Later today, the Kentucky Derby will be run for the 138th time.
Twenty thoroughbred horses – a very large field – will thunder around the track at Churchill Downs for a mile-and-a-quarter in an attempt to win what their owners and jockeys have been dreaming of: the first and likely the most impressive jewel in racing’s Triple Crown. Before darkness falls tonight, millions of dollars in bets will have changed hands, and it’ll all be over in about two or three minutes, start to finish.
Horse racing is all about good breeding and good training. Good breeding comes first.
If there are people anywhere who are as passionate as genealogists about tracing pedigrees, they can be found in the world of thoroughbred horse racing and breeding. Untested yearlings are bought and sold for staggering sums by folks who study the horses’ genealogical charts for ten generations or more. It’s a sport where bloodlines are everything…at least in the beginning.
Today’s race has an interesting genealogical twist. Every horse in today’s Kentucky Derby is a cousin of one sort or another to every other horse. In fact, each horse racing today is a descendant of an English-born stallion named “Bonnie Scotland.”
I know this piece of racing trivia because I spent part of last night and this morning poring over the contending horses’ genealogical charts, acting on the hunch that Bonnie Scotland would likely appear somewhere in each thoroughbred’s ancestry.
Bonnie Scotland died in 1880 in Davidson County, Tennessee, after serving eight highly successful years at stud, siring the ancestors of all of today’s Derby contenders, and thousands of other thoroughbreds.
And so begins our unusual family tale, which will first take us back to early Virginia and to an early ancestor of Mrs. Blogger named Rene Massoneau LaForce.
Rene Massoneau LaForce, immigrant from France, died in Goochland County, Virginia in 1728. Two of his many grandchildren were Zulima LaForce (daughter of his son Rene Junior who was Mrs. Blogger’s ancestor) and Zulima’s younger cousin Giles Harding, son of Rene Senior’s daughter Sarah. (For those interested, an excellent and thorough study of the early LaForce family of Virginia was researched and written by Cameron Allen, FASG, and was published in several parts in The Genealogist in 2004/2005.)
Rene’s granddaughter Zulima married and settled down not far from her parents and grandparents homeplaces in the part of Virginia where Goochland and Fluvanna counties meet. Her cousin Giles and his brother William, however, had other, more adventurous radical ideas. Like many other Virginians of the time, Giles set out with his young wife to try his luck in Tennessee, while his brother William went south to North Carolina.
No one can say if Giles or William Harding kept in touch with their first cousin Zulima and their other kin in old Virginia. Chances are, it didn’t take long for the families to lose touch. Chances are, Zulima never learned much, if anything, about Giles and his children and grandchildren in Tennessee.
What follows is the story of that part of Giles’ life that Zulima never learned about.
Giles Harding and his wife settled in the part of Tennessee close to Nashville. His son John Harding started acquiring large tracts of land early on and was quite successful in his land dealings. Young John Harding’s holdings grew and grew, and he was soon one of the county’s largest landowners.
He called his ever-growing plantation “Belle Meade.”
John Harding’s son William Giles Harding took over the day-to-day management of Belle Meade from his aging father in the mid-19th century. By then, Belle Meade had grown to more than 5,300 acres, and its master was a very wealthy man.
The 1860 census tells us approximately how wealthy.
William Giles Harding, the great-great grandson of Rene Massoneau LaForce, owned Davidson County land worth $275,000 and had personal (other than real estate) wealth of $130,500. You can see Harding’s 1860 census entry here:
While Belle Meade was a very large working farm, part of the family’s wealth came from horses.
You see, William Giles Harding, like his father John before him, had a way with horses. They bred them. They boarded them for others, including their friend and neighbor President Andrew Jackson. They trained them. And then they raced them. The Harding horses were thoroughbreds, with impeccable bloodlines.
In fact, the very first racing silks ever worn in the United States were the Belle Meade silks. And the Belle Meade-bred and Belle Meade-trained horses won races, with ever-increasing regularity. Word soon spread.
After the Civil War, William Giles Harding devoted all his energies and resources to his thoroughbreds and his stud farm. Belle Meade became known around the racing world on two continents as the premier thoroughbred breeding operation in North America. Winner after winner traced a lineage to the Belle Meade Stud.
When the very first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875, six of the fifteen horses in the race had some ancestral connection to William Giles Harding’s Belle Meade Stud. It is said that Harding’s collection of silver racing trophies was the largest in the world. In the racing world, William Giles Harding was a man to contend with, as were his horses.
In 1872, Harding bought a stallion for stud that had been raced in England a few years earlier. The stallion’s English racing career wasn’t particularly distinguished, but he had an impeccable bloodline. That horse was named Bonnie Scotland. While at Belle Meade, Bonnie Scotland’s performance at stud far surpassed his performance on the race course.
Bonnie Scotland appears in the genealogical charts of many of American racing’s greatest horses. Secretariat. Northern Dancer. Seattle Slew. A.P. Indy. They can all trace their pedigree back to Tennessee and a stallion named Bonnie Scotland who lived out his later life at Rene Massoneau LaForce’s great-great grandson’s Belle Meade Farm and Stud.
Sorry to say, Mrs. Blogger’s "stay-at-home" side of the same family did not prosper to quite the same degree. While they also had some land and they also had a few horses, their land and horses were different, in both kind and degree. You see, none of their horses were known for winning races, even at the county fairs. In fact, most of their horses saw service behind ploughs, where stamina was more important than speed.
So when we watch the Kentucky Derby later today, we’ll be cheering on the distant progeny of very distant cousin William Giles Harding’s magnificent stud horse Bonnie Scotland.
All twenty of ‘em.
Remember - no matter what the outcome, one of Bonnie Scotland's descendants is certain to win. You heard it here first and you can bet on it.
Like I said, good breeding comes first.