These days, “Hamburg” is the place Lexington residents go to get a bite for dinner or a new pair of shoes. But there was a time, decades ago now, when the stretch of land east of town along Winchester Road was one of the larger breeding farms in the area.
Unlike many of the other properties we have profiled in this series, which have nurtured horses for different stables through the years, Hamburg Place spent much of its best years in the hands of one family.
John Madden purchased the first tract of Hamburg Place In the late 1890s and named it for one of his first major successes in the business. Prior to becoming Hamburg, part of it had been Overton Farm, which had been the family seat for Lucretia Hart. Hart married politician and horse breeder Henry Clay.
In a multi-part series on Madden published in The BloodHorse, Kent Hollingsworth wrote, “Madden was B.A. Jones, Leslie Combs II, Bull Hancock, and Hal Price Headley rolled into one – with just a touch of Jack Price about him. First and last, Madden was a horse trader, and a finer eye for a horse no man ever had.”
Almost every feature article on Madden quotes one of his favorite sayings, that he would rather regret selling a horse than regret keeping one. Hamburg (the horse) was one of the most classic examples. Madden picked up the son of Hanover in 1897 for $1,200 from Elmendorf Farm, which at the time was owned by Col. Enright. Madden campaigned the horse throughout the season, and despite being handed some of the highest weights for a juvenile at that time, he accumulated an impressive stakes resume. Madden sold him to Marcus Daley in December for $40,000 and used the profits to buy the first 235 acres of Hamburg Place. Hamburg continued winning stakes as a 3-year-old and went on to become one of the top sires in the country. Madden never looked back.
Madden had made his money as a boxer and a dealer of harness horses before turning to Thoroughbreds, and unlike many popular owners at the time, he also trained many of his own runners. Madden is said to have been the leading breeder in the country from 1917 to 1927, and was also top trainer in 1901 and 1902. He could even trim the feet of some of his own horses himself, although he preferred to hire the best available farriers to work on them. (It seems he wasn’t the originator of the saying, “No foot, no horse” but was an early subscriber to the idea.)
In his career as a breeder, Madden’s successes included five Kentucky Derby winners (Old Rosebud, Sir Barton, Paul Jones, Zev, Flying Ebony) and five Belmont winners (Joe Madden, The Finn, Sir Barton, Grey Lag, Zev). He was the owner and trainer of Plaudit, winner of the 1898 Kentucky Derby.
No matter how successful his horses were or became, Madden was willing to do a deal to get one sold or traded. Most of his success came the way it had with Hamburg – buying a horse as a yearling or short 2-year-old, training it, getting some stakes races in, and reselling it once it had a resume.
Madden continued expanding the borders of Hamburg (it eventually grew to 2,400 acres) and took a hands-on interest in its running. Only half its pastures were grazed at a time, so 1,200 acres stood empty. The farm had 300 employees, and Madden provided exercise boys (who he also saw as incredibly valuable assets) with tutors, and saw they got to church on Sundays.
Madden bought and sold horses at such a volume (publicly and privately) that it was hard to keep an accurate headcount on his herd at any given time, but Hamburg had stall space for 44 horses in training, 250 mares, and 200 yearlings.
By the time Madden retired from training at the age of 70, it’s estimated he was a multimillionaire as a result of the deals he made on horses. Madden’s sons, Edward and Joseph, showed little interest in taking over the Hamburg empire, though they did use the property to develop their love of polo. It was Edward’s son, Preston, who turned the farm’s use back to Thoroughbred breeding in the 1950s, and bred 1987 Kentucky Derby winner and 1988 Horse of the Year Alysheba there.
It was also Preston who spearheaded the development of the farm into the shopping area it is now, together with his son, Patrick. Interstate 75 came through the farm in the 1960s, despite the Maddens’ resistance. As sewer and power lines were added in the area and housing began to creep to the farm’s edges, the Maddens decided to manage development rather than let it happen to them.
Today, Hamburg houses a number of big-box stores, restaurants, office buildings, and condos – many of them along roadways named for John Madden’s top horses. A few feet away from the parking lot of a Wal-Mart and a Lowes sits a reminder of the land’s previous use: an equine cemetery with some of Madden’s favorite broodmares, racehorses, and riding horses. Madden said the area ceased to be rural on the day the Interstate was completed.
“My wife thought I was going to have a stroke or heart failure [because of the Interstate project],” Preston Madden told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “It was pretty traumatic at the time. However, in retrospect, it’s one of the best things that happened out here because Interstate interchanges are a hell of a lot more profitable than taking yearlings to the sale.”