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STEVE FLAIRTY: With Famed Kentucky Derby Just Around The Corner, Are You In "Horsey" Mood

(Editor's Note: This "Kentucky by Heart" column by Steve Flairty first appeared in Lexington's Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.")

Lexington’s Keeneland Race course is currently in the midst of its spring meet and soon, on Saturday, May 7, the Kentucky Derby will run its historic race -- likely the most noted one in the world -- at Louisville’s Churchill Downs.

Both events will bring huge followings from far places, and The Horse as an iconic figure in the state’s attractions, whether in Thoroughbred racing or otherwise, are on display.

To help get one in the “horsey” frame of mind, here is a sampling of book reviews I’ve written and published in Kentucky Monthly, along with a list of other equine-related books sitting on my bookshelves that might be of interest.

The Kentucky Derby How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event Author: James C. Nicholson Publisher: University Press of Kentucky (2012)

“By its very nature,” says author James Nicholson, “horse racing lends itself to creative journalism.” And, it’s shown most clearly, he noted, in the media attention given the iconic Kentucky Derby in Louisville, starting with the first race in 1875.

Nicholson’s insightful and often entertaining book, The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event, is so much more than about a bunch of Thoroughbreds running races for fourteen decades. The author explains the Derby grew to its place of international prominence because of people like Colonel Matt Winn, or “Mr. Derby” as he was later called.

Winn vigorously promoted the Derby for almost fifty years, helping it overcome the growing pains by an American society that was ambivalent about its acceptance of pari-mutuel gambling and the materialism inherent in the event. Nicholson presents a history of a Derby that was forced to be nimble in order to change with the times involving racial issues, drugs, and war, and the emergence of international Thoroughbred owners.

But what makes the book so attractive to readers is the author’s ability to creatively tell intriguing stories rather than simply give a chronology of facts, yet, as historian John Kleber stated: “This book…places the Derby within the history of the Commonwealth and in the broader context of American culture.”

Never Say Die

A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry Author: James C. Nicholson Publisher: University Press of Kentucky (2013)

Eyes focus on the United States when there is serious discussion about the Thoroughbred horse industry. Europe dominated for a long time, however, and American Thoroughbreds were even looked down upon as inferior. Then, in 1954, an American horse won the world-renowned Epsom Derby in England.

The befitting name for the colt was Never Say Die, born a sickly foal and reportedly revived from near death with a shot of bourbon whisky on the Hamburg Place farm in Lexington. The American horse’s victory at Epsom, said James C. Nicholson, “initiated seismic shifts within the Thoroughbred industry…and opened the door to Kentucky becoming the epicenter of Thoroughbred breeding and sales.”

In Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of Modern Thoroughbred Industry, author and practicing lawyer Nicholson portrays more than a simple memoir of a racehorse that made history. He seeks to unify “a collection of stories and characters that illuminate the economic, social, political, and cultural forces responsible for the development of the Thoroughbred breeding industry.”

Relying on meticulous research, the author takes on the difficult task of showing how seemingly unrelated entities like the Beatles, the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Sultan Mohammed Shah and Queen Victoria created a sure, but circuitous path that led to central Kentucky’s near universal designation as “Horse Capital of the World.”

Images of America Series Kentucky’s Horse-Drawn Era Authors: Jeanine and Berkeley Scott Publisher: Arcadia Publishing (2014)

In their fifth book in the Images of America series, Kentucky’s Horse-Drawn Era, Jeanine and Berkeley Scott maintain that though their over 200 vintage pictures connects with working animals, “the most interesting aspect of the book is the people of this period.” That period runs from about 1880 to 1930.

Shown in the images of the 128-page book are all manner of pullers, including horses, mules, oxen, or combinations of the animals carrying people involved in vibrant activities. “Not only were they traveling with their animals, they were celebrating, attending church, watching parades, going to war, and even going sledding behind horse-drawn buggies,” said the Scotts.

Diverse chapter titles include “On the Road,” “Farming with Horses and Mules,” “In the City,” and “Special Occasions and Unusual Sights.”

The couple, from Bourbon County, previously authored The Kentucky Bourbon Trail; Keeneland Race Course; Bourbon County: 1860-1940; and Paris and Bourbon County.

Kentucky Handicap Horse Racing A History of the Great Weight Carriers Author: Melanie Greene Publisher: The History Press (2014)

Equine writer Melanie Greene follows her biography of famed Thoroughbred racehorse and sire Nasrullah with Kentucky Handicap Horse racing: A History of the Great Weight Carriers. Handicap races, where horses are assigned weights based on their past performances to attempt to bring more parity, once were part of most stakes races in the United States.

“The better the horse, the heavier the weight assigned,” says Greene.

The author chronicles ten of the racing world’s greatest all-time handicap horses, including Kentucky-bred racers such as Discovery, Equipoise and Kelso. She includes in the 128-page book a history of the handicaps and the transition to “classic” races. Crisp, attractive color pictures and portraits add sense of splendor to the softcover offering.

Death by Bridle A Josiah Reynolds Mystery Author: Abigail Keam Publisher: Worker Bee Press (2012)

Josiah Reynolds seems to be on the trail of a real death kick: one by a honeybee, one by drowning, and now, Death by Bridle.

Josiah’s creator, author Abigail Keam, likes it that way. The professional beekeeper lives on the Kentucky River, embraces most living things and has a knack for articulating stories that gently provoke readers into figuring out who is responsible for untimely life expirations. Can we say…murders?

It seems that Arthur Aaron Green III, a real pillar in the horsey set around central Kentucky, is hanging around a horse barn—dead with a horse’s bridle around his neck. In his pockets are some stones, and there is a bucket of water below him. There is a witness, a nine-year-old boy, but he’s not remembering very well what happened.

An interesting case for Josiah, who has some contacts with well-known types around Lexington. Many know the culture and history of the town well, even as far back to 1962 and something called The Thin Thirty. It was a nickname for a UK football team, one on which the murder victim played.

In between keeping bees, selling her honey at the Farmer’s Market and taking in the whole Lexington scene with places like Al’s Bar, Josiah talks to a whole host of quirky characters as she marks off and adds murder suspects. Will her keen ears pick up the right buzz to get to the bottom of this high-profile murder? Don’t bet against her. She’s been on that kick before.

Others on my shelves:

— Keeneland (Simon & Shuster, 2000, hc), by Alyson Hagy

— Wild Ride (Henry Holt and Company, 1994; Updated with a new afterword), by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach

— MacKenzie Miller:The Gentleman Trainer from Morgan Street (St. Crispian Press, 2006), by Jonelle Fisher

— Horse of a Different Color: A Tale of Breeding Geniuses, Dominant Females, and the Fastest Derby Winner Since Secretariat (Public Affairs, 2002), by Jim Squires

— My Favorite Derby Stories (Butler Books, 2003), by Billy Reed

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.”

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