hit Keeneland hard, as did the mysterious disease that killed many Kentucky foals that year.

When Keeneland finally managed to recover in 2008, the worldwide financial crisis began. Things are getting better, Nicholson said, but the horse industry’s long-term prospects remain challenging.

What will not, change, Nicholson promised, is Keeneland’s commitment to providing the highest-quality horse racing and sales environment possible. “That was our founders’ philosophy,” he said. “It is a wonderful philosophy that has made this organization strong.”

How Kentucky became the Thoroughbred capital

September 29, 2010

Maryjean Wall learned a lot about the “Thoroughbred capital of the world” in 35 years as an award-winning racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. But it wasn’t until she retired and finished her doctorate in history at the University of Kentucky that Wall figured out how it came to be.

Kentucky’s domination of Thoroughbred breeding during the past century wasn’t really about the mineral-rich bluegrass and limestone water, although they certainly helped. It resulted from a chain of events during the turbulent decades after the Civil War that Kentuckians cleverly exploited.

Maryjean Wall. Photo by Mark Cornelison

It involved crafting an Old South image for Kentucky at the turn of the last century that appealed to the nation’s richest horsemen — and all but erased African- Americans from the picture. Wall pulls this story together in a new book, How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders (The University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)

I had heard pieces of this fascinating story for years. When Wall was still at the Herald-Leader and I was the managing editor, she would occasionally wander into my office and tell me about her research.

The finished book is a remarkable page-turner that earned glowing cover blurbs from some of the best historians of Kentucky and Thoroughbred racing. The book puts together many pieces of a complicated puzzle, and it is filled with well-documented stories that explain a lot about the evolution of Kentucky society and the horse industry.

Kentucky dominated Thoroughbred breeding in the early 1800s, thanks to its grass and water. But the Civil War devastated Kentucky’s economy; much breeding stock was killed, stolen by raiders or moved out of state for safe-keeping.

Northeast industrialists and Wall Street speculators emerged from the war as the nation’s richest men, and they embraced the “sport of kings.” They began buying the best mares and stallions and installing them on new farms in New York and New Jersey.

Kentucky breeders realized they were losing their grip on the industry and needed to attract that Northeast capital. But there was a problem: Kentucky had a well-deserved reputation for violence and lawlessness that scared away the tycoons who now dominated horse racing.

Kentucky was a Civil War border state that officially remained loyal to the Union. But as industrialization led to more anxiety and racism in American society, the public imagination was captured by “lost cause” nostalgia for an idealized Old South.

Until the 1890s, African-Americans had been some of the most successful jockeys and trainers. Jockey Isaac Murphy became a rich man. But as racism grew, blacks were forced out of all but the most menial horse racing jobs, not just in Kentucky but across the nation.

Wall writes that Kentucky breeders eagerly exploited this Old South myth to rebrand the state. Novelists and newspapermen started depicting a land of white-suited “Kentucky colonels” on columned verandas — a place where the living was easy for wealthy white people and black folks knew their place.

New York’s leading equine journal, Turf, Field and Farm, published by Lexington-born brothers Benjamin and Sanders Bruce, offered Northeast horsemen a steady drumbeat of Bluegrass boosterism.

That led several Northern moguls, including August Belmont and James Ben Ali Haggin, to start breeding farms near Lexington. Many more followed after anti-gambling forces outlawed racing in New York and many other states about 1910.

Modern Kentucky has many legacies from this period, including the large number of absentee farm owners and a professional class of bloodstock agents, trainers, veterinarians and others who have made horses a vital part of the state’s economy.

“I hope readers put this book down with a greater respect for the (horse) industry,” Wall said over lunch last week. Like many, Walls fears for the Thoroughbred industry’s future in Kentucky, but she thinks the solutions are more complex than the long fight over expanded gambling.

“It was never a given that the horse industry would stay here after the Civil War, and that is still relevant today,” Wall said. “The grass was never enough. And it’s still not enough.”

If you go

Maryjean Wall will discuss and sign How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders:

■ 4 p.m. Oct. 2, Morris book shop, 408 Southland Dr., Lexington

■ 7 p.m. Oct. 5, Woodford County Public Library, 115 N. Main St., Versailles

■ 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7, Kentucky Historical Society, 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort

Helping women, horses recover from hard track life

June 16, 2010

PARIS — Kim Rosier left home in Nebraska at age 13 and spent most of her life moving from one racetrack to another — grooming, walking, training, exercise riding, whatever needed to be done.

“It’s a rough life,” said Rosier, 53, who now has a bad back and other health problems because of her work. “When you get old … they have no use for you. What are you going to do, die in a tack room?”

What Rosier did in April was pack her belongings into a suitcase, board a bus in Hot Springs, Ark., and move to Bethlehem Farm and the Center for Women in Racing in Bourbon County.

The non-denominational Christian ministry helps horsewomen who need temporary housing, pastoral counseling or help with medical, legal or substance-abuse problems, or a safe haven from domestic violence. Some of the women care for retired and rescued race horses on the farm.

During the past five years, 37 women have lived at the center, the restored 1830s Wright-Barlow House near Paris, founder Sandra White said. An additional 112 — from stable hands to high-level Thoroughbred owners — have sought non-residential help.

The Wright-Barlow House is owned by Bourbon County and is leased to the Center for Women in Racing. White’s Bethlehem Farm is nearby.

“I developed a model to reach women who wouldn’t normally be reached by the church,” said White, who has a network of professionals to help with clients. “There’s so much need, we couldn’t begin to meet it.”

White has ambitious plans, which she will discuss June 25 at Horses and the Hearts of Women, the center’s fund-raiser. The event honors first lady Jane Beshear and includes a talk by jockey Otto Thorwarth, who appears in the movie Secretariat, which is scheduled to open in October.

White’s eventual goal is to acquire more land and create the Center for Renewal in Racing, a self-sustaining rehabilitation center for men and children as well as women and horses.

Much of the financial support for the Center for Women in Racing has come from White, her friends and donors in the industry. The center also sells gifts, including official Kentucky Derby silk scarves. The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture is helping White to develop a long-range strategic plan.

White, who grew up in a horse- owning Texas family with Kentucky roots, would seem an unlikely missionary and social worker. A former public relations executive in Houston, she sold her firm in 1990 and moved to Kentucky. She had always wanted to live on a horse farm — and she felt God’s call.

White earned a master’s degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in 1993 and worked with the Rev. Bobby Aldridge, a racetrack chaplain. “I had to spend a lot of time at the racetrack learning what it was like for the girls because I had never been allowed to be there,” she said. It was an eye-opening experience.

“It doesn’t matter how well you do in life. Stuff happens,” said White, a divorced mother of two teenagers and the incoming president of the Paris/Bourbon County Chamber of Commerce. “You may lose your business, you may lose your health.”

White bought a 50-acre farm on Bethlehem Road in 1995 and created a non-profit organization in 2000. In 2004, she opened the center in the Wright-Barlow House, where as many as six women can live in three upstairs bedrooms.

Bethlehem Farm also is home to a rotating cast of retired or rescued Thoroughbreds, and a gentle giant of a draft horse, a Percheron named Abram. Caring for them is good therapy for women at the center. The love of horses is something they all have in common.

Some women even come with their own. “We don’t separate girls from their animals, which makes us unique — and absolutely crazy,” White said. “But for many of these women, all they have is their horse or their dog.”

When White and Rosier showed me around Bethlehem Farm last week, it was a perfect summer afternoon: blue sky, plank fences and rolling meadows. Only horses, birds and our conversation disturbed the windswept silence.

Rosier said that living in such a peaceful place is helping her to mend her body and her spirit. “I feel safe here,” she said. “I’m a runner, but it’s like the first time in my life I haven’t wanted to run.”

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Rain doesn’t dampen Kentucky Derby crowd

May 1, 2010

Tawni Colmone of Portland, Ore., wasn’t expecting this when she asked her grandmother to take her to the Kentucky Derby. What was she expecting?

“Sun, actually,” said Colmone, 17. “And watching races instead of looking for a place to stay out of the rain.”

As the steady rain grew harder a couple of hours before the big race, Colmone and her grandmother, Karen Wilson, kept their hats dry by standing under a vendor’s tent. But they planned to go back to their bleacher seats to watch the Derby, no matter what.

“We’re having a ball,” said Wilson, who was more upbeat than her granddaughter. Maybe it was because she’s from Seattle and isn’t bothered by rain. Or maybe it was because she was holding a mint julep.

“It’s all thrilling,” she said of their first Derby. “It’s an experience we’ll always remember.”

Fortunately for the 155,804 people who packed Churchill Downs in the sixth-largest Derby crowd ever, the rain stopped and the sun popped out just in time for the 136th Run for the Roses.

It was a perfect break for one of the wettest Derby Days in years. As usual, many women were dressed to the nines. But thanks to clear plastic ponchos, everyone could still admire them while they stayed dry.

Women with especially large hats had to keep a hand — or two — on them so they wouldn’t blow away. Kevin Mangas of Lexington thought he had the perfect accessory for his linen suit: a hat shaped like a yellow duck.

Many spectators with outside seats sought refuge from the rain in the bowels of the grandstand, which resembled a New York subway platform at rush hour. Others simply swaddled themselves in plastic. Some women wore rubber boots; others soldiered on in stiletto heels.

The infield quickly became a sea of mud, which made it all the more fun for Atlantans Rachel Heller and her brother, John Loftin, to dance in. “I’m having a blast,” she said, showing off the red rubber boots she bought at Wal-Mart to go with her yellow hat.

“We wanted to experience the Derby; we’ve watched it on TV for years,” said Roland Carey of Chicago, who was sitting in lawn chairs in the infield with his sister, Raquel Carey, and niece, Tiffani Brown. “We’ve got ponchos. We’re ready. There’s a real spirit here, rain or shine.”

Nick Longobardi and Tina Brown, who live near Ft. Myers, Fla., didn’t seem to notice the rain as they stood in the infield mud and kissed. After I shot their picture and asked their names, Longobardi leaned over and whispered that he planned to ask Brown to marry him later in the day.

Keeping dry wasn’t a problem for those on Millionaire’s Row and other fancy suites atop the grandstand. They kept busy eating fine food and posing for photos with celebrities such as UK basketball Coach John Calipari and golfing great Arnold Palmer.

Six crew members from the Navy’s USS Kentucky, a ballistic missile submarine based near Seattle, took in the Derby as part of a goodwill trip to the state. They also planned to meet the governor and visit the Louisville Slugger museum and the universities of Kentucky and Louisville before heading back to the sub.

“This has been great,” said Lt. JG Richard Sanford, who is from Grand Rapids, Mich. “The people here have been so nice to us.”

For some, Derby Day rain was a mild distraction to the important business of the day: picking horses.

“I’ve had a lot of winners today,” said Charlotte Ross of Columbus, Ohio, who sat in an outside grandstand box, fancy green hat and heavy raincoat, absorbed in her Daily Racing Form. “Does the rain bother me? Oh, heavens no! I like the mudders.”

More Derby photos: hunting celebs and dodging rain

May 1, 2010

Click on each thumbnail to see full photo:

Kentucky Derby Day: We can’t rest on our roses

May 1, 2010

The Kentucky Derby struts a fine line between the past and the future.

First run in 1875, it is America’s oldest continuous sporting event. It is the most famous horse race, the one every Thoroughbred owner wants to win. Some horsemen have spent careers, and much more than the $2 million purse, trying.

The Derby has become Kentucky’s global identity — second only to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Several years ago, I went to church with friends in a little town on the southern coast of Australia. As we were introduced to the priest on our way out, he asked where we were from. When I replied, “Kentucky,” his face lit up and he said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

Matt Winn, the P.T. Barnum of early 20th century horse racing, put the Derby on the map. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson helped keep it there with his alcohol-fueled essay about aspects of the Derby that can be “decadent and depraved.”

As we prepare for the 136th running of this two-minute horse race, it is worth pausing to ponder the Kentucky Derby’s mystique and what will keep it alive.

The Derby is, of course, tied to the fortunes of horse racing, whose popularity has been in decline for a generation. Many blame the industry for focusing too much on gambling revenue and too little on attracting new fans to the sport’s excitement and pageantry.

A few years ago, the public seemed to be losing interest in the Derby itself; television ratings hit bottom in 2000. That was a wakeup call for Churchill Downs, which invested big bucks in new facilities and worked harder to attract celebrities who weren’t already has-beens when today’s young potential racing fans were born.

NBC took over the Derby TV contract from ABC in 2001 and ratings began to climb. Last year, ratings were their best since 1992, making the Derby the second-most watched American sporting event after the Super Bowl. This year, Churchill Downs and NBC are trying to build public excitement with “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts of prep races.

NBC realized that nearly half of the Derby’s TV viewers are women, most of whom wouldn’t know a furlong from a trifecta. NBC and its Bravo network feature Derby content aimed at them: fashion, food and celebrities.

Churchill Downs and NBC now understand that the Derby can’t coast on its reputation. Nothing can. The Derby must constantly be renewed and reinvented. It must preserve tradition while at the same time making Southern charm hip and sophisticated. In short, the Derby must be special.

After all, name another sporting event where tens of thousands of male spectators willingly dress up — in pastels! What other event of any kind gives a woman the excuse to buy and wear a big, bodacious hat?

Beyond Churchill Downs’ gates, Derby Day is to Kentucky what St. Patrick’s Day is to Ireland. It is the one day each year when people who ordinarily couldn’t care less about Kentucky or horses look to see who is running, pick a favorite (probably based on its name) and maybe even place a bet.

It is the day when Kentuckians living elsewhere get homesick and throw a party. They cook burgoo and hot Browns and do something they know is just, plain wrong: they contaminate bourbon with sugar and mint.

Derby Day is about keeping a mostly mythical past alive, the present fresh and fun and the future one where people like that priest I met in Australia can hear the word Kentucky and instinctively say, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

Keeneland’s Nicholson on horse industry’s future

April 3, 2010

As the spring racing meet was about to begin, Keeneland President Nick Nicholson briskly walked the grounds to make sure everything was ready.

At the track’s last turn, he inspected the yellow forsythia hedge and tall magnolia trees. (He knows there are exactly 73 of them.) He pointed out new bushes in the infield that look as if they have always been there, and a maple tree in the paddock that won’t thrive no matter what the groundskeepers do.

Nicholson drove a visitor to the back of the racecourse’s 1,200 acres, to a nursery where trimmed shrubs stand ready should any part of the green hedges that spell “Keeneland” in the infield suddenly turn brown.

“You’re looking at the next generation of the parking lot there,” he said, pointing to a row of tall trees in the nursery. They are gradually being moved out to the parking lot to replace the giant pin oaks as they succumb to age and insects.

What does this obsession with landscaping have to do with horse racing and Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry? Everything, Nicholson believes.

That’s because the future of the horse industry that is so vital to Kentucky’s image and economy depends on developing a larger, younger and more loyal fan base. Nicholson thinks the years-long battle over expanded gambling has distracted the industry from that fundamental issue.

“Expanded gaming has taken on more of a role than I think it should have; I would love to think of a way to get it behind us,” he said. “It will never be a long-term fix or a total solution. It would just provide some capital at a time when the industry needs capital. It’s a means to an end. It’s not the end.”

Horse racing once flourished, in part, because it was the only way many people could gamble legally. Now there are plenty of quicker and cheaper ways, including lotteries, slot machines, Internet betting and casinos. Everyone wants in on the action, including politicians eager to avoid raising taxes.

“I often feel like a ping-pong ball in other people’s ping-pong games,” Nicholson said.

Unlike corporate racetracks, whose ultimate goal is to provide shareholders with a maximum return on investment, Keeneland is a non-profit association. Since its founding in 1936, the mission has been to support Kentucky’s Thoroughbred breeding industry through racing and sales to an increasingly international market.

“It’s the marketplace where the farmers bring their crop to market,” he said. “The reason we race is to determine which horses to breed to which horses.”

The income and jobs the horse industry provides Kentucky — from breeders and blacksmiths to restaurant waiters and equine artists — ultimately depend on the popularity of horses and racing, Nicholson said. That’s why he spends much of his time on efforts to improve racing’s credibility, from the integrity of the betting system to improved safety for horses and riders.

“For the new fan base we’ll build the sport on, safety is a threshold issue,” he said. “You can’t say (frequent death and injury) is part of the sport anymore. You’ve got to be doing everything you can do to prevent it.”

That means cracking down on horse doping and investing in such things as artificial track surfaces that are easier on horses’ legs and high-tech padding in the starting gate.

Growing horse racing’s fan base means providing a total entertainment experience — everything from exciting sport to good food, comfortable seats, beautiful landscaping, easy parking and friendly customer service.

During an orientation last Wednesday for some of the hundreds of green-jacketed retirees who work customer-service jobs at each racing meet, Nicholson told them: “You’re the secret ingredient in the recipe for what makes Keeneland special.”

To appeal to potential young fans, horse racing must market itself more creatively and embrace technology. Keeneland now has new season and annual passes, live online race video, race replays for cell phones and updates for both experienced and novice fans via SMS text, Twitter and Facebook.

Discreet remote-control television cameras have been installed in the paddock, and there’s a new TV camera platform behind the winner’s circle. “We want to create more of a Game Day atmosphere,” Nicholson said. “We’d like each meet to be like an international festival.”

The TVG network will have daily coverage from Keeneland this month. Churchill Downs in Louisville has partnered with NBC Sports for “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts that will include Keeneland’s Bluegrass Stakes on April 10.

The future of the Thoroughbred industry, Nicholson believes, depends on attracting more fans who become passionate about horses, not just about gambling. It’s about the pageantry and excitement of the sport, the intellectual challenge of handicapping, the thrill of betting a winner and the pleasure of an afternoon with friends in a beautiful place that looks as if it has always been there.

“More days of cheap racing won’t do it,” he said. “We must work with like-minded tracks to create an appealing product. We can’t compete with a casino, nor should we want to.”

Keeneland President Nick Nicholson shows a visitor the nursery hidden among the association's 1,200 acres where mature trees and shrubs are grown for the racetrack's well-groomed grounds. Photo by Tom Eblen

Keeneland President Nick Nicholson shows a visitor the nursery where trees and shrubs are grown for the track's manicured landscape. Photo by Tom Eblen