“They’re taking Asteroid!” someone shouted to Robert A. Alexander, owner of Woodburn Stud, and of its top Thoroughbred – many said the top Thoroughbred in America – Asteroid. Confederate raiders had invaded Alexander’s farm, just across the Woodford County line from Lexington, looking for horses, and they found some of the finest in the world.
Asteroid was a big bay colt, over 15 hands tall, sired by the top Thoroughbred stallion of his era, Lexington. Asteroid was half brother to the great runner Kentucky (also sired by Lexington), who had been shipped north at the beginning of the war and had become the star in the new racing establishment in New York and New Jersey.
It was 1864, late in the war, and the Confederacy was desperate for horses, particularly the type of sturdy riding horses they knew were bred in Kentucky. It was rough in Kentucky during the Civil War. The state was not only a literal battleground – the Battle of Perryville was the largest, but by no means only, battle fought here – but an emotional battleground as well. The war divided families, and homes.
I learned a little bit about the impact the Civil War had on horse breeding and racing in Kentucky when I attended a wonderful talk last week by Maryjean Wall, former turf writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader and author of the wonderful book “How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders.” Ms. Wall spoke at the Tates Creek Branch of the Lexington Public Library, as part of the library’s summer series of adult programs.
When Alexander realized that the Confederates had Asteroid, he quickly organized a posse to go after the raiders. When his men tracked the rebels down near the Kentucky River, they found Asteroid with the famous Confederate guerrilla Sue Mundy, the original Boy Named Sue, aboard. Mundy is a shadowy figure in the Civil War, long thought to have been an invention of a Louisville-based Southern-leaning newspaperman, who made up exploits about a fictional female Confederate raider he named Sue Mundy, to embarrass the Union authorities in Kentucky.
Marcellus Jerome Clark, a 20-year-old Confederate adopted Mundy’s name, and made “her” fictional exploits true, according to “Confederate Guerrilla Sue Mundy: A Biography of Kentucky Soldier Jerome Clark,” by Thomas Nelson Warren and Perry A. Brantley, a theme taken up by Richard Taylor’s great “factual novel,” “Sue Mundy: A Novel of the Civil War.”
Ultimately money, not guns – a ransom of $250 – bought Asteroid back, and as the next day dawned, Alexander and his men rode back to Woodburn Stud in triumph. Though none of the raiders knew Asteroid’s identity, they recognized his quality: Mundy was quoted as saying that he hated to see the horse go, because it was the finest one he’d ever ridden.
Kentucky breeders bred not only Thoroughbreds in those days, but a variety of other riding horses as well. The Kentucky “saddler,” or saddle horse, was a recognized breed that many cavalry officers preferred as a mount to Thoroughbreds, which were also used as war horses. Few realize that Robert E. Lee’s famous mount Traveler was a Thoroughbred, sired by Lexington himself.
This wasn’t the first raid on Woodburn Stud, but it was the last. Alexander shipped Asteroid, along with Lexington himself, by train to a farm in Illinois, safely clear of Confederate raiders. Asteroid retired undefeated, though he never raced in the east, where the owners of Kentucky continually demanded a match race which was never arranged. He retired to stud at Woodburn Stud, where he died in November of 1886.
I’ve always wondered if the theft of Asteroid served as the basis for the opening scene in the Darryl F. Zanuck produced Hollywood romance Kentucky, made in 1938, starring Loretta Young, Richard Greene, and Walter Brennan. In the Twentieth Century Fox version, the raiders are Unionists, not Confederates, taking horses from Confederate sympathizers. This is an interesting point: by 1938, the novel Gone With the Wind had become a national sensation, and the Confederacy was becoming more romantic by the day. In the movie, the theft of horses created a rift between the families of the raider and the raided that lasted well into the 20th Century. The truth is not far different: By the end of the Civil War, wealth northern industrialists, who had made vast fortunes on wartime contracts supplying the Union army, had become fascinated with Thoroughbred racing, and nearly destroyed the Kentucky breeding industry with money, after the Confederates couldn’t destroy it by force.
As Ms. Wall explained, by the 1860s, Alexander’s Woodburn Stud had virtually singlehandedly propelled Kentucky to prominence in the Thoroughbred breeding and racing industry. As late as the 1850s, Tennessee had been the home of the finest Thoroughbred bloodlines.
Movies from Hollywood’s golden era rarely portray the Civil War from a Union standpoint. As we have discussed in earlier columns, there was a long period during which the Old South became a romantic image, one quickly adopted by Hollywood. Gone With the Wind is the greatest example, but the 1938 movie, Kentucky, which was made between the debut of the novel Gone With the Wind and its movie adaptation, strikes the same tone. It portrays a downtrodden South as a tough band of scrappy fighters, supported with little money or supplies, fighting a romantic lost cause.
The Union army was a different story, well – or at least expensively – supplied by the first generation of war profiteers and defense contractors, with its ranks expanded by thousands of Irish immigrants who made the often deadly trade of military service for instant citizenship.
New York merchants grew rich on the government contracts, few richer than August Belmont, the German-born financier, who, along with his son, August Belmont, II, were among the founders of New York racing. Their most enduring legacy remains in the naming of Belmont Park, and its most famous race, the Belmont Stakes, which originated at Jerome Park, the palatial racetrack opened in 1866 in Westchester County, New York, now part of the Bronx. Developed by Belmont and his colleague, financier Leonard W. Jerome, Jerome Park was the urban counterpart to the rural Saratoga Race Course which had opened in 1863, the first New York racetrack to operate in over 20 years.
Money immediately shifted the center of gravity of racing in America from Kentucky to New York, and it took 40 years of fighting another war – like the redemption of Asteroid, based on money, not guns – to shift the balance once more.
During the Civil War, Lexington was one of the few cities in America with organized Thoroughbred racing. The old Kentucky Association track in downtown Lexington operated continuously during the war. Churchill Downs, with its inaugural running of the Kentucky Derby, didn’t open until ten years after the war’s end.
As we have seen in earlier columns, New York racing – fueled by New York money – ruled the Thoroughbred world until after the turn of the century, when social reformers in New York succeeded in temporarily banning racing there in 1910, when Kentucky truly regained its former pre-eminence in Thoroughbred breeding and racing. In earlier columns, we have discussed that era, which saw Col. Matt Winn’s tireless promotion of the Kentucky Derby.
And all that began with the Civil War, where the temporary theft of Asteroid by Confederate raiders was nothing compared to the damage done by the influx of New York money to Kentucky’s pre-eminence in the sport. But, just as $250 ransomed the great Asteroid from the outlaw Sue Mundy, Kentucky’s continual investment in the Thoroughbred industry paid off. Let’s hope that now both New York and Kentucky racing can survive the next 150 years, in the face of modern scandals unknown in the 1860s. Somehow the prospect made ransoming Asteroid look easy.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.
Photo of Asteroid from The Sport Horse Show and Breed Database