Explore KY's Horse History

Tour curated by: The ExploreKYHistory Team

Kentucky’s close association with horses and horse racing has a long legacy. Many early pioneer settlers, especially those from Virginia and Maryland, brought their love of horse breeding and racing with them when they came west. However, it took both time and favorable circumstances for Kentucky to truly become the premiere region for the horse industry.

Several important factors contributed to the rise of the Bluegrass Region’s prominence for equine raising and racing. First, the climate of Kentucky is almost perfect for raising and training stock. Horses tend to thrive in areas that have moderate climates. In addition, the change of seasons seems to promote healthier animals. Secondly, the geographic makeup of Kentucky—in particular the Inner-Bluegrass Region of the state—has historically produced the best horses the track has ever known. Rolling hills of well-drained terrain have provided a solid foundation for generations upon generations of sired champions. Similarly, below the turf is a rich limestone stratum that makes for especially nutritious grasses and fresh water. This limestone base is believed to manifest itself in strong bones, durable ligaments, and thriving cardiovascular systems in Kentucky’s horses.

On this tour you will be introduced to some of Kentucky’s most famous horses; thoroughbreds, saddlebreds, trotters, and pacers. Also highlighted are some of the state’s premiere venues for racing including Churchill Downs, Keeneland, and Latonia. Here, too, are the farms and the men that bred, raised, trained, rode, and promoted the animals that sometimes even reached the status of pop-culture stars. We hope this tour provides you with a better understanding of Kentucky’s fascination with horses and how the horse industry has influenced the commonwealth’s rich history.

Locations for Tour

Historical Marker #565 in Jessamine County notes the location of Almahurst Farm, producer of Exterminator, a Kentucky Derby winner, and a number of great harness horses, including Greyhound. One of Almahurst Farm's claims to fame is that it…

Historical Marker #2321 in Louisville notes the historical significance of African American jockey Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1892 at age fifteen. Alonzo Clayton was born to Robert and Evaline Clayton in Kansas…

Historical Marker #2027 in Woodford County notes the historical significance of Edward Dudley Brown, an African American jockey, horse owner, and trainer. Brown, better known as Brown Dick—nicknamed after a fast horse of that era —was born into…

Historical Marker #1295 in Harrodsburg notes the Mercer County origins of two Kentucky Derby winners: Leonatus in 1883 and George Smith in 1916. Leonatus, winner of the ninth Kentucky Derby (1883) was noted for his stamina and durability. He was…

Historical Marker #2040 in Louisville notes the location of Bashford Manor, a residence of J. B. Wilder, and, later, noted horse racing stable of George J. Long. Named for an ancestral home in Maryland, James Bennett Wilder had Bashford Manor built…

Historical Markers #1885 and #2255 in Louisville note the location of Churchill Downs, the racetrack of the "Run for the Roses," the famous Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs began when track founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson…

Historical Marker #166 in Fayette County notes the location of Coldstream Farm, which was originally part of Henry Price McGrath’s farm. McGrath was the owner of the famous race horse Aristides. Henry Price McGrath was born near Keene in…

Historical Marker #2336 in Louisville notes the location of Douglas Park Racetrack, which operated from 1895 to 1958. Horse racing flourished as a sport in late nineteenth-century America. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Kentucky. Difficult…

Historical Marker #6 in Lexington notes the location of the first straight quarter-mile horse racing course in Kentucky, which was established years before statehood. Kentucky was the first state settled west of the Appalachian Mountains. Many of…

Historical Marker #1853 in Covington notes the historical significance of Latonia Race Track, which sponsored the Latonia Derby for many years. Horseracing, along with baseball, were two of America's favorite spectator sports in the last half…

Historical Marker #2285 in Lexington notes the famous thoroughbred named for that Kentucky city. Kentucky has long been associated with horse racing in the United States, and the city of Lexington and the farms surrounding it have produced some of…

Given to the University of Kentucky by the class of 2011, Historical Marker #2381 honors Aristides, the winner of the first Kentucky Derby. In May 1875, an estimated 10,000 racing fans watched the first running of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville.…

Historical Marker #1992 in Louisville notes the location of the Louisville Cemetery, which was founded by prominent African American citizens in 1886. The Louisville Cemetery, near Germantown, holds the remains of many notable individuals from that…

Historical Markers #1215 and #1635 in Lexington note the many accomplishments of Man-O-War, considered by many to be the greatest thoroughbred ever. In a state where horses have the tendency to become legends, no horse has drawn more historical…

Historical Marker #2143 in Greenup County notes the location of Raceland, a horse racing track that was known as the "Million Dollar Oval." In 1922, plans were made to establish a horse racing track near Ashland, Kentucky. Property was…

Historical Marker #1475 in Jeffersontown notes the history of recognized jockey and horse trainer Roscoe Goose, who won the 1913 Kentucky Derby riding Donerail. Kentucky is known for producing the horses that win high-stakes races, but in…

Historical Marker #1470 in Fayette County notes the many achievements of Wing Commander, a saddle horse who went undefeated in competition for seven years and won more than two hundred championships. When one thinks of Kentucky horses, thoroughbred…

Historical Marker #1820 in Louisville notes the location of Woodlawn Race Course, sometimes referred to as the "Saratoga of the West." It was a track of major importance during the 1860s. Organized competitive horse racing in Kentucky was…

Historical Marker # 2 in Fayette County remembers the 1825 visit the Marquis de Lafayette made to the estate of Major John Keen (the extra "e" was added later), who had served with the Frenchman in the Revolutionary War. Keeneland,…