Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders

Brian Thomas Gallagher


Few things revel so freely in the pageantry and nostalgia of southern identity as the scene surrounding Churchill Downs on Derby Day. In fact, bluegrass horse country in general—with its white fences, white suits, and white spectators—is the very vision of a moneyed southern idyll: juleps, gentility, charming women, and, most important, fast thoroughbreds.

To those who know, the raising of champion blood horses in this part of the country is not simply the product of custom. According to Maryjean Wall, in her vivid book How Kentucky Became Southern, the very soil lends itself to the cause. "Seas swept over this shallow shelf, bringing with them the millions of invertebrates that left behind a precious natural gift, their fossilized shells, which gave rise through the millennia to a particular form of limestone rock, the building block that horsemen have long believed is critical to raising a strong-boned racehorse." These lands—sodded with the famous Poa pratensis, Kentucky bluegrass in plain speak—are thought by the faithful to be possessed of an equine terroir.

Before and even during the Civil War, Kentucky was a border state, its regional identity not so much North or South as West. It maintained the rough edge of American expansionism. The one constant was the breeding of thoroughbreds, and for a long time it held a monopoly on the trade. After the war, however, the rich northerners of the Gilded Age rekindled their faded love of racing, with gusto and funds.

In Wall's narrative, an ongoing contest began for the claim on American racing. While they were by no measure paupers, the Kentucky horsemen, whose wealth was primarily agricultural rather than industrial, could not compete with the fortunes of their northern counterparts. For instance, William Vanderbilt, son of Cornelius and once richest man in the world, had by 1870 a "sixteen-stall stable in what is now midtown Manhattan includ[ing] a carriage house, an indoor exercise ring for the horses, and a full city block of pasture between Fourty-third and Fourty-fourth streets," writes Wall. If the barons didn't come south, the raising of racehorses in bluegrass country was in jeopardy.

What Kentucky had was, in today's terms, a public-relations problem. Despite having the fewest soldiers among southern states to fight for the Confederacy and having the most eligible men who declined to take up arms for either side, Kentucky refused to ratify the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, which granted blacks manumission, citizenship, and suffrage. Whether, or to what extent, it had been southern before these decisions, with them Kentucky had declared itself of the South—and not in a good way.

To overcome that and save bluegrass horse racing, Kentucky had to become the idea of the South that was most appealing to northerners, which is exactly what we see on Derby Day. And it worked, with a little help from the limestone. Eventually, the magnates moved their stables to Kentucky from New York, and the area was once again the uncontested seat of racing excellence. "Travelers from the North found the Bluegrass more accessible than the Deep South," writes Wall. "They imagined that they caught glimpses of the Old South in Bluegrass architecture and lifestyle. Bluegrass Kentucky, with its slaveholding history, its large homes, and its pastures filled with horses, evolved as the Near South and, thus, as representative of the Old South."

As such, it became southern in the way that Irish pubs in Chicago are Irish: in appearance and affiliation, displaying an overdone aesthetic of sanitized history and bonhomie, though occasionally betraying lurid behavior. Kentuckians kept their equestrian culture alive but, as Wall tells it, made unsavory trades to do so.

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