I remember the first time I visited with Warner Jones, the legendary, crusty, innovative, turtle shell-tough, sales savvy former Chairman of the Churchill Downs Board of Directors. It was 1988, and I had driven from my office in Lexington to his lush and beautiful Hermitage Farm in Oldham County. It was on his home turf, and neither he nor the green grass was yielding.
“What do you think?” Jones asked as soon as I exited my car, and walked his way.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, not exaggerating a bit. “Just beautiful.”
Jones smiled his typical, sly smile, as if he knew exactly what cards he was holding in his hand, and exactly those in mine. It wasn’t really a smile. Not really a smirk. Not really something you could truly understand completely. Yet, it was his “look.”
“It’s not bad for a 502 farm,” he said, dryly. “It can’t compare to the 606ers, but not bad for a 502. You know, people in the 606 don’t even know we have horse farms in the 502. But we aren’t too bad, either.”
I knew then that Mr. Jones was referring to the differences – perceived or real – in the Thoroughbred industry that was born and bred in the Louisville area and the Thoroughbred industry that was drilled into the soil and soul of Central Kentucky.
Jefferson County’s area code, 502, hasn’t changed since then. However, before it became 859, as it is now, the area code for Central Kentucky was 606. But there was so much more to the story than the 104 points on the old, rotary dials of the phones.
Far more. And, I was soon to find out just how much. How serious. And, how real.
In 1988, I had just left my job as a sportswriter and columnist for The Lexington Herald-Leader. It was a pretty sweet gig, to be honest. I covered the Cincinnati Reds in the summers and got to write the story when Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s record for most hits in the major leagues. I covered college basketball in the winters, and got to cover the Final Four when Michael Jordan was a freshman and James Worthy was a junior. In the spring, I got to cover the Kentucky Derby. In the fall, I got to cover the Breeders’ Cup. I got to write a story about Arnold Palmer and another one on Jack Nicklaus. I got to know Charlie Whittingham, and Woody Stephens. I got to interview Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay. I shared a press box with such great writers as Red Smith, Edwin Pope, Furman Bisher, Earl Lawson, Bill Christine, Dave Kindred, Johnny McGill, and, my personal hero, D.G. FitzMaurice.
But, in 1988, I traded that all in to become the Executive Vice President of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association. And, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I was a bug boy getting his first mount in a Grade 1 race. Needless to say, over the next few weeks, months and years ahead, I got a lot of mud and dirt kicked back in my face. In fact, one night, a rather boisterous and obnoxious trainer slung a whiskey drink in my face at Pat’s Steakhouse in Louisville, simply because I didn’t agree with his vulgar tongue or miniscule ideas. Didn’t bother me much, though. The trainer was a jerk with a horrible win percentage, and the whiskey was bad. Neither one lasted very long or amounted to much.
Yet, it was early in my tenure when I reached out to Mr. Jones and asked for a private meeting to discuss horsemen’s issues and how best to raise purses and attract the best horses to Kentucky. I knew of Mr. Jones’ reputation, and both his charm and his direct demeanor. What I didn’t know was that I would soon learn a lesson that I never forgot. And, I had a memory that has barked in my ears for decades and has led me to this next chapter in my career.
You see, I was born and raised a 606er. I grew up in Midway, just a few minutes from Keeneland and Lexington. I grew up with the sons of Charles and Alfred Nuckols; the sons of Ben Walden Sr.; the sons of Carter Thornton and the sons of John Greathouse Sr. I grew up just a few miles from Hurstland, Deerborn, Glencrest, Calumet, Claiborne, Jonabel, King Ranch, Airdrie and Lane’s End. And, I can remember going to King Ranch, as a small boy, to see Middleground; going to Calumet to see the white fences; going to Faraway Farm to see the statute of Man o’ War before his tomb was moved to the Kentucky Horse Park. And, I can remember going to Keeneland.
I didn’t realize it much at the time, but like most 606ers, I thought that “Horse Country” stopped at the Woodford County line to the West and Bourbon County to the East. Fayette County to the South and Scott County to the North. I thought a good horse couldn’t be bred outside of 606. I thought a great horse had to be bred in 606. And, I thought all things horse was brainstormed in 606. Pure and simple.
That thought was pure nonsense. And, like most things in life, nothing is ever simple.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that Hermitage Farm had a history as deep as the loom under the green stems of grass. It had raised Dark Star, who defeated the great Native Dancer to capture the 1953 Kentucky Derby. Dark Star was by Royal Gem, who was imported from Australia to stand at stud at Hermitage. He was later consigned to the Keeneland Sale and sold for a mere $6,500 to Harry Guggenheim. He won the Derby in the colors of Guggenheim’s Cain Holy Stable.
Later, but probably more importantly to the long term breed of the Thoroughbred, Mr. Jones and Edward Cox bred a son of Mr. Prospector who would later be known as Woodman. Woodman raced only five times, winning three and running third once. Yet, the Irish Champion 2-year-old went on to sire Hansel, who won the Preakness and the Belmont in 1991; to sire Timber County, who won the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 1985 Preakness; and to sire Bosram Sham, who became the 1996 European Champion 3-year-old filly.
But the industry was much deeper and wider than just Hermitage. Down the lovely road was Dr. Gary and Betsy Lavin’s Longfield Farm. Alex Rankin’s Upsom Downs Farm is as fine a Thoroughbred nursery as any in the world and there couldn’t be a finer person than its owner.
And, obviously, there was Churchill Downs. The Twin Spires have reached toward the heavens for over 100 years, and each year they stand majestically as a reminder of the glory of the sport – both past and present. On the first Saturday in May, Kentucky comes alive.
My mom, as a little girl, would ride her bicycle around Churchill Downs’ main track. Never as fast as Secretariat negotiated it, mind you, but every bit as determined. Back before the days of simulcasting, my college roommate and I would drive to the track and hang out “on the bricks.” Woody Stephens, a friend of my grand father and another Midway native son, let me hang out at his barn and with the likes of Devil’s Bag, Forty Niner, and Derby winner Swale. Louie Roussel gave up his tack room so I could keep a diary on Risen Star’s daily routine leading up to the Derby.
But the full reality of the 606 (now 859) vs. 502 rivalry never fully hit me until I moved to Louisville several years ago. Being a 606er, I never thought I could fully adapt and adopt. Yet, I met some of the greatest people in the world. And, sure enough, they loved the horse as much as I did. They loved going to the racetrack as much as I do. And, they have done just as much in the sport and the game as I have done.
One day, I asked my new horse buddies, “Where do you go to hang out with your other horse friends and enjoy the races?”
They looked at me as if they had lost the Derby by a nose. There was no Thoroughbred Club of America in Louisville. One of the most wonderful places on earth, where the food is great; the friends are better; and the races always on. That’s in Lexington. There wasn’t a A.P. Suggins Bar & Grill, where the Hot Brown is steamin’ and the races rolling. That’s in Lexington. There wasn’t a Louie’s Restaurant, where you would always find a Hancock or a Sosby eating breakfast or lunch. That was in Paris. When Jiggs was still alive and the Liquor Store was cranking, you could always get a bet down and a chilly pop. But that was in Midway.
So, I decided that 502 deserved a place for horse owners, trainers, lovers to call their own. And, with the help of a few friends, we are launching the Louisville Thoroughbred Society (see the news story on The Pressbox for more details). It will be a private club that will serve the Thoroughbred industry of 502 – and any others that want to either join or visit. It will be a place for US to hang out; watch races; talk horses; enjoy life. We project that it will be open for business in the late summer of 2018. And, it will be FUN.
In connection with the Louisville Thoroughbred Society, we are launching The Pressbox immediately. We have a temporary studio in the Ice House downtown, where we will be doing live podcasts, webcasts, call-in audio shows and other projects to promote the Thoroughbred industry. Each day, the website will be updated with news, features, opinion columns, videos, handicapping info and advice and breeding analysis. It will be entertaining, informative and news worthy. Most of all, it will be FUN.
When I left the KTA-KTOB in early November 1992, I called Mr. Jones to let him know. I told him that I had learned a lot, but that I had not done enough. Especially for the 502ers. On Nov. 14, he wrote me a hand-written note. It was totally unexpected and out of the blue. Yet, it was one of the most encouraging notes I have ever received. I still have it. It sits on my home office desk. Occasionally, I dust it off and re-read it again for the 1,192,834th time.
Mr. Jones wrote, in part:
“Just wanted you to know what a great performance you had with K.T.A. under many difficult and trying circumstances – (I know.) If I can ever help you in any way, please don’t hesitate to call (his phone number at the time). Good luck and best regards always.”
Mr. Jones passed away on Feb. 7, 1994. Ironically enough, my own dad passed away on Feb. 9, 2017. I never got the opportunity to truly tell either Mr. Jones or my dad thank you enough for what they both did for me and taught me through the years. But I want you to know that both helped me in more ways than I will ever know.
And, if it isn’t too late to take you up on it, Mr. Jones, I sure could use a little help – although I don’t have a direct line to you or my dad now. I just hope my new project can be a tribute to both of you. And, a place that we all – 502ers and guests — can go, use, have fun and tell old stories about you and new stories about horses we love.
All the Best,