When he bought his farm, veteran Thoroughbred trainer Kenny McPeek knew it had a horse-racing pedigree. What he didn’t know until later was that it went all the way back to the industry’s earliest days in Kentucky.
McPeek bought 115 acres off Russell Cave Road near Ironworks Pike on an impulse in 2006: He spent several weeks in Australia, where he saw trainers who had their own spreads, and within 48 hours of coming home, he bought his own.
The farm’s recent history was obvious: It has barns built for Lou Doherty’s Stallion Station and a horse cemetery with the remains of several champions, including 1959 Kentucky Derby winner Tomy Lee, French champion Sassafras, and Poker, the broodmare sire of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and of Silver Charm, winner of the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
The Stallion Station began in 1952 as one of Kentucky’s first stallion-only farms. Horses in the breeding shed had conceived such greats as Kentucky Derby winners Venetian Way (1960) and Dust Commander (1970). By the late 1980s, the property had become part of William du Pont III’s Pillar Stud farm.
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But McPeek found another cemetery in a back field, overgrown and split between his farm and his neighbor’s. This one had people in it.
They were early descendants of the farm’s original owner, Capt. David Shely, a pioneer Indian fighter from Virginia who was given 2,000 acres of Kentucky land for his military service in the Revolutionary War.
Shely had come to Lexington about 1789. Here he headed the Episcopal Society, whose members included Henry Clay. The Episcopalians worshiped on his farm until about 1800, when they formed a congregation downtown that would become Christ Church Episcopal.
Shely also was one of the first Thoroughbred breeders in Central Kentucky to stand at stud a champion English race horse. In 1810, he took out advertisements in the Kentucky Gazette, offering seasons with Crawler, an odd name for a race horse. The stud fee: $3, or $6 with a guaranteed foal.
Crawler was “a beautiful bay, full fifteen and a half hands high, elegantly formed, remarkably active, and in point of pedigree inferior to no horse on the continent.”
The Duke of Grafton had bred the horse in 1792, the year Kentucky became a state, from the famous English stud Highflyer. Crawler wasn’t one of Highflyer’s best offspring, but he had a good racing career before somehow ending up in Kentucky.
Shely apparently bought Crawler from W.T. Banton, a Lexington horseman, cattle breeder and race promoter. Banton had advertised Crawler for sale the previous fall in the Kentucky Gazette.
“I will sell the above horse remarkably low, or give a long credit, or take geldings, good bonds or country produce in payment,” Banton said.
Crawler’s fate is unknown, but the Shely family lived on the land for generations. The captain is buried in Jessamine County, but the cemetery on McPeek’s farm holds the remains of his son, John, his daughter-in-law, Magdalena, and some of their descendants.
Also buried there are Magdalena’s parents, German immigrant George Weber, one of Lexington’s first professional bakers, and his wife, Sarah Stogdell, who as a 2-year-old had survived the Indian siege of Bryan Station in 1782.
Magdalena was born in 1799 and died in 1861, a few months after the Civil War began. The farm also grew hemp, and the family patented a processing machine called the Shely Fiber Breaker.
McPeek has been training racehorses for more than three decades, racking up nearly 1,500 career wins, including one Belmont Stakes and two Blue Grass Stakes. He is focused on the next racing season. But the Lexington native also is enamored of the story of his land, which he has named Magdalena Farm.
“I think you’ve got to respect the land and the history of the land,” he said. “These people were here first. It’s a pretty amazing thing.”
McPeek continues to improve his farm, which has five barns, 63 stalls, 23 turnout paddocks and a two-mile European grass gallop. The old Stallion Station breeding shed has been converted into a luxury apartment for clients.
He also takes good care of both cemeteries.
“I can’t decide if I want to be buried with these people or the horses,” he said. “Maybe the horses.”