By Chris McGrath
Sitting on a sofa in his office at Gainesway, Antony Beck points to twin, framed photographs hanging above his head, one set above the other.
“Have a look at these two horses here.”
For a moment, you’re not sure that they are actually two different animals. A creamy grey stallion in the same posture, against the same background of indeterminate pasture. Beck acknowledges that the more recent shot was taken to make the point, and duly developed in black and white, but the inherent resemblance is certainly striking.
“Mahmoud and Tapit,” Beck explains. “It’s really interesting to see. Until quite recently Mahmoud was the fastest Epsom Derby winner. The grey in Tapit comes from him, five or six generations back-through the mares, through the female family. And Mahmoud stood here on this farm.”
Tapit, nowadays, is the most expensive sire in America at $300,000. His rise ensures that Gainesway remains an iconic Bluegrass brand, worthy of a heritage that has trebled in weight under the present ownership through the addition of historic tracts of neighbouring Whitney land. And, while the family will celebrate its 30th anniversary here in February, conversation with Beck very soon discloses a keen sense that his first duty is the humble one of stewardship.
His mother, clearly of similar mind, planted 62 different species of oak around the estate, not to mention some of the finest formal gardens in the land. And Beck, in turn, is proving a profoundly civilising influence. Among the old farm buildings, for instance, was a derelict slaughterhouse. Beck has turned it into a wine vault. Blood to claret: a succinct sample of the cosmopolitan cut of a man to confound all condescension from those, on either coast, who do not so much look into the heart of America as down at it.
In Beck, they must acknowledge a world citizen. His roots in South Africa, where his father had built up a coal fortune, were transplanted to Kentucky via a London education; specifically, a Westminster education, guaranteed to register far deeper than the superficial legacy of his Anglicised diction, as light and precise as Earl Grey tea poured into bone china. So, yes, it’s a horse farm in Kentucky-but it’s a horse farm where you might glimpse a Henry Moore outside an estate cottage; or where the office walls are adorned not only with these photographs, but with art from across the spectrum-from a rare contemporary portrait of the Godolphin Arabian, to Andy Warhol’s only equine image.
And Beck brings a corresponding breadth of perspective even to the narrower horizons of the Turf. Nothing expands that quite like the equine cemetery: Vaguely Noble, Blushing Groom (Fr), Riverman, Lyphard, Irish River (Fr), Cozzene, a Hall of Fame of its own all the way back to distaff legends Regret and La Troienne.
“I think the oldest stallion buried on this farm is Peter Pan,” says Beck. “But even including Equipoise, Tom Fool, all these great stallions that have stood here, I really think Tapit’s been the best. Of all of them. Which is quite amazing.”