03/16/2013 5:49PM

Jessica Gay Bell, co-founder of Jonabell Farm, dies at 90


Jessica Gay Bell, who with her husband John A. Bell III established Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Ky., which went on to become one of the most successful Kentucky horse farms of the late 20th century, died on March 14 in Naples, Fla., after a brief illness at age 90.

The Bells established Jonabell in 1946 and on their original location at Hamburg Place raised champion juvenile male Battlefield and Never Say Die, the first U.S.-bred to win the Epsom Derby in the 20th century. In 1954, the Bells relocated Jonabell to a property on Bowman’s Mill Road near Keeneland, and over the next 47 years continued to breed, race, and sell Thoroughbreds while boarding breeding stock for clients.

More than 200 stakes winners, including 14 champions, were raised at Jonabell, including 1967 Horse of the Year Damascus. Jonabell bred over 50 stakes winners individually and in partnership, including homebred Epitome, winner of the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Jonabell also stood several prominent stallions on their property, led by 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed and 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull.

Jonabell was sold to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Darley operation in 2001, and John Bell died in 2007. Jessica and John Bell’s son James G. “Jimmy” Bell, who began managing Jonabell in 1985, continues to serve in that capacity for Darley.

Born on August, 20, 1922, Jessica Bell graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in journalism and worked in Louisville for WHAS and in New York City as a showroom model before settling in Lexington with her husband.

She was active in many charities and other organizations. She helped to establish the Blue Grass Ball to benefit the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky, worked with the Dry Stone Conservancy in Lexington to help preserve historical stone walls in the Bluegrass, and was deeply involved with the Garden Club of Lexington. The Bells also established the Bell Alcohol and Addictions Endowed Chair at the University of Kentucky.

In addition to her son James, Bell is survived by her son John Bell and her daughters Jessica Bell Nicholson and Bennett Bell Williams.

Contributions can be made to the Bell Endowed Chair at the University of Kentucky, Office of Development, Sturgill Building, 120 Rose Street, Lexington, Ky., 40504, or to the charity of one’s choice. A visitation service for friends of Bell will be held at her home at 96 Chinoe Road in Lexington on Tuesday from 3 to 8 p.m. Eastern. Graveside services at Lexington Cemetery are on Wednesday at 11 a.m., with Kerr Brothers Funeral Home in charge of the arrangements.