by Matt Toffey
Although Kentucky is now considered the horse capital of the world, it was not always this way. Long before Kentucky took over the Thoroughbred scene, it was a privatized, more personal matter. Horse racing actually dates back to the Olympic Games from 700-40 BC and hasn’t changed much since. During the 1600’s racing was held amongst nobles to see which nobleman had the superior stable, and they would even bet on the races much like we do today. These races are more closely related to match races, a race between two horses, and far less formal.
Newmarket, the first race track in North America, was set in New York City. The track was two miles long and was geared for horses with large amounts of stamina. However, following the Civil War that changed to speed. Early racing was also done in a series of “heats” allowing multiple legs of the same race with the same field of horses. Racing we see today matches up with the heat model, therefore allowing one seasonal meet to have many different horses with different grade races.
"Mine is better than yours!"
Betting is a large part of the horse racing industry, and always has been. The core concept of the sport is “mine is better than yours” and very much promotes betting in that same manner. Not everyone agrees that gambling should be allowed, however, and in the early 1800’s the Northeast colonies began to outlaw gambling, taking a huge toll on the Thoroughbred industry. Kentucky was one of the few states that did not ban gambling and so the horseman followed. Kentucky's horse industry began to boom, people were buying up land, building farms and buying horses. The people even began to believe that the Bluegrass was the reason for Kentucky’s success. The popular theory was that due to much of the bedrock being limestone the grass would absorb the minerals and calcium from the limestone, and the horse would eat the calcium rich grass.
The horse industry at its core is very simple, but was made better by R.A. Alexander. Alexander was the owner of Woodburn Stud, in Woodford County, Kentucky, and in the mid 1800's established the modern day breeding system - allowing people to pay to breed a mare to a certain horse. Prior to Alexander, breeding was about as simple as it gets, breed your best stallion to your best mare in hopes of producing a champion foal. Alexander’s plan allowed for people to pay for a the chance to breed with the best stallions money could buy, while also maximizing the earning potential of horses even after their racing days were over. As Alexander created the plan his farm was very profitable and managed to breed the Hall of Famer, Lexington, plus Preakness (the horse, before the race!) and eighteen other winners of America's now Triple Crown races.
The Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875 with a crop of fifteen 3 year old horses at Churchill Downs in nearby Louisville, Kentucky. Despite the popularity the "Run for the Roses" experiences now, it did not always have that traction, Matt Winn, a Louisville businessman, took over in 1902. By 1911, Winn had changed the betting system completely to the now used parimutuel system, where all bets go into one pool and winners are paid out of that amount, while also lowering minimum bet to $2 as opposed to the previous $5.
The growth of the Thoroughbred industry is thanks to the men like Alexander and Winn who saw the beauty of the horses and made their best attempts to help the sport grow. Kentucky, now known as “The Horse Capital of the World”, takes great pride in the horses and races that are produced here. A drive down Old Frankfort pike to Airdrie Stud (home of Alexander's original Woodburn Stud), and out Paris Pike by Gainesway and Spendthrift Farms are so peaceful and so beautiful it feels like driving through a painting.
About Matt Toffey
Raised on Spendthrift Farm in the heart of Bluegrass Country (his dad is Spendthrift's General Manager) Matt is now a history major at the University of Kentucky. An avid reader and writer, Matt's unique upbringing, background and skill set promise to bring a lot of fun information about Kentucky's uniqueness to the forefront!