When Horse Country was launched to provide farm tours in central Kentucky, it was with the main purpose of bringing the stories of a signature industry to life for even more people.
There are few better places to to bring such a tradition of excellence in the Thoroughbred industry to life than at a farm with a legacy of 150 years of raising racehorses.
Runnymede Farm is tucked into and around a long tree-lined drive. The light yellow barns that dot the property are charming, and stepping foot onto the farm somehow imbues a visitor with a deep sense of history. Part of that is that you could almost see this farm being as it was in days gone by.
That is not to say Runnymede is antiquated. Like any top farm in this region, it has some of the best horse people and horses associated with it. It just seems to wear its legacy in a way that is indefinable, but best described by the sign at the entrance that reads, “Runnymede Farm, established 1867” – as far as records can determine, the oldest horse farm in existence in this country – and the litany of top horses that have come from this property and gone to racing glory. Their names are well known to any racing aficionados, names like Star Shoot, Miss Woodford (described as the “first Zenyatta” – winner of over $100,000 in the 1880s and dozens of races), and Hanover.
There was also an interesting story about how Roamer got his name, which I had never heard before. There had been a teaser and a blind mare on the farm, and no one is sure who jumped the fence into the other’s pasture, but the resulting foal seemed he should most fittingly have the name Roamer. Given his unplanned existence, Roamer went on to have an incredible racing career. The story was mentioned to point out how breedings can be so carefully planned and then one horse jumps a fence and produces a really good horse with no planning involved at all. Federico Tesio once told a story like that as well…
Runnymede, besides being a fount of quality nearly since its inception that is carried on to the present day, is associated lately with a horse of immense tenacity in Lady Eli. Her dam, Sacre Couer, grazed on a hill on the day of our visit, carrying her eagerly-awaited American Pharoah foal.
Speaking of the hills of Runnymede, their horses leave the farm wanting to run, evidenced by the number of graded stakes winners the farm turns out, and the hills and the condition they help the horses build from their earliest days of life are likely a strong contributing factor.
I realized the goal of any breeder or owner is to have a top horse, and that those horses that achieve graded stakes success are only a small portion of any foal crop, and the number of grade 1 winners is an even smaller pool. What I never considered is that means they are hoping for the outliers. That was an interesting way to consider it.
Brutus Clay, who led our tour, told us Runnymede has a great percentage of stakes winners and grade 1 winners, putting them among the top farms in the world. The statistics are even more impressive when it is considered that Runnymede usually has between 30-40 mares, and successfully holds it own with much larger operations. Quality speaks, and flows through the bloodlines of the horses that live there today just as it did through the bloodlines of the horses that lived there in the 1800s. It is incredible to think of a farm being in existence that long. Clay even joked that most people are asked what they did before they got into horses, and for his family for generations horses are what it has been all about.
Meeting the next generation was the order of the day after hearing of Runnymede’s history.
A young mare with her first foal, an Orb filly, was in the first pasture we came across. Her love of peppermints was so great that it was enough to lure her from grazing, and she followed one of the farm employees across the pasture to bring her and the filly closer to give the assembled group a better look. The filly was all leg, as foals are at that age, and there was charm in how she looked to be more leg than anything else and while she was quite agile, she stood in a way that made it look like she was still getting used to her own mobility. I had taken some of the day off work to visit, and it did me a lot of good to have time in nature and among horses again and the foals were a sweet bonus.
After that, we visited an older mare, Bloomy, and her colt by Uncle Mo. This foal led the mare to the fence, directly opposite how the first foal had been. The foal was pretty bold but the mare didn’t like the strangers getting near her foal and charged the fence, then kept him at a safe distance. This foal at her side was the last she would have, as she had earned her complete retirement after winning over $100,000 racing and being named 2012’s Pennsylvania Broodmare of the Year. She is 20 this year, and after her foal is weaned she will live out the rest of her days at her owner’s farm in Pennsylvania.
I had to leave sooner than anyone else, past fields of mares still in foal and a few yearlings in the pasture nearest the entrance. They were like the send-off crew concluding an enjoyable visit and interlude from the artificiality of the warehouse environment where I had stolen a bit of time from to reconnect to nature and horses, the essentials for my soul.