The International Museum of the Horse has several exhibits honoring past Kentucky Derby champions. This is the largest and most comprehensive museum in the world that is exclusively about horses and is part of the 1,224-acre Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. It is 75 miles from Louisville’s Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. The museum is filled with 60,000 square feet of exhibits ranging from oil paintings, saddles, hand-carved miniatures, media presentations, trophies, and other collectibles. It also includes exhibits about Arabian horses, thoroughbreds and draft horses.
The history of the park can be traced back to 1777 during Patrick Henry’s term as governor of Virginia. His brother-in-law, Colonel William Christian, had fought in the French and Indian War and in recognition for his service, Henry granted him 9,000 acres of the Kentucky Territory. The Colonel moved his family from Virginia to Kentucky in 1785 and settled near Louisville. After he died, his daughter inherited 3,000 acres which included the area that would eventually become Kentucky Horse Park.
During the 19th century, the land was developed as a farm and was used by various owners to raise horses. Daniel Boone’s niece, Anne Boone, and her husband raised Saddlebreds in the 1850s. The next owner, S. J. Sayers, raised Thoroughbreds. The building that is now used as the Kentucky Horse Park offices was Sayers’ house that he built in 1866. A training track that is still used today at the park was added by owner John D. Creighton who raised trotting horses.
By the 1890s, Lamon V. Harkness bought the property and within 10 years, turned it into one of the best-known and largest Standardbred farms. From 1894 to 1904, he increased the size from 450 acres and 12 mares to over 2,000 acres and 100 mares, Harkness also built a 476-foot, 52-stall barn for $15,000 that included an auction block and sale area. This “Big Barn” is still standing and is one of the largest horse barns ever built. The property stayed in the family until 1972 when Harkness’ granddaughter by marriage sold her portion to the Commonwealth of Kentucky for $2.7 million. It was this land that became the Kentucky Horse Park and opened to the public in 1978.
Throughout the park and grounds surrounding the International Museum of the Horse are several life-size sculptures that honor famous Kentucky Derby champions. The first memorial that visitors see inside the entrance is of Man o’ War (1917-1947). This bronze statue was created in 1948 by artist Herbert Haseltine to honor the horse considered to be the greatest Thoroughbred of the 20th century. Man o’ War, whose nickname was “Big Red,” won 20 out of 21 races. He died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 30 at Faraway Farm shortly after the death of his longtime groom, Will Harbut. His grave and Haseltine’s statue were moved from Faraway Farm to Kentucky Horse Park before it opened to the public.
The Man o’ War Memorial also serves as a burial site for several of his sons and daughters, the most notable being War Admiral (1934-1959). This Triple Crown winner of 1937 was named American Horse of the Year even after losing a race to Seabiscuit, his nephew.
Another sculpture is of the 1973 Triple Crown winner, Secretariat (1970-1989). Like Man o’ War, he also had the nickname of “Big Red.” Not only did he win the Triple Crown, but he set records in all three events: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. He won the Belmont by 31 lengths. The bronze sculpture by Edwin Bogucki was completed in 2004 and depicts Secretariat after his Kentucky Derby win. The jockey, Ron Turcotte, is in irons as groom Eddie Sweat leads the champion to the winner’s circle. This monument is an area of the park called Secretariat Plaza.
Inside the museum is a special exhibit titled Affirmed: The Making of a Champion. This was installed in 2006 and tells the story of the 1978 Triple Crown winner through media presentations and display items. The collection includes several of his trophies, his blanket, racing silks, halter, and photos. It also includes custom-made jewelry that belonged to his owner, Patrice Wolfson.
Kentucky Derby champions are only one portion of the all-encompassing horse museum and park. There are riding trails, tours of the horse farm, a walking tour of the barn, and several other statues of famous horses. There are also three other museums: American Saddlebred Museum, Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries, and the Wheeler Museum specializing in hunter and jumper equestrian memorabilia. It is the International Museum of the Horse that has exhibits honoring Kentucky Derby champions. For more information, the links for the museum and Kentucky Horse Park are listed below.
By Cynthia Collins