The reputation of Kentucky as the American thoroughbred capital seems to have a timeless quality. The idea of the Bluegrass as "horse country" generally conjures up popular notions of an idyllic Old South past, of sprawling plantations with Greek-Revival-style mansions and an attendant agricultural aristocracy—and it especially includes images of Kentucky colonels sipping mint juleps. In point of fact, however, as Maryjean Wall's How Kentucky Became Southern argues, that identity only extends as far back as the late nineteenth century and, ironically, it is largely the product of northern intervention.
The Kentucky Bluegrass long held a reputation as a leading locale for raising strong and fast horses, which many connected to the ancient mineral properties of the soil—especially its phosphate-heavy subterranean limestone. In the wake of the American Civil War, as the South sought to recover from wartime devastation and economic loss, the center of the American horse industry shifted northward. As Wall contends, postbellum Kentuckians found themselves in stiff competition with Northeasterners (particularly from New York and New Jersey) for the future direction of horse breeding and racing. Because the agricultural wealth of the Bluegrass could not compete with that of Wall Street and northeastern industry, Kentuckians realized they needed "big money from outside capitalists" to continue to secure their historical position of leadership (p. 3).
As Wall shows, that big money was not immediately forthcoming. Kentucky was considered entirely inhospitable to outside investment because of the widespread lawlessness that marked the state, which came in the form of guerrilla vigilantism, white-supremacist violence, and—especially pertinent—numerous instances of horse thievery. Change began as the sport expanded and became more competitive in the 1870s. Some wealthy outsiders to the New York racing establishment, including Californian-turned-Wall-Street-stock-investor James R. Keene, began purchasing and winning with thoroughbreds [End Page 78] foaled in Kentucky. Then, starting in the mid-1880s with New York racing titan August Belmont Sr., several major breeding operations came to the Bluegrass. Those moves coincided with a major boom in plantation-myth literature on Kentucky, which imagined an antebellum South of "orderly and romantic" life for "cavaliers and Southern ladies" served by happy and contented slaves (p. 202). As Wall puts it, "the wealthy moguls of the Northeastern turf "—who faced daily the brunt of the urban-industrial transformation—"were beginning to buy into the notion that the Near South of the Bluegrass region would provide them with an escape from the harshness of their urban world" (p. 209). Thus, starting in the 1890s, outside capitalists began focusing their energies on purchasing land around Lexington and building large neocolonial mansions.
In so doing, Kentucky history was reshaped to fit an Old South plantation ideal that never existed. For horseracing in particular, it also peculiarly whitewashed the history of the sport. Thoroughbred racing was a noticeably mixed-race affair until the 1890s. As Wall notes, black trainers were ubiquitous and, from the beginning of the Kentucky Derby in 1875 until 1896, more than half the winning jockeys were African American (thirteen of fifteen jockeys in the inaugural race were black). Yet as Northerners began to exercise outsized influence over the sport, they brought northern patterns of segregation with them. One of the most successful jockeys in the history of the sport, Lexington's Isaac Murphy—who won 44 percent of his races, a record that has never been eclipsed—so dominated the sport that for a time he was the highest-paid athlete in America. He was nevertheless completely written out of the history of the sport, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s. The real biracial past of the horse industry did not comport with the fantastical one its white boosters promoted by turn of the century.
As Wall demonstrates persuasively and vividly, Kentucky's late embrace of the Old South plantation myth reaped huge rewards for the state's horse industry, which today accounts for more than four billion dollars in annual revenue...