RETURN TO HERMITAGE FARM

The picturesque 680-acre Hermitage Farm is located in Goshen, Kentucky, about 17 miles Northeast of Louisville, Kentucky, on U. S. 42, the main road between Louisville and Cincinnati in the days before I-71.  Recently, I took a trip down memory lane by visiting, my first time there in many years, back in the era when Warner L. Jones Jr. owned it. 

The main house was built in 1835 on property originally acquired by Revolutionary War general Hugh Mercer in a 3,000-acre Virginia Land Grant.  In 1935, with a loan from his mother, 19-year-old Warner Jones Jr. (1916-1994) bought part of the property and proceeded to turn it into one of the prominent Thoroughbred breeding establishments of the twentieth century.

Hermitage Farm raised horses that won top-flight races.  It is most famous for producing Dark Star, who defeated Native Dancer in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, the only loss in his Hall of Fame career.  Hermitage Farm was the first to breed winners of the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks (Nancy Jr., 1967), and a Breeders’ Cup race (Is It True, 1988 Juvenile).  The farm’s consignments brought in the most revenue at the Keeneland July yearling sales three times.

A further sampling: Hermitage Farm stood Raja Baba, the leading sire in the United States in 1980.  In 1985, Warner Jones, William Farish, and William Kilroy sold a half-brother to 1974 Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew for a world-record $13.1 million at Keeneland’s July Select Yearling Sale.  Queen Elizabeth visited the farm in 1986.

Warner Jones’ great grandmother was from the Churchill family, on whose land Churchill Downs was built.  His great-uncle was M. Lewis Clark Jr., the first president of the racetrack in 1875 and nephew of John and Henry Churchill.  Clark leased 80 acres from them to build the racetrack.  Warner Jones was elected to the Churchill Downs board at age 25, served 51 years, and retired as board chairman.

In 1995, the Jones family sold Hermitage Farm to Carl Pollard, then-chairman of Churchill Downs.  The present owners, Laura Lee Brown (of the Brown-Forman dynasty and 21 C Museum Hotels) and her husband Steve Wilson, purchased the farm from Pollard in 2010.  They still raise Thoroughbreds but no longer have a roster of stallions.

Today, the Stud Barn houses Steve Wilson’s carriage driving horses and vintage carriages such as the one Clark Gable drove in Gone With the Wind.  The Stud Barn also includes a room devoted entirely to Warner Jones and the successes he had.

The upscale Barn 8 Restaurant is housed in a stable with some of its stalls intact, where patrons can dine. The nameplate on one stall is for My Charmer, the dam of Seattle Slew.

The brochure for Hermitage Farm reads: “A historic Kentucky farm preserved for posterity.”  As development encroaches, the conservation easement that Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson have (commendably) secured the farm in will allow future generations to enjoy its tranquil ambiance and take in its rich history.

Hermitage Farm is open to the public and offers a variety of activities, from tours to art walks to bourbon tastings.

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