why the kentucky derby was started -- 5/06/16

Today's selection -- from The Kentucky Derby by Bill Doolittle. The Civil War had severely damaged Kentucky's all-important horse breeding industry, so after the war breeders looked for ways to help revitalize this business. One inspired idea was to start a new, nationally promoted horse race -- to be called the Kentucky Derby

"In the first half of the nineteenth century, Kentucky became what might be termed the Detroit of the equine world. Horse breeders who owned the picturesque pastures of bluegrass around Lexington supplied more horses than any other place in the young United States. They bred not only racehorses, but all manner of horses to fill utilitarian roles in every aspect of life. This was before cars and trucks, before tractors and modern railroads, when horses -- big, small, heavy, light, fast, slow, strong -- performed all the duties humans required of them. Horses pulled ice and coal wagons in the city and plowed fields in the country. A doctor might hitch a horse to a buggy to rush to help a mother giving birth. In the Appalachians, women of the Visiting Mountain Nursing Corps rode horses into remote highlands that had no roads. The Overland Express stationed teams of horses to be switched at stops across the land to deliver mail and passengers. Rich folks hitched classy trotters to elegant coaches to travel in style up and down Fifth Avenue in New York. And of course, people raced them. My horse is faster than yours! ...

1875 Kentucky Derby winner,  jockey Oliver Lewis

"But racing was secondary in Kentucky to breeding horses for sale to buyers nationwide. By 1850, Kentucky was the nation's leading horse-breeding state. Horses were bred everywhere, but in the Bluegrass State, they became a lucrative cash crop.

"All that halted with the American Civil War of 1861-65. At first, the war was a boon for Kentucky breeders. Situated geographically between North and South, the border state supplied both warring armies with vast numbers of horses.

"The boon soon turned into a nightmare of horse attrition. At first, the armies bought horses. Then they requisitioned them, often not paying up. Finally, both armies simply stole all they could find, including old stallions, broodmares, and immature yearlings. Many are the tales of horse owners hiding their best stock from the armies. A breeder in Lexington constructed a secret room within the family home to conceal a prized stallion. In Harrison County, Indiana, when word came that Southern raider John Hunt Morgan had crossed the Ohio River in July 1863, the children of the Snyder family were sent into the woods with the horses, hiding from the advancing Confederates. Less fortunate was a famous Kentucky trotting stallion, Abdullah, then twenty-five, who was snatched by a soldier and ridden away as hard as he could go until he died a few miles down the road. The Civil War was the deadliest human tragedy the young country had known, and historians speculate that even more horses died than soldiers.

"When the Civil War ended, Kentucky horse breeders were out of stock, but they weren't out of business. A stallion purchased here, a few mares bought there, and the breeders inched their way back. In the meantime, states such as New York and Michigan, unscathed by the war, seized control of the horse-breeding market.

"In 1872, a group of determined Kentucky breeders approached a young Louisvillian to help them attract attention to their renewed horse-breeding business. That young man was Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., a grandson of Colonel William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and a namesake of Clark's partner, Meriwether Lewis. Young M. Lewis Clark, as he was known, was also a grandnephew of George Rogers Clark, a Revolutionary War hero and a founder of Louisville.

"Thus, Clark was a part of what was considered the best of Louisville society and of national society, too. He was educated, had traveled abroad, and knew people everywhere. He had inherited poise and married money, which went nicely with his sense of propriety and social standing. Clark was a big, solid man, who dined sumptuously and lived in a grand manner. He liked horses, liked parties, and loved the notion of dreaming up something big that would matter to the people of his state. Clark's experience was in banking and tobacco, but when he was presented with the chance to help his state's signature horse business, he accepted the challenge. Thinking up a big idea was something Clark thought he could and should do. And he determined it was something he would do. ... What Clark came up with was a horse race, held yearly, that would draw the swiftest and classiest thoroughbred racers from all around."

The Kentucky Derby: Derby Fever, Derby Day, and the Run for the Roses from A Taste of Kentucky
Author: Bill Doolittle
Publisher: Carpe Diem Books and Shircliff Publishing
Copyright 2015 Bill Doolittle
Pages: 2-3
If you wish to read further: Buy Now


Bill Doolittle


The Kentucky Derby: Derby Fever, Derby Day, and the Run for the Roses from A Taste of Kentucky


Carpe Diem Books and Shircliff Publishing


Copyright 2015 Bill Doolittle


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