As the horse capital of the world, Kentucky's Bluegrass has great value

Threats loom for horse capital of the world

September 22, 2012 

Gen. George Rogers Clark, Revolutionary War guy, rode over the mountains from Virginia in 1775 and glimpsed at what became Central Kentucky. He parted the canebrake, viewed the vista, and possibly fell off his horse in pleasant surprise. I'm sure his first remark went, "Dude, this can't be real."

Clark did not stop long enough to christen this land "horse capital of the world." He was more intent on keeping an eye out for Native Americans. You had to. But he did take pen in hand and compose a letter to his father back in Virginia. This letter, read by many, then and now, laid the foundation for Central Kentucky's raison d'etre. Clark wrote: "A richer and more beautiful country than this I believe has never been seen in America yet."

I like to think that Bluegrass Kentucky's early residents were masterful opportunists in creating their horse capital. Like Clark, they were smart enough to recognize that all the right elements were in place for raising livestock, growing stuff, living the good life, and making money. Central Kentucky had climate, gently rolling hills, rich grass, and limestone-infused water and soil. Land-starved easterners couldn't ask for more.

Early Kentuckians also were quite the fools for betting. They loved to wager fistfuls of money on all things equine and so became accomplished at discerning how to breed the fastest, toughest horses. Kentuckians promptly developed their "richer and more beautiful country" into the horse capital of the world.

Well, not quite. A few bumps popped up along the arc of momentum: a Civil War, anti-gambling pressure, a World War, a Great Depression, another World War, and sundry post-modern dilemmas summed up as, "overwhelming competition from gaming and pro sports and an increasingly indifferent culture, not to mention an economy in the toilet." But hey. Sitting astride the dome of the world's horse capital has never been easy. It's slippery up there. Kentuckians have always had to work hard to maintain Clark's nascent vision of horse country as it was meant to be.

These folk never could afford to sit on their white-columned verandas sipping mint juleps while the world came to them for horses (save for the high-rolling years of the 1980s, an exception). One of the great crises occurred during the post-Civil War decades. The Bluegrass lost its cachet as horse capital, while filthy rich new money took the sport (and most of the high-end breeding action) largely to New York and New Jersey.

Sounds a bit like the present day, doesn't it, with stallions, mares, and farms dispersing into many states. Translation: crisis looming. History does repeat itself.

I do worry what the future will hold for Kentucky as horse capital. Will an influx of sport horses help the Bluegrass maintain its No. 1 position? Will the state legislature ever, ever realize this industry needs special recognition and protection? This does not need to be casino gambling. I don't believe that is the answer. Still, the right answer must be out there somewhere.

It's hard to imagine our Bluegrass without those white and black plank fences, without emerald-green pastures dotted with gorgeous horses, without Keeneland racing, without the Kentucky Derby, and without a $4 billion impact on the state's economy along with an $8.8 billion economic impact on the state's tourism industry.

I can only hope Kentuckians now and in the future have as much horse sense as our ancestors who recognized the value of this "richer and more beautiful country." Revolutionary War Guy knew a good thing when he saw it — and so should we.

Maryjean Wall is the author of How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders (The University Press of Kentucky, $19.95)

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