Adena, the Chillicothe home of Ohio’s sixth governor, Thomas Worthington, has never looked better. Maybe I’m biased because of my family’s connection to the historic site, but the lovely established garden, the outstanding docent who guided us through the house, and an interesting new discovery made our most recent visit especially enjoyable.
I’ve already written about Adena and its garden, as well as my great-great-great grandmother who grew up there. But did you know that Henry Clay, the prominent American politician who visited Adena on a few occasions, played an important role in making the bluegrass region of Kentucky the premier place for Thoroughbred horse breeding and racing?
In celebration of the Kentucky Derby, Eric Brooks, curator and site manager of Ashland, Henry Clay’s Lexington, Kentucky estate, traveled to Adena to tell visitors about not only the social and political connections between Worthington and Clay, but also the keen eye that Clay had for fine horses.
During his career, Clay represented Kentucky in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives. He also served as Speaker of the House and as Secretary of State, so it wasn’t unusual for his path to cross Governor Worthington’s. But Worthington’s wife and daughters were also friends of Henry Clay’s wife, Lucretia, so they visited Adena often. When the Clays visited the Worthingtons, they stayed in this room.
Five years after Clay moved to Lexington from Virginia in 1797, he began buying land that was once an ash forest for his plantation. He started calling his Kentucky estate “Ashland” by 1809, and he lived there with his family until his death in 1852. Clay’s Federal-style brick mansion on the Ashland estate, with two additions designed by Benjamin Latrobe between 1811 and 1814, has been open to the public as a historic house museum since 1950.
Besides raising livestock and hemp on his plantation, Clay raced and bred Thoroughbreds. In 1806, he and some Kentucky gentlemen bought an 18-year-old race-winning stallion named Buzzard for $5,500. Two years later, Clay began racing Thoroughbreds. His racing colors were buff and blue, the colors of the American Whig party. Clay began to breed Thoroughbreds in 1830.
Other horses Clay owned were named Susan, Margaret Wood, Magnolia, Yorkshire, Allegrante, Zenobia, and Yorkshire. Twelve descendants of Clay’s horses have won the Kentucky Derby; more have won other major stakes races. The Ashland Stakes, an annual Thoroughbred horse race, is named for Clay’s estate.
Clay’s son, John Morrison Clay, and John’s wife, Josephine Russell Erwin Clay, also trained, raced and bred horses at their farm near Ashland. After John’s death, Josephine became the first woman to own and operate a Thoroughbred horse farm in America. Additionally, she wrote several novels and short stories, many of which had horse-racing themes. They include Some Little of the Angel Still Left, Uncle Phil, The Sport of Kings, What Would You Do, Love?, Frank Logan, and What Will the World Say?: A Novel of Everyday Life.
To learn more about Henry Clay, his home and his interest in horses, read Ashland: The Henry Clay Estate, an Arcadia Publishing paperback by Eric Brooks from the Images of America series; “Henry Clay’s Legacy to Horse Breeding and Racing,” an article by Jeff Meyer on pages 473-496 in the Autumn 2002 issue of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society; and Josephine Clay: Pioneer Horsewoman of the Bluegrass, by Henry Clay Simpson, Jr. Kentucky Bloodlines: The Legacy of Henry Clay was published in connection with “Henry Clay and Horses,” an exhibit at the International Museum of the Horse that took place in the summer of 2005.