S U N N Y S I D E
1 8 0 7
A c o n s t a n t p r a c t i c e .
B l o o d l i n e s
Veterinarian Dr. Robert Copelan, a founding member of the American Association of Equine Practicioners, and veteran horseman John Q. Thornbury established Sunnyside Farm as a breeding, breaking, surgery and recuperation enterprise over 50 years ago. The two leased land from Spindletop farm on Ironworks Pike in Lexington before puchasing Sunnyside in 1963. Dr. Copelan built an equine hospital on the farm, where he became one of the pioneers of equine joint surgery. During the half- century under its current ownership, Sunnyside has handled champions and stakes winners including Dahlia, Susan's Girl, Avatar, Summer Tan, Youth, Empery, Storm Cat, Danzig, Discreetly Mine, Tabasco Cat, Grindstone, Tempest Queen, Awesome Maria and Palace Malice.
The farm sits on prime land for raising horses in Central Kentucky, with soils in the Maury/McAfee classification, considered optimum for Kentucky horse farms. Today the farm is run by Jeffrey D. Thornbury, a second generation horseman, and continues to provide boarding, breaking and recuperation services.
As written in the National Register of Historic Places designation for the Cooper's Run Rural Historic District (Bourbon County, Kentucky), the Jacob Spears Family were pioneers in whiskey production in [Bourbon] county. Spears had a reputation for some of the finest whiskey in the settlement period and his family is credited as making the only true "Bourbon" of the period. Spears and his sons, Noah and Soloman, operated three distilleries in the county, two located in the [Cooper's Run] district, the Spears Distillery Warehouse, and the distillery at Sunnyside farm (Solomon's home on the Paris-Cynthiana Road).
Soloman Spears is credited with developing the true method of distilling “Bourbon” whiskey. Quite by accident, Solomon’s distillery warehouse caught fire, charring the bottoms of the whiskey barrels. Upon inspection of the liquor in the charred barrels, it was discovered that the charred barrel allowed a better flavor for the whiskey and the method has been used since to supply true “Bourbon” whiskey (Everman, 1977: 37).
Sunnyside's history is uniquely Kentucky, intersecting the Bourbon and Thoroughbred Industries. Forever a part of bourbon lore with its connection to the pioneering of bourbon production in the early 1800's, we continue the legacy of raising horses in the Bluegrass region today.
P a r i s , K e n t u c k y
1 8 0 7 - 1 9 6 3
E a r l y H i s t o r y
Sunnyside's origins trace back to 1807. The farm was originally settled by Jacob Spears. The Spears were of the earliest pioneers of Kentucky. Jacob Spears, and his sons Noah and Soloman, migrated from Pennsylvania in the late 1700's and built the first distillery in the region circa 1790.
Jacob Spears was well recognized for distilling whiskey, operating three distilleries in Bourbon County. His son Noah, floated the whiskey produced to New Orleans, walking home after its sale by way of the Natchez trace. Noah is recognized to have made the trip as many as thirteen times. One of Jacob's three distilleries was constructed at Sunnyside. His son Solomon built his home here, a part of which is incorporated in the rear of the current dwelling. The house, distillery, and mills were referred to in an 1816 deed conveying 501 acres from Jacob to Solomon. Solomon carried on the distilling business using the still-flowing spring at Sunnyside and is credited for discovering the true method for distilling "Bourbon" whiskey here on the farm when the distillery warehouse caught fire and charred the aging oak casks.
Around 1850, the farm was acquired by Benjamen F. Rogers, who married Mary Eliza Spears, a granddaughter of Solomon Spears who officially named the property "Sunnyside".
Rogers was a successful farmer and served as commissioner of the Garth Fund, a philanthropic educational fund established by William Garth.
In 1871, the farm was sold to James Miller of Harrison County. he was a farmer and noted breeder of thoroughbreds and trotting horses. It was during this period that the business of horses was introduced to Sunnyside.
The farm remained in Miller's family for several generations, including prominant horseman J. Miller Ward, who inherited the farm in 1909. Ward, in association with his grandfather, farmed and bred trotting horses. As a young man, ward had charge of some of the noted horses of his grandfather, who owned Alexander Abdallah, Joe Downing (a great show horse and noted sire), and Bourbon Wilkes. He and his wife Belle, A granddaughter of Samual Clay who grew up on Marchmont near Paris (now a division of Claiborne), also bred Berkshire hogs and Jersey cattle on the property.
Sunnyside's ownership exchanged hands once again when the farm was sold to R. B. Renfrew, a nationally recognized breeder of Hereford Cattle. In 1963, Dr. Robert Copelan and John Q. Thornbury purchased the property in partnership.
1 9 6 3 - P r e s e n t
The summer of 1949, Dr. Robert "Bob" Copelan sought a job at Calumet Farm as an exercise boy, anticipating entering Veterinary College. Dr. Copelan got the job and lived in a boarding house at Calumet, were he met John Q. Thornbury, who was a groom working in the training barn. Mr. Thornbury and Dr. Copelan immediately became friends. As their friendship grew, Mr. Thornbury had a plan for them to go into business after Dr. Copelan finished veterinary college.
Following graduation in 1953, Dr. Copelan went to work at Belmont Park, arriving in time to watch Native Dancer win the Belmont, beating Jamie K by a nose. That horse was from Paris Kentucky, on 8th street. Little did Dr. Copelan know that at a future date he would make many trips on 8th street in Paris to and from Sunnyside Farm and downtown Lexington. Dr. Copelan began developing a fledgling racetrack practice. While accompanying a client's horse to Hialeah, Dr. Copelan stopped in Cartersville Georgia to rest the horse. By coincidence, it was Mr. Thornbury that opened the door of the horse van to unload. Both men were quite surprised to see each other. They caught up and renewed the thinking of their planned partnership.
Years went by and one afternoon Dr. Copelan got a call from Mr. Thornbury, announcing he and his family were moving to Lexington to start their business relations together. They immediately began a search for a property to lease, settling on a number of acres and a single barn on Spindletop Farm. They had a business which rehabilitated horses injured in training, though Dr. Copelan had wanted to develop a surgical practice.
While Dr. Copelan was in Chicago, Mr. Thornbury (without Dr. Copelan's knowledge) cleaned the stalls in the stallion barn and poured a cement floor in the breeding shed for an operating room. For three years, they never missed a week of Dr. Copelan coming home on Friday, performing surgery all day Saturday, and leaving on Sunday.
In those early days, they were one of the few practices of equine veterinary orthopedic surgery in the world. While looking for a farm to buy after their lease ran out at Spindletop, Mr. Thornbury found a property in Paris Kentucky. Dr. Copelan flew down from Chicago to see the farm. Walking to the top of a hill, to what later became a yearling field inside a training track, Mr. Thornbury asked, "What do you think?". Dr. Copelan replied, "This is it". They bought Sunnyside in 1963.
Over the next fifty years, Copelan and Thornbury Inc. had much success. A partnership born out of a mutual passion for the horse enabled both men to refine their skills and together they played an integral role in evolving the Thoroughbred Industry. Dr. Copelan retired from surgery in 2000. Mr. Thornbury passed away in 2008, officially ending the partnership.
While the original partnership has ended, Dr. Copelan still lives across the road and continues to work in association with the farm. He has since retired from surgery and general practice, however he serves as an adviser and friend to many in the industry. Today Sunnyside is managed by Jeff Thornbury, John's youngest son, who is a horseman by trade and a multiple graded stakes winning trainer with over 450 victories to his name.