By Chris McGrath
The return to the Turf of Peter M. Brant, a man of deep engagement with wider concerns of art and society, has not just enriched the sport’s cultural fabric. It has also now secured the future of a valuable piece of its heritage in Payson Park.
Thursday, with the dust still settling on its landmark 1-2-3 finish in the Kentucky Derby, Brant closed a deal that ends a period of prolonged uncertainty for the South Florida training center. Payson Park has been on the market since 2012, most recently advertised at $7.95 million. And, for all Brant’s acumen as a businessman, it is understood that he views Payson not as an investment vehicle, but primarily as a benevolent intervention in the interests of horsemen.
Brant himself, admittedly, is making no such claims on his behalf. He is simply stressing a personal faith in the excellence of the facility, as sampled by his own horses both in his first stint in the game and since his comeback. He is also at pains to compliment the custodianship of vendor Virginia Kraft Payson, who hands over the site in infinitely better repair than when she and her late husband rescued it 40 years ago.
That said, he is already promising to upgrade a facility that has managed, even without the kind of expenditure only warranted by an indefinite commitment, consistently to maintain elite performance by horse and horseman alike. He also said he intended to emulate the barn ownership model so successfully developed at Fair Hill in Maryland.
“In the late ’70s and in the ’80s I had a lot of my horses at Payson Park,” Brant recalled. “Horses like Gulch, Track Barron, Mogambo and Class Play, among many other stakes winners trained by LeRoy Jolley. I always did very well with 2-year-olds coming out of there, and early 3-year-olds, so I’m a big fan of the place; and I felt it would be better for our operation to have some horses–both younger and older–winter there.
“A lot of the horsemen there, the trainers and owners, weren’t too sure what was going to happen. Mrs. Payson has obviously been a great steward, but the future was a little unknown so I thought it would be a good idea to step in there. And we’ll try and find a way so that everybody can own a piece of it and help it carry on.”
Brant has taken advice on the facility from various expert consultants and been encouraged by feedback from those trainers already based there. “This summer we’ll be widening the turf course and changing the sprinkler system,” he said. “We’ll be screening the track, checking the base, making sure everything is good. Nobody is complaining about the racetrack, it’s one of the best in North America for sure, but I think we have a very good plan.”
So far as the wider interests of the industry are concerned, Brant acknowledged the importance of looking to its laurels in terms of the training environment. A distressing start to the year at Santa Anita has illustrated the sensitivity of this area, and centers like Payson and Fair Hill provide a hybrid alternative, taking the best from both the European and American systems. The welfare of horses in training, after all, is ultimately reflected in their performance. The Payson Park slogan, in fact, has long been “Happy Horses Win.” So everyone gains from any improvements that can be sought in their daily theaters of operation.
“Absolutely,” assented Brant. “And this is a perfect place for that. I’ve had a lot of experience of it personally, had horses there this year and last, older horses too. Their coats look good, and mentally they’re very on top of things. It’s out in the country, around 30 minutes from Palm Beach, maybe 50 minutes from Palm Meadows and probably an hour and 25 minutes from Gulfstream. So it’s right there in the middle of things-but the air is much fresher, you don’t have any major highways, and that makes a big difference.”
Though Brant will preserve Payson Park under the same name, his association with the site places him in line with some of the American sport’s most resonant postwar patrons. The St. Lucie training farm was built at Indiantown in 1957 by Bull Hancock, C.T. Chenery, Michel Phipps and Townsend Martin. But it fell into such dilapidation, after their deaths, that cattle and alligators had to be cleared off the track when Mr. and Mrs. Payson first leased it in 1979. The following summer, having established that the fundamentals retained great potential, they bought the freehold and began the work that would keep Payson Park fully booked, with a wait list, from that winter all the way through to the downturn of 2008.
T-he 405-acre site accommodates 21 barns, comprising 499 stalls in all; a mile dirt circuit independently evaluated by an MIT study as the most consistent in the land, plus a seven-furlong turf track; 62-berth staff dormitories; 76 turnout paddocks; a veterinary clinic; a café, a floodlit soccer pitch and miles of riding trails. In contrast with the typical backstretch, the Paysons ensured that “you won’t find an inch of concrete anywhere.” And, of course, there are no competing priorities, no pressure on schedules or maintenance, from a racing office.
That was enough to secure winter migration from Hall of Fame trainers like Bill Mott, Shug McGaughey and Roger Attfield, and equine “campers” of the stamp of Cigar, Easy Goer and Kraft Payson’s own 12-length Irish Derby winner, St Jovite.
Brant–who said he understood that Chad Brown will stable some of his best horses at Payson Park, not just for him but for other clients as well– has appointed Alan Quartucci of North Shore Bloodstock to handle barn sales under the new regime.
“Peter is a big believer in Payson, and the history of the facility,” Quartucci said. “It’s a great track and a lot of great horses have come out of there. The people who built it had a great vision, and a lot of engineering knowledge; they knew all about drainage for instance. And it’s such a tranquil setting for the horses.
“Mrs Payson has done a great job there but it’s been for sale for a while. Really it wasn’t Peter’s wish to run a training center, but to preserve a great one; not to let it be developed or turned into something else, but to keep it going and hopefully to improve it.
“Peter’s always believed it’s been a great place for 2-year-olds to be developed, and the number has always been under 500 horses so it doesn’t get overcrowded. I think that’s what makes the track and facility so good. I think a lot of horsemen will be thankful that someone has stepped up to the plate.”