Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Phipps Horse Racing Legacy: Seabiscuit

Success in horse racing and breeding is one of the legacies of the Mills family that endures to this day.  Although the Mills name ended with the death of Ruth and Ogden's son Ogden Livingston Mills(he had no children), the family has continued through the children and grandchildren of Gladys Mills Phipps and Beatrice Mills Forbes.  Ogden Mills owned racing stables in the United States and France. His horse Cri de Guerre won the 1928 Grand Prix of Paris in Longchamps.  Beatrice inherited the French stables and her heirs in Europe have been involved for many years in the horse business including Lady Georgina Forbes (Beatrice's granddaughter) who was named the world's leading owner of showjumping horses in this 2006 article.  Many branches of the family have had success in horse racing, but it was Gladys Mills Phipps who had an all-encompassing love for horses and began a legacy that remains truly prolific.  Our focus here is on that legacy which Gladys began when she co-founded Wheatley Stable with her brother in 1926.  This blog is the first in a series examining the Phipps family legacy as successful race horse owners and breeders.

This press photo from 1933 shows Gladys and her daughter Audrey attending a race at Hialeah Park Race Track in Hialeah, Florida.

Gladys Mills Phipps was a great horse lover and she grew up riding horses and spending time in her family's stables.  It was rumored that she had a broken nose on her wedding day because she would not give up riding the day before and had an unfortunate accident.  This love of horses eventually led to a partnership between Gladys and her brother, Ogden Livingston Mills, to found Wheatley Stable.  All of their horses were born and raised at Claiborne Farm near Paris, Kentucky.  After Ogden's untimely death in 1937, it was Gladys and her children who controlled the enterprise.  Gladys' grandchildren continue to be a force in the thoroughbred racing world today and recently found success as the owners of Orb who won the Kentucky Derby in May 2013.  Yet even Orb's victory still bears the mark of Gladys' influence because Orb was the seventh generation descendant of Erin, a mare that Gladys purchased shortly after entering the horse business in 1926.

Orb, 2013 Kentucky Derby Champion, owned by Phipps Stable and Stuart S. Janney III, Photo by Tom Nappi - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orb_(horse).jpg 

Several well-known and successful horses have been owned by the Phipps family, and they have played a role in some of the most compelling stories in horse racing over the past century.  Some are well known, some are known primarily by horse aficionados, but the horse Seabiscuit is still a common name to many today.  Seabiscuit was very popular in the 1930s and 1940s, but he is known to the masses today because of a best-selling book Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand and the Oscar-nominated film released in 2003.

Gladys Mills Phipps owned the the sire and mare that bred Seabiscuit.  Seabiscuit's sire was an extremely fast but notoriously tempermental horse named Hard Tack.  He beat several top horses in high-stakes races and demolished speed records, but his career as a race horse ended after one unfortunate race when he refused to leave the starting gate.  Hard Tack became a stud horse, but his reputation was such that when Gladys offered to breed him for no fee, no one took her up on the offer.  She decided instead to try and breed him with some mares that she owned.  One of the mares, named Swing On, was a well bred horse that didn't show enough promise as a racehorse to ever race.  In 1933, she birthed a foal, Seabiscuit who didn't have the temper of Hard Tack, but was so small that his handlers hid him in the back of the barn when Phipps came to look over her new horses.  In addition, Seabiscuit was a prolific sleeper and seemed lazy to trainers.

Hard Tack, Seabiscuit's sire, born in 1926 of Man O'War and Tea Biscuit -
Photo: http://www.sporthorse-data.com/d?showpic=10157250&nm=2&time=1439125102

Seabiscuit's trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, figured out that the horse could run fast, but he frequently refused to do so.  In a stable with many other promising horses, Gladys Phipps did not want to devote the time and energy to developing the horse.  Fitzsimmons instead spent most of his time with the horse, Omaha, who won the 1935 Triple Crown, and with readying his next prodigy, Granville, for the 1936 season.  Fitzsimmons continued to try to work Seabiscuit and find a strategy to convince him to realize his potential, but Phipps was not convinced that Fitzsimmons could turn Seabiscuit into a profitable race horse and looked to sell the horse.  In retrospect Fitzsimmons admitted, "He had something when he wanted to show it.  It was like he was saving himself for something.  Trouble was, I didn't have time right then to find out for what." 1

Seabiscuit with new trainer, Tom Smith
In August 1936 at Saratoga Race Course, future owner Charles Howard and future trainer Tom Smith first laid eyes on Seabiscuit and saw untapped potential in the horse.  Howard made an offer of $8,000 to purchase the horse as long as he did well in his next race.  The race happened on a rainy day and nearly every horse scratched the race except one.  Smith was worried because he knew Seabiscuit did not run well in mud.  Seabiscuit started the race and fell ten lengths behind until he began to rally and incredibly won the race.  The deal was finalized.  Though $8,000 might seem like a lot of money during the Depression, it was quite low for the sale of a race horse, especially one that was well bred like Seabiscuit.  Horse racing was a very lucrative sport at this time and even middle of the road horses could earn $2,000-$3,000 per year and much more from stud fees.

Seabiscuit wins the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940.

Seabiscuit flourished under Smith's unconventional training methods and won many important races including a head-to-head match up against 1937 Triple Crown Winner, War Admiral, in 1938.  He was named American Horse of the Year in 1938 and became a symbol of hope to many Americans during the Depression.  When Seabiscuit turned out to be a successful late bloomer with many wins, it wasn't all for naught for the Phipps family.  Gladys still owned Hard Tack, Seabiscuit's sire, and his stud fee increased from zero to $1000 with Seabiscuit's success.  Even though Seabiscuit's late successes might be considered a near-miss for the Phipps family, their legacy of successful horses continued.  In the next installment we will take a look at Bold Ruler, Secretariat's sire, and the fateful coin toss that resulted in another family owning Secretariat.

1 Hillenbrand, Laura, Seabiscuit: An American Legend (New York: Ballentine Books, 2001), 50.

No comments:

Post a Comment