A Thoroughbred Vision: The Origin and Inspiration of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association

By Raymond Wolfe, Jr.

Edited by Rhonda Turman

Virginia – the name of the Commonwealth is synonymous with that of the horse all over the world. For from this state, from the start, runs the wellspring of pure American equine bloodstock. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both dearly loved horses and racing, were pitting the best of the breed against one another, while killing bears and protecting one’s scalp from hostile Indians was the center of attention in the bluegrass country across the mountains.There is an irony in the phenomenon that the Virginia Thoroughbred has had to struggle through the years for its continued existence, but it is a tribute to the tenacity, dedication and selflessly motivated leadership of individual Virginia horsemen who have never lost faith in the fact that Virginia is one of the finest places on earth to produce and raise good horses.

In keeping with this belief, fifty years ago, on February 15, 1941, a group of concerned Virginia horsemen met at the Red Fox Tavern in Middleburg for the purpose of organizing a “Horse Breeders Association in Virginia of which there is none”. Mr. David N. Rust of Leesburg presided over the gathering.

The stated aim of the proposed association was to represent the interests not only of Thoroughbred owners, but those of all types of horses including the Thoroughbred, the hunter, the heavy draft and ponies. They sought to put the emphasis on producing a good horse, on providing education and information to breeders, and acting as a fact gathering and information center. As one man present stated, “It would be very valuable if we could find out what they get sick of, what they die of, and what they are vaccinated with.”

A Maryland neighbor, Humphrey Finney, was invited to address the group. He described the efforts and accomplishments of several similar associations and their focus upon raising private funds through racing and the sales of their bloodstock. Few knew at that gathering what a critical role Mr. Finney, through his association with the Fasig-Tipton Company, would come to play in the preservation and improvement of the Virginia Thoroughbred.

As Joe Estes of “The Blood Horse” pointed out, without formal racing, the task of raising financial incentives for Virginia horsemen would be a formidable one. Mr. Estes went on to express that Virginia was in a unique position. Other states and their associations were already in fierce competition for production and outdoing each other’s racing activities. What he suggested was that Virginians focus their full concentration on developing the finest Thoroughbred bloodlines and individuals in America, perhaps even the world. Their strength would reveal itself through a well organized sales program, emphasizing maximum and effective use of strength of unity through syndication strategies, and capitalizing on the performance of Virginia produce. It was a prophesy which would mold and guide the Virginia Thoroughbred philosophy for decades to come, and serve as the key to its prominence in a brutally unforgiving marketplace.

After an exchange of ideas concerning aims, procedures and funding, the group moved on to the task of electing its first slate of officers, which as a whisper of things to come, consisted entirely of Thoroughbred folks. Mr. Kenneth Gilpin, of Kentmere Farm near Boyce, was elected the organization’s first President with David N. Rust as Vice President, Henry Frost, Jr. as Secretary, and Colin “Sandy” McLeod serving as treasurer.

Most of the fledgling Association’s first year was spent organizing, planning, recruiting members, fund raising and defining its identity. But soon programs got underway and by 1942 the organization was off and running with a $5,000 appropriation from the state and plans in the works for a breeding show and the first Annual Meeting, featuring speakers on topics as diverse as veterinary medicine, pasture management and the horse in modern warfare.

It was a short-lived start however, for during the war years between 1941 and 1945, the Virginia Horsemen’s Association, like so many other horse organizations of the time, saw its activities severely curtailed. With their Field Secretary commissioned to the Coast Guard, and facing a reduced agenda of programs, a decision was made to return to the state the unused portion (five-twelfths) of the original $5,000 appropriation. This was in the hope that their act of good faith would compel the state to look favorably on their cause when the VHA asked for support again in better days.

After the war’s end in August, 1945, attention once again began to turn to the concerns of the Virginia horse, and in 1946, the VHA reorganized and resumed a full slate of activities. It was during this year that the VHA formed its first committee, the first of many, to study the legalization of racing in Virginia. It was at this time also that Major Gilpin expressed an urgent need for a campaign to expand the horse industry in Virginia – particularly Thoroughbreds – pointing out that in the twenties, winnings of Virginia-breds were greater than that of all other states combined. He bemoaned the declining number of Thoroughbreds and stressed the importance of bringing proven sires into the state.

It was through other efforts, however, that Kenneth Gilpin had his greatest impact on the development of Virginia’s Thoroughbred industry. Through his purchase of the Fasig-Tipton Company in the early forties, and revival of the Saratoga Yearling Sales after the war, Gilpin initiated a chain of events that changed history.

Under his guidance, and with the invaluable support of Humphry S. Finney, the dormant Saratoga Sales paddocks, closed since the beginning of the war, were refurbished and Thoroughbred yearling sales revived for August of 1946, with Saratoga racing resumed then as well. At the same time, most of the Kentucky breeders united to form their Breeder’s Sales Company and took over the old Fasig-Tipton pavilion near Lexington. Along with the vital backing of Henry H. Knight and his Almahurst Farm (Nicholasville, Kentucky), that left Saratoga with Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey breeders.

After Kenneth Gilpin’s death in 1947, control of the sales company passed to his son, Tyson, who with the advice and support of Finney, managed it for six years. It was at the end of this period that the young Gilpin, with the expert advice of L.P. Doherty, organized a syndication of his fellow Virginia breeders to take control of the board of the Fasig-Tipton Sales Company. In doing so he assured Virginia breeders top billing at the annual horsemen’s Mecca of Saratoga.

As a result, the Saratoga Sales were literally dominated by Virginia Thoroughbred producers for decades. The annual selection of suitable Virginia sales yearlings by Fasig-Tipton developed into an institution unto itself with the Association’s creation of the Virginia Saratoga Yearling Tour. Not only the sales selection team, traditionally led by Humphrey Finney (surveying all while peering over his trademark half-lensed glasses), but literally hundreds of prospective buyers, guests and members of the press were treated to a three day marathon of hospitality at Virginia’s most notable farms – “Danny” Van Clief’s, Nydrie Farms; Whitney Stone’s, Morven Stud; Mrs. E.H. Augustus’, Old Keswick; The O’Keefe’s, Pine Brook; Mr. Gilpin’s, Kentmere; Taylor Hardin’s, Newstead; “Judge” and Emily Church’s, North Cliff Farm; Hubert Phipps’, Rockburn; and so on.

The effect was not only a public relations jewel for Virginia Thoroughbred breeders; it showed Virginia bloodstock off in the best and most picturesque environment. Those images were still thoroughly rooted in a lot of minds when the auctioneer’s call began in August at Saratoga.

With a combination of grace, horsemanship, dedicated promotion and, best of all, solid racing results, Virginians drove their Thoroughbred industry to the third most productive ranking in America by 1978. But regardless of the efforts and the presentation of arguments for the value of the Virginia Thoroughbred to the state, lackluster interest at best was demonstrated in Richmond. It became evident that the lynchpin of Virginia’s strength in furthering the cause of its Thoroughbreds lay in its mares and their produce.

The struggle on the part of private individual farm and horse owners to promote Virginia sires bordered on valiant, but it was an uphill struggle at best. Without state support, with no legal wagering on racing (although Virginia crowds showed continued and enthusiastic support for the state’s steeplechase race events), the potential motivation to own and promote Virginia stallions was dim at best. There were successes, however, despite the dismal outlook. 1947, for example, saw such fine sires as First Fiddle, Hampden, Vincentive, and Grand Admiral prove beyond any doubt that Virginia sires could get progeny which would compete with the best in the world.

Notable private breeders, however, would continue through the years to stand fine sires in Virginia. Marion DuPont Scott put an indelible mark both on the flat and steeplechasing world with her two shrewdly purchased stallions by the legendary Man O’War, Battleship and Annapolis. Both were classic racehorses in their own right and went on to sire classic champions in every phase of racing. The dauntless Christopher Chenery stood the classic stakes sire, First Landing, in Virginia, and Mr. Edward Stephenson, together with Tyson Gilpin, imported and stood the highly successful Amerigo at his Kilmaurs Farm near Warrenton. More recently, Mr. and Mrs., James Mills stood the fine stallion Hagley at their Hickory Tree Farm near Middleburg.

While standing these sires in Virginia produced notable successes, they also represented a gallant measure of sportsmanship and devotion to Virginia on the part of their owners. In states where breeders’ incentive programs were generously present because of racing and government support, such horses would probably have had their earning potential multiplied many times over, not to mention their access to an increased number of classic dams for their progeny. So it was that the tide swung inexorably toward development of Virginia as a power in the distaff production and sales of Thoroughbred yearlings and horses, be they racehorses, hunting & conformation horses, or steeplechasers.

His death early in 1947 marked the end of Mr. Kenneth Gilpin’s presidency and active leadership of the association. Mr. Melvin “Judge” Church II, a canny horseman and fine breeder, took over the reins with Mr. Gordon Grayson serving as Vice-President. During that year, the association continued to promote the formation of stallion syndicates, upgraded Virginia’s mares and yearlings and cooperated in advertising, shipping, and preparation of mares and yearlings for Virginia’s breeding programs. Still, the attempt was rooted in private effort.The labors of the VHA finally began to gain the notice of some concerned Virginia legislators who, in 1948, brought about the allotment of funds from the State Board of Agriculture to organize a livestock diagnostic laboratory in Northern Virginia, a move inspired by the efforts of horsemen to diagnose, prevent and find cures for such diseases as the dreaded swamp fever.By 1950, inspired by the tireless urging of the venerable Christopher Chenery, Melville “Judge” Church II, Daniel G. Van Clief, Mrs. George P. Greenhalgh, and others, a real push for annual Virginia breeders’ awards and incentives began to take root. The efforts of Nick Saegmuller in his role as Field Secretary put the VHA under the eye of the press everywhere. Under5 the leadership of President Daniel Van Clief, Virginia horsemen pressed for “Virginia Days” at Pimlico, Saratoga and other major tracks in order to focus more attention on Virginia horses.

The annual meeting of 1954 was a particularly significant selection of officers. That year, Daniel Van Clief was succeeded by Tyson Gilpin, son of the first President. He would serve three terms over the years. Noted owner and breeder Mrs. Isabell Dodge Sloane was elected as Vice President, and James L. Wiley and Dr. F.A. O’Keefe, became prominent on the Board. “Virginia Days” at major tracks became a priority on their agenda. Not having racing in their own state, it was reasoned that such exposure for Virginia horses was absolutely vital.

The cornerstone, however, of public focus on Virginia Thoroughbreds was to be the Virginia horsemen’s syndicated power on the board of the famed Fasig-Tipton Sales Co. This was Virginia’s insurance that Saratoga would continue as her window to the world for marketing Thoroughbreds.

In 1956, Mr. Christopher Chenery produced a horse from his famous foundation mare Hildene, and it looked for a time like Virginia’s fortunes with regard to stallions might take a real turn. First Landing (by Turn To out of Hildene) proved himself an outstanding Two-Year-Old Champion. While his three-year-old year was beset by upsets, his brilliance returned at four. He was returned to stand at the Meadow with 19 wins from 37 starts, and earnings (then considerable) of $779,577. Also in 1956, Mrs. Isabell Dodge Sloane came forth with a brilliant homebred from her Upperville farm, Brookemeade, named Sword Dancer. In 1959, he proved to be a formidable three-year-old, including the Belmont Stakes, Travers and Woodward in his rack of victories. A unanimous poll selected him as 1959’s Horse of the Year and Champion Three-Year-Old. There could be no doubt in the world that Virginia remained a source of champions.

On the distaff side, Mrs. Sloane struck gold again with a brilliant champion filly, named Bowl of Flowers, from her 1958 crop. The filly dominated the distaff racing scene for three years. In 1959, Christopher Chenery’s Meadow Farm again rocked racing with a lightening bolt granddaughter of Hildene named Cicada, the three time Champion filly who set a money-winning record for fillies that stood for ten years. Virginia horsemen were not to be denied that they were a power in the international racing world.

In 1956, thinking began to turn around again to the subject of a push for legislation to legalize pari-mutuel racing in Virginia. A resolution for a study of racing and pari-mutuel wagering’s benefit to Virginia income, sponsored by Lindsay Moore, went before the legislature but was defeated by a narrow margin on the senate floor.

In the next year, 1957, with Association activities becoming ever more focused on Thoroughbred interests, Association President Dr. F.A. O’Keefe announced that the Virginia Horsemen’s Association would now carry a new name – The Virginia Thoroughbred Association. From that day on, the organization’s goal and reasons for being focused on one thing only – the preservation and improvement of the Virginia Thoroughbred horse.

Towards this end once again, in 1958 lobbying for a study of pari-mutuel issue began in earnest. This time, largely due to the labors of Raymond Guest, the resolution authorizing the study was passed, and Mr. Guest was named chairman of the VTA committee that would work in support of the effort. Despite this important step forward, once again Virginia’s horsemen were destined to be denied, this time because of larger issues. At the 1959 Annual Meeting, Mr. Guest reported that he had been approached by several members of the legislature requesting that the pari-mutuel bill be deferred, as the state’s lawmakers were fully engrossed in the issue of desegregation.

The deferment was temporary, and another round in the pari-mutuel battle began in earnest in the seventies. Daniel Van Clief, as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, successfully sponsored a resolution calling for the creation of a commission to look into the desirability and feasibility of pari-mutuel betting on horse racing in Virginia. Elected Chairman of that commission, Van Clief worked for three years to develop a pari-mutuel bill hailed as a model of its kind.

But 1978 was not to be the year. Despite generous backing from determined Thoroughbred supporters like John D. Marsh (who rose to the occasion again in 1988), the effort failed, less by merit than by overwhelming hostile contributions to the “moral majority” opposition by out of state sources who perceived Virginia racing as an economic threat.

Just a few short years later, in May of 1981, John Marsh ascended to his second term as President of the VTA. In the interim, Virginia’s Thoroughbred industry had plunged into a marked and disheartening decline. From her position as 3rd ranked producer of Thoroughbreds in the U.S. in 1978, after the pari-mutuel defeat, Virginia had slipped to 11th. Seeing few alternatives, and despite his failing health, in 1984 John Marsh called out the marching orders once more for Virginia horsemen to support the cause of Virginia racing, and in doing so initiated a battle whose victory he did not live to see.

Fred Kohler, a Middleburg breeder, bloodstock agent, and insurer, took the helm in 1984, and the struggle to keep Virginia horsemen rallying behind preparations for another pari-mutuel fight fell squarely in his lap. Moving from the Presidency of the VTA to the Presidency of the newly formed sister organization, Virginians for Horse Racing, Kohler played a critical role in this final battle for pari-mutuel legislation.

Finally, in 1988, with Ernie Oare as VTA President, Virginia’s horse racing supporters prevailed, and the pari-mutuel bill was passed by the Virginia legislature. A state wide referendum followed in November of that year that overwhelmingly confirmed that a broad majority of Virginians desired pari-mutuel horse racing. Generations of Thoroughbred enthusiasts had fought long and hard, and at great expense and personal sacrifice to arrive at this gratifying moment.

Through the years not only the Commonwealth’s commercial breeders, but great private breeders and racing owners had put it all on the line with their hearts and fortunes to make the Virginia Thoroughbred a force to be reckoned with in the world of racing – Paul Mellon of Rokeby Farms, Isabell Dodge Sloane, Admiral Cary T. Grayson, Whitney Stone of Morvan Stud, Theo Randolph, Thomas Mellon Evans of Buckland, Howell E. Jackson, “Liz” Whitney Tippett of Llangollen, Marion DuPont Scott of Montpelier, James and Alice Mills of Hickory Tree, Raymond Guest, Stephen C. Clark, and of course, the ever-persistent Christopher Chenery. The roll call of Virginia’s great stakes horses is equally formidable – Sir Gaylord, Hill Prince, Bowl of Flowers, Cicada, First Landing, Sword Dancer, Mongo, Proud Delta, Chieftan, Tom Rolfe, Arts and Letters, Quadrangle, Fort Marcy, Key to the Kingdom, Java Gold, Winter’s Tale, Kauai King, Riva Ridge, Pleasant Colony, and of course the immortal Secretariat.

Obviously, the entire list of Virginia greats cannot be recounted in these few pages. It should be noted, however, that the shrewd and ardent breeder and VTA supporter, Marion Dupont Scott, turned the eyes of the world, horse lovers and novices alike, with a pair of bargain price sons of the great Man O’War – Battleship and Annapolis. She and her Montpelier Stable set the world on its ear in 1938 with Battleship, the first American owned and bred horse to ever capture the legendary English Grand National at Aintree. The Virginia owned horse was “Life” magazine’s feature story of their week. With Battleship and Annapolis, and a great mare named Accra, Mrs. Scott tapped into the Man O’War line to breed and race (under her own colors and those of others) an awesome string of stakes horses and champions both on the flat and over jumps. Throughout it all, she was actively involved in the VTA – as a director, an officer and an ever present voice on behalf of the Virginia Thoroughbred.

Mrs. Scott and others like her knew that when you take away Virginia’s broad meadowlands and board fenced pastures where America’s best Thoroughbreds run, you carve away a significant piece of Virginia’s heart. The people who got together in 1941 and organized the Virginia Horsemen’s Association had the foresight to see the priceless value of these resources to Virginia and its people. While the faces may have changed somewhat through the years, this vision, and the inspiration of the Thoroughbred, remains intact.

Perhaps it is this vision that has sustained Virginia horsemen through the battles that have brought them to where they stand today, poised on the eve of the state’s first pari-mutuel racing event.