My New Kentucky Home

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Hot and motionless in Kentucky tonight, the scent of horses in the air. It is so still here that even smells move in slow motion, hanging around longer than you might expect without a puff of wind to blow them away. It’s a perfect night for horses to be out, picking the Bluegrass under the long, perfectly tiered rail fences, or lilting under the American beech and fringetrees. I think I died and went to heaven when I arrived here last week. It will be so hard to leave.

I came to Lexington, Kentucky, on the trail of Shannon, the same reason I had found myself in LA. Between December 1948 and May 1955, Shannon had stood stallion duties at Spendthrift Farm, alongside Bernborough and Alibhai. To say that Spendthrift is some sort of magnificence is just simple talk. The place is a sanctum of rural peace, a stunning hamlet tucked into rolling vales and tattooed with long, weaving fences. To the casual ear it is quiet. Listen harder, though, and Spendthrift is deafening with crickets and bird life. It is the kind of place you might read about in children’s stories, like Watership Downs, or The Folk of the Faraway Tree.

There is next to no evidence that either Shannon or Bernborough were ever here. Few people remember their names. At Spendthrift, neither horse has a headstone or marked grave recording where they were buried. The wall of fame in the stallion barn, in the very building (pictured below) where both horses were housed, recognises neither of them. The criteria to be up there, Spendthrift’s Des Dempsey tells me, is to be a classic winner, or the sire of a classic winner. That both Shannon and Bernborough are Hall of Fame horses (one an inaugural inductee) counts for little here. It made me sad, really sad actually, and a little more impatient for the release of Shannon’s book.

A stroll around Spendthrift is like a who’s who of Bluegrass history. There is the sculpture of Nashua with Clem Brooks, and the massive, newish (1950s) stallion barn that was built to house the horse. (The insurance companies, so Dempsey tells me, wouldn’t insure the uber valuable sire if he was housed in the old quarters, so up the new one went.) It is immaculate, like everything here. There are the headstones of some incredible horses from our past... Majestic Prince, Gallant Man. Dark Star was here, as was Jet Pilot, Seattle Slew, Foolish Pleasure, Tudor Minstrel, Swaps, Raise A Native, Never Bend. Need I go on (because I can)?

I’ve spent days on the roads around Kentucky, breathing in the surrounds of Lexington, Versailles (pronounced Ver-sales here), Keeneland and Churchill Downs. I’ve looked at the grand, old homes dotting the downtown suburbs with their broad front porches and pillars, American flags on every second lawn. Around the lanes that wind through the Bluegrass, off I went with the rental car (I have this wrong side of the road thing down now). I greeted the gates and dry-stone walls of Vinery, Stonestreet, Ashford (second pic), WinStar, Calumet (first pic) and Gainesway. I know, now, what the Iron Pike and Paris Pike roads look like, how the red roofs of Calumet sit into the hills, how the trees fall over the roadways like they do in Ireland.

Starstruck, I was, not a human in sight.

Horse people should see this place, more than they should see the Hunter Valley or Kildare. The Bluegrass turns over more cash than any other breeding hotspot in the world (the Hunter is second), and if you trickle back through time you will find Northern Dancer’s ghost here, Mr Prospector’s too, and Man O’War’s. But it’s not just the dollars and dimes of the game. Here, where beauty is so drippingly obvious, where nature is sculptured yet natural and overwhelmingly beautiful, it is impossible not to be rolled away by the charm.

When I close my eyes now, I have a picture of what it was like for Shannon here in 1949. I’ve been trying hard to see him in fields and pastures, knee-high in grazing, or in the stallion barn at Spendthrift, sidling past Bernborough. I know, now, what the air felt like on a stale, steaming night in August, and when the sky was clogged with storm clouds, just a slight suggestion of tornadoes. Yes, it will be terrible to leave, like picking open stitches. I might have to invent an excuse to return when the snow has settled on it and the nights are stiff and brittle. Still magnificent, I bet.