Thursday, May 17, 2018

Whiskey Men and Horse Racing

Foreword:   The affinity of whiskey men for horses and racing should come as no surprise to anyone.   With Kentucky as the center of the Nation’s liquor industry, as well as the famous producer of thoroughbreds, the attraction was  natural.  As the distillery ad above proclaimed, while the German might tout “wine, women and song,” the Kentuckian prefers “women, horses and whiskey.”  Featured here are four men, two of them from Kentucky and two Easterners, who used their wealth to indulge in what has been called, “the Sport of Kings.”

Thomas Jefferson (“Tom”) Megibben in 1847 went to work at the age of 16, finding work in a distillery that set the course for the rest of his life.  By the time of his death he had controlled multiple Kentucky distilleries and still had a financial interest in at least six.  Paramount among them was the Edgewater Distillery, located four miles southwest of Cynthiana in Harrison County.   At 200 acres it not only held Megibben’s distillery but a working farm, growing grain for his highly regarded whiskey and harboring a wide range of livestock, including horses, as shown on an artist’s drawing.

In addition to being the largest landowner in Harrison County, Megibben was a man of abundant energy, much of which he invested in horse racing.  In 1872 he bought his first thoroughbred and eventually ran a stable of fifty race horses and a hundred trotters and pacers.   He was president of the Kentucky Trotting Horse Breeders Association from 1873 to 1882.

Megibben’s steeds competed twice in the Kentucky Derby.   In 1882 his horse “Newbury” finished out of the money and in 1884 “Audrain” managed a third place.  The distiller is also remembered for having founded the Latonia Race Track in Covington, Kentucky, six miles south of Cincinnati.  Opened in 1883, it once was regarded as among the top sites in the nation for thoroughbred horse racing and drew more than 100,000 visitors annually.  Shown here, for more than a half century the track was host to many of the most famous horses in America before closing in 1939.

To breed fast horses and sell good bourbon were twin passions in the life of “Kentucky Colonel” James J. (“Jim”) Douglas.  Born in Kentucky in 1846, Douglas early in life engaged in the Louisville whiskey trade. In 1886 after years of apprenticeship to other whiskey men, Douglas struck out on his own.  He created a wholesale liquor business in Louisville and called his firm, J.J. Douglas  Company.

As his liquor dealership grew and prospered, Douglas became a rich man.  When asked his occupation by a census taker in 1900,  he replied, probably with tongue-in-cheek, “capitalist.”   Moreover, his interests were growing away from the liquor business and toward horses.   Called “an ardent racing fan,” in 1895 he developed and owned a trotting track known as Douglas Park.  Later the racetrack expanded to thoroughbred racing and competed directly with Churchill Downs, eventually becoming the home of the Kentucky Handicap.

Turning over the management of his liquor house to others, in 1896 Douglas moved from Louisville to the nearby hamlet of Middletown and a 300-acre horse farm. His estate, which came to be called “Douglas Place,” proved to be an excellent location to raise thoroughbreds.  His horse barns are shown here.  Douglas imported fine Irish stallions provide stud services.  Among them was a renowned racer named “Eothan.”  When Eothan died after siring such champions as “Requital”  and “Other Crack,”  his demise made headlines in the New York Times.  Douglas re-named his stables as the Eothan Stock Farm.  The annals of Kentucky horses are replete with his sale of thoroughbreds.   It was during this period that Douglas was designated a “Kentucky Colonel” by the governor.

After Douglas died in 1917 at the age of 71, control of his racetrack was taken by rival Churchill Downs that operated the facility until 1958.  Over time his horse farm went through several owners. Douglas’ home eventually was demolished and the farm developed into a residential subdivision known today as “Douglass Hills.”  

Born in 1859, Frank E. Lalley,  a Connecticut  liquor dealer and entrepreneur of Irish descent, became obsessed with Kentucky whiskey and Kentucky-bred horses.  Needing a steady supply of liquor for his “rectifying” operation in Bridgeport, about 1890 he bought a major interest in the Van Hook Distillery near Cynthiana and became its president.  Residing in Bridgeport with his family but making frequent trips to Kentucky, Lalley caught “horse fever.”

Lalley began to invest heavily in equines for harness racing. Rather than own part or all of a horse farm, his strategy was to buy already tested racers, an expensive proposition.  His signal most important purchase was of a horse named “Peter Manning,” a World Champion trotter.  Shown here is a photo of Peter Manning trotting home first in a photo from the Sept. 8, 1920 edition of the Horse Review. 

Peter Manning, had only two losses in thirty four races and his world record set in Lexington, Kentucky in 1922 remained unchallenged for fifteen years.   Recognizing that people would want to see this champion “up close and personal,”  Lalley put the horse on display at trotting exhibitions at dozens of county and state fairs.  With the onset of Prohibition, his Bridgeport liquor house was forced to close as did the Van Hook Distillery.  Lalley became a real estate dealer and sold Peter Manning to the Hanover Shoe Farms. The prize horse remained so great an attraction that the company was able to sell his name and image to a tobacco company for a line of cigars.

Brought to America as a toddler aboard an Irish famine ship, by dint of personal exertion, not family name or inherited wealth, James Hanley in 2007 was judged worthy of inclusion in the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.  Beginning in the liquor trade, expanding to brewing and other enterprises, Hanley carved out a brilliant career as an entrepreneur and horseman — including owning the fastest thoroughbred pacer in America, one he allegedly fed whiskey to induce speed.

Becoming wealthy initially through the sale of his flagship brand of whiskey, “Woodford Club Rye,” Hanley like many Irish was passionate about horse racing and became nationally known as the owner and trainer of successful race horses.  One of them, a pacer named “Prince Alert,” held the world record for running the half mile in 1.57 minutes at the Empire City Track in Yonkers, New York.  Hanley issued a paperweight with a photo of the horse to mark the occasion.  

Not everyone was as impressed with the horse as Hanley.  While calling Prince Alert “a handsome bay gelding of more than ordinary interest,”  Chicago Tribune racing scribe Henry Ten Eyck White in 1903 went on to describe the pacer as a “hop horse,” one that did his best when he was under the influence of stimulants.  “…Horsemen are well aware that some of his best miles…have been paced with a jorum of coffee and whiskey taken just before the start.”  In those days apparently it was legal to administer that kind of toddy, likely made with Hanley’s own Woodford Club.

These four whiskey men all invested heavily of their time, talent and treasure in odd-toed ungulate mammals belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae.  In requiting their passion for horses, all four were deeply involved in the racing scene, three had horse farms and produced thoroughbreds, two founded horse racing tracks, two owned champion trotter/pacers, and one raced his horses, although unsuccessfully, in the Kentucky Derby.  Their investment in “the sport of kings,” would not have been possible, however, except for the wealth each had reaped in the liquor trade.

Note:  The whiskey men treated here each also has a longer biography on this blog.  The references are:  Tom Megibben, September 26, 2015;  Jim Douglas, March 22, 2013;  Frank Lalley, February 2, 2013; and James Hanley,  August 22, 2017.

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