By Liane Crossley
Mill Ridge Farm in southwestern Fayette County epitomizes the beauty and history of Central Kentucky’s famed Bluegrass region. Situated on the fringe of residential communities, the gently rolling land has a meandering creek, signature tobacco barns converted into stables and black fencing that blend with the pastoral landscape. And, of course, the property is peppered with Thoroughbreds that create a particularly bucolic sunset scene if a herd is grazing on the ridges bordered by busy Man o’ War Boulevard, two-lane Parkers Mill Road and rural Bowman Mill Road.
(Photos from Mill Ridge Farm, by John Stephen Hockensmith)
Mill Ridge is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year but its overall history traces well beyond the half-century mark, primarily to Hal Price Headley, whose countless accomplishments include co-founding Keeneland Race Course. Headley owned and operated the massive Beaumont Farm that spread well beyond what is known today as Mill Ridge.
The Beaumont acreage was used for Thoroughbreds as well as cattle and tobacco. Headley bequeathed the property to his children and much of it eventually evolved into the Beaumont subdivisions and surrounding retail areas. In his foresight, Headley stipulated that his daughter Alice would receive a parcel farthest from town because he knew she would continue the family tradition of raising the finest racehorses.
“She was left 268 acres and a couple of barns that were under construction,” said Alice Chandler’s son Headley Bell, one of her four children. “It wasn’t this at all. She built this to be what it is today.”
Headley refers to Hal Price Headley as the driving force behind Mill Ridge, which totals more than 1,000 acres including leased property.
“Mom is the same. She is the driving force—the inspiration—in all of us,” Headley Bell said. “That makes us want to do the best we can do, to grow on that.”
In an era when female workers were practically nonexistent, Alice Chandler was respected as a hard-working all-around horsewoman with managerial skills to match while living the family’s motto of “take good care of the horses and the land and they will take care of you.”
At 86, Alice Chandler, along with her husband of 40 years Dr. John Chandler, continues her participation in the Mill Ridge operation. She was recognized in 2006 by the Kentucky Senate for her life-long dedication to the both the Thoroughbred business and the horses themselves.
A few years later, she was honored with the prestigious Eclipse Award of Merit for lifetime achievement in the Thoroughbred industry. Through the years Chandler served in numerous Thoroughbred organizations including the Kentucky State Racing Commission and the Jockey Club. As a hands-on horsewoman, her achievements include becoming the first woman to breed, own and train the winner of a $100,000 stakes race when she accomplished the feat in 1976 with Nicosia.
Back to the future
The rich legacy of Hal Price Headley is likely to continue through Headley Bell’s son Price. At 30, Price Bell is actively involved with the family business in both the daily Mill Ridge operations and as a consultant in his father’s Nicoma Bloodstock.
Headley Bell is quick to note that Price must pay his proverbial dues.
“Everybody has to earn their way,” he said. “We don’t just presume that because you are the oldest son that you are going to be this or that. Price will have to earn his way to become the leader of it and so far he’s done that and more.”
Price is fully aware that running a commercial Thoroughbred farm requires economic sensibility to balance the passion for the land and the horses.
“We as a team have to be able to make a business out of it,” he said. “We have to be able to pay the bills.”
Price has fond childhood memories of being on the farm with “Gran Alice” and her dedicated employees. He began working on the property when he was a young teenager handling such basic chores as weed eating and other maintenance.
“It’s always been great fun,” he said. “It never really has been work. I remember having long Christmas vacations (from school) and working on the farm. I felt like I was contributing to the cause.”
Mill Ridge focuses on raising Thoroughbreds and preparing them for major auctions in Lexington at Keeneland just a few miles from the farm and the Fasig-Tipton sales company on Newtown Pike on Lexington’s northern tier. Notable Mill Ridge sales graduates in recent years include 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace.
Mill Ridge also raises horses for clients who prefer to race their own Thoroughbreds instead of buying or selling. Stars from this program include 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.
One of the most famous Mill Ridge residents is La Ville Rouge, who made a name for herself as the dam of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. The 16-year-old mare has produced a number of full brothers to Barbaro the youngest of which was born last year.
Freelance writer Liane Crossley is a lifelong lover of Thoroughbred racehorses and resides in Lexington.