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    Belle Meade Bloodlines | Fall 2004 Out Here Magazine

    The entryway of Belle Meade mansion - Tractor Supply Co.
    Belle Meade is best known as a beautiful example of an Old South mansion, but evidence of its rich equine history lines the walls in the opulent entryway.

    Long-ago thoroughbred nursery still produces racing champions

    By Carol Davis

    Photography by David Wright

    Racing phenomenon Smarty Jones has more in common with Secretariat than membership in the exclusive Kentucky Derby winner's circle — both horses' bloodlines are traced back to Belle Meade, a Tennessee plantation that survived the ravages of the Civil War to become a world-class thoroughbred farm.

    If not for plantation owner William Giles Harding's determination, the farm's decades-old breeding program might have ceased. After all, Union troops helped themselves to much of Harding's property and supplies — including most of his stock.

    But Belle Meade (French for "beautiful meadow") fortunately sustained less damage than many other plantations and, within a year, Harding was well on his way to creating a preeminent stud farm of its day. Extraordinarily selective breeding by Harding and, later on, his son-in-law, William Jackson, created success and a name for Belle Meade.

    A magnificent stallion named Bonnie Scotland created most of Belle Meade's breeding success, historians agree. Bonnie Scotland's legacy remains in the bloodlines of about 75-80 percent of today's thoroughbred racehorses, says Norman Burns, executive director of Belle Meade, now owned by an historic association.

    Indeed, most Kentucky Derby winners can be traced back to Bonnie Scotland, says Ridley Wills II, Harding's great-great grandson, of Franklin, Tenn. Wills has written the story of Belle Meade in his book, The History of Belle Meade Mansion, Plantation, and Stud.

    Indeed, most Kentucky Derby winners can be traced back to Bonnie Scotland, says Ridley Wills II, Harding's great-great grandson, of Franklin, Tenn. Wills has written the story of Belle Meade in his book, The History of Belle Meade Mansion, Plantation, and Stud.

    "(Jackson) would look at how they raced and he'd put the best brood mares to the best stallions," Burns says. "It's that speed and endurance that continue today."

    These days, just 30 acres remain of the plantation that once numbered 5,000 acres, the stables are long gone, and upscale neighborhoods dot the gentle landscape where thoroughbreds once pastured. Belle Meade's thoroughbred nursery may be history, but, because of Harding and Jackson, the bloodlines of its long-ago horses continue to course through the veins of such contemporary racing champions as Funny Cide and War Emblem.

    Visitors who take Belle Meade's guided tour mostly are interested in seeing the inside of an Old South mansion, and many leave without realizing its rich equine history.

    But if you stand in the mansion's grand entryway, where thoroughbred paintings line the walls, and pause a bit, you just might hear the soft whinny of a Belle Meade champion.

    Carol Davis, Out Here editor, had a childhood horse, Babe, who had the body of a nag but the heart of a thoroughbred.