Mt. Brilliant Farm photo by Mathea Kelley
By Stephen Burnett
History books could be written about Mt. Brilliant Farm. They could span the stories of Russell Cave, including a famous fight between Cassius Clay and Samuel Brown, and the farm’s origin as part of land granted by Thomas Jefferson. Now, about 200 years later, the 760-acre farm is owned by Greg Goodman and his family. When they saw Mt. Brilliant in 1996, it was a cattle farm. But Goodman would soon be drawn by what the farm could become.
“My family’s always been in the horse business,” Goodman said. “Growing up, everywhere we went, there was a racetrack. We didn’t have family vacations in places where there wasn’t a racetrack.”
Looking for a better place than Houston, Texas, to raise a family brought Goodman to Lexington where the family looked at several farms. Some were ready-made to move in and begin operations, he said. Yet only Mt. Brilliant proved irresistible.
Home and history at a horse farm
Since the turn of the century, the historic farm had been owned by the Haggin family. Another owner had an interesting decree, as one generation left the farm to the next generation on the condition that the land could not be used to raise horses, so it was used to raise cattle.
“There was no infrastructure for a Thoroughbred farm when we bought it,” Goodman recalled. “So we put in all the roads, all the fences. There were a few useful buildings that we still use today, but not many. The house we’ve lived in is an old barn that we converted to a house.”
The Goodmans set to work turning the farm into an equine operation. They also renovated other historical but decrepit buildings, such as converting a breeding shed and pump house into a guest house. Their work also included one notable landmark: the Man O’War barn. That had initially been part of neighboring Faraway Farm, where the famous Thoroughbred died in 1947.
At first the Goodmans had bought 390 acres of the main farm, then later added the 370 acres that included the barn. Later, the family made a few changes to the famous structure where Man O’War stood stallion for about 20 years, such as putting in a brick floor.
“Besides that, it’s the same building that it was,” Goodman said. “We don’t use it for horses now, but it’s just sitting there like it was when he was there.”
Before the project, Goodman had been reading a book about building a horse farm. “I kind of had a plan,” he said. “It was really a spectacular book. I really wanted to do it right — I want to say ‘my way,’ but [I did it] his way, because I copied it from his book exactly.” That meant building new fences and structures that followed the land’s natural contours, instead of just anywhere, Goodman explained. “If you look at our farm from the air, not all of our paddocks — there’s not a square corner here or a square paddock there. They kind of roll with the land.
“If you’re loading hay in the barns, or a vet comes to the farm, they get on a road and they can go from barn to barn without having to turn around,” he went on. “The roads just flow through the farm. … All of our barns are positioned on a specific compass reading that gets the prevailing wind, not down the aisle way, but through the stalls. I got that out of that book as well.”
Already the farm had been reported to have some of the best soil in the Bluegrass for raising horses, Goodman. That may be because of the land’s location, which also puts it in a prime place for rain. Recently the farm got five inches of rain, and nearby areas received zero, he said.
“I love this land, I love the roll of it,” Goodman added. “I love the mature trees.
Mt. Brilliant Farm photo by Mathea Kelley
“Around the house and where we live … there’s a lot of old trees and shady areas. Russell Cave is on the farm. There’s a lot of history with Russell Cave that’s fantastic.”
Even during the worst of droughts, the cave has running water. And even during the hottest days of summer, he said — such as the recent hundred-degree heat wave — Russell Cave keeps a temperature that is at least ten degrees cooler, with air flowing out from the cave’s entrance.
It was also near Russell Cave during an 1843 political rally that debates led to the Clay/Brown brawl. There, abolitionist leader Cassius Clay (the 19th century orator, not the 20th century boxer who became Muhammad Ali) was attacked. Samuel Brown shot Clay in the chest, and according to one historical report, only Clay’s knife prevented his heart being pierced. In response, the furious Clay is said to have attacked Brown, stabbed him, and threw him over an embankment, seriously wounding him.
One house on the farm, built in the 1790s, could be worth its own book, said the farm’s chief operating officer, Gay Bredin. It was part of the Underground Railroad, she said — the route taken by slaves in Southern states to escape to the free North. That adds to the rumor that slaves also took shelter in Russell Cave, hiding behind a false wall made of stone, Bredin added.
An even older house, built in 1790, is still being used as a guest house, Goodman said. That is not the same as another structure the family had first tried to refurbish, then finally chose to demolish — bringing a few neighbors’ consternation and some local controversy. For the actual oldest house, he added, they have made some repairs inside, but maintained the building’s exterior. “It’s probably one of the oldest brick houses in Lexington,” he said. “We love it.”
Newer buildings on the farm include a main residence and a chapel, Bredin said. Mt. Brilliant’s employees — about 19 people work on the farm — also enjoy its formal gardens, she added.
Mt. Brilliant Farm photo by Mathea Kelley
Summers are especially busy for the farm, even after the Keeneland and Kentucky Derby hoopla has faded. The Goodmans don’t accept outside boarders but have their own stock of horses and their own methods for taking care of them.
For instance, “we don’t turn our horses out at night, our broodmares out at night, until after Derby,” Goodman said. “We turn them out during the day and bring them up to the barn.” For that method, he can thank farm manager Jody Alexander, a fourth-generation farm manager. When Goodman asked him about the method, Alexander said he didn’t know why. That’s how his father, grandfather and great-grandfather always did it, he said. Whatever the reasons for the method —frost on the ground, poisonous grasses or insects — it apparently kept the farm from having problems with Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS).
Mt. Brilliant takes care with the mares it buys and with handling their foals, Goodman went on. About 25 brood mares can spread across 144 stalls, allowing plenty of room and preventing overgrazing of pastures, he said.
Foaling mares are kept in certain areas of the farm, then after the foals are born, staff move the mares to completely different portions of the farm, which have been untouched for at least six months. “We’re fortunate to be able to do that,” he said.
“We really are isolated,” Goodman continued. “We have horses that are born on the farm, and they don’t leave the farm until they go to the sales or the races,” or to be trained, or to go to a clinic. “Besides that, we have a very closed herd. And — knock on wood — it protects us from diseases or other issues, because we don’t have horses coming in and out of here all the time.”
The only section used for other horses is the area designated for the younger Goodmans’ polo tournaments, Goodman said. Those continued throughout July and require much preparation.
“July will be what I call our crazy month, because we’ve got polo every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday,” Bredin explained. “All our staff is pretty much dedicated to those things and entertaining out-of-town guests for the polo [games].”
Then comes the next stage of the farm’s annual schedule, Goodman said. “Breeding season’s over, and I think we had a pretty good breeding season. Now the focus is on prepping the yearlings and getting them ready to sell. That’s what we do every day, and we’re always looking at them and thinking what we can do better, how that horse is going to turn out, where he belongs in the sale, and what book should that horse be in.
“We have ten horses that we’re putting in Book 2 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale and three or four in Book 3, and three or four in the other books, and three or four that we’re keeping to race,” he explained. “We’re grooming the yearlings every day, getting them used to things, getting them used to walking in the ring and being shown to them. … It’s a busy place this time of year.”
Apart from that, Goodman has also had a hand in local charities and farmland-preservation efforts. He helped found the Fayette Alliance, an advocacy group to promote development within Fayette County’s urban service area and to encourage preserving farmland. With that and other efforts, the farm owners’ goal is to make Fayette resemble the tourism-oriented wine country in California, only with horses, Bredin said.
“I love the horses,” Goodman said. “I think anybody who is fortunate enough to get to be around horses every day, it’s a great life. … To me, they’re the most beautiful animal on Earth.
“To watch them grow and see them in the different stages, for me and for everyone, you learn something new every day about a horse. They never cease to amaze me, how unbelievable they are and how giving they are.”
“The environment is beautiful,” Bredin continued. “To be able to drive onto a farm that is well-maintained and kept, with the blood stock they have, is pretty special, and I’m very thankful that I can do that every day. Being part of a farm that’s 15 minutes from downtown Lexington that’s as big and lovely [as this] — I think we’re lucky that we live here.”
“I just can’t imagine anything better,” Goodman agreed. “There’s a lot of people in this business who can do whatever they wanted or live wherever they wanted, but they choose to be in Kentucky. To me, there’s no place more beautiful.”