Kentucky Derby

One Derby horse owns history like no other. Same family has run Kentucky farm since 1700s.

Mares and foals grazed in a field last Friday at Clarkland Farm. Clarkland bred 2018 Kentucky Derby second choice Mendelssohn.
Mares and foals grazed in a field last Friday at Clarkland Farm. Clarkland bred 2018 Kentucky Derby second choice Mendelssohn.

Lexington dissolves to countryside in a quick change of mood along Bryan Station Road, where a $3 million Thoroughbred colt named Mendelssohn was born. Two miles beyond New Circle Road you begin to sense the past as it might have been when other peoples walked among these rugged trees and fished the northern fork of Elkhorn Creek.

The land is richly green. The air is thick with imagined ghosts of Native Americans who hunted here, followed by settlers and their slaves who challenged the indigenous for forest riches. A siege of Bryan Station two centuries ago ended poorly for the Natives and portended a far different future for the land. Eventually farms like Mendelssohn’s home, called Clarkland, carved the land with new purpose: the raising of Thoroughbred racehorses that made Lexington horse capital of the world.

Clarkland Farm is among the oldest, if not the oldest, of Thoroughbred operations still in the hands of the families who originally named their farms. The land dates to a soldier’s service in the French and Indian War of 1754-1763.

“The French and Indian War (land) warrants were the mother authorization for many of the land acquisitions in the Blue Grass area,” said Kandie Adkinson, a researcher in the Land Office Division of the Office of Secretary of State of Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes. Adkinson networked with several researchers including the Lexington Public Library for this article and said the office’s website is available to anyone for inquiries into land ownership.

“King George III of England needed a way to pay soldiers who had fought for him in the French and Indian War,” Adkinson wrote in an email. The king’s solution was to pay soldiers in land instead of money.

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Adkinson said many beginner genealogists are surprised to learn that only the French and Indian War, rather the later Revolutionary War, led to land grants awarded in Central Kentucky.

“Although countless Revolutionary War veterans settled in the Bluegrass area, they could not use their bounty land warrants issued for military service in the Revolutionary War to acquire land (here),” Adkinson wrote in an email. The districts given to Revolutionary War veterans were in Southwest Kentucky, south of the Green River, and in Ohio, along the Little Miami River.

This stone gate, much like the rest of Clarkland Farm, is steeped in history dating to the late 1700s. The Fayette County farm might be the longest-held horse farm by the same family in Central Kentucky. Matt Goins

Family history

Back to the French and Indian War: Adkinson and her team identified war veteran Thomas Carter, a resident of Virginia, as recipient of a land grant which eventually was subdivided into Clarkland Farm, among other properties.

Thomas Clark died and was succeeded as owner by John Carter, a merchant in Williamsburg, Va. John Carter had the 2,000 acres surveyed in 1774. Later he transferred the acreage to Elijah Craig, of Orange County, Va. Thomas Jefferson signed that transfer. James Clark, founder of Clarkland, acquired 100 acres of this land from Elijah Craig sometime between 1779 and 1797.

The present ownership of Clarkland is descended from James Clark to Nancy Mitchell and two sisters. Nancy, with her husband, Fred Mitchell, and one of her sisters, Martha Mooney, bred, raised, and sold Mendelssohn under the name of Clarkland Farm for $3 million two years ago. The colt, recent winner of the UAE Derby in Dubai, now is second betting choice for the Kentucky Derby. Clarkland has not previously bred a Kentucky Derby starter, which makes Mendelssohn all the more exciting.

Kentucky Derby favorite Mendelssohn appears on the Kentucky Derby track for the first time Thursday morning since it arrived. It trained along with other Derby contenders Justify, Bolt d'Oro, and Instilled Regard.

The back story of Mendelssohn and Clarkland Farm illustrates the rich history that has shaped Central Kentucky. As old as it is, Clarkland Farm has stood witness to all the major events affecting Kentucky subsequent to the French and Indian War. It stood through the American Revolution, the formation of the United States, and the Civil War. The oldest rivals to Clarkland in continuous operation for their founding families are few.

These latter farms were founded in the years surrounding the Civil War of 1861-1865, notably Woodburn and Airdrie farms (Brereton and Libby Jones) in Woodford County, and Claiborne (Hancock family) and Runnymede Farm (Clay family) in Bourbon County. Clarkland takes us back to the war that was critical in determining whether French or English would be the dominant language in North America..

Fred and Nancy Mitchell with Nancy’s daughter Marty Buckner and her husband Matthew Ernest and their dogs at Clarkland Farm. Matt Goins

‘Running mad for Kentucky’

The French and Indian War of 1754-1763 began with a battle near Fort Duquesne, now called Pittsburgh. Both British and French vied for control of converging waterways there as a means of controlling commerce and thus the wealth of the frontier. George Washington was 22 when he ambushed the French in a battle nearby.

As the war progressed, the British turned their attention to taking what was to become Canada, then held largely by the French. And in fact the British did take Canada, rousting the French at Quebec City. During this war the British also forced the French-speaking Acadians out of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. From the American standpoint this wasn’t a bad thing: the expelled Acadians, landing near French-speaking New Orleans, ultimately gave us Cajun gumbo and the Fair Grounds race track, both of which worked their way into Bluegrass culture.

With the Brits victorious, the treaty gave King George control of colonial lands westward to the Mississippi River. This included the wilderness of “Kentucke.” This wilderness was intended to stay in the Natives’ hands. In fact King George issued a royal proclamation in 1763 prohibiting colonists from moving westward into this wilderness across the Appalachian Mountains. We all know how that went.

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Hunters and explorers like Daniel Boone trickled across the mountains despite the proclamation. What really opened the flood gates to westward settlement was the American Revolution, which ousted the King and his merry men from their position of influence in the Thirteen Colonies. One historian described the resulting land rush westward as “running mad for Kentucky.” This brings us to Clarkland Farm and eventually, to Mendelssohn.

Land speculation was early sport in Kentucky, sort of like gambling at the racetrack is today. Speculators bought up soldiers’ French and Indian War land grants. Speculators hoped to get rich selling land grants at a profit. Speculators saw their bank accounts bulge in good times and collapse down to nothing (“land poor”) when the economy tanked, which happened frequently on the frontier. John Carter (taking over for the deceased Thomas Carter, who earned the Clarkland land grant for his service in the French and Indian War) was not doing anything unusual when he sold the grant to Elijah Craig who then sold it to James Clark.

Owner Fred Mitchell fed a peppermint to Leslie’s Lady, dam of Kentucky Derby second choice Mendelssohn, last Friday at Clarkland Farm only 36 hours after she foaled a filly by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Matt Goins

From there to here

James Clark promptly began farming the land. In 1788 he paid taxes on six horses and one stud horse, paying in pounds or shillings (it’s not clear which, although we know it wasn’t dollars because dollars didn’t officially exist until 1792).

By 1818 Clark’s wife, Susanna Clark, became head of the household. She and her son, William Clark, had expanded by 1828 to owning eight horses. The two also increased their land holdings. By the 1850 U.S. Census, William and his wife, Betsy, were reporting offspring including one James S. Clark.

James S. Clark, who died April 30, 1906, received accolades in the press including a mention that he was “truly a gentleman farmer, always employing thoroughly honest means in gaining his ends.” Another description called him “one of the wealthiest men in the county.”

Kentucky Derby entrant Mendelssohn, left, trained along with an outrider at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Thursday. Charlie Riedel AP

Under his stewardship, Clarkland became known as Camp Hamilton and was used for the hospital treatment of Civil War soldiers. A newspaper story noted, “When the nation was plunged into war he opened the gates of this land to the soldiers, and many a soldier in many a clime today speaks of the kind-hearted, hospitable and genial ‘Jim’ Clark, as he was popularly called.”

John W. Marr, who married into the family and operated Clarkland subsequent to James S. Clark, was recognized in Lexington as “a well-known trainer of Thoroughbred horses.” He died in 1915. His son, John Wesley Marr, also a horse breeder and trainer, died at 80 in 1975. Nancy Mitchell is a daughter of John Wesley Marr.

“Everything I learned about Thoroughbreds I learned from Mr. Marr,” said Fred Mitchell, who worked for Nancy’s father before he and Nancy married 40 years ago. Mitchell grew up in Scott County, raising tobacco and working draft horses.

Ties to the Triple Crown

Under Mitchell stewardship, the size of Clarkland Farm has increased from 300 acres to about 460 acres (the Mitchells lease 100 acres from Nancy’s sister, Martha Mooney). Unlike larger Bluegrass farms, Clarkland is a family operation where everyone pitches in with the work, including daughter Marty Buckner and her husband, Matthew Ernst, a former hedge-fund operator and stock trader in New York who has happily morphed into a Kentucky farmer.

Leslie’s Lady, dam of Kentucky Derby second choice Mendelssohn, walked with her filly by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah last Friday at Clarkland Farm only 36 hours after foaling. Matt Goins

Last week, the mother of Mendelssohn, 23-year-old Leslie’s Lady, brought further attention to Clarkland Farm when she foaled a daughter of Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Mitchell called this “a very exciting time with Mendelssohn in the Derby and Leslie’s Lady (foaling a colt by a Triple Crown winner).” The run of luck Clarkland Farm has had with Leslie’s Lady actually began some years ago when she foaled Breeders’ Cup winner and champion mare, Beholder.

But one could say the farm’s run of luck began more than two centuries previously, when the stars aligned for the folks who settled on this land. They took a gamble, not knowing whether they could succeed in the wilderness, far west of Virginia civilization. If they could have seen this far into the future, Mendelssohn would have been their Derby pick.