“Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the Derby, you ain’t never been nowheres and you ain’t never seen nothin’!” Irvin S. Cobb once said.
Wait a minute, Hoss!
Folks are apt to think Kentuckians tawk funny on a regular basis, and don’t become fully awake until the first Saturday in May.
You could just as easily say, “Until you go to a thoroughbred farm in Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the sun coming up as winter converges into spring, you haven’t been too many places and haven’t seen the likes of what we have around these Bluegrass parts.”
When the sun breaks through the layered clouds of pale blue and blended gold over the juncture of Donaldson and Stoner creeks, just over the ridges from Pretty Run Creek, a man goes to his stables day after day and turns out the mares from the maternity stalls.
Bill Dickson—seventh generation to live on this carpet of limestone-based soil, nurturing the bone density of those flying legs—mucks the stalls, counts the days leading to the breeding shed, dreams the dream of another Run for the Roses. This year it’s May 1, next year it’s May 7—the “greatest two minutes in sports.”
Here’s the thing.
While the first Saturday in May is the glorious, flower-bedecked day at Churchill Downs in Louisville, when the ladies sally around with their saucy hats and lads and lassies duel with elbows in the infield, every day is Derby Day at Glen Oak Farm and hundreds of other thoroughbred farms in the inner Bluegrass.
There’s more to it than beautiful clothes on Millionaire’s Row and bare skin at the center of the mile-and-a-quarter oval. There’s something called work.
Bill Dickson boards horses for owners as far away as India, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. He’s responsible for 20 to 30 mares, making sure that their $100,000 stud-fee foals arrive as close as possible to New Year’s Day, the universal birthday for all thoroughbreds.
With about 500 gently rolling acres to fence and make safe for animals valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, Bill also manages his cows and calves—the total herd is approximately 100—and every last one of them eats!
Bill produces about 20,000 square bales and 800 round bales of hay, principally alfalfa, which he markets to clients in the area.
There was a time when such a farm might involve many workers living in tenant houses; now machinery and carefully constructed facilities make what amounts to a one-man operation not only a possibility but a necessity. One full-time employee lends a helping hand, but the key words are businesslike and down-to-earth.
This earth—populated with 200- and 300-year-old burr oak and ash and younger sycamores—is a Camelot requiring constant attention and boundless energy: a family tradition. Bill’s pioneer ancestor John Rice built the white-column home in 1810 and some of his children are buried nearby, graves marked with simplicity and respect.
The passing generations have witnessed the incomparable view from atop the highest hill, and when the sun goes down there’s a spreading view of the land that constitutes the infrastructure for such magical moments as Monday, May 17, 1875—the first running of the Kentucky Derby.
The first of the Derby winners was Aristides, ridden by Oliver Lewis, an African-American. This year’s Derby will be the 130th.
When future first Saturdays in May come thundering down the homestretch, Bill Dickson and his family at Glen Oak Farm may be standing at the winner’s circle.
But—“Just to own a mare and breed a Kentucky Derby winner” is victory enough, says Bill, who has about 50 years more to make it happen.
Until then, it takes infinite patience and a calm walk to the stables if there’s to be a length of a chance in this “Sport of Kings.”