Breeders Can Pin Their Hopes on a Mighty Oak

Josephine Abercrombie | Equi-Photo


The breeding of Thoroughbreds being such a notoriously long game, a dispersal as uncommon as this one offers the most privileged of short cuts. It's as though you can transplant an oak overnight from a mature plantation. Someone else has put in all the necessary, painstaking seasons, years, decades since the acorns were first sown.

So it's a given, absolutely, that the root-and-branch dismantling of Pin Oak Stud into the Lexington lumberyards next week–two dozen mares, fillies and weanlings at Fasig-Tipton on Sunday evening, with 14 yearlings to follow across town at Keeneland–will partly be so coveted simply because of the sheer span of time devoted to its cultivation by Josephine Abercrombie.

But if it is quite remarkable for a breeding program still flourishing in 2021 to have been in the same two hands since the 1950s, then it must be unique for even such longevity to remain secondary–in terms of making Pin Oak Stud what it is–to the flair of its supervision.

Very few human beings are favored both by nearly a full century of vigor, and the material resources to match. But fewer yet can say that they have maximized those twin benedictions as exhaustively as this woman whose true riches, and distinction, abide far deeper than worldly fortune. As it is, her vitality has been able to sustain so many parallel “biographies” that even 95 years seem inadequate to encompass their range. By now too familiar to require reprising, these include colorful careers in boxing promotion, saddlebreds, skiing and ballroom dancing; much philanthropic commitment, notably as founder of The Lexington School; not to mention five marriages–and five divorces! But nothing has ever surpassed the Thoroughbred in her affections.

“Ms. Abercrombie has certainly led an amazing life,” says her long-serving farm manager, Clifford Barry. “But you know what, she'd tell you this, this has been her real love all the way through: being here on the farm, and developing these horses. It was something she really cherished and really took hold of, something she never took for granted. She always felt that if she could bring that passion to it, every day, success would follow. And I know that riding round the farm now, admiring the property, she would wish her dad she could see what she has done here.”

That was Houston oilman J.S. Abercrombie, whose eureka moment came with the blowout preventer, since used on oil wells all round the world. He went into Harry Cameron's toolshop and sketched out his idea on the dirt flooring with a stick. That was the start of Cameron Iron Works, and everything that followed.

Father and daughter shared a love of horses, and a ranch was soon acquired in Texas. He loved pin oaks, and ordered a bunch of them to be planted around the property. Some time later a visitor from New York looked around and told him there wasn't one pin oak on the place. These were all water oaks!

There was more arboreal precision when it came to planting up new land in Kentucky. Josephine made her first yearling purchases in a partnership, including her father, way back in 1949. Three years later they bought 1,348 acres of Woodford County, subsequently birthplace of a series of elite performers including 1976 Preakness winner Elocutionist (Gallant Romeo). But even greater success would attend the development of a new, slightly smaller estate nearby, in the 1980s, with homebred Peaks And Valleys (Mt. Livermore) perhaps the turning point in becoming Canadian Horse of the Year–in the process qualifying Abercrombie as Thoroughbred Breeder of the Year in 1995. Many other decorations and awards have ensued, while the Pin Oak legacy was further secured by such influential sires as Sky Classic (Nijinsky) and Maria's Mon (Wavering Monarch), with two homebred stallions still operating in Broken Vow (Unbridled) and Alternation (Distorted Humor). Though a premature loss at 14, Maria's Mon managed to sire two Kentucky Derby winners in Monarchos and Super Saver.

Impossibly condensed, that's just a snapshot of the genetic duct opening to breeders in Lexington next week. And even though the farm had a commercial function, too, its presiding spirit was that every equine family finds its greatest value in basic racetrack quality.

“This kind of thing is very hard to find anymore,” Barry argues. “Ms. Abercrombie never, ever wavered from where she wanted to be with Pin Oak. It was all about how to produce the best product in the afternoons, and how to get the most out of those mares. She knows every quirk these families present, and how to breed them out. There have been plenty of harsh decisions, when you have to sell young fillies, but there's no doubt overall she has done an amazing job with a very small group of mares, really. It's not like we've had 100 or 200. She's always been very strict on numbers, and I think at any one time it was never much above 30 or 40.”

So what does the Pin Oak brand represent, for those hoping to tap into it now?

“Soundness,” says Barry. “And quality. And just, show up in the afternoon. You can just look at these mares: they were turf, they were dirt, they were short, they were long, but there's always durability in these families, and always great racing minds.”

There has, moreover, been a reciprocal stickability between the boss, known universally on the farm as “Ms. A.,” and her people. Barry has himself been at Pin Oak since 1988; nor has there been any inconstancy in the racetrack roster. Donnie Von Hemel has been training for Pin Oak for three decades, Graham Motion isn't far behind, while Mike Stidham ranks as a relative newcomer at around 15 years. That's a testament not just to Abercrombie's loyalty, but also to her belief that working with a family, generation by generation, helps horsemen to read the run of the genetic grain.

“Donnie Von Hemel had a 2-year-old filly win first time out at Remington last Friday,” Barry says. “She's by Broken Vow out of a homebred mare called Bedanken (Geri), who Donnie trained [to win 11 of 19 starts]. He was saying he had to go back and look up the mare afterwards just to refresh his memory on what she was like. Getting the feedback from those guys on a yearly basis, before you do matings, has always been a huge help. If you look, Ms. Abercrombie often has horses where she has bred three or four generations on both sides. There are very few operations like that nowadays, outside maybe a Coolmore or a Juddmonte, or the Wertheimer freres. I think that's an art that's gone from American breeding.”

Whatever the practical advantages of these recurring cycles, fidelity comes naturally between the Pin Oak owner and her staff.

“She was loyal enough to hire me at 24 years of age, and give a young guy a chance,” Barry notes. “We've got one member of our staff who is coming up to 50 years here. And that just gives you an idea of what Mrs. Abercrombie is about. She was never afraid to roll up her sleeves and get out on the farm. She pushed you to be the best you could be, every day. Not one day a week: every day. Once Mrs. Abercrombie puts her faith in you, you know you have very high standards to meet. She definitely expected no stone left unturned in the care of those horses. But I think in return she took care of the staff the very same way.

“She has such a love and passion for the game. And that has not faded one bit over the years, whether here on the farm or going to the races, whether good days or bad days–and there have been plenty of both. She's about as competitive a person as you could come across, but there'd never be a finger pointed. It would always be just, 'We got outrun today and we'll do better tomorrow.' So while it was always straight back to the grindstone, to see how we could do better, it made my life and job so much easier whenever I had to give the bad news. Because you never had to hesitate to tell it like it is. That's what she expected, and from the trainers too: tell it like it is, and keep moving forward.”

Poignantly, however, there will now be no more moving forward. Barry admits the unorthodoxy of dispersing mares and weanlings on the eve of the September Sale, rather than in November, but credits Boyd Browning, Bayne Welker and the rest of the Fasig-Tipton team for a convincing case that the concept would dovetail well, with so many people in town.

“Hopefully it gives us the chance to showcase some really nice mares and offer some reverence to what Mrs. Abercrombie has done in this game for 60 years,” Barry says. “It's an amazing opportunity for the marketplace, to get into these families. I mean, these don't just pop up every November Sale. You've got Gold Medal Dancer (Medaglia d'Oro) [in foal to Munnings, Hip 23], you've got Don't Leave Me (Lemon Drop Kid) [in foal to Authentic, Hip 18]. These are families that Mrs. Abercrombie has held very tightly these last 30 years, plus.”

As for the stallions: Alternation is still young enough to come up with another Serengeti Express, whether in Kentucky or elsewhere, and options are under review; at rising 25, however, Broken Vow has probably earned a place among the pensioned stock that will remain on the farm, guaranteed diligent care in the years left to them.

Barry, for his part, is not dwelling on his own future. He will keep his head down; keep going in to work for Mrs. Abercrombie, same as always.

“I think I'll be doing that tomorrow like I did today,” he says. “I made a promise a few years ago to do everything in my power to see this through to the end. Ms. Abercrombie has been awful good to me, and my family. Deep down, it's going to be tough to see some of these horses go. But nothing in life stays the same forever, so I want us all to go out and represent as best we can Pin Oak and everything Ms. Abercrombie has put into this game.

“She's about as hands-on an owner as you could ever come across: she's lived here on the farm and watched these horses every day of their lives. Going to the races in the afternoons, too, she has loved that. There hasn't been any part of this thing she missed, from the matings all the way to the racetrack. And she was still out on the farm with me yesterday afternoon, riding around [on the golfcart], and then we went in and watched the replay of the 2-year-old at Remington.”

Barry and his team have doubtless been usefully distracted by maintaining their usual, exacting standards in the preparation of the draft, before handing over to Denali Stud for the sale.

“It'll be a tough couple of days,” says Barry. “I'd be lying if I said we won't feel it deep in the pit in the stomach. But at the same time, we're here to do a job as professionally as we can. These are Ms. Abercrombie's wishes at this stage of her life, we're going to respect that and do everything we can to get it done right. She never does anything on the spur of the moment: she wants to be in control of her legacy, and we've known for a while that we were on a kind of wind-down, and would ultimately get to this point.

“Since the news broke, I guess we've had time to reflect on it a little more. But I don't think I can put into words what Mrs. Abercrombie has meant, let alone to me, to everyone on the farm. You know, she didn't inherit any of these mares. She has built this on her own, from the ground up, and we all know that's a very hard thing to do. So you're talking about somebody that has all the passion, all the patience, and all the perseverance that this game requires. It's been an amazing ride for Ms. Abercrombie, and an amazing ride for all of us–and I feel very, very blessed to have been just a cog in that wheel.”

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