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Book Review

coverHow Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders
By Maryjean Wall
The University Press of Kentucky, October 2010, 304 pages hardcover

To most people around the world, Kentucky is horse country. It is Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Horse Park and the World Equestrian Games, the powerful racehorse breeding operations such as Calumet Farm, and the limestone soil on which Kentucky Bluegrass grows. Many would assume that it has always been this way, that early settlers or even the native population raised horses here for hundreds of years. However, nothing could be further than the truth. In her first book, Eclipse Award-winning Canadian turf writer and long time Lexington resident Maryjean Wall educates readers about the equine history of the Commonwealth, how this once violent "backwater" border state from the Civil War era gradually became the center of the horse world.

Kentucky is often associated with the South given its geography and certain aspects of its culture. However, during the Civil War the bluegrass state actually sided with the Union against the Confederacy, only to switch allegiances after the war was over. Horse racing as a sport slowly developed in Kentucky after the war, and with the end of slavery, blacks took on prominent roles in racing especially as jockeys and trainers. Wall spends an entire chapter to cover these heroes of the Turf, especially jockey Isaac Murphy. He rode for many prominent owners in both Kentucky and the northeast, one of the greatest jockeys in American history and the first rider to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

However, the concentration of power in racing still remained in New York, with the formation of the Jockey Club, which ruled the sport with an iron fist. The Jockey Club wrote the rules for its benefit, in an attempt to ensure that the only legitimate racing and breeding took place in the northeast. Led by rich men who made their wealth in industry, Thoroughbred breeding and racing naturally were centered in their home markets. The primarily agricultural economy of Kentucky could not compete, handcuffed not only by an inability to outbid New York millionaires at auction to try to bring fashionable bloodlines to the Bluegrass, but also by politics, as the same millionaires were in charge of the Jockey Club and also had control of the American Stud Book. As well, Kentucky's "wild west" reputation for violence did not help, keeping investors away.

Clearly the only way to get wealthy northeastern horsemen to consider Kentucky as a place to do business was to change their perceptions of the state. With increased industrialization and immigration in America, people longed to "escape" to the antebellum South, and through popular books and music, Kentucky's reputation shifted from the Wild West to the Old South, a throwback to the "good old days". Rich horse owners finally saw relocation to Kentucky as beneficial to themselves in two ways: they can experience the Southern lifestyle, and their horses would be stronger runners, drinking the limestone-infused spring water and grazing on the mineral-rich grass. Colonel Matt Winn took over the struggling Churchill Downs, making the Kentucky Derby the spectacle we know it today, and brought in pari-mutuel wagering, a move which allowed common folk to afford to wager on the races.

Kentucky is fortunate to have become one of the centers of equine breeding and racing in the world, making it world famous and a popular destination for tourists and investors. It is difficult to imagine a world without Lexington-area breeding farms, without Churchill Downs and Keeneland, without the Kentucky Derby. Maryjean Wall showed that many things had to take place, from the Civil War up to the turn of the last century, in order to lead to this historic year as Kentucky hosted both the World Equestrian Games and the Breeders' Cup World Championships.

This book, an offshoot of Wall's Ph.D. dissertation, is a fitting tribute to her adopted home and the great sport she has reported on for 35 years. Horse racing history buffs will find this book interesting and should enjoy it. Those mostly interested in handicapping will probably not find it to their taste.

How Kentucky Became Southern has a list price of $29.95 and can be purchased from Amazon.com.

Rating:     4/5

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