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.”

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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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.



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


Founder’s daughters recall Keeneland’s early years

March 29, 2011

Many people have special memories of Keeneland Race Course — pleasant spring and fall afternoons spent watching beautiful horses and people, eating, drinking and, if you’re like me, losing a few dollars at the windows.

Some of my favorite Keeneland memories are from 1984, when I covered Queen Elizabeth II’s visit for the Atlanta newspapers. Everything was freshly painted, and everyone was on best behavior.

When the spring meet opens April 8, Keeneland will celebrate its 75th year.

Sisters Alice Chandler and Patricia Green have unique memories of Keeneland’s early years. Their father, Hal Price Headley, was the driving force behind creating it.

“When Keeneland opened, I was 10 years old,” Chandler said. “I had a pony named Pal and I used to ride my pony down the Versailles Road. Now, can you imagine doing that today? I would get up early and ride him down to Keeneland while they were building it.”

Headley and Louie Beard headed a group of local horsemen in 1935 who wanted to replace the old Kentucky Association track near downtown, which closed in 1933. Jack Keene gave them a good price on a piece of his farm, which included a rambling stone barn he had built as a private training and racing facility.

One corner of “Keene’s folly” became the original part of the Keeneland clubhouse. Stone from the rest of it was used by architect Robert McMeekin for the track’s grandstand and paddock.

Much of the equipment used to build Keeneland came from Headley’s Beaumont Farm, which once covered several thousand acres between Harrodsburg and Versailles roads.

“He took everything we had on the farm,” Chandler said. “The mules, the tractors, the wagons, everything. There just wasn’t enough money to buy that sort of thing and they needed it.”

Despite an aggressive construction schedule, the track wasn’t finished in time for a spring meet, so racing didn’t begin until October 1936.

Chandler, 85, said she will never forget what happened to her on that first opening day. “I was walking up the steps in the grandstand and some guy behind me pinched my bottom,” she said, laughing. “I couldn’t believe it!”

Green, 83, remembers spending many childhood afternoons playing on the clubhouse lawn. “We were given the run of the place,” she said.

Furniture from the Beaumont Farm mansion, which stood where Sullivan University is now on Harrodsburg Road, was taken to Keeneland for use in the clubhouse during those early years.

Green remembers the Beaumont gardener starting what is now the giant infield hedge that spells “Keeneland” in a plot behind their home. “It was a tiny little thing,” she said.

Their older sister Alma’s husband, Louis Haggin, succeeded their father as Keeneland’s president. Alma also played a key role: her taste defined Keeneland’s interior decoration for decades until her death in 2008 at age 96.

Headley had five daughters, then a son. With so many children competing for his attention, “Me now!” was a common expression in the Headley home, Green said. It became the name of one of Headley’s most successful horses. Menow was the champion 2-year-old in 1937, placed third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1938 and sired 32 stakes winners.

Chandler and Green, the youngest of the Headley’s five daughters, have fond memories of their father treating them more like sons.

“I just adored him,” Chandler said. “If my toe wasn’t under his heel I was running behind. My mother insisted on sending me to boarding school from time to time. I hated every minute of it, because it kept me from going to Keeneland.”

The sisters have remained close to racing. Green’s ex-husband managed two horse farms and she owned Silks Unlimited, a maker of jockey silks that her daughter now owns.

Chandler became a prominent horsewoman. She turned part of Beaumont into award-winning Mill Ridge Farm, where she bred Sir Ivor. He won the 1968 Epsom Derby and helped attract European buyers to Keeneland’s sales. Giacomo, winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby, was foaled at Mill Ridge.

Chandler and Green think their father, who died in 1962, would be proud of what Keeneland has become. “It’s a tremendous place,” Chandler said. “There’s no other race track like it.”

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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.”

Hats Off Day highlights Kentucky horse industry

July 27, 2010

Drive past the suburbs and you quickly see that horses are a big industry in Central Kentucky. But a lot goes on beyond the plank fences that you might not realize.

In addition to farms, there are feed companies, tack and equipment suppliers, van fleets, sales and insurance agencies, fence-builders, farriers and some of the world’s most advanced animal research labs and clinics.

Hardly a week goes by that people don’t come to Lexington from all over the world for some kind of horse event. This week, for example, the Kentucky Horse Park is playing host to North American Young Riders, as well as large reining and hunter jumper competitions. And the International Symposium on Equine Reproduction, held every four years, is meeting in Lexington for the first time.

Dr. Tom Riddle, co-founder of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital on Georgetown Road, was thinking several years ago about the equine industry’s size, diversity and challenges, and he decided an annual event was needed to raise public awareness.

“When people think about Kentucky, they think about horses,” Riddle said. “But they don’t know just how much it involves.”

Riddle’s idea evolved into Hats Off Day. The sixth such annual day will be Aug. 7 at the Kentucky Horse Park. In addition to Rood & Riddle, the main sponsors are Alltech and Hallway Feeds.

This is the only time each year when the public gets all-day free admission to the Kentucky Horse Park, which can save a big family big bucks. Last year, more than 12,000 people attended Hats Off Day.

This year’s event could be especially popular, because in two months, the park will host the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. In addition to seeing new and improved facilities, people will get free admission to the International Museum of the Horse, the American Saddlebred Museum and A Gift from the Desert, a special exhibit of 350 artifacts and paintings about horses in Arab history and culture.

Hats Off Day festivities begin at 4 p.m., when horse farms and other equine businesses give away logo hats while supplies last. (Last year, about 1,500 hats were given away.) There also will be exhibits, a silent auction and free pony rides for kids, plus a chance to ride an Equicizer — the mechanical horse simulators that Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron uses at his jockey-training school.

The highlight of the evening will be the Rood & Riddle Kentucky Grand Prix, a $50,000 international show-jumping competition. Since 2003, the event has raised more than $275,000 for charity. This year, proceeds will benefit the Kentucky Equine Humane Center and the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation.

Kentucky’s equine industry claims to provide more than 80,000 direct and indirect jobs and an annual economic impact of $4 billion, plus a good share of the state’s $8.8 billion tourism industry. But the industry’s fortunes have suffered with a decline in thoroughbred racing’s popularity and efforts by other states to attract breeding stock.

The horse industry’s health is obviously vital to Riddle’s business and many others, but he and partner William Rood usually deal with equine health on a more micro level. Rood & Riddle employs more than 220 people, including 57 veterinarians, who care for horses at a 24-acre complex with high-tech equipment that would rival that of most human hospitals. Rood & Riddle treats more than 10,000 horses a year from all over the world.

Riddle said Kentucky’s horse industry needs more public support.

“The average person in Kentucky thinks of the average horse farm owner as an extremely wealthy person who may or may not live here and does this as a hobby,” he said. “That’s just not the case. By far, the majority of farms are business operations with mortgage payments, and they must work seven days a week to keep their business going.

“The majority of the people in this industry are hard-working folks just trying to earn a living,” Riddle said. “I hope people will come out, have a good time and leave the horse park knowing a little more about our industry, and how it’s good for the entire state.”

If you go

Hats Off Day
Where: Kentucky Horse Park
When: Aug. 7. Gates open 9 a.m. Events begin at 4 p.m. in the indoor arena
More info: www.hatsoffky.com

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

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

Would slots at tracks be long-term cure or poison?

June 25, 2009

I’ve had several seriously ill friends and relatives suffer through chemotherapy. They do it because it is a short-term poison that often results in a long-term cure.

With the General Assembly now meeting in special session, I can’t help but wonder if the proposal to allow slot machines at horse-racing tracks doesn’t amount to chemotherapy in reverse: a short-term cure that could turn out to be long-term poison.

It’s easy to dismiss some of the arguments for slot machines, such as balancing the state budget and funding new school buildings. Expanded gambling won’t pay for state government and education in the long run any more than it has in other states.

The proper way to do that is a modern tax system that raises enough money so Kentucky can invest in creating a successful 21st century economy and society. The only way to create that modern tax system is for citizens and politicians to be honest with themselves and one another, and make some tough choices.

The problem I have with gambling as a substitute for honest taxation is that it’s based on the myth of easy money.

Sure, slot machines at racetracks would prompt some Kentucky gamblers to lose their money here rather than in other states. It also might attract some out-of-state gamblers.

But a lot of that money would go into the pockets of gambling interests, soak up discretionary income now spent elsewhere in Kentucky’s economy and create more social costs. If slot machines at racetracks were a panacea, the states that now have them wouldn’t be struggling with many of the same problems Kentucky faces.

The only reason to even consider slot machines, in my view, is to preserve Kentucky’s horse industry. It is one of Kentucky’s claims to fame and a vital piece of an agricultural economy that protects irreplaceable rural land from development.

As the Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reported last Sunday and Monday, the horse industry’s arguments for slot machines may be overstated, but the problems are real. Kentucky’s race purses and breeder incentives are no longer competitive with other states. No business can survive if it’s not competitive.

While the horse industry’s public face may be the wealthy owners of Central Kentucky’s showplace farms, its heart and soul are the small breeders and owners, merchants, farriers, veterinarians and others who make their living in the industry. They will follow the money, and who can blame them?

For Kentucky’s horse industry to be healthy, racing and breeding must be economically competitive. Other states have become more competitive with money generated by expanded gambling. That might be a quick cure for Kentucky’s horse industry, but could it be a long-term poison?

The danger, as Cheves’ articles pointed out, is that slot machines at racetracks can go from subsidizing horse racing to crowding it out. Kentucky’s long-term economic interests aren’t tied to the owners of racetracks so much as to the horse breeders, owners and workers who depend on them.

Horse racing thrived during the 20th century because it was the only way many people could gamble. That’s no longer the case. There are now many quicker, cheaper and more accessible ways to gamble — and, it seems, new ones are being invented every day.

The only way for horse racing to survive is for the industry to build a fan base around the enjoyment of watching and wagering on competition among equine athletes.

Putting slot machines at racetracks would clearly be in the best short-term interests of both state government and the horse industry. But what about the long term? That’s the real issue the General Assembly must face.

In the long run, will slot machines improve Kentucky’s economy and quality of life or detract from it? Will they help save the horse industry or hasten its demise?