Raising Royalty

Chester County is heaven on earth for breeders, racers and other horse industry insiders. Contributing writer Terry Conway goes inside its pearly gates.

Raising Royalty
Its status in thoroughbred racing circles now legendary, southern Chester County continues to turn out winners thanks to a handful of remarkable trainers and a family-bred tradition of excellence that spans centuries.
By Terry Conway
Page 2

Local Events for Equestrian Enthusiasts
From May to June.
By Katie Doud
Page 7

PLUS: Equestrian Elite
Six other local names you should know.
Page 8

 

Raising Royalty

Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard at Ashwell Stable, outside West Grove. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)

Its status in thoroughbred racing circles now legendary, southern Chester County continues to turn out winners thanks to a handful of remarkable trainers and a family-bred tradition of excellence that spans centuries.
By Terry Conway

With Southern California’s sun-splashed San Gabriel Mountains looming in the distance, Jonathan Sheppard tends to his trio of runners in his barn at Santa Anita Park. It’s a day most trainers can only dream about. Four-year-old Informed Decision has just put the Chester County trainer in Santa Anita’s winner circle with a thoroughly dominating performance in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. One race later, Forever Together—Sheppard’s champion filly of 2008—finished third in the Filly & Mare Turf.

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But perhaps Sheppard’s most impressive training feat occurred in the November event’s first race. The Marathon was just the third race of the season for Cloudy’s Knight, after missing a year with a serious hind-leg tendon injury. On the final turn, the 9-year-old gelding and former Canadian champion exploded, going three-wide to take the lead before being nosed out at the wire in the 1 ¾-mile race. Cloudy’s Knight put an exclamation point on the season with decisive wins at the Valedictory Stakes in Canada and the W.L. McKnight Handicap in Florida, earning almost $427,000 in 2009. Thoroughbreds at that advanced age rarely return in such top form.

“I do take a certain amount of pride in the fact that we did something that’s rather unique,” says Sheppard, a 69-year-old native of Britain who’s now in his fifth decade of training in America. “But you have to have the right type of horse to do things like that. Cloudy’s Knight is just a remarkable animal.”

Sheppard has performed this trick over and over at his European-type training facility on the outskirts of West Grove—and there have been more recent successes. Another trainee, Mixed Up, clinched 2009 championship steeplechase honors and an Eclipse Award, the Oscar equivalent in the sport. The Pennsylvania-bred 10-year-old is co-owned by Sheppard and Unionville’s William Pape. It marks the first time any trainer has won an Eclipse on both the flat (with Informed Decision) and over jumps in a single year.

In another life, Sheppard won the steeplechase money title for 18 consecutive years (1973-90), landing him in the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. Fellow inductees include one of his protégés, Graham Motion, who won the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf Race and placed second in the Filly & Mare. “His system—the way he trains on the farm—is totally unique, not comparable to anything anywhere in America,” says Motion.

For running first, second and third in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, Sheppard earned $828,000 in purse money. By year’s end, his earnings climbed to more than $5.4 million. Working with a fraction of the good horses trained at the super-stables of Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, Sheppard still recorded 16 graded stakes wins and seven Grade I triumphs last year. That’s as many as Asmussen and three more than Pletcher.

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The farm’s stock spends as much time as possible outdoors, even if that means hooking a snow blade to the tractor and plowing a path to the paddocks. In a winter that saw three unprecedented monster snowfalls, Sheppard and his staff were challenged. “We try to be creative,” he says. “In the snow, they get good, strong gallops. That helps build a strong foundation so, when they ship south, they’re ready to roll as we prepare them for their racing schedules.”

Sheppard attempts to explain the remarkable run of recent champions. “As far as I can tell, I’ve trained them the same way I have for the past 43 years,” he says. “A lot of [the success] is our closer-to-nature approach. My vet says he sees a lot less respiratory problems than other clients from the racetrack, or the horses of eventing and dressage people. We don’t close up the barn when it gets really cold like they might do with show horses. We keep the air moving, and we’ve found that quite beneficial.”

 

Owner, breeder, rider and longtime bloodstock agent Russell Jones at Walnut Green Farm, outside Unionville. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)In southern Chester County, learning the ways of horses is a family affair. The skills are treasured and honed for generations. The village of Unionville is the region’s heartbeat. Reminiscent of rural England and Ireland, its saddle shops brim with bridles, crops, tall boots and the smell of leather. Blacksmiths are always in demand.

Unionville’s idyllic countryside first attracted talented flat and steeplechase trainers, foxhunters, combined driving enthusiasts, show hunters and jumpers, and three-day eventers. It proudly claims the owners of a pair of Kentucky Derby champions.

Looking back at the Kentucky Derby from 2003 to 2008, the achievements of local connections are simply astonishing: two first-place finishes, a third, another first and two seconds. They are golden names in a golden time for Chester County racing: Funny Cide, trained by former local timber rider Barclay Tagg; Smarty Jones, born at Someday Farm near New London; Afleet Alex, owned by a partnership headed by Phoenixville’s Chuck Zacney; Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s iconic Barbaro; Hard Spun, born at Betty Moran’s Brushwood Stable outside Malvern; and Rick Porter’s gallant, star-crossed filly, Eight Belles. Last year, Porter’s Friesan Fire was the Derby betting favorite, but was stepped on coming out of the gate, suffered a nasty cut to his left front foot and faded rapidly on the backstretch.

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George Strawbridge’s sensational turf runners closed out the decade by winning Eclipse Awards—Forever Together in the 2008 season and Informed Decision in 2009. When not racing, both fillies spend their time at Sheppard’s Ashwell Stable.

Just down the road from Sheppard’s farm, you’ll find a Quaker settlement that dates back to the earliest days of the Colonies. Chester County was part of the original land grant to William Penn and is still farmed and maintained by their descendants. It’s an enchanted land known throughout the world for its luxuriant pastures framed by post-and-rail fences weathered to a pleasant grayish brown. The limestone-rich soil fosters speed and stamina in the superior horses the land breeds.

It was that topography and soil that drew a cluster of business executives and sporting gentlemen from Long Island, N.Y., to the area at the close of the 19th century. They began purchasing parcels of land and establishing packs of foxhounds. Chasing the elusive red fox, those hunters laid the foundation for the top-notch horsemen that would follow.

Spawned from the foxhunting field, jump racing was launched in this region with the Radnor National Hunt Cup in 1928. The steeplechase season followed winter foxhunting, when hunters tested the speed of their mounts—a combination of hunting in the field and racing from point to point. The Chester County gallop-and-jump countryside has been a famous subject of paintings by Andrew Wyeth and his family. It was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock for the hunt scenes in 1964’s Marnie.

Cocks, Dixon, Bird, Valentine, Fanning, Ryan, Fisher, Houghton, Elder, Ledyard, Carrier, Weymouth, Stroud, Meister, Baldwin, Miller, Elliot, Jenney, Jones, Neilson—in and around Unionville, these last names are synonymous with success in the world of steeplechase racing. But if you trace the origins of Chester County’s spirited equine activities, they point to the ancestors of Nancy Penn Smith Hannum, who passed away in March at age 90. Hannum was a maternal granddaughter of late 19th-century railroad mogul Edward Henry Harriman, who ran a pack of American foxhounds near the town of Westbury, Long Island, from the 1870s through the 1890s.

 

Nancy’s mother, Carol Harriman, married R. Penn Smith, a prominent member of the Bryn Mawr Hunt who managed prized racehorses for the wealthy Cassatt family. The president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, A.J. Cassatt was a horse enthusiast, a foxhunter and proprietor of Chesterbrook Farm in Berwyn. He owned 1886 Preakness Stakes winner The Bard and, three years later, Belmont Stakes winner Eric. Cassatt also bred the winners of the 1875, 1876, 1878 and 1880 Preakness Stakes, along with Foxford, who won the 1891 Belmont Stakes. He was one of nine prominent men who founded the National Steeplechase Association in 1895.

After Smith died suddenly in 1929, Carol married W. Plunkett Stewart, and along with her daughters, Nancy (then age 10) and Averell, moved from their farms on Long Island and near Middleburg, Va., to Unionville full time. Stewart had moved to Unionville in 1912 from Greensprings, Md., purchasing Chesterland Farm, where he stabled horses and built kennels across what is today Route 82. He chose to call his pack the Cheshire Foxhounds because of his love for the picturesque English town of Chester in the county of Cheshire. Gradually, English foxhounds replaced the American hounds in Stewart’s pack.

As master of the hunt, Stewart was always the visionary, encouraging his well-heeled friends to buy property in the Unionville area to preserve the countryside and keep it open for foxhunting.

“Mr. Stewart was a genuine leader and admired by all,” recalled Hannum in a sitting room at her red brick home at Brooklawn Farm, which is deeded back to 1658. “He made all the calls when we were hunting—and when an order was given, he expected it to be carried out. I was also taught the value of preserving the land. To me, this countryside has always been God’s heaven.”

After Stewart’s death in 1948, Hannum took over as hunt master, making it out each season until injuries forced her to retire in 2004. She also trained her share of prestigious steeplechase winners.

In the 1930s, Hannum’s mother owned an outstanding group of thoroughbred broodmares and stallions, with which she bred a number of Grade 1 stakes winners. Her colt, Pasteurized, was best known for its 1938 Belmont Stakes win. Trained by former jockey and future U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee George Odom, Pasteurized bypassed both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, electing to compete in the Belmont, winning by a neck over Preakness winner Dauber.

The region’s horse industry employs thousands of people and supports a huge agri-business—farmers who harvest hay, grain and straw for the horses. Today, there are more than 43,000 permanently protected acres in the Brandywine watershed. The local horse community supports blacksmiths, tractor and farm-supply companies, feed suppliers, tack shops, veterinarians, saddlers, hot walkers, grooms, maintenance workers, exercise riders, mom-and-pop stables, and so on. In this case, both the economy and the environment win.

“There’s always been a great racehorse heritage in the Southeastern Pennsylvania region—and it was long before the racetracks started operating in the late 1960s,” says Russell Jones, a local longtime bloodstock agent. “George Widener, Sam Riddle and Fitz Dixon raised great horses and were big-time players on the national scene. In the 1980s, this area produced two of the most influential and important sires of the modern American era in Danzig and Storm Cat at Derry Meeting Farm.”

Horse-trading has deep roots in Jones’ family. His paternal Swedish ancestors settled a parcel of land in 1642, while his mother’s English side arrived in 1685. Russell and his late brother, Richie, settled at Walnut Green Farm near West Grove in 1976. Three years later, they launched a bloodstock agency.

 

In the fall of 1983, Jones’ siblings traveled to a Keeneland sale in Kentucky with Producer in foal to the unforgettable Northern Dancer. When the hammer fell, she commanded a record price of $5,250,000 for a broodmare. “Two young guys from Chester County go to legendary Keeneland and blow the roof off,” recalls Jones, who took up foxhunting at age 6. “It was some pretty heady stuff.”

The brothers boarded, bred, raised, sold and traded thoroughbreds, building Walnut Green into one of the leading thoroughbred outfits in the Mid-Atlantic region. In 2005, they sold the business to a group led by former top trainer and leading bloodstock agent Mark Reid.

One of the Jones’ clients was Jim Ryan, who bred 1983 Belmont Stakes winner Caveat and raced a string of stakes winners. Jones advised the Maryland family for nearly three decades. “Russell says what he believes is right and cuts through all that politically correct stuff,” says Ryan. “He showed that a guy outside Kentucky could compete.”

Another outsider, Phillip Dutton grew up on a sheep and cattle farm in the Australian Outback. He’s gone on to strike gold twice at the Olympics and become one of the most storied eventing riders on the circuit. Back home, he spent much of his days on horseback, holding herd or riding a fence line.

“Our day-to-day work was done riding horses, so if you fell off you had a long walk home,” laughs Dutton, 47. “You learned to stay on your horse and take care of him. I naturally migrated toward eventing, since it requires all-around horsemanship.”

Despite his nearly two decades here, Dutton’s Australian accent remains as sharp and tangy as a pint of Foster’s lager. His True Prospect Farm near West Grove boasts 80 acres of lovely pastures, cross-country jumps, a spacious indoor arena, and a half-mile galloping track. “This countryside is ideal for getting horses in shape fitness-wise,” says Dutton. “For decades, there have been so many champion horses and horsemen. My time here has gone way beyond all my dreams. I’ve trained and competed with some of the best horses in the world.”

Naturalized as an American citizen in 2006, Dutton was named the United States Equestrian Federation’s Rider of the Year for the 11th time in 2009. He’s currently preparing for this fall’s World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky., with his elite mounts, Woodburn and TruLuck.

Dozens of the sport’s up-and-coming riders train with Dutton, who was named the USEF’s Developmental Coach of the Year for 2009. “There’s a groundswell in the sport all across the country, and virtually anyone can participate at low-level events and have fun,” he says.

Jonathan Sheppard runs his West Grove operation out of a late-19th-century dairy barn converted for racehorses. Inside, a cluster of thick leather and brass halters hangs from an overhead hook. A chestnut filly gets a foot trimming with very little fuss. A veterinarian administers vaccinations.

Off in a corner, a mash of hot oats is brewing in a steel kettle. Horses poke their heads out of adjoining stalls, while a pair of crescent-horned goats wander at will, keeping the humans and other animals company.

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Champion grays Forever Together and Informed Decision are led out to an adjacent field, joining a mob of other fillies. They dig and pick at shoots of grass, then suddenly wheel around and gallop off.

“No question, the past few years have been the pinnacle of my career,” says their 71-year-old owner, George Strawbridge Jr. “Horses are the noblest animals God created. Considering there are so many exceptional horses racing, any time you have a champion, that’s a hell of an accomplishment.”

A former amateur steeplechase jockey, Strawbridge is an heir to the Campbell Soup Company, where he serves on the board of directors. His Augustin Stable has owned and bred many champions here and in Europe. He met Sheppard in 1968 at a dinner party in South Carolina, and things snowballed from there.

“Jonathan has produced so many good horses for me,” says Strawbridge. “He cares deeply about all of his horses. He spends as much time with the bad ones as he does with the good ones.”

Jim Bergen, Ashwell’s training assistant, says horses are just like people. They have personalities and quirks. “We bring horses off the track to the farm and turn them out,” he says. “They get to be horses again—pick grass, roll around. It’s a pretty distinctive part of Jonathan’s training. The horses go up and down bridle paths through the woods. Plus, we have so many venues here where we can train. It keeps the horses fresh—especially the fillies.”

Rainbow View is one of them. Strawbridge’s 2-year-old, 2008 European champion filly joined the barn last November. You’ll also find graded stakes winner Just As Well and Fantasia, another relocated classic English contender. Toss in champion steeplechaser Mixed Up and a couple of promising 3-year-olds, and Sheppard’s racing operation is once again brimming with talent.

He credits his Unionville mentor, Hall of Famer W. Burling Cocks, for some sage advice. “Rather than force them, he would work around a problem, always looking for a horse’s best qualities and tendencies,” Sheppard says. “His credo was that you have to see the best in a horse to get the best out of a horse.”

Terry Conway is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, where he writes about the history of horse racing.

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Local Events for Equestrian Enthusiasts

May 2: The prestigious Winterthur estate is home to the 32nd annual Point-to-Point Steeplechase. The day also features antique car and carriage displays, raffles, tailgating, and activities for kids. Gates open at 11:30 a.m. $15/young adults, $50/adults, free/kids; tickets must be bought in advance. Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, Route 52, Winterthur, Del.; (302) 888-4994, winterthur.org.

May 9: The 18th Willowdale Steeplechase offers horse racing and an antique car show, plus races for ponies and Jack Russell Terriers. Gates open at 10 a.m. $30/person, $20 in advance. 101 E. Street Road, Kennett Square; (610) 444-1582, willowdale.org.

May 15: This year marks the 80th anniversary of the storied Radnor Hunt Races, an unparalleled day of socializing and steeplechase competition benefiting the Brandywine Conservancy’s Environmental Management Center. Grounds open at 10 a.m.; races begin at 1:30 p.m. Minimum $50/car; parking passes must be purchased in advance. Radnor Hunt, 826 Providence Road, Malvern; (610) 647-4233, radnorraces.org.

May 27-June 6: Beginning as a one-day show in 1896, the Devon Horse Show has evolved into a much-anticipated 11 days of competition and exhibitions in a family-friendly country-fair atmosphere. $5/kids and seniors, $8/adults. 23 Dorset Road, Devon; (610) 688-2554, thedevonhorseshow.org.

—Katie Doud

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Equestrian Elite

Six other local names you should know.

Retired Brig. Gen. Charles B. Lyman opened the gates of Maui Meadow Farm near West Chester 64 years ago. Named for the Hawaiian military base where he was stationed during World War II, the farm is the oldest working thoroughbred operation in Pennsylvania. Maui Meadow owned the first stallion ever syndicated in the state—Bold Effort, a son of the legendary Bold Ruler. Today, Charles B. Lyman III operates the farm.

Gretchen Jackson revels in this world of horses. Best known as the owners of the late, great Barbaro, she and her husband, Roy, have operated Lael Farm for nearly 30 years just down the road from the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square. On its 190 acres, brown-fenced paddocks are home to 13 horses and ponies, plus four miniature donkeys. Every day at 7 a.m., Gretchen feeds and checks on all of them. “For me, this is heaven—and I thank God each day for it,” she says.

Mary Alice Malone’s Iron Spring Farm in Coatesville comprises nearly 1,000 acres. Focusing on Dutch Warmbloods and Friesians, Iron Spring is recognized as one of the most successful sport horse farms in America. Over the past three decades, its sons and daughters have produced everything from Olympic competitors to dressage champions at the Devon Horse Show.

Lisa Singer grew up riding a donkey in horse shows. Then a friend introduced her to a team of Welsh ponies, and she was hooked on the sport of combined driving. Modeled after the Three Day Event, which tests overall condition and versatility, horses and ponies compete separately in singles, pairs, tandem and teams (two pair, one in front of the other). Internationally acclaimed, Singer has won the U.S. Pairs Championship in combined driving more than any other driver, and she’s represented the United States in the World Championships. Her breed of choice is Morgans. A grandmother of four, she lives on her farm in Chadds Ford.

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