By Sid Fernando
Was it divine intervention?
As the story goes, sometime in late 1923 or early 1924, a Kentucky pastor, Rev. Dr. Thomas Settle, convinced some state legislators in Frankfort not to end legalized gambling in Kentucky by repealing parimutuel wagering, much to the relief of the Kentucky Jockey Club and other concerned horsemen. Most ministers may have taken the opposite tack at the time, but not Dr. Settle, and this made him stand out. A well-travelled Englishman who'd found his way to a small congregation on Main St. and Bell Ct. in Lexington, Dr. Settle had loved horses from youth and worked at a track early in life, and he also had personal and practical experience with gambling (which he regretted). He argued that repealing the law that made wagering at the track legal would lead to the proliferation of unregulated and illegal gambling with bookmakers, which he considered a greater evil.
Apparently his Oscar-like performance swayed enough lawmakers to put the brakes on the Bennett Bill. Dr. Settle's delivery was compelling without being over the top, and it was characterized with such words as “voiced,” “spoken,” “tell it,” “preach,” and “narrate.” For his efforts, grateful horsemen in the state and from across the country who'd heard of his defense raised money to build him a new church in Lexington, and inscribed on a plaque within its tower walls is this poignant acknowledgement: “To the Glory of God This Church Is Given to Him by the Lovers of the Horse From All Over the Country As A Token of Appreciation of Their Father's Goodness to His Children – Man.” It's dated 1926.
Religion, politics, and money have long been historically intertwined in horse racing in Kentucky, and what's actually known nowadays as Historical Horse Racing (HHR), Kentucky's equivalent to the slots that has propped up racing and breeding in other states, is very much a part of the present landscape in a state that's the center of the breeding industry in the U.S. HHR games have fueled purse monies in Kentucky to such an extent that the recent Kentucky Downs meet, for example, featured $150,000 maiden races, $500,000 Listed races, and several $1 million Grade ll and Grade lll events. HHR, to understate it, has been a boon to Kentucky horsemen, but horsemen take nothing for granted now. They know winds can change path in a heartbeat, and they have organized groups like the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP) to advocate for Kentucky's most famous industry. Several of the movers and shakers behind the scenes are the younger generation like Case Clay of Three Chimneys, the chairman of KEEP, and Price Bell of Mill Ridge, a board member.
Kentucky, let's face it, is a socially conservative state, and despite its starring role in the racing/breeding industry as the home of the Gl Kentucky Derby–the most famous race in the country–and of such outstanding stallions, among others, as Gainesway's Tapit, sire of the undefeated Flightline, widely considered the best horse in training on the planet at the moment; Spendthrift's Into Mischief, sire of Flightline's chief challenger, Life Is Good; and Three Chimneys's Gun Runner, who is represented so far by a jaw-dropping six Grade l winners from his first crop of 3-year-olds, including two Grade l winners and five overall stakes winners Saturday, there's still plenty of opposition to HHR from those who view it as nothing more than a game of chance that's a contributor to moral and societal decay.
This friction between anti-and pro-gambling forces in Kentucky has existed for more than a hundred years, and horsemen have walked a tightrope protecting their interests for just as long. They're just better organized now than during the time of Dr. Settle, but, ironically, a parimutuel issue was once again at the center of the most recent storm that could have had dire ramifications. In February of 2021, HHR, which has been around for a decade, had to be legally written into law as a parimutuel game by Kentucky legislators after the Kentucky Supreme Court said parts of it were not and were therefore potentially illegal. After heated debate, both the House and the Senate passed legislation that included HHR within the definition of parimutuel betting, and it was signed into law by Gov. Andy Beshear on Feb. 22, 2021.
But Case Clay said it “came down to the wire,” and the final score–the votes to pass in both chambers were comfortable enough on the surface–didn't represent the closeness of the game.
“The HHR vote underlined the relevance of KEEP,” said Clay. “Relationship building with legislators is an important function of KEEP, and it's something we work on to advocate for the industry.”
Headley Bell, managing partner at Mill Ridge and Price Bell's father, understands relationship building. Mill Ridge threw a party on the Thursday evening after the first four days of selling at Keeneland, and guests included members of the Lexington community outside racing circles, as well as those within it. Linda Gorton, the mayor of Lexington, and Steve Kay, the vice-mayor, were also present, as were representatives of Horse Country Inc., a group of farms and businesses that provides educational tours “dedicated to sharing the stories of Kentucky's Horse Country.” Mill Ridge, with its storied history, is one of many destinations.
Dr. Settle's Dream
Oscar Performance (Kitten's Joy) stands at Mill Ridge and occupies the same one-stall stallion barn that once housed the excellent sire Diesis (GB) years ago. Oscar got his 10th first-crop winner Friday when first-time starter Dr. Settle's Dream won a New York-bred maiden special on turf at Belmont-at-Aqueduct for Byron Nimocks's Circle N Thoroughbreds. The win was particularly satisfying for Headley Bell, not only as another winner for the farm's sire, but also because he'd bought the colt for new friend and client Nimocks at OBS June for $30,000 through his Nicoma agency. And how about this? Bell is a longtime member of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on Main St. and Bell Ct. that Dr. Settle built, and Bell said that Nimocks's family “is very involved with the church” as well, hence the name of the colt.
Dr. Settle's Dream was bred by Scott Pierce in New York. His first two dams, Voiced, by War Front, and Spoken, by Unbridled's Song, respectively, haven't yet produced any stakes horses, but his Storm Cat third dam Tell It has a stakes winner to her credit, and his fourth dam is Preach, a Grade I winner by Mr. Prospector and the dam of the highly influential stallion Pulpit. The fifth dam is the Honest Pleasure mare Narrate. Not only that, the colt's first seven dams were bred by the Hancocks of Claiborne (the dam was bred by Claiborne in partnership with Adele B. Dilschneider), and Dr. Settle's Dream's seventh dam is Monarchy, a full-sister to Round Table. Bell was no doubt attracted to this long and deep line of Hancock mares, and perhaps their names elicited a smile when he'd zeroed in on the colt.
The gregarious Price Bell is general manager at Mill Ridge and runs the farm's day-to-day operations. I ran into him outside the Mill Ridge consignment on the Sunday before the Keeneland sale began, and we had a conversation about Mill Ridge's past. He reminded me that it was Bull Hancock who'd purchased Sir Ivor for Raymond Guest at the 1966 Keeneland summer sale, paying $42,000 for the future English Derby winner and European champion that Alice Chandler (as Mrs. Reynolds W. Bell), Headley's mother, had bred. Hal Price Headley, Alice Chandler's father, was one of the founders of Keeneland, and Bull Hancock's father, A. B. Hancock Sr., was one of its first trustees.
One thing led to another as we were discussing history and the relationships between the two families, and Price said he had an interesting article for me to read. From his phone he sent it to me right there. It was copy from the Indianapolis Sunday Star from Jan. 16, 1927, and it was about Rev. Dr. Thomas Settle and the church that he built after defending parimutuel wagering in Frankfort. Later that week when I spoke with Headley and Price Bell at the Mill Ridge party, they convinced me to visit Dr. Settle's church the next day–on Friday, the dark day of selling. This was one week before the horse named after Dr. Settle won in New York.
Dr. Settle's dream was to build a magnificent church in the English Gothic style, and he realized that dream through the largesse of horsemen, who'd originally offered the minister $50,000 to put toward a house and car after his performance in Frankfort. As the story goes, Dr. Settle demurred and instead asked for donations to build a church for his community, and industry members from Kentucky and across the country responded heartily. One report states that the Thoroughbred Horse Association–Hal Price Headley was the organization's first president–alone raised more than $180,000. A.B. Hancock, Sr. was a big contributor, as were Col. E.R. Bradley of Idle Hour, J.E. Widener of Elmendorf, H.P. Whitney, Max Hirsch, and Charles Berryman (manager of Elmendorf), among many others.
Dr. Settle's attention to detail is evident in the structure as it stands today. The stained glass windows, for instance, are intricate, ornate, and expensive, and the museum-grade wood carvings are from Oberammergau, Germany, which is noted for its highly skilled craftsmen. (The well-known Oberammergau Passion Play's star at the time was the potter Anton Lang, who played Christ in the 1922 production. Lang toured the U.S. in 1923–he was on the cover of Time magazine that year–and brought with him craftsmen from Oberammergau who exhibited their carvings. It's highly likely that Dr. Settle saw or read about this and commissioned expensive works for Good Shepherd subsequently.)
There's a cautionary aspect to the Dr. Settle story, too. In his quest to realize his dream, Dr. Settle spent more than he had, and by the time he left Good Shepherd in 1929, he left the church so heavily in debt that it took years for the congregation to get clear.
But his dream survives as a magnificent house of worship for newer generations of Lexingtonians, and that's what matters.
It matters, too, that horsemen played a role in realizing Dr. Settle's dream.
Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.