By Katie Petrunyak
Two Labradors grace the front steps of the main house at Shawnee Farm. Their dark coats glossy in the sunlight, the affable mother-daughter pair are among the eight generations of hunting dogs bred by G. Watts Humphrey Jr. and his wife Sally.
As much as the sport of horse racing has been an unwavering passion for the Humphreys throughout their many years together, so too has their shared penchant for bird hunting. In fact, the sport led them into forming a business relationship that evolved into a lifelong friendship–one that has now surpassed even their own generation.
Gathered around their trophy-adorned living room to reflect on a few of the best homebreds to come off the surrounding 1,000-plus acres of Shawnee Farm, the Humphreys are joined by their daughter Vicki Oliver and their good friends George “Rusty” Arnold and his wife Sarah.
Humphrey met Arnold, a fellow third-generation horseman, at a dove shoot in 1991. At the time Arnold, who saddled his first winner back in 1975, was racing in Kentucky and New York–two places that Humphrey wanted to race, and win.
“They came and interviewed me at my barn at Saratoga a few months later and the interview evidently went well,” Arnold said with a wry, sidelong glace at Humphrey. “That fall they sent me three horses.”
Three horses soon became 10 or 12 and the numbers have continued to grow from there. While keeping the majority of his fillies to race and with an emphasis on developing families, Humphrey's distinguished breeding program is one that any trainer would be glad to represent.
“It's an honor, actually,” said Arnold. “They provide me with these well-bred horses and you're not in a rush with them. You're trying to establish the future. A lot of people don't have the patience for that, but I think that's his background in the industry of developing families. If you develop a horse over a period of time, you aren't pressed to have her at her very best the first time she runs. He lets you build a horse's career.”
Such was the story for one filly that, looking back, Arnold considers to be the first top-level horse that he ever trained.
It took two attempts for Clear Mandate (Deputy Minister) to break her maiden and it wasn't until almost a year later that she won her first graded stake, but the homebred would go on to be a glowing success for Humphrey, winning Grade I races at two of his most beloved racetracks and eventually retiring to Shawnee and producing Grade I winner and sire Strong Mandate (Tiznow).
Clear Mandate hailed from one of Humphrey's finest foundation families that was highlighted by Grade I winner and Classic producer Likely Exchange (Terrible Tiger).
As Humphrey recalls, Likely Exchange's dam was field bred to Terrible Tiger when she was having trouble getting in foal. The resulting filly was Likely Exchange, the dam of 1985 GI Belmont S. winner Crème Fraiche who was doubly special for Humphrey as she was the great-granddaughter of a mare purchased by Humphrey's grandfather George M. Humphrey.
“They were all lovely horses,” Humphrey said of the family. “Great attitutudes. They all tried.”
Likely Exchange's granddaughter was no exception. Bred by Humphrey and his aunt Pamela Firman, Clear Mandate earned over $1 million and claimed a trio of Grade I victories.
Perhaps the most memorable of those wins was the 1997 John A. Morris H.–now the Personal Ensign S.–where the 5-year-old chestnut sped away to win by five lengths.
“I didn't want to run her that day,” Arnold admitted, laughing as he added that he ultimately wound up going with his boss's gut and keeping her entered. “We had thought we had a big chance to win the Alabama two years before and it came up sloppy and she didn't run well. Then the day of the Personal Ensign, it came up sloppy again. I thought the track was going to get better and it never did, but it didn't matter because she ran the best race that she ever ran.”
Later that year Clear Mandate would score again in the Spinster S., giving both Humphrey and Arnold their first Grade I win at their home track.
“The Spinster was special because it was here at Keeneland,” Humphrey admitted. “But all of her wins were great.”
The summer before Clear Mandate's brilliant 5-year-old campaign, Humphrey and Arnold were a short walk down the hill from the Keeneland winner's circle at the sales pavilion, where they attended one of their first yearling auctions together. There at the 1996 Keeneland July Sale, they purchased a filly from one of the early crops of A.P. Indy for $350,000. Named Let, she would run a close second in the 1998 GI Ashland S. and later claim the 1999 GII Churchill Downs Distaff H.
Soon after retiring from the racetrack, Let produced Ravel (Fusaichi Pegasus), a $950,000 Keeneland September yearling who won the 2007 GIII Sham S. But it was later on in Let's breeding career that she brought Humphrey his stable star Centre Court (Smart Strike).
Again, Humphrey and Arnold's patience was rewarded. It took a year and four tries for the turf specialist to find the winner's circle, but from there Centre Court reeled off a series of six graded stakes wins highlighted by the 2013 GI Jenny Wiley S.
Humphrey's proudest accomplishment with the Let line came two years ago, when Centre Court's daughter Navratilova (Medaglia d'Oro) captured the GIII Valley View S. The victory marked the eighth graded stakes win for Humphrey at Keeneland. As the 23rd owner in history to reach the milestone, he earned a commemorative Keeneland Tray that now sits in the front foyer of the family's home.
“They were all a little different,” Arnold said when comparing the family line. “Let was beautiful, that's why we paid a lot of money for her as a yearling. Centre Court is probably more like her sire, a strong-looking horse. Navratilova is very attractive but is a finer version.”
“For her to be the third generation in the family to get a graded stakes win is special,” he added, and then laughed. “It means I didn't screw it up.”
While Arnold's father and grandfather both focused their careers primarily on the breeding sector of the industry, Arnold was always drawn to the racetrack. The horseman only ventured to the other side once, but the decision has paid dividends.
When Humphrey's mother Louise Humphrey passed away in 2012, a number of the horses they owned in partnership were put up for sale. There was one in Arnold's stable at the time that he just couldn't let go. He bought half of Halloween Party (Mr. Greeley) and soon had his first broodmare.
“She had won a couple of allowances, nothing fabulous, but she was tough,” Arnold recalled. “When she ended her career I was able to breed one with Watts and I co-bred a graded stakes horse from my one-horse broodmare band.”
That first foal was Morticia (Twirling Candy). She was named at the Humphreys' annual Halloween party, where they came dressed as the Addams family, and it soon became apparent that the filly was aptly named.
“She called the shots,” said Sarah Arnold, who by then was retired from exercise riding for her husband but joked that she probably wouldn't have attempted to ride the filly anyway. “She didn't like to be by herself. She was one of those fillies that really didn't care much about people, but she loved to be with other horses whether it was a workout buddy or a pony. She was fearless in the afternoon, just not so much in the morning.”
“She was definitely a handful,” Rusty confirmed. “But she took us on one hell of a ride.”
A case of shins kept the filly from the track most of her juvenile career, but it was an upward trajectory from there. A stakes winner at three, four and five, Morticia earned blacktype victories at eight different racetracks, including the 2017 GIII Buffalo Trace Franklin S. at Keeneland–winning on Friday, October 13th, much to the delight of her connections–and the 2019 GIII Ladies Sprint S. at Kentucky Downs. The consistent turfer retired in 2020 as a millionaire, having placed in all but 7 of her 29 career starts.
The Humphreys will attest that as a broodmare, Morticia's personality has become much more agreeable.
“She's really very sweet here,” Sally said. “She likes being a mom because she has her own built-in buddy with her all the time.”
Morticia's first foal, a filly by Nyquist, has developed into such an impressive yearling this year that she has led the Humphreys and Arnolds into making a difficult decision. Morticia will go through the ring at the upcoming Keeneland November Sale.
“I'm a trainer,” Arnold explained. “I love the racing part. This is going to allow me to race the foal. It's tough to keep them both. It becomes a business decision so that we are able to race the others. I've been very fortunate and Watts is the greatest partner in the world. We wouldn't have sold her without keeping a filly, who will be going right into the stable and we hope someday she can breed this family's ability into the next generation.”
In foal to Golden Pal, Morticia is among the rarest gems of Humphrey's broodmare band and she may be Arnold's first and only broodmare.
“I don't think I'm a broodmare type of guy,” admitted the veteran conditioner. “I like the racetrack. The breeding business has been very good to me, but we're more interested in racing.”
Humphrey has spent decades hoping to perfect a delicate balance of retaining his prized race mares to progress their families and selling some when other members of the family come along.
“You don't want to have so much of the same family,” Vicki said, explaining the important lesson she has learned from her father. “It would be awesome to keep them all, but you have to diversify your families.”
And so another stable standout will also go through the Keeneland sales ring now that her graded stakes-winning daughter Navratilova has recently entered the Shawnee broodmare band. With an Essential Quality colt on the ground this year and carrying a foal by Flightline, Centre Court highlights the old adage that Humphrey adopted as his philosophy.
“Breed the best to the best and hope for the best,” recited Humphrey.
“That's about the speech he gave when we first started together,” Arnold added. “He said to take care of the horses the best you can and then we will hope for the best with how they run. That philosophy has never wavered.”
And the philosophy has proven to be more than fruitful. Humphrey has developed a breeding program comparable to few others in the upper echelon of racing, but in his characteristically astute, thoughtful manner–the one that served him so well in another world as an investor and entrepreneur–Humphrey's leadership as a public servant of the racing industry has left a far greater impact.
But when it comes to his racing stable, the septuagenarian is not done yet. He may not come out and say it, but his family and friends in the room will speak up for him concerning the goal still in the back of their minds.
“I know that winning the Kentucky Oaks would be fun for him,” Vicki said. “Especially with as many fillies as he's had over the years.”
Oliver has a similar goal herself. While she got her first stakes win at Keeneland just this spring with BBN Racing's Mo Stash (Mo Town) in the GIII Transylvania S., many of her top earners, including her first Grade I winner in 2014 Del Mark Oaks victress Personal Diary (City Zip), are fillies she trains for her father.
Humphrey splits most of his homebreds between his daughter and Arnold, but there is far from a competitive fervor, much less any animosity, between the two stables.
“We've become friends with Vicki as she's grown through the business,” Arnold explained. “Watts is 10 to 12 years older than me and I'm more-years-than-that older than Vicki. It's evolved into another very good friendship.”
Hardly a day goes by that the Humphrey and Arnold clans are not in communication, whether it's Humphrey stopping by the barn at Saratoga or Keeneland or the Arnolds visiting the farm in Harrodsburg.
“Rusty and Sarah and all the people that work for him have taken great care of these horses and they care about them,” Humphrey said. “He's always had special people working for him, which is very important to us.”
But it goes even deeper than that. The families have shared decades of golf outings and quiet dinners at the farm, spent countless holidays together, and even taken annual hunting trips to the Humphreys' family plantation in north Florida, where they take a pause from racing to enjoy the sport that brought them all together in the first place.
“We've had a lot of fun together,” Sarah reflected. “They've always treated us like family.”
“A relationship like this is extremely rare in the business we're in,” Arnold added. “It's very special.”