The first Saturday in May holds the distinction as being the day when the most famous horse race in the history of thoroughbred racing is run – The Kentucky Derby! And with this year’s 145th annual “Run for the Roses” (as the famous race is lovingly known) taking place at Louisville’s Churchill Downs on May 4th – I thought it the perfect time to share one of my favorite places to visit – the stunningly beautiful Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee.
So what, you might ask, does Belle Meade Plantation have to do with the famous race? Well, normally when we hear the word “plantation” we think of agricultural endeavors – pursuits like cotton, sugar, indigo or tobacco. But this gorgeous plantation was not made famous for its crops but rather as a world-renowned, premier stud farm. That’s right – some of the thoroughbred racing world’s most famous names have bloodlines tracing directly to Belle Meade Plantation.
History of Belle Meade:
Belle Meade – meaning “Beautiful Meadow” – was built in 1853, by John Harding, on a 250-acre woodland plot that was once used as hunting grounds by early settlers. Harding’s skills as a farmer, aptitude for business, purchase of enslaved people to help run his farm, in addition to his acquisition of a cotton gin, a grist mill and a saw mill, all contributed to making a name for his plantation. But it was his passion for thoroughbred horses that led to his greatest success.
Horse racing was gaining popularity in the south. And with a natural love for horses, Harding added boarding and breeding to the services already offered at Belle Meade. His son, William Giles Harding – who also loved horses, took over the management of the enterprise in 1839. And later in 1868 Harding’s daughter, Selene, married General William Hicks Jackson, also an avid horseman and Belle Meade continued to thrive. By this time, Belle Meade was stabling over 400 horses and had grown to 3,500 acres. Upon John Harding’s death in 1886 – it was said that Belle Meade had done more to promote thoroughbred breeding than anyone or anything in America.
Belle Meade’s Connection to the Kentucky Derby:
Many successful stud horses stood at Belle Meade plantation over the course of her rich history. These include Bonnie Scotland (1873 to 1879) and Iroquois (1886 to 1899) – bloodlines that extend to thoroughbreds of today. Bonnie Scotland sired a long list of pedigreed racing greats. Man O’War, Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and the 2018 Kentucky Derby winner – Justify, to name a few. In fact, all horses that raced in the 2018 Kentucky Derby had pedigrees tracing back to Bonnie Scotland. And Iroquois, one of the five bloodlines required today to run in the Triple Crown Series, collected an unheard of, $2,500, for stud fees in the year 1892!
The enslaved people living and working at Belle Meade often became jockeys, grooms and trainers. Even after emancipation, several families continued to live at Belle Meade, while others commuted from Nashville to continue working for the Harding-Jackson family and their equestrian enterprise. This aptitude led to higher status for the African-Americans, including better treatment and more personal freedom. Bob Green was one such African-American at Belle Meade. He became the head groom at Belle Meade and was considered, in racing circles, an expert on all things related to Thoroughbred horses. He always wore a white apron and, according to ledgers found at Belle Meade, was the highest paid worker on the estate. Per his request, he was buried with the horses at Belle Meade in an unmarked grave.
The most famous African-American jockey of the 1800’s is also known as one of the greatest jockey’s in ALL of American Thoroughbred racing history. Isaac Murphy not only won three Kentucky Derby’s, he won 44% of all races he entered! Today, his final resting place is next to Man O’War at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
Attend the Derby!
The famous Kentucky Derby has been run continuously since 1875 – neither the Great Depression nor either World War stopped the annual competition, dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports”, from being run. And there are plenty of Derby activities to keep you busy! Happenings leading up to the big event like the Taste of Derby, taking place the week before and featuring top chefs, to the Fillies & Lilies Party held on the eve of the Derby and host to big-name entertainment. Not to mention the entire two full days of racing, celebrity meet and greets and other activities on Derby weekend itself – there is something for everyone.
AND something for every price range too! From the Infield seats that start around $75 per person. Don’t expect to actually see any racing from here – but you can watch things on the Jumbotron. AND – you’ll be able to say you’ve been plus it’s a terrific reason to wear a great hat! To the Grandstand seats ranging from around $400 to $700 per person – these are bleacher seats but you can see the racing from here. All the way to the Clubhouse seats that go for anywhere from $500 to $5,000 a pop! See? Something for everyone – all 100,000+ people that will attend. Get tickets at www.derbyexperiences.com (these guys offer a payment plan!) or www.kentuckyderby.com.
Visit Belle Meade Plantation:
But, when in the Nashville, Tennessee area – don’t miss a visit to this beautiful plantation to experience racing history. There are several tours to choose from. The Mansion Tour, led by guides in period dress, takes you through the rooms of the beautiful Greek-Revival mansion while learning all about the folks who lived here and their contribution to its equestrian legacy. You can even see an ink well made from one of Iroquois’ hooves (eeek!).
Other tours include Journey to Jubilee – a new tour where you’ll learn about the enslaved people at the plantation and how these skilled laborers impacted the success of the renowned estate. The Bourbon at Belle Meade tour takes place in a renovated icehouse from the 1800’s where you’ll sip various bourbon whiskies and learn the history of bourbon in the south. They even have a Segway tour! Check out their website for these and the many other tours they have to offer.
Also on property is a gift shop with a great selection of books, unique merchandise reminiscent of southern culture, as well as all things “horse”. You can purchase homemade fudge, ice cream or other treats at the Coop ‘n Scoop. Or if you’re really hungry, have breakfast or lunch at the Harding House Restaurant – we shared a “pink” deviled egg appetizer and Reuben sandwich – pretty darned good!
They even have a winery on property where, with the purchase of a mansion tour, you can enjoy a complimentary tasting. The winery gift shop offers a variety of red and white wines as well as a large selection of gifts, kitchen and barware. Our favorite was the Iroquois Red Cabernet that they generously uncorked for us, as they allow you to sip wine while exploring the plantation grounds on your own.
The Final Years at Belle Meade:
The country’s economy took a downturn in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s due to crop and bank failures, large drops in the price of cotton, and an erratic stock market which sent the U.S. into an economic panic. The economic struggle hit Belle Meade, as well, with insurmountable debt. The process of selling off horses and property, in order to make ends meet, ensued. This continued and by 1906, all of Belle Meade and its land had either been auctioned off or sold.
While the racing thoroughbreds are all gone from Belle Meade, they do keep a few horses on property, but today they have nothing to do with racing. Yet, somehow, you can still feel the pride as you walk the grounds. And learning about and telling others about this time in history ensures that the legacy of equestrian greatness at the Belle Meade Plantation lives on. So, on your next visit to the Nashville area, make time to visit this historical estate from our past – I’m sure you’ll feel the pride too! Contact Info: 110 Leake Ave., Nashville, TN 37205 / 615 356-0501 / www.bellemeadeplantation.com.
Have you ever visited Belle Meade Plantation? What did you enjoy about the property? OR, have you had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Kentucky Derby? How was THAT? We would love to hear all about it in the comments section!! Until next time … thanks for “keeping up with us”!