Belle Meade was founded in 1807, and had Thoroughbreds standing at stud within 10 years of that date, launching an equine dynasty closely linked with the family who resided there and saw it become one of the premiere Thoroughbred farms in the country. As Jenny Lamb wrote in a history of the farm, “it was customary for Southern gentlemen to own and race Thoroughbreds at that time,” and when farm founder John Harding moved from Virginia to Tennessee, he brought that tradition with him.
It’s been decades since Tennessee was a fount of top racehorses, though there is still a limited breeding industry there today. That makes it even more interesting that the bloodlines of horses raised and bred at Belle Meade have progeny in top races around the country to this day.
Nashville had its own racetrack then, and several others in close proximity. John Harding’s son William followed in his father’s footsteps, helping him train horses and bringing more prominence to the breeding industry in Tennessee by launching yearling sales in 1867 of horses he bred, held nearly continuously until 1902.
One plaque on the property featured a quote from William Giles Harding, written to the American Turf Register in 1839, the year he took over Belle Meade from his father John, further attesting to Tennessee’s importance in the Thoroughbred world at that time. Harding wrote, “This, I suppose is the acknowledged center of the horse racing region. Blood stock here is all the go. To be without it is to be out of fashion and destitute of taste. So, I too, have procured a little of the real grit which by-and-by I hope to increase.”
It is interesting to note what he said, given that it could now be used to describe Kentucky and is a mere afterthought of Tennessee’s contributions to racing, if thought of at all.
The farm achieved even greater prominence when Selene Harding, William Harding’s daughter, married General William Hicks Jackson, who moved to the Belle Meade property and was granted 1/3 of the ownership of the farm. He acted as “daily manager… and his flair for entertaining and his confident outgoing nature helped the farm to attract thousands of people to the yearling sales,” according to Jenny Lamb’s record. Dignitaries flocked to the renowned farm, drawn by its name and the Jackson family’s status in society. Thoroughbreds had indeed made the difference John Harding anticipated they would when he founded Belle Meade and sought to emulate the gentlemen of his day.
The family did have an enslaved populace during most of the years they owned Belle Meade, and one footnote to that provided insight I had never heard before about what happened to men who served in the Confederate Army after the Civil War was over. The tour guide during my visit made certain to mention it would not be sugarcoated that this too, was part of the farm’s history. William Giles Harding was imprisoned in Michigan for 6 months for his role as a staunch supporter of the Confederate cause and his service, after which he was returned to Belle Meade and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, according to the tour guide.
Family illnesses, deaths, and financial concerns began to signal the end of Belle Meade’s status in the early 1900s, although William Harding Jackson inherited the estate at the age of two, along with his aunt and a few other family members. Jackson went on to serve as Deputy Director of the CIA, the first in his family in generations not to have a strong link to Belle Meade and the tradition that had been fostered. He found his success elsewhere, understandably since the plantation lifestyle and the Thoroughbred’s importance in Tennessee were both receding quickly.
Another interesting item of note from the tour guide was that the reason the Thoroughbred industry died out in Tennessee was partially because of the temperance movement and their strong condemnation of any social public gatherings that involved drinking and gambling, and they did target the racing industry. Kentucky was described as having been a few steps ahead of the temperance movement, so the racing and breeding industry retained its foothold there.
Yet without the commitment to the breed and industry shown by generations at Belle Meade, some of the foundation that flows through the bloodlines of the Kentucky industry would not be present.
Bonnie Scotland was far and away Belle Meade’s most successful sire. He was imported from England to the U.S. in 1857, standing stud in several states before being acquired by Belle Meade when they lost their top stallion, beginning his stud duties there in 1873. He was America’s leading sire in 1880 and in 1882, though he died early in 1880. He is the grandsire of Ben Brush and many twentieth century Kentucky Derby winners trace their lineage to Bonnie Scotland, among them Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.
Iroquois was another renowned import acquired by Belle Meade, and was the first American-bred to win the English Derby, and also won the St. Leger. He was acquired by Belle Meade after his racing career, and his 1892 stud fee of $2,500 was a huge sum at the time and he also became a leading sire. In fact, Iroquois was so revered at the farm that there are to this day two unique items associated with him in the grand Belle Meade mansion.
One is an elaborate creation of his pedigree, entirely hand-stitched and hanging on the wall in a frame. I have never seen any other pedigree created like it. Iroquois’ photo was at the center of it and radiating outwards were the names of his ancestors enclosed in circles and with most having their notable racing achievements listed beneath their names.
The other “memorabilia” in the home associated with the famed horse were a pair of his hooves, preserved after he died of kidney-related ailments, sitting on a desk.
Luke Blackburn, while not owned by Belle Meade, was a prime example of the excellence his sire Bonnie Scotland was renowned for producing. He won 15 consecutive races as a 3-year-old in 1880, and upon retirement he took up stud duties at Belle Meade. He had only three stakes winners, but he wrote his name in racing history with his prowess on the track and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1956.
Enquirer was sired by Leamington, and descended from Diomed. He won 7 of his 9 starts, and was named champion three-year-old of 1870 after winning all of his races that season. He quickly became a success as a sire in Kentucky, and was acquired by Belle Meade in 1879 for stud duty. Author Ridley Wells II wrote in Belle Meade Bloodlines that the plan behind his addition to the stud roster there was to succeed Leamington as the top American sire and “back up the aging Bonnie Scotland…however, Enquirer did not succeed Leamington as the top American sire; Bonnie Scotland did.”
Enquirer did continue his streak of success, however, and was among the top sires annually, ranking third on that list in 1886, and remained at Belle Meade until his death in September 1895.
Since Enquirer was named for the newspaper the Cincinnati Enquirer, Wells wrote, “During the Tennessee Centennial Celebration [in 1897], a handsome marble monument was erected to Enquirer’s memory at Belle Meade by John R. McLean, publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer. About 400 people, including a large group from Cincinnati, were present for the dedication exercises held over the horse’s grave in his paddock. The monument now stands near the stable at Belle Meade.”
Wells also wrote of Gamma, a gray filly foaled in 1836 who went on to win several 4-mile heats in the course of her race career. She was also not a product of the Belle Meade breeding program, but was purchased as a three-year-old by General Harding and endeared herself to him by defeating the great Wagner in a four-mile race when she was four years old. “She was considered ‘one of the gamest and most beautiful race animals that ever graced the turf of Tennessee.’ After her turf career ended, she served many years as a broodmare at Belle Meade, bearing several colts that won renown. Gamma died at Belle Meade on February 24, 1867, in her thirty-first year. General Harding’s eyes teared when he showed her portrait to visitors.”
Those are just a sampling of the top horses that were bred or served as sires or broodmares at Belle Meade. In addition to being honored with portraits still hanging in the home, like the one referenced of Gamma, some of the successful horses are also remembered with wines named after them that are offered at Belle Meade. Each tour includes a wine tasting with a chance to purchase bottles of wine named after Enquirer and Iroquois.
One final note about the Belle Meade legacy comes from The Thoroughbred Record in 1923:
“When they had racing at Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee was full of breeding farms and some of the foremost citizens of the state were engaged in breeding thoroughbred horses. A very few breeders still continue to breed good horses in that state because they can’t help it–it is a natural attribute, but the great thoroughbred horse breeding industry of Tennessee is gone, in eliminating horse racing they established and uncongenial atmosphere and drove most of the breeders out of business. And what a superlative record Tennessee has as a breeding state, farms such as Belle Meade and Fairview, would each have fifty or more yearlings to sell at public auction annually, while Captain James Franklin, with only a small number of mares, sent to the races such equine stars as George Kinney, Luke Blackburn and many other high class horses. Belle Meade is one of the oldest of the Western thoroughbred nurseries. It was settled by Mr. John Harding, the father of General W.G. Harding, in 1804. The mighty Priam, winner of the English Derby in 1840, here held court, also Eagle and Bluster, imported horses, were in their day at the head of Belle Meade Stud. Here too the mighty Vandal, great Jack Malone, Sir Richard, Highlander, and Childe Harold, each succeeded in his turn to become lord of the manor. These were succeeded by imported Bonnie Scotland, who died full of years and honors in 1880. John Morgan, Enquirer, imp. Great Tom, Luke Blackburn, Bramble and Iroquois followed as reigning monarchs on the throne of Priam and Vandal. The number of great race horses bred at Belle Meade is legion, among the number is Gamma, the mighty grey mare which dominated the turf in her day, about seventy-five years ago. Charles Reed’s Fairview Farm was another famous nursery that sent annually to the races horses of great distinction, among the number may be mentioned Don Alonzo, Hornpipe, Woodcutter…and many others that were champions in their day. All this emphasizes the fact that Tennessee is one of the best horse breeding states in the Union, but on account of adverse legislation and no racing, the business has fallen from the proud position it once held as an important agricultural asset to the state. Maryland is reviving and emulating the deeds of her early pioneers in establishing pleasant, comfortable homes out on the farms and breeding high class horses. It would be possible with a reasonable law to attain the same results in Tennessee.”
Nearly one hundred years since those words were written, racing has not regained its foothold in Tennessee and is unlikely to, yet the legacy of Belle Meade endures. It became even greater than it was ever hoped for, when owning Thoroughbreds enhanced the status of the individual. Instead those Thoroughbreds and their descendants went on to enhance the status of the breed itself, with careful management and wise investments in horses with top pedigrees and excellent race records. Their names are remembered and written in racing annals, and some are inscribed in the Hall of Fame. Yes, Belle Meade has endured.
Belle Meade Bloodlines, Ridley Wells II, 1990.
The Thoroughbred Record, April 14, 1923.
“Luke Blackburn.” https://www.racingmuseum.org/hall-of-fame/luke-blackburn
“Bonnie Scotland.” http://www.tbheritage.com/Portraits/BonnieScotland.html