A seemingly insignificant and remote event can change the course of history, in this case horse-racing history.

The Mackinac Island, Michigan Convention and Tourist Bureau, an unlikely source of information on horse racing, explains why Justify would likely not have been around to run in the Belmont Stakes had not a Rebel prisoner, Brigadier General William Giles Harding, during the Civil War been allowed by his Union captors to return home nearly three years before the War’s conclusion to breed racehorses on one of the most prominent Thoroughbred nurseries of the 19th century, Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee.

Following is an excerpt from the Mackinac Island Convention and Tourist Bureau’s vignette:

“…did you know that thoroughbred race horses have ties to Mackinac…?

Many winners of The Kentucky Derby, including this year’s champ, Justify, are linked to a man who once spent a summer at Fort Mackinac as a political prisoner–a wealthy Tennessean who became one of horse racing’s most prized breeders.

William Giles Harding was one of three Confederate sympathizers who were imprisoned on the island back in 1862, according to an account by Mackinac Historic State Parks.  Harding was the owner of Belle Meade, a large plantation near Nashville operated mostly by slave labor.  He was also a prominent supporter of the South and a military donor during the Civil War, and that got him arrested by Union authorities.

Harding, George Washington Barrow, and Josephus Conn Guild were imprisoned way up north at Fort Mackinac, which was empty after the soldiers stationed there left to fight in the war.  An army captain in Detroit pulled together a garrison of nearly 100 men to guard the prisoners, who spent a pleasant and uneventful summer on Mackinac.

Harding was allowed to go home that fall after swearing an oath of loyalty to the Union, and he spent the rest of his days turning Belle Meade into one of the world’s best horse-breeding farms.  Belle Meade studs of the late 19th century included Bonnie Scotland, who is an ancestor of Justify and many other Derby winners, as well as many past Triple Crown horses like Secretariat.”

As far as General Harding and some of his former Union foes were concerned, hard feelings over the Civil War evidently did not carry over in the aftermath of the hostilities.  According to the Belle Meade website:  “The stereotype of the old  Southern plantation made Belle Meade a popular destination for many, including President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Robert Todd Lincoln, General U.S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, General Winfield Scott Hancock, and Adlai E. Stevenson.”

Horse Racing Business 2018