Bluebloods in the Bluegrass: How Kentucky’s Soil Supports Great Horses
J. Keeler Johnson
Some call it horse country. Others call it the “Horse Capital of the World.” But no matter how you describe it, there’s no doubt that the state of Kentucky has a long and storied history of horses. Specifically, racehorses.
The numbers certainly back it up. Some states can boast a higher population of horses overall, but Kentucky—and particularly the city of Lexington—leads the nation in Thoroughbred breeding, with more than eight thousand registered foals (representing about 40% of the annual North American foal crop) born in the state each year. The vast majority of the leading stallions in North America are based at Kentucky’s many world-class farms, including Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
The question is—why? Why is Kentucky the epicenter of Thoroughbred breeding in North America? Why have so many of racing’s greatest breeders been drawn to Kentucky over any other state?
The answer is right at your feet—or rather, under your feet, where a massive layer of limestone has helped make Kentucky’s soil perfect for raising strong horses that can withstand the rigors of racing.
The Secrets of Limestone
It can be said that Kentucky’s secret to raising great racehorses is hidden within the massive caves that stretch out for hundreds of miles beneath the state… or, it can be said that the secret is no more mysterious than drinking milk to promote the growth of strong bones.
While the state as a whole is known for its horses, it’s the “Inner Bluegrass” region—which includes Fayette, Jessamine, and Woodford counties, among others—that is particularly renowned as horse country. It’s here that Poa pratensis—Kentucky bluegrass—thrives in the pastures of the manicured horse farms throughout the region. But bluegrass is found throughout the world, so it alone can’t be considered responsible for the booming horse industry in Kentucky. Instead, we need to dig deeper, both literally and figuratively.
Geologically speaking, Kentucky’s land is shaped by limestone. Long ago, when the landscape of North America was vastly different and Kentucky was underwater, tiny bits of shells from marine creatures degraded over time to form a layer of limestone rich in calcium carbonate.
During the many years since then, acidic water has interacted with the limestone, dissolving it in places to release—among other things—calcium. Thus, the same process that has carved Kentucky’s world-renowned Mammoth Cave is responsible for providing calcium to Kentucky’s soil, feeding the fabled bluegrass and, in turn, the Thoroughbreds that graze on Kentucky’s rolling hills. This boost of calcium is believed to give Kentucky’s Thoroughbreds a healthy start with strong bones ideal for racing careers.
Likewise, the water in Kentucky is fortified with calcium and other minerals, so horses living in the region can reap the benefits of limestone in more than one way. In the June 1st, 2003 edition of Louisville’s The Courier-Journal, writer Susan Reigler summed it up well: “Any animal grazing on the grass or drinking from the ponds dug in the limestone is going to get a healthy dose of bone-building calcium.”
If any further evidence is needed, just look to Florida, where Ocala is another major center of Thoroughbred breeding. Like Kentucky, Florida’s soil sits atop a layer of limestone that is believed to provide similar benefits to horses raised in the Sunshine State.
The Legend Grows
The respect for Kentucky’s limestone is hardly a recent phenomenon. Prior to the Civil War, both Kentucky and adjacent Tennessee were deeply involved in the sport of horse racing, and for similar reasons. They “had in common certain bluegrass areas on belts of limestone soil, centered around Nashville in Tennessee and Lexington in Kentucky; which proved to be exceptionally suitable for raising horses,” wrote William H. P. Robertson in The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. Robertson later added that Kentucky “quickly became known for its good stock” and “the Army was advertising to buy Kentucky horses in 1792.”
F. O’Reilly, writing in the May 28th, 1887 edition of Kansas’ The Junction City Weekly Union, shared the same opinion. “Kentucky’s greatest boast is her blue-grass on limestone,” wrote O’Reilly.“Horses raised in this locality, if bred judiciously, develop earlier by one year than in any country I have ever been in.” Furthermore, real estate advertisements in The Courier-Journal during the first half of the twentieth century frequently promoted “limestone bluegrass land” as a major selling point.
Even horsemen with strong ties to other racing states came to appreciate the advantages offered by Kentucky. August Belmont I was a prominent owner and breeder during the second half of the nineteenth century, contributing so much to the sport that in 2018 he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s “Pillars of the Turf” category.
New York’s historic Belmont Stakes may have been named in his honor, and Belmont’s best horses may have raced in New York, but his primary breeding farm—Nursery Stud, where the immortal Man o’ War would be born—was located in Kentucky. In the book Legacies of the Turf: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders (Vol. I), author Ed Bowen notes that “The senior Belmont originally had a property of the same name on Long Island, but by 1885 had become convinced that Kentucky’s soil, climate, and/or water were advantageous.”
Historic Claiborne Farm, where many of racing’s greatest horses have been bred and raised, might never have existed if not for Kentucky’s ideal circumstances. Arthur Boyd Hancock, who founded the farm, originally based his Thoroughbred enterprise in his home state of Virginia. But like so many others, he was eventually convinced to shift gears and head to Kentucky. “It’s a great place to raise horses,” said Hancock’s grandson Arthur Hancock III—himself a renowned breeder—in the September 25th, 2010 edition of The Courier-Journal. “People came in here and started raising horses, because of the bone it put on—just good, big, nice yearlings. My grandfather came from Virginia, and they just found they raised better horses here.”
That belief continues to this day. Ken and Sarah Ramsey of Ramsey Farm have won six Eclipse Awards as Outstanding Owner and Outstanding Breeder while campaigning such top-level horses as Kitten’s Joy, Roses in May, Furthest Land, Stephanie’s Kitten, Bobby’s Kitten, and Big Blue Kitten. Kitten’s Joy has become one of the leading stallions in North America, and many of his best foals were born and raised at Ramsey Farm.
Ken Ramsey always wants the best for his horses, and that includes the best water. In an article by Steve Haskin titled “The Joy of Kittens” published on October 14th, 2013 at Bloodhorse.com, Ramsey explained that he conducted an experiment by offering his horses the choice of city water or natural spring water flowing through a creek on his farm. As Ramsey told Haskin, the horses “came to the city water first. They all sniffed it; one of them went over and started drinking out of the creek, and every one of the others went over and started drinking the 57-degree cold water coming out of the spring. So now I have spring water in nine of my fields, flowing by gravity from one field to the next.”
Reaping the Rewards
The fact that Kentucky leads the nation in the breeding of Thoroughbreds is readily apparent with a simple drive through the Inner Bluegrass region, or you can take a by-the-numbers approach and arrive at the same conclusion by analyzing the extensive industry data compiled by The Jockey Club. In 2017, 17,368 Thoroughbred mares (52.1% of the North American total) were bred to 231 stallions standing in Kentucky, and while these numbers are down slightly from previous decades, they represent an increasingly large percentage of the North American totals. As recently as 2002, just 30.9% of North American mares were bred to Kentucky stallions.
At auctions, demand for Kentucky-bred Thoroughbreds is high: 3,983 yearlings were sold in 2017 for a total of more than $384 million (an average of more than $96,000 per horse), while 1,194 ready-to-race Kentucky-bred two-year-olds were sold for over $144 million, or about $120,000 apiece. Furthermore, three of Kentucky’s biggest annual auctions—the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, and the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November Mixed Sale—featured total sales of more than $584 million.
The state also supports a robust racing program involving five racetracks: Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Turfway Park, Ellis Park, and Kentucky Downs. In 2017, 1,874 races were held in Kentucky, with total purse money reaching $81,505,742, which includes more than $2 million awarded to the top finishers in the Kentucky Derby, arguably the most famous horse race in the world. Fittingly, 110 of the 144 renewals of the Derby have been won by horses born in Kentucky.
Can we really attribute all of this to the erosion of limestone? Maybe not, for that would leave out the unquestionably massive contributions of Kentucky’s horsemen and breeders dating back to the 1700s. But one thing seems certain—Kentucky is an ideal place to start!