The text message from Josh Pons arrived Nov. 14 at 5:15 p.m. Hmm…knowing he wasn’t in town for the Keeneland November sale, we wondered what he was up to. The message read:
“E: In a 1932 storage box, unopened since packed in NY in 1933 for shipment to his new farm in Md, is a file penciled on cover as ‘Unfinished.’ Inside, Saratoga sales memo to Maj. B. in Paris.
“1st horse: M o W. ‘Running slightly at nose. Lump where injured gone.’ s/ Adolphe.
“Some afternoons in garret just blow me away…s/j.”
Little did we know his hands were shaking as he pecked away on his iPhone.
Given some time—and space to breathe—Pons stretches the text message in this week’s installment of “Letters From Rockland Farm”. His words, along with those of his grandfather and the photos, are captivating.
“Letters” is derived from the boxes of correspondence housed in the attic, or garret, of the Pons family’s Country Life Farm. This installment centers around the discovery of some incredible images of Man o’ War as a foal at Nursery Place near Lexington, unseen since they were packed away in 1933. The cover image is of “Big Red” with his dam, Mahubah while an image with the feature is of Man o’ War at a creep feeder with a handful of breeder August Belmont’s weanling crop.
Along with the photos were letters and reports on Belmont’s crop as yearlings as they shipped, by rail in a boxcar, from Kentucky to Saratoga to be sold at the yearling sale.
“That box was underneath three other boxes, and I kept going, ‘What’s in there? There’s no name; there’s no label. It must be something good because it’s not just a box; it’s a real storage file,’ ” Pons told us. “Something important was in there.
“I fell out of my chair when I saw them. I almost dropped it. I was almost certain with what I was looking at…the letter was dated July 7, 1917, and folded so it would fit in this square-ish envelope.
“They were misfiled. They were in a big storage drawer. It was a file of 1932 stuff, which I was interested in because that was the year before he (Pons’ grandfather, Adolphe Pons) bought the farm and at the very back of it was this folder labeled ‘Unfinished.’ That’s where they were.”
The most precious gems are the hardest to find.
“I’m certain that in Grandfather’s haste to pack up his office in New York and get here, maybe his assistant dropped it in the back of the 1932 thing and it probably was never seen again. I don’t think it’s seen the light of day since she sent it to him.”
Pons’ grandfather was August Belmont’s able-bodied assistant prior to buying Rockland Farm in Maryland in 1933 and renaming it Country Life Farm, which is run today by his grandsons Josh and Mike.
Among Adolphe Pons’ many duties were to sell Belmont’s horses into the teeth of the first World War. Belmont needed capital, but few had the capital themselves to buy his high-end horses.
“Nobody was buying,” said Pons. “Grandfather did try to pitch them privately to (John) Madden, and a couple of guys, but nobody had enough jack or knew when that war was going to end. It looked like it could go on forever.”
As we now know, Sam Riddle paid $5,000 for Man o’ War at the sale, and the horse became arguably the most famous Thoroughbred in the history of North American racing.
The photos and letters of a century ago are markers that help show the difference between the way things were and the way things are today. While everyday life has changed dramatically during that period, certain aspects about the horse business haven’t. They’re not lost on the current generation of Ponses.
“An awful lot of horse business is still conducted on a handshake and walking in behind an agent at a sale and saying, ‘What do the X-rays look like?’ If it is somebody you trust, and they say they’re fine, you go on,” Pons said. “There’s as much of it as there’s ever been; maybe it’s in a different form.”
“Letters From Rockland Farm” was originally pitched as a one-year deal. Thankfully, Josh and his wife, Ellen, will continue to deliver encore gems through 2019.