Monday Musings: The Four Doyennes

The virtual ink had no sooner metaphorically dried on last week’s article before I noticed an unlikely coincidence, writes Tony Stafford. It’s strange that I hadn’t registered it on any of the previous January 15th’s I’d bought the Racing Post, but last Monday morning I finally did.

In my rather random progress around the horseracing world I’ve met only four female owners of American stud farms. One, Penny Chenery, I encountered only a single time, at a party at Lands End, Sands Point, on Long Island, New York, the mansion which is generally accepted as Scott FitzGerald’s inspiration for his novel The Great Gatsby. It was my good fortune to be a house guest there on a few occasions.

On suggesting <and I’m sure you would have read this here before>: “Didn’t you own a good horse?”, Ms Chenery patiently replied: “Yes we bred and owned Secretariat”! That is still the most embarrassing faux pas in my life, considering I was supposed to know something about the game at that time.

Penny, the real-life heroine of the film Secretariat, in which she was played by the amazing Diane Lane, was a major figure in the US racing and breeding industries for many years until her death age 95 in 2017. The host of the Sands Point party was the one of the formidable quartet I knew best, Virginia Kraft Payson, younger than her three counterparts. All four have had remarkable careers.

I am indebted to one of the other two ladies, Alice Chandler, who was 93 last Monday, for meeting Virginia. I went on appointment to her Mill Ridge Stud in Lexington, Kentucky, with George Hill during the 1989 or 1990 Keeneland July sales to see Kris’s full-brother, Diesis. Having said farewell to the future sire of Halling and Ramruma, we were stopped on the way out by Mrs Chandler who invited us to a party that coincidentally she was giving at the farm that evening.

On arrival, I was taken across by Alice to a lady and the hostess said: “This is Virginia Payson. You two should get on, she’s a journalist, too!” We did and but for Alice, Jim Bolger, at the time a regular contact, would never have trained St Jovite, six-length winner of the King George and previously by twice that margin in the Irish Derby.

The Derby itself had narrowly evaded St Jovite, who was less precocious than hard-fought winner Dr Devious and that colt was his immediate victim in the Curragh rout. As for journalist and journalist, while I cosily enjoyed life in Fleet Street, Virginia was the “hunting, shooting and fishing” correspondent for Sports Illustrated for many years, capably partaking in all those disciplines herself.

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The fourth stud farm-owning lady was Josephine Abercrombie, and she too was 93 last Monday. Apart from five husbands, and top-class horses bred at her Pin Oak stud in Versailles, just outside Lexington, she was a noted boxing promoter. Unlike most others in that field, she even developed her own stable of boxers who were housed and provided for in an almost racing stable-like arrangement in Texas, where her father made his fortune in oil.

In the UK she won the 1994 Ebor at York with the giant Hasten To Add, trained by Sir Mark Prescott, beating two pals who are also still going strong, Alan Spence’s Admiral’s Well (by Sadler’s Wells) and Solartica (Bjorn Neilsen).

I first met her the following October at the Meadowlands, part of the complex that includes the home of the New York Mets baseball team (once owned by Mrs P’s husband Charles Shipman Payson) and Flushing Meadows, location for the US Open tennis championships. I was there to meet Michael Dickinson, who had a runner that night and with whom Dale McKeown, previously a decent jump jockey with Reg Akehurst in the UK, was part of the team.

Mrs Abercrombie’s  smart three-year-old Peaks and Valleys won the Grade 1 Meadowlands Cup under Julie Krone over nine furlongs on that Friday night. Three weeks later he was unplaced in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont behind the incomparable Cigar. Mrs Payson’s homebred L’Carriere was an honourable second in that Classic.

It must have been the following July that I went across to Pin Oak Stud accompanied by Donna Rion, a noted Kentucky pedigree expert, where Peaks and Valleys had just started stallion duties alongside Sky Classic. More recently, Josephine’s high-class homebred, Broken Vow, still active, has kept Pin Oak to the fore.

Alice Chandler has been married to Dr John Chandler, a South African-born vet, since 1970 and Dr John has long been a key element in Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte stud operation. Alice Headley, as she was, started Mill Ridge in 1962 with four foundation mares and from one of them, Attica, she sold a Sir Gaylord colt for $42,000 at Keeneland.

Bought by Raymond Guest, the former US Ambassador to Great Britain, he won the 1968 2,000 Guineas, Derby, Champion Stakes and Washington DC International. Guest also owned my favourite ever jumper, the double Gold Cup and Grand National hero (beating Red Rum), L’Escargot, the fastest and most enduring snail in racing history.

Sir Ivor was the first horse ever bought at auction in the US that won the Derby. Lester Piggott rode him with the utmost confidence at Epsom to pick off front-running Connaught, but his late-running victory in the Washington DC, then one of the most important international races in the world, caused the local press corps to call Piggott “a bum”. Some bum!

So many birthdays coincide around this time. When St Jovite first went to stud in Kentucky, hopes were high that he would be a top stallion. Mrs Payson sent Indiscreet, the yearling she liked the most from the first crop, to David Loder and his three-length victory on his sole juvenile start in York’s always-competitive Convivial Maiden Stakes entertained Classic hopes for him.

Frankie Dettori was especially impressed and in his A Year in the Life, which a certain Daily Telegraph writer “ghosted” he showed that enthusiasm. That book needed an extra chapter – not easy in those pre-high tech print days – when he had the effrontery to ride seven winners in a day at Ascot after the book was set to go!

Virginia’s son Dean Grimm, who sadly died at the tragically-early age of 53 in 2017, and David Loder shared a birthday on January 26, while George Hill had his 72nd – catching me up, but you’ll never get there mate – last week.

In a quiet spell for jumping recently, Altior seemed a shade disoriented when having to make the running in the three-horse Clarence House Chase race at Ascot on Saturday. Funny, when thinking back to that irritating experience with the recent Kempton “lengths fiasco”, I overheard two punters talking before the Ascot race. One said to the other: “It’s down to above eight lengths for the winning margin. If it goes to seven, I’ll back it”. I don’t know whether the line ever did move to seven and above, but even if it did, the man would have lost. You guessed it, seven lengths was the official verdict when going to the last it looked like it could be nearer 15.

Saturday at Cheltenham features the next stop on the road to the Festival for Andrew Gemmell and Paisley Park, trained so assuredly by Emma Lavelle. He takes in the Cleeve Hurdle and another win there would probably force him into favouritism for the Stayers’ Hurdle.

Tony Stafford

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