Kentucky is associated with the horse like no other state. Before the United States was a separate country, on May 24, 1775, the British colonists in the land known as Kentucky held a convention to begin to organize a primitive government. There was no place to meet, so the frontiersmen assembled under an oak tree, where they had built a platform for speakers and placed logs in front of it for delegates to sit. The great Kentuckian, Daniel Boone, introduced “a bill for improving the breed of horses.” Colonel Boone would have been pleased, no doubt, if he could have known that Kentucky would become the heart and soul of a thriving breeding industry.

The renowned Henry Clay and other horsemen met at Postlethwait’s Tavern in Lexington in 1797 to form the original Kentucky Jockey Club for the purpose of establishing rules for Kentucky race meets. In 1828, Dr. Elisha Warfield, known as the “Father of the Kentucky Turf”–who was a breeder of Thoroughbreds, most notably the stallion Lexington–opened the Kentucky Association racetrack in Lexington, which survived until 1933. One of its presidents was John C. Breckinridge, still the youngest person ever to serve as vice president of the United States.

In 1935, prominent Central Kentucky horsemen Hal Price Headley, Jack Young, A. B. Gay, Brownell Combs, W. H. Courtney, and others purchased 147 ½ acres of Fayette County land six miles outside Lexington, from J. O. “Jack” Keene, upon which they built the elegant and stately Keeneland racetrack. Keeneland was meant to take the place of the defunct Kentucky Association racetrack and thereby preserve the racing tradition in the Bluegrass.

Less than 75 miles away from Keeneland is Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. At the turn of the 20th century, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby had been around for 25 years but the racetrack was in danger of closing owing to financial issues. In 1902, a group of leading businesspeople took over the operation to attempt to save it. They included the sitting mayor of Louisville, Charles Grainger, who became track president, and the businessman and tailor, Matt J. Winn, who was installed as vice president. The Louisville Courier-Journal wrote on October 2, 1902: “…it will be Mayor Grainger’s ambition to get local society intensely interested in the move, and to that end additional stock will be issued to persons of social standing, and the money thus acquired will be spent in various improvements…” Colonel Winn would live until 1949 and he elevated the Kentucky Derby into the most famous race in the United States.

In 1969, Churchill Downs once again was in peril. A company called National Industries intended to acquire the racetrack in a hostile acquisition. The “Derby Protection Group,” spearheaded by owners and breeders John Galbreath, Warner L. Jones Jr., and Arthur “Bull” Hancock, saved the day by outbidding the unwanted suitor for control.

This brief history paints an unmistakable picture of a cultural imperative that evolved in Kentucky, embodying the cultivation and vigorous preservation of the horse industry by a long line of notables: the pioneer Daniel Boone, the U. S. Senator and U. S. Secretary of State Henry Clay, the Vice President of the United States John C. Breckinridge, Louisville Mayor Charles Grainger, and prominent individuals from within and outside the horse industry.

What has happened in recent years to fracture Kentucky’s unofficial public-private compact that for over 225 years put the well-being of the Commonwealth’s signature calling card, its flagship industry, and its main tourist attraction, above partisan politics? Heretofore, a long and until now uninterrupted string of elected Kentucky Democrats and Republicans (and Whigs like Clay) have united with one another and with leaders from the private sector to sustain the horse enterprise through thick and thin. They apparently looked upon it as a public trust to be passed on from generation to generation. 

The confounding question is why any Kentucky governor, or legislator, or businessperson, or citizen would actively work to overturn the compact, the historical lineage, and, in so doing, eviscerate such a crown jewel? Why would a contemporary Brutus want to slay such a close friend of the Commonwealth?

Even Kentuckians with no connection whatsoever to horses are proud of the Commonwealth’s equine heritage. On Derby Day, every Kentuckian is an expert on picking winners just as everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. 

The most recent Louisville Courier-Journal/WHAS Bluegrass poll found that adult Kentuckians favor legalizing slots at the racetracks by a huge margin. Fifty-nine percent are in favor and 37 percent oppose. An astounding 85 percent want to put the issue to a statewide vote. The legislature has turned its back on the unambiguous preference of its own constituents by refusing to put an up-or-down vote on the legalization of slots on the ballot. Such hubris and the failure to carry out the wishes of the people have caused simmering anti-incumbent sentiment throughout the United States to boil over. No wonder people have such a low regard for their elected representatives, as demonstrated in poll after poll and by the resounding message sent by the outcomes of recent major elections in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia.

Next Week: What’s the Matter in Kentucky: Part II

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business


  1. ryan driscoll says

    Awesome piece.

  2. What’s wrong with Kentucky is the sudden desire to prop up a B grade racing circuit and marry it to an A list breeding industry. PA and all the inferior states require hefty bribes to lure second rate mares and failed stallions to their rock strewn far off fields. When those states legislatures are done raiding the slot funds, or at the newly flush racino’s insistence, of ridding themselves of horse racing, then what?

    To me, the incompetence of horse racing tracks to successfully market themselves in changing times is the biggest failure of all. Now, those of us in the breeding industry are forced to becoming their willing shills; begging and pleading on behalf of track management that at the very least is incompetent or indifferent to the horse playing public.

    They’d rather fight over ADW fees than expand the market.

  3. I tried to say what you just said so eloquently since they started with this slots to save racing. It’s a patch at best and when the casinos take all the money racing is gone. Slots bring in NO new horse players. I mean NONE. Horse racing needs new leaders that want to promote horse racing.
    You nailed it Zak

  4. Great comments.

    It’s 2010. Kentucky might want to roll with the times.

    Setting aside the slots, which the above posters covered so eloquently – here’s how I and a lot of equine workers see the market:

    For KY to keep propping up irresponsible over-breeding with various tax incentives – while remaining the horse slaughter capital of the United States – is no way to attract or keep 21st century fans. Whether it be racing or other equine recreation, in person, at simulcasts, or online.

    Slaughtering almost 50% of Thoroughbred race horses after a brief career is a disgrace. Horse slaughter kills horses, and it kills attendance.

    I recall visiting the KY Horse Park a few years back and listening, incredulously, as a KHP worker on the clock talked about how necessary she though selling horses for human consumption overseas was.

    We stood in the Hall of Champions, just a few feet from the stall of Cigar, then the highest winning race horse in North America.

    Unbelievably insensitive. She totally missed the point. Worse, she totally missed the horse’s reaction to her body language and energy.

    It was even more trashy considering the public didn’t travel and buy an admission ticket to see her.

    I don’t know how long it will take Kentuckians to “get it” but the state sure needs to stop being known as home to the largest # of kill buyers in the US if it wants to attract modern-day Americans to its varied equine offerings.

    It’s time for KY to come on board with responsible, creative, industry funded retirement, not just for a few lucky horses funded by private rescues, but for all horses paid for by those who made money off them.

    It’s time to evolve past don’t ask-don’t tell abandonment, or worse, double deck trailers rolling south in the night, filled with frightened, doomed horses somebody collected their Section 179 first year Federal tax depreciation on, once upon a time.

  5. Susan has made some correct observations, but her comments are far off the topic of slots. No matter the topic, some posters always bring the discussion back around to slaughter. That has a time and place, but obviously not all the time. I couldn’t disagree more with Zak. It is unreasonable to expect a racetrack to compete with a casino with slots, table games etc. when that casino is only miles away.

  6. ryan driscoll says

    Time to get down to the serious business of running the state:

    FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s state representatives are among the fans who believe that former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall belongs in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

    The Kentucky House approved a resolution on a 97-0 vote Monday that urges Hall’s enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame.