Some years ago, a young groom at Belmont Park looked admiringly at all the well-bred Ogden Phipps horses and said to himself, “If I could ever train those horses, my life would be made.”
That groom’s name was Shug McGaughey, and in 1986, his life was made when he replaced Angel Penna as trainer for the Phipps family’s private stable, that also included horses owned by Ogden’s son Ogden Mills, better known as Dinny, and daughter Cynthia, who raced in the once familiar Wheatley Stable colors of his grandmother, Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps.
Phipps’ black silks and cherry red cap were as well-known as any in the country during its heyday in the 1960s, headed by the great Buckpasser, just as his mother’s silks were in the 1950s and ‘60s. When Wheatley’s champion Bold Ruler developed into the premier stallion in the country, topping the leading sires’ list seven consecutive years, the Phipps family stable paraded one stakes-winning 2-year-old by Bold Ruler after another throughout the ‘60s, including champions, Bold Bidder, Bold Lad, Queen Empress, Successor, Vitriolic, and Queen of the Stage. During that time, their pride and joy, Buckpasser, a son of Tom Fool, was nailing down six championships – 2-year-old male, 2-year-old, 3-year-old male, 3-year-old, Handicap Horse, and Horse of the Year.
The stable nearly won its first Kentucky Derby in 1965 when Dapper Dan, wearing the Phipps colors, made a big late run, but fell a neck short of catching Lucky Debonair at odds of 30-1.
This was the era of the private stables. Names like Phipps, Whitney (C.V. and John Hay), Vanderbilt, Widener, Galbreath, Kleberg, Wright/Markey, and Mellon. In addition to Wheatley Stable, there were stable names like John Hay Whitney and his sister Joan Payson’s Greentree Stud, Warren Wright and then his widow Lucille Markey’s Calumet Farm, John Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm, Robert Kleberg’s King Ranch, Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane’s Brookmeade Stable, and Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable. These were the names that ruled Thoroughbred racing.
Their names generated the kind of magic and reverence that McGaughey felt as a groom. But by the time McGaughey took over the Phipps stable, having immediate success with champions like Personal Ensign and Easy Goer, and numerous other stakes winners, racing was undergoing a major change. The rejuvenation of the Phipps stable was not a renaissance for the sport, but a final grasp for glory by a crumbling dynasty. The once-powerful private stables had all but vanished from the Turf, with a few becoming mere fragments of what they once were.
When John Galbreath died, followed by the sale of Greentree Stud, only the Phipps and Mellon stables remained as private operations, with Marylou Whitney taking over her husband C.V.’s stable, but on a much smaller scale. Galbreath’s son, Dan, continued to breed and race horses in his own colors, but also as a smaller operation. When Paul Mellon died in 1999, the powerful private stables, or what was left of them, were all but gone.
Look at the private stable at a living entity going through the process of evolution over a 130-year period. The stable of Robert Aitcheson Alexander’s Woodburn Farm of the 1850s would evolve into the D. Wayne Lukas public stable. The 40-horse stables at a single track became public stables consisting of hundreds of horses scattered around the country, with different divisions. That eventually grew into the Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen megastables of today.
It was Alexander, who became, as John Hervey wrote, “The first gentleman of great wealth and high social position who deliberately engaged in breeding as his life work…the end in view being the improvement of the breed of horses.”
Alexander died in 1867, and Woodburn passed on to his brother Alexander John (A.J.) Alexander. From 1868 to 1880, Woodburn bred or owned the winners of eight Belmont Stakes, eight Saratoga Cups, and seven Travers Stakes. This was a monumental comeback for Woodburn Farm, which had survived numerous guerilla raids and the theft of a number of their prized racehorses during the Civil War.
When A.J. Alexander died in 1902, at the age of 78, his estate was divided among his three living children. The Alexander name continued to appear through the mid-1900s, as his granddaughter, Mrs. Augustus B. Gay and her husband bred stakes winners Porter’s Cap, Waller, Woodford Lad, and John Doe.
The private stable was born, with August Belmont, a prominent banker lawyer, and socialite building up a powerful racing and breeding operation, which was continued by his son August Belmont II following his father’s death in 1890. But he had to rebuild the entire operation after his father’s 131 horses were sold at public auction. That sale attracted prominent names like Lorillard, Haggin, and Morris.
August Belmont II would go on to win five Belmont Stakes. He purchased seven broodmares from his father’s auction, including the English-bred Bella-Donna, who would produce the great Beldame. Belmont was a true student of the sport who planned every mating, becoming unquestionably the most successful student of Thoroughbred bloodlines in America. He died in 1924, having bred 129 stakes winners, including Fair Play, Beldame, Friar Rock, Hourless, and Mad Hatter. Among the horses he bred who raced for other stables was the legendary Man o’ War.
The great private stables continued to grow, with the Pierre Lorillard stable dominating New York racing. There was the racing empire of James Keene, who had turned a $10,000 investment into $6 million, trading mining stocks on the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Keene had been persuaded to purchase a 2-year-old named Spendthrift, who would go on to win the Belmont Stakes. That $15,000 purchase was the beginning of the Keene dynasty, which would produce two of the greatest horses of all time, Colin and Sysonby.
The pillars of the Turf were well established, and continued with the Whitney family – William Collins Whitney, his son Harry Payne Whitney, who built one of the most powerful stables in the country in the early 1900s, and followed by Harry Payne Whitney’s son Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Harry Payne’s brother, Payne, married Helen Hay, wife of diplomat John Hay, in 1902, forming the foundation of Greentree Stud, which was later carried on by their son John Hay Whitney and daughter Joan, who would eventually own the New York Mets.
The power structure of Thoroughbred racing in America had been established. Well into the 20th century, the leaders sounded like a Who’s Who from the social register – Belmont, Whitney, Morris, Lorillard, Carnegie Phipps, Vanderbilt, Widener, Bradley, Mellon, Galbreath, Woodward, Firestone, Madden, Keene, and Sinclair, and of course, the most powerful stable of the 1940s and ‘50s, Warren Wright’s Calumet Farm, who owned and bred Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation, as well as numerous other Derby, Preakness, and Belmont winners and champions.
Some of the other great homebreds that came from the private stables include Nashua, Native Dancer, Count Fleet, Tom Fool, Assault, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Bold Ruler, Buckpasser, Equipoise, Twenty Grand, Sword Dancer, Regret, Bewitch, Twilight Tear, Armed, and Tim Tam.
The most unique private stable was one that not only broke the mold, but shattered it. In 1926, a minor event transpired that would have a profound effect on the sport. A young trainer named Hirsch Jacobs saddled his first winner. Jacobs, the son of an immigrant tailor and one of 10 children, was born on the East Side of Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At age 16, he began racing pigeons, and could recognize all 100 of them by sight. This unique talent and insight would later be used in his training of Thoroughbreds and dealing with each one as individuals. He could get into their heads and diagnose their problems. He would always say, “I don’t feel good every morning, why should a horse?” His remedies included aspirin, compresses, vinegar, Epsom salts, and ice water.
His philosophy was that they don’t pay off for workouts, so he would rarely work his horses, racing them often instead. He became the leading trainer in the country in wins from 1933-1939, and from 1941-1944. He 1943, he claimed a runty, awkward colt named Stymie for $1,500. When Stymie retired in 1949, the little colt who could barely walk straight had earned a near-record $918,485.
Jacobs would go on to breed and own his own horses, in partnership with Isadore Bieber, while racing in his wife Ethel’s colors. His private operation would produce Hail to Reason, one of the great influences on the breed, as well as top-class fillies Affectionately, Priceless Gem (who defeated Buckpasser in the Futurity), Searching, Admiring, and Straight Deal. After his death, Jacobs’ son John took over and trained Personality to win the Preakness Stakes and High Echelon to win the Belmont Stakes in the same year.
By the 1970s, the private stables were on the decline. One by one, the bluebloods of the Turf began to ease their way out of the sport. The reasons ranged from disinterest by their heirs to the dramatic escalation of operating costs. Most of the once-famous silks can now only be seen hanging in the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga, relics of a bygone era.
One of the last remaining private stables was the Phipps family, but their operation was also in decline, and was virtually unheard from throughout the early to mid-1970s. When Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps died in 1970, it all but marked the end of the famous purple and yellow silks worn by stars such as Bold Ruler and Bold Lad. It would be carried on to much lesser degree by granddaughter Cynthia. Two years later, Bold Ruler died after suffering from cancer. The story has it that while being led to the barn where he was to be euthanized, he came to the path that led to the breeding shed and proceeded to head in the direction until his handler pulled him back and brought him to meet his fate. The Phipps’ foundation sire was gone, but would live on through his son Secretariat and numerous other descendents.
With Bold Ruler gone, the Phipps family bred to a host of staying stallions. Their longtime trainer Eddie Neloy had died suddenly in 1971, and under trainer John Russell they did have the top-class multiple stakes winner Majestic Light before hiring distance and grass specialist Angel Penna, who won a number of major stakes. Almost all their victories came in distance races, many of them on grass, and they needed to infuse speed back into their blood, as in the days of Bold Ruler.
They began breeding to young stallions like Mr. Prospector and Danzig, as well as their own Buckpasser, who sired champion Numbered Account. They also needed some of their homebreds to become top stallions to perpetuate the bloodlines, and they got it with Private Account, a son of Damascus and Numbered Account. Numbered Account also produced Dance Number, the dam of champion Rhythm, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Travers Stakes. With Buckpasser becoming one of the most influential broodmare sires in the country, the rejuvenated Phipps bloodlines were once again dominant, and success under McGaughey began to quickly escalate.
Private Account sired the great undefeated champion Personal Ensign and stakes winner Personal Flag, both out of the Phipps-bred mare Grecian Banner. Two of their Buckpasser mares, Con Game and champion older mare Relaxing, produced Seeking the Gold and Easy Goer, respectively. Con Game also produced stakes horses Stacked Pack and Fast Play, and Relaxing also produced the stakes-winning Cadillacing.
Throughout the years, Ogden and Dinny remained true sportsmen and never interfered with McGaughey, dealing with the highs and the lows with the utmost class. In an era where trainers are tossed aside like yesterday’s newspapers, there are no owners who have remained as loyal to their trainers as the Phippses. This year, McGaughey celebrates his 30th year as trainer for the Phipps family, but for the first time without either Ogden, who died in 2002 at age 93, and Dinny, who passed away last week. The stable is now pretty much in the hands of two of Dinny’s children, Ogden II and Daisy. When Ogden Phipps died, Marylou Whitney called it “the end of an era.”
Several years ago, McGaughey described what it is like training for the Phippses. “Mr. Phipps is usually here and gone by 10:30 a.m. and Dinny calls me early in the morning before his other businesses. Once they leave, it’s over and done. I enjoy dealing with Mr. Phipps because he’s been in the game for a long, long time. He’s seen it all and knows how to take the good with the bad. Whatever can happen in racing has happened to him. He understands the game to its fullest. I think it’s healthy for the sport to have new people in the game, but it’s sad to see the old stables go.”
Despite all their success, the one race that eluded them was the Kentucky Derby. The Phippses must have felt a Derby victory was imminent after Dapper Dan’s narrow defeat. But Ogden Phipps would have only two more Derby starters over the next 37 years – Seeking the Gold in 1988 and Easy Goer in 1989. Dinny would run only one – Awe Inspiring in 1989; and his daughter, Cynthia, racing in the Wheatley Stable colors, would have only one – Saarland in 2002. Wheatley Stable had attempted the Derby seven times from 1928 to 1967, but never even finished in the money, despite being represented by champions Bold Ruler, Bold Lad, and Successor.
Then in 2013, Dinny Phipps, at age 72, teamed up with his cousin, Stuart Janney III, son of Stuart Janney Jr. of Ruffian fame, and finally won his Derby with Orb, who traces to Bold Ruler, but carried the Janney colors to victory. To come up with a horse like Orb, Phipps and Janney reached into the pedigrees and descendants of racing titans Damascus and Dr. Fager, who were involved in the epic 1967 Woodward Stakes showdown with Ogden Phipps’ mighty Buckpasser.
As Dinny was led off the track in a wheelchair, he thought back to Dapper Dan nearly 50 years earlier and recalled, “I was here that day and I bet on Dapper Dan. And I’ll bet you I didn’t make 10 bets before that or 10 bets after. I just had a feeling that he would run well. That was a long time ago.”
It seemed as if the Derby gods or whatever other-worldly entity you care to attribute it to had finally found the perfect year to reward not only two long-established families, but the Sport of Kings itself. This was Thoroughbred racing at its purest, with the blood of champions being regenerated through the decades to give the sport a sense of continuity, while serving as a reminder of where it came from. The Phipps family in particular is the last of a dying breed of sportsmen who built a foundation strong enough to withstand the passage of time and an ever-changing world, where tradition and sportsmanship have been eroding with each passing year.
Kentucky Derby 139 will be remembered as the race in which the old timers rejoiced in the memory of how the sport used to be in simpler times, while the younger generation got a rare opportunity to enter a portal of time to witness something they may never see again.
Longtime veterinarian Mark Cheney, who has done work for McGaughey for 30 years and has been close to Orb all year, was flushed with pride and excitement, and there was only one remedy for that, and that was a good stiff drink with an old friend, who was not around to witness the victory.
“This is the thrill of my life,” he said. “I know another fellow who’s up there watching this and having a big shot of bourbon right now and that’s Mr. Phipps. I think he made it happen. I wish I was up there with him because I’m about ready to die for a bourbon and water.”
It was a long wait for the Phipps family, but what has always separated the private stable from the public stable is its longevity and the indelible impression it has left on history.
Even with its new corporate image, racing will always remain a sport. But when the last private stable vanishes from the Turf, it will cease to be the Sport of Kings.