forestbird photography | Kat's Eye: The Gift

Kat's Eye: The Gift

May 05, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

If you Google "Henry Clay", you'll see pages of results regarding the achievements of a noted politician and statesman, including his role in shaping economic development in his years as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams, from 1825 to 1829.

You get a completely different set of results, simply by adding the word "horse" to the search.

People inside the business of Thoroughbred horse racing, particularly in Kentucky, are aware of the contributions that Clay made to this industry, but as a novice I was without a clue. Until my friend Amy Tremper, who had been living and working in Lexington, Kentucky, mentioned to me her visits to Ashland, the Henry Clay estate. She suggested I connect with the curator there to learn more about a project that he undertakes each spring.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Eric Brooks, Curator and Site Manager at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Mr. Brooks is a warm and thoroughly engaging man. Since February 2002, when he started in this role, in addition to his regular tasks at the estate, he has devoted time to a pedigree search of each Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby contestant. An annual effort for the Estate, the goal is to determine if any of the horses in these races is a descendent of the Thoroughbred bloodlines that were started by Henry Clay.

I generally write narratives or diaries about my experiences at horse tracks around the country, but for this post I did a little research. Volumes have been written about Henry Clay, the Politician; Henry Clay the Planter/Farmer; and Henry Clay the Horseman. This is not to replicate any of that, but to encourage the reader to do the referenced Google search and learn more about this man, and visit Ashland.

It is well-documented, and held dear by those in the Blue Grass State, that Henry Clay is one of the founding fathers of the Thoroughbred breed in the United States. And each year, just prior to the running of the Oaks and the Derby, the Estate confirms that his legacy is alive in the form of the horses entered.

Once the fields for the races have been confirmed and post positions drawn, Mr. Brooks goes back through the pedigree of each horse to see if any are descended from the Clay lines. He told me that the female tail line - tracking back through the dam, grand dam, and on, is how he makes the determination. 

This prompted me to ask - why the dam? Isn't the sire as important, or more so, based on the stud fees for top stallions? It's something that I have heard before - the importance of the mare in breeding, but I wondered about the science.

My own family has been exploring its genealogy, beyond just populating our family tree. Last year my folks had their DNA done, and this Christmas, my brothers and I did, as well. The result for me is that, whatever I got from each parent, it's about 50% of their genetic make-up. For example, my father discovered that he is 46% European Jew, and my result for that part of my heritage is 23%. Likewise, their combined Irish heritage is 20%, and mine is 10%.

My brothers' results are not identical to mine or each other, but follow the same trend.  With regard to physical characteristics, I got my dad's frame - tall and lanky. My brothers got more of our mother's build. My father was a national-class athlete in high school and college, with my brothers also being athletically gifted. I played the cello. 

Similarities and differences. There's no guarantee what you're going to get when offspring are produced, but are there ways to improve the odds, at least when it comes to racehorses?

I asked my friend, Frank Taylor, about the science of horse breeding. Frank is the Vice President of Boarding Operations for Taylor Made Farms, and I've been privileged to hear him speak about all aspects of the industry. When queried about the research, which is fairly minimal and has its detractors, Frank told me that the focus on the mare is just something that horsemen have known for years. "I'd rather have a foal out of a great mare with a so-so stallion, than have one out of a mediocre mare by a top stud." said Taylor. When pressed further, he laughed and replied, "Women run the world, anyway! That's what my wife says."

Back to the Clay lines and the determination of ancestry... In every case, Mr. Brooks is looking for two mares, Magnolia and Margaret Wood.

The cursory understanding that I have of Henry Clay is that he was resoundingly respected as a superb horseman and knowledgeable breeder. So much so, that these two mares - the foundation of the Clay bloodlines - were not purchased by Mr. Clay, but rather, were gifts.

In 1845, Margaret Wood was presented to Clay by Wade Hampton, and Magnolia was a gift from Dr. William Mercer, a friend from New Orleans. These mares are well-chronolcled as the foundation of the Clay bloodlines, having produced champions throughout the years. 

Specifically, Magnolia's granddaughter, Maggie BB, is the most famous. Mr. Brooks informed me that this mare was bred by James B. Clay, Jr., the grandson of Henry Clay, and named for Margaret Burnie Beck, whom James wanted to marry after his service in the Civil War, but had his proposal refused by her father. The mare, Maggie BB, was the dam of many noted lines, including the one that has produced the sole Derby entry from the Clay lines - Free Drop Billy.

As a fun side note, Frank Taylor also told me that Free Drop Billy's name is an homage to owner, Dennis Albaugh's golfing buddy, who has the annoying habit of hitting out of bounds and requesting a free drop. 

During morning training this week, I've captured some images of Free Drop Billy. He has a distinctive blaze and a running style that exudes youthful energy. I find him incredibly fun to watch, and easy to pick up as he gallops in company on the track.

This morning, Free Drop Billy is a long shot, sitting at 30-1 odds, and will be breaking from the inside at pole position #2 - a tough draw in a 20 horse field. The last time a descendent of Magnolia and Maggie BB won the Kentucky Derby was in 1983, when Sunny's Halo became only the second Canadian-bred horse to win the race. After five straight years of the odds-on favorite winning the Kentucky Derby, it would be thrilling to see such an upset this afternoon.

This story, and the manner in which these foundational mares came to Henry Clay, has reminded me of one of my favorite stories from the mini-series, The West, produced by Ken Burns. It is the story of Erskine Wood, who sent his son to live with Chief Joseph, whom he greatly admired. At the end of the younger Wood's time with Joseph, his father expressed the desire to present a gift to the Chief, to thank him for all his son had been taught.

After much quiet contemplation, Joseph asked for a horse, but the junior Wood, thinking that too small a gesture, never told his father, and the two men died. 

Later, Erskine Wood, Jr. said, tearfully, "I did not know what the gift of a horse was."





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