Thoroughbreds Mission Impazible, Homeboykris, and Make Music for Me (among others) will compete for eternal glory and a blanket of roses at the Kentucky Derby on May 1. Now in its 136th year, the event takes place in north-central Kentucky—Louisville, to be precise—an area so famous for breeding, raising, and racing steeds that it’s commonly known as “horse country.”* How did central Kentucky become horse country?
Uptight Yankees. Through the first half of the 19th century, horseracing was centered in East Coast states such as New York and Maryland. Wealthy racing enthusiast R.A. Alexander boosted Kentucky’s commercial breeding industry in the 1850s with a stallion named Lexington, who sired a number of champions. But Kentucky racing didn’t really take off until the 1890s and 1900s, when Progressives in the Northeast worked to make gambling, including betting on horseraces, illegal. Many states in the union banned racing—but Kentucky was not one of them. Drawn to the state’s permissiveness, multimillionaire gamblers built elaborate mansions in central Kentucky, and major horse breeders set up Thoroughbred nurseries there.
The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875 at Churchill Downs. The track—and the race—weren’t financially successful until a quarter-century later, when Louisville businessman Matt Winn reduced the race’s minimum wager from $5 to $2 and introduced parimutuel betting to the race, which cut bookmakers out completely. A trio of unlikely winners also helped raise the Derby’s profile—a long shot named Donerail took home the trophy in 1913, a steed called Old Rosebud set a track record in 1914, and a filly won the Derby for the first time in 1915.
Equines, of course, grazed Kentucky long before Progressives made the East Coast inhospitable to gamblers. The pioneers who settled the Kentucky frontier in the late 18th century came from Virginia, which already had a notable horse culture—wealthy Virginia landowners even imported racing steeds from England. William Whitley, a Virginian who settled in Kentucky in the 1770s, built the region’s first racetrack in the territory near his estate. (According to tradition, Whitley also decided that American horses would race counterclockwise—a form of protest against England, where horses run clockwise.) By 1800, 92 percent of taxpayers in the state owned a horse, and the average owner had 3.2 horses.
Locals have a different explanation for why Kentucky is horse country. They claim that because Kentucky’s hills are filled with limestone, the bluegrass that grows there is rich in calcium. This supposedly builds unusually strong bones in horses. (Spring water with a heavy limestone component is allegedly also what makes Kentucky bourbon so good.) But as John Jeremiah Sullivan argues in Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, the limestone legend “was tacked on after the fact, as a boast or perhaps as an explanation for what had come to seem a part of nature.”
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Explainer thanks Doug Boyd of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, James Holberg of the Filson Historical Society, James Klotter of Georgetown, and Jamie Nicholson of the University of Kentucky.
Clarification, April 30, 2010: This article originally referred to Louisville as being in central Kentucky. Specifically, it’s in north central Kentucky, while horse country in general spans the larger central region of the state. (Return to the sentence.)