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Belle Meade Plantation’s Rich Horse Racing History

Belle Meade Plantation is part of the fabric of Nashville’s early history, once world-renowned as a premier Thoroughbred breeding farm. Next time you hear the thunder of hooves on the racing turf, remember the name of Belle Meade. Her legacy includes the bloodlines of horse racing legends such as Iroquois, Secretariat and Sea Biscuit, and winners of the past nine Kentucky Derbies can trace their bloodlines back to Belle Meade and her foundation sire, Bonnie Scotland.

Kentucky is known as the land of beautiful women and fast horses, but during the 19th century Tennessee was a significant extension of American Thoroughbred racing and breeding, with Belle Meade as its center. It all began back in 1807, when Virginian planter John Harding bought 250 acres and a log cabin on the southern edge of Nashville and established a trading post on the Natchez Trace. Bringing skills as a planter and horse breeder, his Belle Meade estate became known as the ‘Queen of Tennessee Plantations’ as he established a reputation for training and breeding winners for the track and registered the first racing silks in the country.

If you stand on the front porch of the mansion, imagine it is December 15, 1864. Harding’s son, William Giles, has almost doubled the Federal style mansion in size with extensive Greek revival features, including a front porch with sold limestone columns. The 5,400 acre estate has a carriage house, stables, smokehouse, garden house, dairy, blacksmith forge, racetrack and train depot. The Civil War has halted all breeding operations and Confederate General Chalmers of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry command has previously established Belle Meade as his headquarters.

On this day, Chalmers returns to Belle Meade from fighting on Charlotte Pike, to find Union soldiers have burned Confederate wagons parked at the racetrack on the plantation grounds. He routes the Federal troops, only to run into another infantry troop, and fighting breaks out around the mansion, deadly bullets zinging through the air. If you look up at the limestone columns today, you can see bullet holes from that first day’s skirmish of the Battle of Nashville and almost smell the smoke of gunfire. History buffs can visit the nearby site of Shy’s Hill for the annual reenactment of the Battle of Nashville and reflect on this bloody two-day battle that resulted in the greatest Confederate losses of the entire war (photo courtesy Battle of Nashville Preservation Society).

After the Civil War, General Harding resumed the horse breeding program with a passion, winning more purses with his own horses than anyone else in the United States at that time. He introduced the auction system for selling Thoroughbreds, and raised the standard of bloodlines by using racing as a method of selective breeding, a legacy that continues with Belle Meade bloodlines that still dominate modern racing.

Harding’s son-in-law, General Billy Jackson, eventually brought international fame to Belle Meade when his racehorse Iroquois became the first American-born and bred horse to win the prestigious English Epsom Derby, and Belle Meade’s image as the finest horse-breeding establishment in America rapidly grew.

Christmas is a wonderful time to visit the Belle Meade Plantation and relive the glory of her heritage. The mansion is decorated in festive finery showcasing a century of Christmas, each room depicting the gradual evolution of decorations and fashion. The estate is now a 30-acre historic site owned by the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities and filled with much of the mansion’s original furniture donated by the estate’s descendants (photo courtesy Bagwell Macy PR).

Experience living history demonstrations from Apri to October or tour the mansion year round. A special treat is the working winery on the estate. Sample Tennessee-made wines in the tasting room, with the collectible labels of Belle Meade horseracing legends. You’ll also find a wonderful selection of unique gift items.  The original carriage house is often used for weddings and special functions. Perhaps you’ll be fortunate enough to be on someone’s guest list!

Have you visited Belle Meade Plantation? Share your story in the comments!

Hi! I’m Dayle Fergusson. As a transplanted Aussie living in Middle Tennessee since 1986, I have been a freelance travel...Read on

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