Tom Eblen

Go behind the gates of Kentucky’s oldest horse farm as it turns 150

Brutus Clay is president of Runnymede Farm, which his great-grandfather, a Confederate Army colonel, started in 1867.
Brutus Clay is president of Runnymede Farm, which his great-grandfather, a Confederate Army colonel, started in 1867.

Runnymede Farm, whose owners say it is Kentucky’s oldest continuously operated Thoroughbred breeding operation, is preparing for its 150th anniversary. But before he talks about history, Brutus J. Clay III wants to show off pictures of recently successful mares.

“We talk about the past a lot here,” said Clay, whose great-grandfather started Runnymede in 1867. “So I don’t want you to have to ask, ‘So what have you done lately?’”

Clay has been doing a lot lately. Since becoming president of the farm owned by him and his seven siblings in 2009, he has added broodmares, bred and raced some winners and overseen a renovation of facilities to board mares for clients. At any given time, the farm’s 365 acres has 75 to 125 horses, including retirees.

He also is one of the organizers of Horse Country, a non-profit consortium of 36 Central Kentucky farms and equine organizations trying to increase equine tourism as a vehicle for attracting a much-needed new fan base to Thoroughbred racing.

“You can’t live on the laurels of your ancestors forever,” Clay said. “Businesses don’t grow as fast as families do, and if you’re Catholic it’s triply so.”

Clay, 47, who worked for years in commercial real estate, was an unlikely successor to his father, Catesby Clay, 93, who directed Runnymede since the 1950s and remains its chairman.

Everyone assumed Brutus’ brother, Catesby, who goes by Chris, would take over someday. He had shown more interest in breeding and worked for Blood-Horse magazine for several years.

“But he had a higher calling,” Clay said of his brother, now known as Father Chris, pastor of Lexington’s St. Paul Catholic Church. “I tell people I owe my job to divine intervention and nepotism.”

The timing was right for a leader with Clay’s skills: a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Georgetown University and an MBA from the University of North Carolina. The Great Recession had just left the Thoroughbred industry in a deep slump.

“All this is handed over and it’s like, ‘No pressure,’” he said. “Every generation’s resolve has been tested. And our generations are longer than most.”

Runnymede was founded in 1867 by Col. Ezekiel Clay. He was a grandson of Gen. Green Clay, a pioneer land surveyor who became Kentucky’s richest man with vast holdings of land, businesses and slaves. Ezekiel’s uncle was Cassius Clay, the fiery emancipationist. Statesman Henry Clay was his cousin.

When the Civil War came, Ezekiel’s father, Brutus, a congressman and pro-slavery Unionist, forbid his son from joining the Confederate army, which he promptly did anyway. When the war was over, Brutus gave Ezekiel the money to buy Runnymede, which he named for the English plain where King John and his nobles signed the Magna Carta in 1215.

The Bourbon County land had been owned by James Garrard, Kentucky’s second governor. The Clay family’s circa 1832 mansion belonged to Garrard’s grandson, and the farm’s iconic stone barn was built in 1803 as the meeting house of Cooper’s Run Baptist Church, which Garrard helped start. A brick barn now used for mares and foals was an 1850s hemp factory.

By the 1880s, Ezekiel and his brother-in-law, Catesby Woodford, had become successful breeders. Among their horses: Belmont Stakes winners Hanover (1887) and Sir Dixon (1888), the 1896 Kentucky Derby winner Ben Brush and Miss Woodford, the first runner to win more than $100,000. Hindoo, the 1881 Kentucky Derby winner, stood at stud at Runnymede.

But Ezekiel sold his stock to Hamburg Place owner John Madden in 1912 after New York, his primary market, outlawed wagering for several years. That dispersal included the stallion Star Shoot, who later sired Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner (1919).

When Ezekiel died in 1920, his son, Brutus, left a successful law career in Atlanta to come home to run the farm. But six years later, Brutus also died. His young widow, Agnes, married John Camden, a Woodford County breeder who had served briefly as a U.S. senator.

Camden played a pivotal role in Runnymede’s history in two ways: he rebuilt the breeding operation, and his investments in Eastern Kentucky land and coal reserves gave Runnymede a financial cushion.

“The thing about the horse business, and the reason families haven’t lasted so long, is that you go through a down cycle and it drives people out,” Clay said. “We’ve been blessed to have another business.”

Kentucky River Coal Co., now called Kentucky River Properties, owns 282,000 acres in Eastern Kentucky and another 100,000 acres in the Illinois basin. But with the coal industry in decline, Clay is exploring other investments, too.

“It seems every third generation has to come up with another plan,” Clay said. “Now I’m the third generation and I have to come up with another idea. Who knows, it might be renewable energy.”

Clay’s main plan is to build on the breeding work of his father and former farm manager Martin O’Dowd. Only about 1 percent of Thoroughbreds ever win graded stakes races, but at Runnymede, the average is 5 percent, he said. Runnymede now has 24 broodmares, and Clay plans to gradually buy more. Another 20 mares are kept on the farm for clients.

O’Dowd was succeeded three years ago by Romain Malhouitre, a Frenchman who previously managed Dixiana and Woods Edge farms. Among his initiatives has been to focus on racing in France, where subsidized purses give good mares a chance to pay their way as they build racing records. European racing is a natural for Runnymede’s horses, which tend to have turf pedigrees, Clay said.

While tradition is important to Thoroughbred racing, Clay thinks a key to success is attracting newcomers to the industry with expertise, passion and new ideas.

“A lot of them didn’t grow up in this; they dreamt of being here,” he said. “They loved horses, and they thought, ‘One day I want to come to Kentucky and I want to be involved in this.’”

Clay and his wife, Sarah, hope to pass Runnymede on to their children: Brutus, 15; Catesby, 13; and Caroline, 11. To do that, the farm must be a sustainable business in a sustainable industry.

To achieve that, Clay thinks Thoroughbred racing must focus less on gambling and more on the fan experience, as other sports do. Many racetracks are nothing like Keeneland.

“When we start focusing on the gambling we lose, because there are more efficient ways to gamble,” said Clay, who thinks racing should be more like Major League Baseball. “The whole business model is people paying for the privilege of being entertained by just being there. You go for the experience.”

The Horse Country initiative is all about the experience: farm owners opening their gates to share their passion with fans — and potential fans.

“People are fans of teams,” he said. “When we refer to Kentucky, we say that’s my team. But you don’t actually own the team. So why can’t we make people fans of the farms by touching them emotionally through sharing our passion, which is truly authentic? I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us to connect with people.

“Kentucky should be all about horses and bourbon,” he added. “We have something that is at its essence uniquely Kentucky. We can sell that. There’s no reason Kentucky can’t be the East Coast equivalent of Napa Valley.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen