CRAB ORCHARD — A historic site that includes a more than 200-year-old racetrack that some people consider the birthplace of Kentucky's horse industry is now the property of the state.
The Kentucky Department of Parks has paid $311,499 for 50 acres across from Crab Orchard in Lincoln County, where William Whitley built the Sportsman Hill track in 1788 and held annual races there.
"The state has eyed that property for generations," said Joseph McClure, manager of the Whitley site. "It's a great achievement for the department, a great victory for us. I think it will impact the park in a mighty way."
Lea Scott Wooldridge said her family had privately held the property since the 1940s until selling it to the state earlier this month.
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"There's a lot of sentimentality attached to it," said Wooldridge, whose aunt and uncle, C.W. and Martha Scott, used to hold races on the property during Crab Orchard's annual Fourth of July celebration. "We're looking forward to seeing what happens on the Hill."
Wooldridge, one of heirs to the property, along with her husband, Donald Wooldridge, and five others, told The Advocate-Messenger of Danville that the family initiated contact with the state about selling it because they thought the state would do the best job of preserving it.
As the legend goes, Whitley hosted races — featuring large fields and spectators from all over — that were forerunners to the Kentucky Derby.
McClure said it is thought that Whitley's hatred of the British prompted him to run the races counterclockwise around the track, rather than the traditional clockwise pattern used in England, "just to spite them."
"That became an American tradition," McClure said. "All races on an oval track — NASCAR, horses, relays — are run counterclockwise."
The property was bought with money from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, which gets part of its funding from producing specialty license plates.
Gil Lawson, spokesman for the parks department, said it's unclear how the property will be developed; it will depend in part on the state's financial situation.
"It's a natural addition to the Whitley site," Lawson said. "We are working on an interpretive plan for the site, but it is in the very preliminary stages."