Woodford County: Joseph Murrell Jr. is at home with horses

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 13, 2011 

Joseph Murrell Jr., 68, is "semi-retired," and works these days as supply manager for Three Chimneys Farm.

CHARLES BERTRAM | STAFF

  • A STORY FOR EVERY COUNTY

    ONE COLUMNIST'S PURSUIT OF KENTUCKY'S MOST COMPELLING STORIES

  • Woodford County

    Ten things to know about Woodford County:

    County's birth: Nov. 12, 1788 (the ninth of Kentucky's 120 counties in order of formation and the last county organized by Virginia before Kentucky became the 15th state in 1792)

    Named for: Gen. William Woodford, a Virginia officer in the U.S. Revolutionary War who died as a British prisoner of war

    Population: 26,575 (2009 U.S. Census Bureau estimate)

    Demographics: Whites 23,095; Hispanics 1,589; Blacks 1,383; Other-Multi-Race 283; Asians 185; American Indians/Alaska Natives 38; Native Hawaiians/other Pacific Islanders 2.

    County seat: Versailles (pronounced Vur-sales, it is 13 miles west of Lexington)

    2008 U.S. presidential election: McCain 7,130; Obama 5,027.

    Girl power: Woodford County's Midway College was founded in 1847 as the Kentucky Female Orphan School. It was originally affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and its intent was to prepare women from impoverished backgrounds for careers in education. Over the years, the school evolved and became Pinkerton High School, then Midway Junior College and, finally, Midway College. Today, the college has an enrollment of some 1,800. In its daytime course offerings, the school remains an all-women's college. However, its night and weekend programs are coeducational. The school's women's athletics teams compete in NAIA Division II.

    Visit from The Queen: When she interrupted her state visit to the United States so she could attend the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip of England chose Woodford County as the place to stay. The British monarch and her husband were house guests of William S. and Sarah Farish on the Lane's End Farm near Versailles. Over the years, it is believed they have stayed at Lane's End several times on visits to Kentucky's horse farms. One of the most prominent figures in the Kentucky Thoroughbred industry, Will Farish served as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain from 2001-2004.

    'Happy' days: Though he was born in Henderson County, Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler (1898-1991) had Versailles as his home base during one of the most colorful and significant political careers in commonwealth history. After opening a law practice in Woodford County, Chandler was elected to the state Senate in 1929. He captured Kentucky governor's office in 1935 and, then again, in 1955. In between, Chandler represented the commonwealth in the U.S. Senate (1939-45) and spent one term as the commissioner of Major League Baseball (1945-51). It was while Chandler held the latter post that he gave Branch Rickey the go-ahead to integrate big-league baseball by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Late in his life, Chandler was best known for his passionate support of University of Kentucky athletics teams and for singing My Old Kentucky Home at UK basketball Senior Days.

    To the mat: In a modern sports context, Woodford County High School is best known for the success of its wrestling program. The Yellowjackets have won 12 state championships on the mats, the first in 1970 and the most recent in 2006.

    Mark Story

  • About this series

    This column is the 75th in a series that looks at the sporting life throughout the Herald-Leader's 78-county circulation area. One county will be selected at random on a regular basis, and Mark Story will seek out the best sports story in that county.

    Coming next: Carter County

MIDWAY — It was 1966 when Joseph Murrell Jr. — Butch to those who know him — hired on as a groom at Thoroughbred breeder E.V. Benjamin's Big Sink Farm.

Two score and five years later, through four different ownership groups right up to the current one, Three Chimneys Farm, Butch has never left.

With the boisterous laugh that punctuates his conversation, Murrell, 67, says "every time the farm moved, I came with it."

According to the Woodford County Chamber of Commerce, there are more than 300 horse farms in the county. Included are some of the pre-eminent Thoroughbred breeding operations in the world.

In a community filled with horse stories, it's hard to imagine many have a richer tale — caring directly for two Kentucky Derby winners; traveling to Texas on a train box car filled with Thoroughbreds; 45 years working on the same farm — than Butch Murrell.

Two Derby winners

Butch's second job on a horse farm was for the King Ranch. Owned by the Kleberg family, the Kentucky operation of the King Ranch was affiliated with the mammoth Texas farm of the same name.

Middleground, the 1950 Kentucky Derby winner, stood at the King Ranch, Kentucky branch. "Some of these stallions, they'll hurt you," Butch says. "Middleground was just like an old broodmare, a really nice horse to be around."

After he moved to Big Sink, the second ownership Butch worked for was Bert and Diana Firestone. They are best known for racing 1980 Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk.

"Genuine was a sweet girl," Butch says, "but, boy, she had a hard time."

In her breeding career, Genuine Risk was plagued by miscarriages and only produced two live foals.

"It was tough for her to have a baby," Butch says. "We got her in foal, and she carried the foal up to the 10th month, then she aborted. She just had a hard time."

Always horses

Some people go their whole lives and never really find a true passion. Butch can't ever remember not knowing his.

Always, it was horses.

As a little kid, "I used to make a stick horse and ride it, running all around through the country riding a stick horse," Butch says.

Butch had a brother who died as an infant. Joseph Sr. and Naomi Murrell's raised Butch and six girls.

"My dad was originally a steel worker," Butch said. "He made these awnings for houses. He was very talented."

Joseph Sr. and Naomi were God-fearing people, and they raised their children in the Zion Hill Baptist Church.

In a Sunday School class, Butch got to know Patricia Smith. They've pretty much been together ever since. Today, the married couple have four children, five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

When Butch was a teenager, a brother-in-law, William Hamilton, took a job on a horse farm. "I'd go and hang around my brother-in-law, watch him, and I knew it was just something I wanted to do," Murrell says.

By the time Butch finished ninth grade, he didn't see how finishing was going to help him work with horses.

"I dropped out," he says. "My dad said, 'Boy, you're going to work.' And that's what I did."

Worried about rattlesnakes

With the help of Hamilton, Butch was hired as a groom at the old Bluegrass Heights Farm. Three years later, he took a similar job at the King Ranch.

Working as a horse groom is not a glamorous job. Days start early, 7 a.m. if not before, and last long. Early in his career, Butch says he worked 61/2 days a week, at least 12 hours on most days.

"You're a groom, all you do is shovel that poop," Butch says, cackling. "I was a poop shoveler."

For a time at the King Ranch, Butch found himself working with his dad.

"He decided he wanted something a little lighter," Butch says. "He started working with horses."

Once its foals were born in Kentucky, the King Ranch would transport them to Texas as weanlings via train box car.

"Me and my first cousin, Joe Mulder, he and I were on this box car with a total of 16 horses," Butch said. "I had eight on my end, and he had eight back where he was."

At the time of the trip, Butch was a little green. The people around the Kentucky branch of the King Ranch kept telling him how big the rattlesnakes were at the Texas farm.

"I was really worried about those rattlesnakes," Butch says, laughing his big laugh. "I worried about that all the way down there."

In Texas, it wasn't the snakes that made an impression. It was the biscuits.

"Biggest I've ever seen," Butch says. "Home-made biscuits and coffee. Man, they were good."

Coming to Big Sink

After three years at King Ranch, Butch moved again, this time to Big Sink.

He's been there ever since.

E.V. Benjamin sold the farm to the Firestones.

Butch stayed.

The Firestones sold the farm to Japan's Yoshiki Akazana.

Butch stayed.

Akazana sold the farm to Three Chimneys Farm.

Butch stayed.

"They'd come down to the barn, say, 'Butch, the farm has been sold. But don't worry. We've told them about you,'" Murrell says.

In the Three Chimneys years, Butch built a reputation as the farm's go-to-guy for handling "difficult" horses.

"A gardener either has the green thumb or they don't," says Three Chimneys founder Robert Clay. "It's the same with handling horses. Butch just had the way. If we had a horse that we were worried about (behaving) in the (sales) ring, Butch was the one who we wanted showing that horse. He could get them to behave."

The secret, Butch says, is the ability to relax and show no fear around a horse.

"Horses sense it if you're nervous," Butch said. "If you're nervous around horses, you throw off a different body scent, and they smell it. I learned to train myself to stay calm."

Nosey Nan

One doesn't spend a lifetime working with Thoroughbreds without letting a few into the heart.

For Butch, a mare named Nosey Nan "was special to me," he says. "She was nothing but a stakes-producing mare. I took care of five generations of horses out of this one mare, Nosey Nan."

Says Patricia Murrell: "For a while all I heard was 'Nosey Nan, Nosey Nan.'"

At one point, while in foal to Alydar, Nosey Nan developed a brain cyst. The mare's owner sent her to Ohio State University's Veterinary Medical Center.

They sent Butch to Columbus to look after Nan.

"They asked me if I wanted my wife to go, so she went with me," he says. "We'd stay in the motel in the daytime. At nighttime, I had a little cot, and I went over there and stayed with Nosey Nan."

A head operation and a tracheotomy had to be performed on the mare. "The doctor told me 'Butch, the critical time is going to be tonight. Make sure that air passage stays clear,'" Murrell says.

After 11 days in Columbus, Butch and Nosey Nan came home.

"She came home, did good, went on and foaled out that year," Butch said. "That was an exciting thing. She was pretty special, one of my favorites."

'Home to me'

On May 5, Butch turns 68. He is now "semi-retired." He and Patricia live in a house just off the old Big Sink.

"Horses have been really good to me," Butch says. "I've enjoyed it. And I don't regret none of it."

When he decided it was time to stop working full-time with the horses, Three Chimneys created a job as supply manager for him. "Three Chimneys, the Clay family, they've been awful good to me," Butch says.

He figures his career circle has closed. Butch notes that all the farms for which he worked — the Bluegrass Heights Farm; the King Ranch; Big Sink — are now owned by Three Chimneys.

Says Butch Murrell: "I have walked over every foot of ground on this (the old Big Sink) farm. It feels like home to me."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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