The Bard of the Turf: Mickey Shannon’s storied career from Lexington Times editor to racing icon

by Paul Oliva, Lexington Times Web Editor

As the current editor of The Lexington Times, it’s a profound honor to reflect on the remarkable life of Michael Joseph “Mickey” Shannon, who once sat (figuratively speaking) at this very desk as the editor of the 1911 edition of The Lexington Times. Mickey’s multifaceted legacy, from his short but colorful tenure at the helm of the Times to his storied career in horse racing, continues to inspire us all. His indomitable spirit, creativity, and commitment to his community have left an indelible mark not just on this publication, but on the very heart of Lexington. In the following pages, we explore the life and legacy of Mickey, the Bard of the Turf, a man who embraced life’s highs and lows with a passion that resonates to this day.

Humble Beginnings in Kerry County, Ireland

Michael Joseph Shannon, affectionately known as “Mickey” to all who knew him, was a charismatic figure whose presence was felt far and wide across Lexington, Kentucky’s thoroughbred racing community. Born in 1873 in Kerry County, Ireland, Mickey’s adventurous spirit led him to the shores of America at the young age of 13.

Mickey’s first footsteps in America landed him a job as a bellhop in a Chicago hotel. But his fate was intertwined with the world of horse racing, and he soon found himself apprenticed as a jockey to John Huffman. This would mark the beginning of a colorful and storied career in the sport of horse racing.

From his early years as a jockey to his time as a trainer for George C. Bennett in Memphis, Mickey’s passion for the sport was evident. An extraordinary journey took him to Germany as an assistant trainer to George Walker, where he trained for the Weinburg brothers, a prestigious feat that added to his growing reputation.

Back in America, Mickey became a roving icon, his presence cherished at race tracks across the continent. But it was in Lexington where he would make a lasting impact, working with prominent figures such as W. Campbell Scott and Bob Tucker.

Yet, Mickey was not merely a follower of the turf; his love for sports extended into baseball and prizefighting, numbering amongst his acquaintances some of the most renowned figures of the era, including John McGraw of the New York Giants.

Mickey’s vibrant personality and innate love for life transcended the racetrack, finding a unique expression in his ownership of a famous pet pig. This trained pig, known to perform “as obligingly as a well-trained dog,” became a symbol of Mickey’s one-of-a-kind character.

The Bard of the Turf and The Lexington Sunday Times

While many knew Mickey Shannon for his racetrack exploits, his creativity and wit extended far beyond the stables. Affectionately dubbed the “bard of the turf,” Mickey’s clever sense of humor manifested itself in poetry and prose that resonated with racing enthusiasts across the country.

Lexington Leader, Mon., August 28, 1911

His tales of the sport were read with great delight, and his poems, filled with wit and style, brought joy to many. But Mickey’s literary pursuits weren’t confined to the racetrack alone. In 1911, he embarked on a venture that would see him as the editor of the Lexington Sunday Times, a new weekly paper focused on politics and turf matters.

The paper, reflective of Mickey’s passion for both horses and politics, made its bow to the public with favorable reception. Democratic in its leanings, it featured write-ups of local candidates, pictures, and, of course, Mickey’s insightful perspective on the world of horse racing.

However, the paper’s life was short-lived. Despite a promising start, financial constraints and a lack of support led to its suspension. Mickey’s statement at the time resonated with his candid and straightforward nature, declaring that it took more than “wind” to publish a newspaper.

Shannon announces the original Lexington Times is no more. (Lexington Leader, Tue., Sept. 5, 1911)

Though the paper’s existence was brief, Mickey’s mark on journalism, like his impact on the racing world, was distinct and memorable. He continued to contribute to various turf periodicals throughout the country, showcasing his unique blend of humor, knowledge, and love for the sport.

His friends were often the targets of his harmless jests, and his cheerfulness and courteous nature made him a beloved figure, even in his days of trouble. No turfman in his years occupied quite the same position as this cheery little Irishman, whose unending humor and deep love for horses made him a standout figure in the world of racing.

A Life Full of Character and Compassion

Mickey Shannon’s vibrant character extended beyond his love for horse racing and his literary pursuits. His roving, adventurous life started in Ireland and led him to America, where he became a renowned figure in the world of the turf.

Mickey’s path was unconventional and adventurous. He began as a bellhop in Chicago, became an apprentice jockey, worked as a trainer, and even embarked on a trip to Germany as an assistant trainer. These experiences enriched his life and contributed to his unique personality.

One of the most delightful and peculiar aspects of Mickey’s character was his love for a famous pet pig. Trained as well as any domesticated dog, the pig followed Shannon everywhere, performing on command for any crowd. Mickey would often put on exhibitions showcasing the skill of his beloved pet, bringing joy to others.

Mickey Shannon’s obituary tells readers of his trained pet pig. (Lexington Herald, Nov. 7, 1918)

But Mickey’s affable nature extended beyond entertaining people with his pet’s antics. Despite his modest means, he never turned down anyone in need. His love for friendship was evident, and according to his obituaries he valued it above “anything on earth.”

Shannon’s obituary in The Commercial Appeal – Memphis, Tennessee – Tue, Nov 12, 1918 · Page 12

A man who cherished companionship, Mickey was well-known among famous professional baseball players and prize fighters. His associations spanned across the sporting world, reflecting his universal appeal.

Lexington Leader · Thursday, July 26, 1917

Legacy of the “Bard of the Turf”

Lexington Leader – Wed., Nov 6, 1918

His racing knowledge wasn’t confined to the tracks in America; he visited nearly every racecourse on the continent, Mexico, and Cuba. As a judge of form, he was instrumental in many successful racing ventures, always cheerful and courteous, even in days of trouble.

Mickey’s character has left an indelible mark on those who knew him. His unexhaustible humor, warmth, and generosity made him a unique figure in the racing world. His love for thoroughbred horses and keen insights into racing positioned him as a distinct personality in a world filled with powerful stable owners.

In 1915, Mickey Shannon traveled to Havana, Cuba for a racing meet on behalf of Lexington’s Kentucky Association race track. Lexington Herald Sun., Nov. 28, 1915

Mickey Shannon’s life was not without hardship. Despite his cheerful exterior, the later years of his life were marred by struggle and adversity. Found wandering the streets of Hot Springs, Ark., Shannon suffered a nervous breakdown and a mental collapse, an unfortunate turn in an otherwise vibrant career.

His love for friends, sports, and a passion for writing were overshadowed by a battle with a complicated disease that eventually took his life at Eastern State Hospital. But even in his struggles, his character and warmth never faltered. Those who knew him attested to his constant willingness to help others, valuing friendship more than anything on earth.

Mickey’s story is a poignant reminder of human frailty and the impermanence of life, juxtaposed with his unbridled love for the turf and his friends. From his humble beginnings in Ireland to his prominent standing as a follower of the turf, Mickey Shannon’s life story serves as a testament to a resilient spirit, filled with joy, creativity, and an underlying complexity that made him an unforgettable character.

His grave in Lexington, quietly nestled along West Main Street in Calvary Cemetery, marks the resting place of a man who embraced life with all its highs and lows. A jolly son of Erin, a friend to many, and the Bard of the Turf, Mickey’s legacy continues to inspire and resonate, a true reflection of a life lived fully, yet not without its struggles.

Flowers at Michael Joseph “Mickey” Shannon’s grave on August 14, 2023. (The Lexington Times)

Top photo: The headstone of Michael Joseph “Mickey” Shannon at Calvary Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky on August 14, 2023. (The Lexington Times)