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Racing History • Racing Today
Work of Art
October 15, 2011
Lifelong horsewoman and equestrian Phyllis Wyeth watched in 2010 with regret as a homebred Dixie Union colt she prized passed through the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale into the hands of another owner.
Parting with the personable bay colt was hard, in part, because he was the product of a female family developed and nurtured at her parent’s historic Hickory Tree Stable, but her instincts also told her this horse was special.
“My accountant told me to sell the colt for tax purposes,” lamented Wyeth at her Point Lookout Farm, which straddles the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to do it.”
In the months following the sale, Wyeth’s regret blossomed into an acute case of seller’s remorse and reacquiring the colt was the only remedy. She began this year on a mission. Through her network of Thoroughbred industry friends, she learned the colt’s new owner IEAH intended to offer him at Fasig-Tipton’s Florida Select 2-year olds in training sale at the Palm Meadows Training Center. Wyeth bought him back for $390,000, far more than the $145,600 she’d gotten for him as a yearling. But the price didn’t matter. The horse did.
Wyeth got a horse racing “do-over.”
Her instincts were dead-on because that colt is Union Rags, who put Wyeth’s Chadds Ford Stable into the limelight Aug. 15 with an impressive 7 ½-length victory in the 106th running of the Three Chimney’s Saratoga Special (gr. II). Union Rags went whoosh against five rivals, splashing his way across a sloppy track to a 95 Beyer Speed Figure in his second lifetime start.
In the Saratoga winner’s circle Union Rags’ breeder and owner was totally overcome with emotion.
"Having my picture taken in Saratoga’s winner's circle, I was crying my head off," said Wyeth, who uses a motorized scooter to get around. "Thanking my mother and father and carrying on their legacy. I'm so happy."
Racing in Wyeth’s gold and brown ball silks Union Rags rolled to a 1 ¾ length score in a five-furlong dash at Delaware Park in July. In the Saratoga Special he earned the $90,000 winner’s share, plus a $200,000 bonus for Wyeth since Union Rags was the first 2-year old purchased through the 2010 Saratoga select yearling sale to win a graded stakes at Saratoga.
Union Rags made a powerful move to the head of the 2-year old division Oct. 8 by winning the champagne Stakes in impressive fashion. He’s now the favorite for the Nov. 5 Grey Goose Breeders’ cup Juvenile.’ bankroll stands at $318,800 as he heads into the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park on October 8.
Wyeth’s gorgeous Point Lookout Farm has been in the du Pont side of her family since 1903. She has lived there with her husband and celebrated artist Jamie Wyeth for more than four decades dreaming the dream—to land the “big horse” and carry on the grand legacy of Hickory Tree Farm.
Union Rags may be Wyeth’s own thread of greatness in her family’s rich racing tapestry.
Union Rags’ name is derived from his sire Dixie Union, a multiple graded stakes winning son of Dixieland Band, and his third dam, Glad Rags II, the Mills family’s 1966 English One Thousand Guineas champion. Glad Rags II became a foundation mare for Hickory Tree. Her female line to Union Rags is linked through her daughter Terpsichorist, a grade II winner born in 1975. The Mills bred Terpsichorist to Gone West, a son of Mr. Prospector who they purchased for $1.9 million as a yearling and won three graded stakes, including the grade I Dwyer Stakes. The result of the mating between Terpsichorist and Gone West was the 1992 filly Tempo, who is the dam of Union Rags.
To further keep the Hickory Tree lineage vibrant, Wyeth claimed back in April Union Rags’ half sister, a $218,000-earner named Miss Pauline, for $7,500. She bred her to Jump Start, the leading Keystone State stallion.
Union Rags is kept at the Fair Hill Training Center under the care of trainer Michael Matz, who said he likes the colt’s laid-back manner.
“He is a very sensible horse with a terrific disposition,” Matz related. “He just does everything so easily and everything right. Phyllis kept saying, ‘I’m going to get you a good one.’ It looks like she has kept her word.”
“I bought him back for three times the amount I sold him for, not your conventional business strategy,” said Wyeth with a chuckle. “But it didn’t matter. I said, ‘Phyllis, this is the best of my family’s breeding. I don’t care about the money. I’m keeping this colt.’”
A Virginia Gem
In 1949 the Mills family moved from Long Island, N. Y., to Virginia’s hunt country framed by the Bull Run Mountains to the east and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. Growing up at Burnt Mill Farm, a mile outside Middleburg, teenagers Phyllis and sister Mimi competed in local point-to-point races.
During her college years, Wyeth majored in political science and worked for then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy and later in the White House as a secretary to the president’s special assistant. Her life changed dramatically in 1962 at age 20 during a drive through the horse country of Middleburg. A vehicle struck her head-on. After passing through a near-death experience, she awoke to find herself paralyzed from the waist down and spent the next nine months in a hospital.
Wyeth has never let her handicap slow her down. Friends quip, “she is all systems go, all the time.”
She excelled at the sport of carriage driving for more than a decade and travels quite frequently. Wyeth has strived to make a better life for other disabled people as well as championing preservation of scenic open spaces and environmental causes in the famed Brandywine Valley outside Philadelphia.
Today at her Point Lookout Farm she is a dynamo, managing the farm while Jamie works on his latest paintings.
“Phyllis is the most remarkable woman I ever met,” observed Thoroughbred owner Rick Porter, a good friend of the Wyeth family. “She tries to get the most out of every minute in her life. Never complains, keeps moving forward. Phyllis always says, ‘there is so much you can do in life.’ ”
Wyeth draws upon the strength and independence she inherited from her parents. During World War II, her father James Mills was a fighter pilot based in Iceland. Her mother Alice du Pont Mills was a pioneer in women’s aviation, who flew a small open biplane up the Amazon River in 1929 and later served as a flight instructor for Navy airmen in New York during World War II.
The Mills began their farm life in the early 1960s. James Mills started raising purebred Hereford cattle, which became a top herd in Virginia, while Alice became focused on raising quality homebred Thoroughbreds. The couple purchased the stately Burrland horse farm in 1966, and combined several adjacent farms to create the country estate Hickory Tree Farm. Mrs. Mills named the farm after a grand old hickory tree used by Col. John S. Mosby’s Rangers as a rendezvous spot during the Civil War.
Both Mills found a true passion in breeding Thoroughbreds. Glad Rags II was Hickory Tree’s first star, triumphing in the 1966 English One Thousand Guineas. The British-bred daughter of High Hat was the only filly trained by maestro Irishman Vincent O’Brien to win the British Classic, first run in 1814.
Through the years the yearling barn at Hickory Tree housed youngsters by topflight sires like Alydar, Secretariat, Blushing Groom and Chief’s Crown. The 1975 foal crop that produced Terpsichorist also included Mrs. Mills’ homebred Believe It who battled Alydar and Affirmed in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1978, finishing third in both events. Other top stakes winners included gutsy Hagley, Akureyri, Chati, It’s True, What’s Dat, and Dame Mysterieuse.
“Hickory Tree’s operation was a very interesting combination,” observed longtime friend and sales agent Russell Jones, who was a consultant to the family.
“Mrs. Mills focused on developing homebreds, primarily fillies that she loved to race. Mr. Mills concentrated on colts he bought, raced and syndicated. It was a wonderful experience for me,” he said.
Mr. Mills bought the Windfields Farm colt Devil’s Bag for $325,000 at the Keeneland Yearling Sale in 1982. The speedy colt was the toast of the racing world when named the 1983 champion 2-year-old male. Devil’s Bag was purchased by a syndicate led by Seth Hancock’s Claiborne Farm that paid $36 million, a record price for a juvenile.
“Dad had a tremendous amount of luck with the horses he bought at auction,” Phyllis noted. “I think seven wound up being syndicated.”
Multiple graded stakes winner Gone West, who won or placed in 17 races and earned $682,251, was also syndicated. Both Devil’s Bag and Gone West became influential sires and sires of sires.
Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth married in 1968 and moved to Point Lookout Farm, previously owned by Phyllis’ mother. Named for the rocky ridge of land that crosses a major Indian trail, Point Lookout commands a sweeping view of the tumbling Brandywine River below. Legend has it George Washington stood here on a bluff and plotted tactics to defend against the British advance in the Battle of Brandywine in 1777.
Point Lookout has been a primary location for many of Jamie Wyeth’s paintings that encompass so much of the artist’s personality, humor, wit and sense of wonder.
“Jamie has such an affinity for animals,” Phyllis noted. “As a teenager he spent his mornings being tutored by his aunt Carolyn, and later mentored by his father. He spent afternoons drawing in the openness of this beautiful countryside with a menagerie of animals everywhere.”
Jamie definitely has an artist’s pedigree. He is the grandson of the greatest American illustrator N. C. Wyeth and the son of Andrew Wyeth—long considered America’s most famous living painter up to the time of his death in 2010. Known for austere paintings of rural life, many with hidden messages, some of Andrew’s works have sold for millions.
Remarkably, at age 20, Jamie staged his first one-person show in New York. Phyllis has been the subject of many of his paintings including, “And Then Into the Deep Gorge,” “Wicker,” “Whale” and “Connemara Four” of Phyllis as the carriage driver with her team of ponies.
Despite her physical disability, Phyllis competed with those Connemara ponies for a dozen years, taking second place at the Windsor Horse Show in England in 1990 and winning The Laurels Preliminary Ponies competition with her ponies in 1990.
“It was raining so hard that day my hands were slipping off the reins,” Wyeth recalled. “They had wicked hazards on the course, just awful. It was a wild adventure.”
Point Lookout is a farm of 240 acres where the cozy farmhouse—the original part dates to 1680—frames a vibrant garden and overlooks rolling pastures. The house resides in Pennsylvania, while the barn sits in Delaware. A very small breeding operation, Wyeth added a pair of broodmares last year. She expects six foals next year, including one by Dynaformer.
“We breed in Pennsylvania, yet our horses are Delaware Certified, a lot folks scratch their head about that one,” Wyeth said with a chuckle.
Juan Martinez has been at the farm for eight years and is the chief horseman. He developed a special bond when Union Rags was a weanling. Martinez gravitated to the colt because of his agility, and his very easy-going nature.
“I would play with him all the time, even slept with him in the stall,” Martinez related. “I would hop on him on my belly and ride him around the barn. He was very calm and quiet all the time. I gave him love and trust and we became great friends.
“He did everything so easy. We wanted to build up his neck so I hitched him up to long side reins and would walk behind him for awhile. He was very comfortable with it and having fun.”
Union Rags exhibits the same easy-going demeanor at the Fair Hill Training Center. In Saratoga last summer the colt sure impressed jockey Javier Castellano.
“When I showed up to work him in the morning, it was unbelievable,” said Castellano. “I’ve never worked a horse like that and I’ve been very fortunate to ride horses like Ghostzapper and Bernardini.”
The colt should have no problem going longer distances, according to trainer Matz.
“With his pedigree and how he acts I think he’ll be fine,” he said. “He likes his job. He does what you ask and listens very well. He’s growing up.”
Meanwhile, Union Rags’ narrative honors a storied family’s homebred tradition.
“If Phyllis’ parents were alive, they would be thrilled,” remarked Jones. “It’s the culmination of a family project since Union Rags came from one of the families they nurtured and developed at Hickory Tree. It’s a wonderful interlocking story.”
Writer & Historian
Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He started writing historical racing articles for ESPN.com in 2010 and the Jockey Club’s America’s Best Racing in 2012. His work has been featured on premier racing sites including the Paulick Report and Equidaily.com. He is also a member of the Turf Writers of America.
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