Someday Belmont: The Making Of A Race Horse

Originally published in the June 1, 1975, edition of New York Newsday. Reprinted here with the author's permission. For more Nack, check out his classic portrait of Secretariat in Sports Illustrated.

Off the side of the road that winds through the estate of Ogden Phipps, past the paddocks for the saddle horses and the kennels where the dogs once lived, the stables came alive with the rustle of straw and the snap of saddle girths.

It was almost noon, the middle of an autumn day last year at the rolling Long Island estate, a 200-acre North Shore woodland interspersed with lawns and gardens, with orchards and greenhouses, and with fenced-in fields where the family race horses graze away the idle hours. Inside the barn, a beige-and-brown-trimmed building built for polo ponies near the turn of the century, the air was lush with the eau de cologne of horses everywhere—with the mingling aromas of freshly mucked stalls, or urine and manure, and with the assorted fragrances of hay, straw and grain. The floor was spotless, lined in bricks like a London street and swept clean, while feed tubs painted red and black—the racing colors of Ogden Phipps and his son, Ogden Mills Phipps—were hung on each of the 15 stalls.

Inside the stalls themselves, poking their chocolate noses out the doors, stood half of the "class of '73" in the Phipps family's racing stable, their 15 unraced, untested and largely unschooled yearling thoroughbred fillies. All were born two years ago, in the spring of 1973, and each with bloodlines as impeccable as the next. Among them were the daughters of the Phipps champion Buckpasser, winner of $1,462,014 during three seasons of racing; Round Table, a leading sire who earned $1,749,869 at the races; Preakness winner Tom Rolfe; Belmont Stakes winner Damascus, and the two French champions, Le Fabuleaux and Herbager. Except for one yearling, who was bought at the Saratoga yearling sale for $170,000 last August, all were foaled by members of the Phipps' priceless band of broodmares at the Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky.

They seemed the part. Peering from their stalls, they looked snappy in their Wall Street brown fur coats, slightly plump for lack of strenuous work but spanking clean from the brushings and curryings of their grooms. Now, nearing noon, four exercise riders emerged from a nearby tackroom, their saddles over their arms, and slipped into four of the straw-bed stalls. Moving quietly around them, talking to soothe them, the riders bridled and saddled the youngsters, fitting the reins around their necks and carefully inserting the steel and rubber bits into their mouths. They drew up the cinches of the girths.

For these yearlings, another day at school had begun, another day of classes in the open classroom of the Phipps Farm. The youngsters, in fact, were passing through a crucial period of development and training as racehorses, a time when trainer John Russell, his assistant in charge of the yearlings, John McManus, and the exercise riders were at work teaching the yearlings the rudiments of the game, such as how to gallop in company with other horses, and accustoming them to the feel of the bit and the weight of the rider and saddle. They were being prepared for the day this spring when they would be vanned across Nassau County to Belmont Park, there to join the Phipps' main racing stable.

Belmont Park opens its 1975 season tomorrow, and as early as last fall Russell was working ultimately to have these fillies physically and mentally fit enough to begin their racing season as 2-year-olds this spring at Belmont Park, where many Phipps horses have been launched on careers as racehorses during the last 40 years. For a racehorse, there is much to be learned between the first casual gallops on a halcyon Long Island estate and the whip-crack world of the third at Aqueduct, but Russell gives them time to learn it, as he was that afternoon last November.

In a moment, with the riders aboard, the four fillies strode out of the doorway of the barn and onto the adjacent courtyard, their heels clicking and their heads bobbing and their riders holding loose to the reins. They walked in file, angling past the greenhouse and the rose gardens and down the grassy pathway. They dipped under a stand of towering trees, over crackling leaves and across the road that winds through the estate, finally debouching onto the open field, a shag rug of grass that runs 15 acres from fence to fence and woods to road along the southeastern corner of the property.

The four riders—professional exercise girls Charlsie Cantey, Patrice Skiffington, Deborah McCallister and Gill Gordon—stopped and turned the fillies in a line, standing them side by side. John Russell, following on foot, stood before the youngsters like a school teacher looking over his favorite pupils. In fact, some of them were.

Among them was a beautiful chestnut called Time Note, a daughter of Buckpasser and one of the blue-blooded Phipps broodmares, Marking Time, and another was How Pleasing, a daughter of the fine sire Tom Rolfe and the stakes-winning My Boss Lady, herself a daughter of the great broodmare Striking, a daughter of Tripe Crown winner War Admiral, Man o' War's greatest son. A third was sired by Round Table, the leading North American sire in 1972—his offspring won more money that year, $1,199,933, than the offspring of any other sire—and out of champion race mare Queen of the Stage. The yearling was called Center of Stage. The fourth, named Grass Court, was a full sister to Outdoors—recent winner of the $100,000 Hialeah Turf Cup—both offspring to Herbager and the broodmare Open Hearing.

"Okay, we'll do figure-eights today," Russell told the four riders, sweeping a hand across the field. "Remember the course we took out here before? We went around the trees there, cut across the middle, and around those trees. Start when you get across the orchard. We'll do two of those and pull up where you start … try to pair off in twos today. And no falling off."

Taking back on the right rein, turning the fillies slowly, the girls made off across the field. They broke first into a slow trot, then into a canter. "We try to use a different course each day, so they see something new every time they go somewhere," Russell said. "We send them in figure eights because we want to them to learn to gallop on their left and right leads. In the old painting of horses, the popular conception was that horses ran with both front feet in front of them, as if they were extended at the same time. Then, at the turn of the century, an American set up a series of cameras so that when a horse ran through a course, the horse tripped each camera. He wound up with a series of pictures and found that horses don't travel with both front feet extended at the same time: They extend one front foot in front of another, like a sidestroke swimmer, and when they get tired on one lead, they normally switch to the other."

It is important, Russell said, for a horse to learn to run on both leads and to switch them at the proper time. "The reason we teach them to be ambidextrous, as it were, is so that on the turns—and all American racing goes around the turns on the left, counterclockwise—horses are on their left leads. On the straightaways, they should change to the right lead to rest the left lead …"

The horses circled at a gallop through the center of the field, rounded a bend and set off down the far side past the steeplechaser's jump, a relic of a bygone era, then swept around the apple orchard, galloping in pairs. The riders sat erect, riding with long stirrups for greater balance, and communicated to the horses through the reins in their hands, not pulling hard but tugging gently, turning their wrists and teaching the youngsters to respond to pressure at the bit.

"The straight leather bits are very easy for horses to take hold of," said Russell. "Their mouths are tender at this point and we don't want them to grow up with any apprehensions about the bit."

The four circled around again, through the center of the field, then switched to their right leads as they moved clockwise. Their strides were smooth and rhythmic, their heads extended and their front hooves reaching out to grab the sod. They moved effortlessly through a lane of pines, as if the 130-pound weights on their backs weren't bothering them. One of the objects of the training now, said Russell, was to turn the mutton into muscle.

"While this is really an important education period for them, it is also important here to develop the muscles they need to carry weight.," the trainer said. "They've never done that before. These fillies weigh between 600 and 800 pounds at this age, and when you have a rider and tack of about 130 pounds on them, you're talking about them carrying 20 to 25 per cent of their own weight. And it's important for them to go easy at this age to develop those muscles without overstressing them. At this age, you can wind up with a lot of back injuries if you're not careful."

Russell blanches thinking about it. "They are all so well-bred, of course, they are a special responsibility," he said. "With them there are additional concerns. You try to eliminate all risks of their being injured. Because of their value when they come to you, you can afford to take more time getting them to the races. From those with obvious conformational flaws to those who are extraordinarily good-looking individuals, their value would range from $50,000 to as much as $400,000 each."

The four yearlings made a final pass along the apple orchard, then turned and cantered to a patch of high ground on the north end of the field. Russell's dog, a ridgeback named Rocket, bounded along side of them. "I don't mind that," the trainer said. "They're going to have to see dogs at the racetrack. After a few times, they don't pay any attention."

The scene was pastoral, idyllic in the way the horses looked behind the orchard, in the way the ridgeback leaped in their air beside them. Any moment now, Walter Brennan could step from the orchard and rub his chin and pick out the champion. Any moment now, Elizabeth Taylor could greet Mickey Rooney and find the filly who would win the Belmont Stakes and save the farm from the creditors. "This is an ideal place to train yearlings," John Russell said. "This is old sod here that's never been anything but turf. It's wonderful natural footing for horses. It's never worn out. We cultivate it well. They have a lot of room. Horse are much more relaxed on the farm than they are on the racetrack because there's not as much activity and, consequently, they learn faster. They're not distracted here as easily as they would be at the races. The facilities are just ideal. It's quiet, and the riders enjoy coming to ride. You have happy riders and you'll have happy horses."

The 15-acre field in Nassau County, at least in terms of the American turf, has historic dimensions to it. Here, some of the fastest horses in the history of the sport have been broken under saddle and, as fillies, galloped through a daily routine designed to build muscles, teach them how to run and to get them accustomed to the tack and rider. The field is part of Phipps family history, too, dating back to the days when Henry Carnegie Phipps brought his bride, Gladys Mills, to this land in the early part of the century, up to a marble palace, estimated at $800,000 to build, that they called Spring Hill.

Gladys Mills was born in Newport, R.I., on June 19, 1883, the daughter of a sportsman and financier whose own father, Darius Ogden Mills, had made a fortune as a merchant-banker in California in the wake of the rush for gold. Henry Carnegie Phipps was the son of Henry Phipps, who was raised the son of a poor cobbler in Barefoot Square. At a young age, he became chums with another poor boy down the block, Andrew Carnegie. As young men, they invested $800 together in a steel forge, and the operation became so successful that in 1901, when they sold out to J. Pierpont Morgan, Phipps' share alone came to $50,000,000. Henry Carnegie Phipps married Gladys Mills in 1907, and soon after they moved to Spring Hill.

By the mid-1920s, they were involved in racing, and Mrs. Phipps, especially, was not long in making her mark in the game. She owned Diavolo, the winner of the 1929 Jockey Club Gold Cup, and through the next four decades raced many famous horses, from Dark Secret to Buckpasser. Mrs. Phipps became involved in the breeding end of the game in the late 1920s, and through the years maintained her bands of broodmares at Claiborne Farm. Her mares had access to the finest stallions standing at the Claiborne stud, including Nasrullah and Princequillo, two of the most influential thoroughbred stallions of modern times. Daughters of these stallions were bred to other stallions, to those such as Swaps and Ambiorix, and thus bred some of the most valuable blooded horses in the world.

While Mrs. Phipps raced many fine racehorses in her years as owner, her most important contribution to the sport was as a breeder—specifically, as the breeder of the seal-brown cold born at Claiborne in 1953 and trained as a yearling on Long Island.

His name was Bold Ruler. He was a brilliant racehorse, the winner of the 1957 Preakness Stakes and $764,204 in prize money, but his deepest imprint was made as a stallion. Sent to Claiborne, Bold Ruler became a phenomenon of the sport in this country. Year after year, his son and daughters won more money than the sons and daughters of any other sire. He filled the Phipps stables with champions, including the mother of the Round Table yearling, Queen of the Stage, and stocked the Phipps broodmare bands with some of the liveliest bloodlines in the world. The best was bred to the best.

Mrs. Phipps died in 1971 at age 87. That following summer Bold Ruler died of cancer at Claiborne. Phipps' family carried on the breeding and racing operations that she founded and Bold Ruler's influence pervades the pedigrees of their bloodstock. Many of their racehorses, as well as their yearlings, are descendants of Bold Ruler, either granddaughters or grandsons. His influence continues to grow. One of Bold Ruler's fastest sons, Reviewer, is the sire of last year's undefeated 2-year-old filly champion, the brilliant Ruffian, while another son, What a Pleasure, sired last year's undefeated 2-year-old colt champion, Foolish Pleasure, who won this year's Kentucky Derby. Bold Ruler's son, Secretariat, entered the stud at Claiborne last year. Phipps mares are being sent to bother Reviewer and Secretariat. Bold Ruler founded a dynasty in blood, and the latest members of it were walking off the open field to the barn.

"We don't have enough room to bring the colts up here for training, too," said Russell, as he followed the set of horses to the stable area. "One reason is that you can turn the fillies out together in the fields at this age, but not the colts. You have to have individual paddocks for them. We don't have them. The colts are more rambunctious. At this age they want to fight all the time and beat each other up. It's a natural process of one horse dominating the herd. There isn't a herd, but they still have that instinct to fight …"

Inside the stable, where yearlings such as Fashionably Timed and Court Accountant, Daylight and Matriarchal, Renounce and Scoring Play were waiting for the bit and bridle, Russell went into the stall of Time Note, the Buckpasser chestnut, and patted her on the neck.

"She's got a good forearm and good overall length and size," said Russell. "She's got a beautiful head, too, a typical Buckpasser head. Wide between the eyes. She has so much scope."

Across the aisle, the Round Table yearling, Center of Stage, watched as Russell approached and looked inside her stall. Unlike the rangier Time Note, Center of Stage was compact and powerful, built as if she would prefer to sprint. "Her dam, Queen of the Stage, was one of the best two-year-old fillies of all time," said Russell. "She was very quick. A daughter of Bold Ruler. This filly is so strong behind. She has great gaskins and she's wide across the hips."

Russell turned to follow the next set out to the training field. "It's a thrill to see them train," he said. "You have favorites, yes, and then you change and have other favorites. You always try to pick the best one at an early age, but that's very difficult. Some yearlings you can eliminate at an early age, but you can't eliminate any of these, not with their pedigrees."


William Nack was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for nearly 25 years and covered stories in a variety of sports and on a range of subjects. Before that, he was a reporter at Newsday. He is the author of three books, including Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance, My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood-Money and the Sporting Life, and Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.