Queen Elizabeth II’s Special Ties to the South – Garden & Gun
photo: David Perry/Lexington Herald-Leader/Associated Press
Among the many shining assets that Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, later simply Elizabeth II, carried so lightly and yet firmly during her seventy-year reign was a deep love of country life: horses, dogs, shoots of birds, the merry stirrup cut like the fox the hounds were herded in the morning fog before the hunt began, the sherry and sandwiches taken out of the baskets on the tailgates of the hunting brakes after the hunters and their loaders scaled their blinds. By 1815, these athletic practices had been codified in Britain and its colonies and former colonies; sportswear, tack rooms, stables and gun closets were passed under Victoria’s reign to Albert and Edward, Elizabeth’s father and uncle, in the 1920s.
Young Princess Elizabeth breathed it all in, life planted her outside, and then, like that other gift she had – her monumental sense of duty – she carried the habits of it for the rest of her days. At twenty-five, when she was crowned, the radiant princess-turned-queen already owned a racing stable. She kept it.
photo: Associated Press
It was the story of cultural kinship that drove Queen Elizabeth’s deep connection to the American South, made up in part of former British colonies and full of many people still passionate about country pursuits. This shared history has formed the bond that has led the Queen over the decades to visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, attend a Maryland-North Carolina football game in College Park, sunbathe in the Florida Keys and, above all, , to seek the crucible of the best thoroughbreds in the world, the Kentucky Bluegrass. There, with characteristic and infinitely minute care, she boarded a number of mares from her stable in order to mate them with American bloodlines. It brought her endless joy and it was a practice she maintained for decades.
A higher percentage of races in Britain are held on turf, i.e. grass, as opposed to dirt. The races tend to be longer, and more of them are obstacle races, than we see in America, which is to say that a lot of English breeders are looking for endurance, not speed. Queen Elizabeth felt she needed more speed in her stable, and the best place for that was Kentucky.
The first horse the Queen flew from England to Lexington in 1984 was a mare named Christchurch, who was eventually bred to champion Alydar. She had her first ‘American’ foal in 1985. Her then race manager, Lord Carnarvon, recommended that the Queen seek out prominent Bluegrass breeder William Stamps Farish III and his wife, Sarah, from Versailles, Kentucky. Like his grandfather, a chairman of Standard Oil, Farish had been very successful in business in Texas and was a longtime friend of the Bush family and former adviser to George Herbert Walker Bush. Already in the running, Farish had moved from Texas to Kentucky with the idea of starting a new breeding operation in the late seventies.
In 1984, Farish Farm, the idyllic three thousand acre Lane’s End, was still a relatively new business in Bluegrass, but it was huge and state-of-the-art, with hugely luxurious separate barns for weaners, yearlings, mares and stallions. The custom-built fences that shape their pastures in an elliptical fashion – that is, with rounded corners to prevent horses from winning a purchase to injure themselves – remain a particular point of pride for their formidable architect and owner, who casually asked this reporter on his last visit to Lane’s End, “Have you an idea what does it take to put up so much fence without any corners? »
photo: Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau
Unsurprisingly, in Farish’s first decade in business, his foals earned more than eighty starts, an astonishing number even in Kentucky, and the farm inevitably fell into the queen’s sights.
Elizabeth was introduced to the Farishes through her friend Paul Mellon, a Cambridge-based, Virginia-based horse breeder and banking heir. Explaining the Farish’s connection to the American press corps even more than slightly mystified on the occasion of the Queen’s visit in May 1989 to Lane’s End – at that time her third private “holiday” with the Farishes at Versailles – Lord Carnarvon said the Queen’s stable (then numbering some twenty-two mares) was relatively modest by the standards of late 20th century international racing. Not least because international races tended towards the American style of shorter flat races held on land. A mile and a quarter, the length of the Kentucky Derby and a relatively long race in the United States, is considered a short race in Britain.
“It’s hard work winning races when you’re racing against people with five hundred mares,” Carnarvon said. “The effort is for speed, now that the international market has gone heavily into the mile and a quarter. Coming to America, she gets the speed she couldn’t get in England. Mr. Mellon and I have felt that the perfect place for her to come would be at Mr. Farish’s, the stud here, being so isolated from a security point of view.We got in touch with Mr. and Mrs. Farish, and they were delighted to the idea and it was a great success.
A British Embassy spokesman, dutifully dispatched from Washington, DC, to join the burgeoning cortege of officers from the Queen’s Secret Service and Royal Protection Force, underlined this point. Besides staying at her own castles, he said, she hadn’t made so many private visits to one place except, fortunately, at the Farish’s, whose low-key hospitality particularly impressed their host. The Farishes treated the queen in what the embassy officer called “the right way,” with no fuss. They had little dinner parties with riders, and often the queen had Farish by her side when she went looking for stallions on other farms.
For his part, the Queen’s eminently direct host – who would later serve President George W. Bush as U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James for three years, arguably one of the most intelligent in Britain by any US administration – described the Queen after her visit to the press in May 1989 as “…a fantastic horsewoman. She knows the sport, and she knows the horses perfectly. We’ve had meetings with top trainers and vets, and she speaks their language.
photo: Keeneland Library
In all, Queen Elizabeth II has honored Kentucky five times, including, on one trip, a visit to Keeneland for the inaugural race of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, fittingly, a turf race with a purse tidy $500,000. Keeneland still runs the race, which Lane’s End now sponsors. In Kentucky, she ventured outside Bluegrass only once: in May 2007, accompanied by a dashing Prince Philip and Ambassador William Farish, she traveled from Lexington to Louisville to participate at the Kentucky Derby. For the festivities and the obligatory balcony appearance – which was lavishly applauded when the crowd found her – she wore her requisite white gloves, lime green suit and matching racing beanie adorned with an outrageous pink bow .
Along the way, year after year, with the millions of details she has given herself the task of carrying, she has inevitably taken on some seriousness. By the first third of her reign – roughly her Silver Jubilee in 1977, twenty-five years later – she had already surpassed many monarchs before her in longevity on the throne. At the Diamond Jubilee of 2012 – sixty years later, ten years to go – she rounded off her great-grandmother Victoria’s record and, like her great-grandmother, the Queen had quietly become the rock of the Europe. During its platinum jubilee just a few months ago, the whole world began to grasp the enormity of the era it went through, the one it lived through and has just closed. She was quite his measure.
photo: Churchill Downs Racecourse
In the greatest arc of this world reign, the longest of any British monarch, she has another connection to the South. One part duty, three parts old-fashioned grain, this bond is made of human elements more elusive than iron and brick in a Bluegrass ranching barn, but they’re no less strong. In what we could easily consider the most anglicized region of the United States, what southern city, big or small, doesn’t have such a great lady running things? They may not have a cut-glass accent, or be accompanied by bridesmaids, or have a billion-dollar tiaras collection handed down for five hundred years. But right down to sweater sets, sensible flats, and an endless supply of steel companies to get everyone moving and doing everything, they’re exactly up to Elizabeth II.