Lessons From The Legends

John Williams and Frank Penn at the Legends Dinner Chris McGrath


Needless to say, all four tried to reject their billing. Between them, after all, they have spent the better part of three centuries dealing with that vehicle of humility, the Thoroughbred. To everyone else present, however, the opportunity to tap into the experience of four such sages as Bill Landes, Frank Penn, Tom Thornbury and John Williams fully justified the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club in promoting their latest meeting in Lexington as “An Evening with Legends.”

Each, moreover, could be consoled that one of the first tasks addressed–an acknowledgement of their mentors–confirmed them to be merely conduits for a collective lore forged long before they came on the scene. For these veterans are a living link not just to the masters who taught them, but to forgotten predecessors who tutored generations past.

True, perhaps the most profound lesson of all did not actually relate to horses.

“My parents didn't have much in the way of soft living,” Williams noted early in proceedings. “My dad was a second-generation Italian barber trying to make a few bucks until Daily Double time. My mother was a second-generation Irish seamstress. So we didn't have a lot. But they taught me the importance of ethical behavior: you only have one chance to mess up. Once you break from that, it will follow you the rest of your days.”

One or two of his earliest racetrack bosses evidently set a rather contrasting example. But from an adjacent barn Wilmont D. Haun saw how a young man from Ellicott City, Maryland, was redressing his employer's deficiencies, rubbing four and walking three.

“You need to come and work for me,” Haun said.

“I can't leave these horses,” replied Williams. “All they've got is me.”

And, really, we could have stopped the evening right there. There's not a great deal else anyone needs to know.

Bill Landes (far left) and John Williams (second from right) | KTOA

When Williams eventually called, Haun told him to report at 4.45 next morning. “From that moment on, I started to learn horsemanship,” Williams recalled. “He would say to me, 'You cannot do enough for a horse. Ever.' He was so demanding. But those lessons stayed with me to this day. And some people that have worked for me, over these many years, might say that I wasn't the easiest guy–because there was a little bit of Bill Haun in me!”

But if our legend quartet uniformly stressed integrity and industry, there was nothing standard about their own paths. Landes, indeed, presented himself as having “made a living in the horse business without getting manure stains on my breeches.” Though reverent of his peers on the panel, he assured younger listeners that there was more than one way to make a career with horses.

This “failed lawyer” has of course become one of the exemplary figures of our community, still giving generously of his time and expertise to its overall prosperity as well as to that of Hermitage, where he has worked these past 47 years.

“I lost a jury trial in Henry County. It was a layup and I should have won,” Landes said. “That night I was on the front porch looking up at the stars and saying, 'This is not for me.' I was young and dumb and I walked into Warner Jones's office, I was a boarder at Hermitage Farm, and I said, 'Mr. Jones, I'm going to be with you for one year. Then I'll go back and practice law.'”

An hour with Landes would suffice for anyone to do as Jones did after the year, and ask him to stay indefinitely. No prizes for guessing his first mentor, then, albeit Landes was required to paraphrase one or two Jones axioms that will stay with the audience just as long.

Penn, similarly, has given much to community service–his commitment being rooted in an uncommon breadth of experience. Certainly he made sure that he would graduate from Georgetown College when the alternative was Vietnam, and has gratefully served his alma mater in various roles since. He even had a stint as a deputy sheriff, and found himself as spokesman for tobacco when it suddenly became a dirty word.

“Tobacco supported our horse habit for a long time,” he said of his upbringing. “We had tobacco, we had horses, we had cattle. I learned three things. One: don't be afraid to fail. Two: you don't know you can't do something till you try. Three: love the animals. I never got to love a cow or a steer! But I sure love a horse and always have.”

He remembered the Penn Brothers consignment processing 72 yearlings in a single afternoon at Keeneland. “Every third horse into the ring was ours,” he said. “I'll tell you what, I learned a lot about how not to do things.”

He started his own program the following year with neighborly advice from Lee Eaton, a name that recurred all evening, though ultimately Penn's best call was not just to process horses for sale but to board them for people–above all the Whitham family–who could afford to raise and retain higher quality. That enabled Penn to bring up horses the way he felt right. “Lee told me all the time that it was because of the Elkhorn Creek,” Penn said. “I thought he was full of it, but I'm telling you, I absolutely believe it.”

Above all his other services, Penn's 17 years on the Land Commission preserved Fayette County from disintegration into “piano-key” development, while 34,000 acres have been secured through the Purchase Development Right program. That work was here recognized with a standing ovation. His summary was succinct: “I don't care whether it's your land, or your neighbor's land: it's a finite resource and you better take care of it.”

Penn also cherished an unusual relationship with John Gaines, who would come to him for lessons in Kentucky agriculture but in turn “taught me to be a lifetime learner.” But for a pithy takeaway, none beats Bob Courtney when the 16-year-old Penn confessed to spending a couple of grand more than intended on his first mare. “Always remember,” Courtney said, “the higher the monkey climbs, the more its butt is exposed.”

Thornbury also shared an axiom from the same source. “Hard times,” Courtney would say, “will make a monkey eat red peppers.”

Though probably more obviously born to the business than the other three, Thornbury was also the one who would end up diversifying into 20 years with Keeneland.

Having managed the Georgia farm of none other than Horatio Luro, his father moved the family to Kentucky for what became a 52-year partnership with Dr. Robert Copelan. Its principal business, between Copelan's pioneering surgery and his father's breaking and training, was racehorse rehab.

“We had all Bunker Hunt's horses for two or three years,” he recalled. “We broke Dahlia, for goodness' sake. But when Bunker decided to go to Texas with all his yearlings, we had to start over with an empty 40-stall training barn.”

Ted Bassett | Equisport

Thornbury was another to invoke the inevitable Lee Eaton, having worked for him before joining Brereton C. Jones. “I went to Airdrie in 1977,” he recalled. “We had four stallions and about 400 acres fenced for horses. And when I left about 10 years later, we had 27 stallions and 3,200 acres. It was like tying your wagon to a shooting star. Brery was the greatest salesman and motivator that I ever met.”

But it was his Keeneland career that causes Thornbury to “bleed green,” above all through the inspiration of Ted Bassett, who could make anyone instinctively stand up straighter. “He was always slapping you on the back, grabbing your arm, shaking you,” Thornbury said. “He pushed me to promote Keeneland in South America, South Africa, Canada. What a joy, to work with all these people. My job was real easy. All I had to do was make everybody happy! Seller and consignor and buyer. Nothing to it.”

That remark prompted due laughter, never in short supply through a memorable evening. Williams, for instance, remembered going to his employers at Spendthrift about rotten planks in a yearling barn.

“That Fleet Nasrullah colt kicked right through the wall.”

“Majestic Prince was in that stall,” retorted Brownell Combs. “If it was good enough for him, it's good enough for that colt.”

Williams was quite clear that Brownell had no idea where Majestic Prince might have been stabled.

Once Brownell left the room, to prepare for a trip to Florida, his wife Linda said: “As soon as you see those tail-lights go between those eagles, you do whatever you need to do.”

As for the great horses encountered by these great horsemen, Williams considered one stallion at Spendthrift such a paragon that even his license plate salutes Nashua.

Nashua with Eddie Arcaro, 1955 | Horsephotos

“The greatest horse I ever touched,” Williams said. “Nashua made 30 starts and won 22. He earned $1,288,000 in 1955 and '56. The biggest pot he ever ran for was $100,000. And I could not find a flaw. Physically, he was just a phenotype.”

Landes reminded us of the other part of the equation: the broodmare.

“The horse that had most influence on me, that I respect most, was a little pony mare by the name of My Charmer,” he said. “She was owned by Ben Castleman who had a small farm out on Newtown Pike, and in 1976 she happened to have a 2-year-old running a hole in the wind by the name of Seattle Slew.”

Phil and Norman Owens came to see Jones: they could get My Charmer, in foal to Best Turn, for $200,000. Jones jumped out of his chair.

“He wants how much!? Two hundred! You kidding me!?”

“So he danced around, the price was firm, and then Norm and Phil pulled the ace card,” Landes recalled. “If he didn't come up with that $200,000, they didn't know how, but Norm and Phil were going to get it. Well, being the competitor that Mr. Jones always was–football player, polo player, a competitor in life–he called up Mr. Farish, and Mr. Farish brought Bill Kilroy, and they put My Charmer into the Hermitage Farm broodmare band.”

In 1980 she had a little Northern Dancer colt. One November afternoon a helicopter landed at Hermitage and out stepped Vincent O'Brien, John Magnier, Robert Sangster and their team. They picked My Charmer's son out of the field and did a deal with Jones for $500,000. As Lomond, he won the 2,000 Guineas.

Four years later, My Charmer delivered a Nijinsky colt. Landes remembers Tom Shartle going out at 3 a.m. to bring him in during a thunderstorm: the only time in all their years together he ever did that for a foal. The following July, they were wrapping up at the sale, at 4 p.m., when told to stand by for a special visitor.

“And I can assure you that Vincent O'Brien made that horse stand–occasionally walk, but mainly stand–for 45 minutes,” Landes said. “He was assessing that horse's temperament. And of course the rest is history.”

Frank Penn | Keeneland

Next day that colt became the $13.1 million record-breaker, Seattle Dancer.

Thornbury and Penn shared an awe for Forego. “He was a big, handsome dude,” Thornbury said. “Seventy-one inches from his withers to the point of his shoulders. And 17.1 or 17.2. Just huge. And he had ankle trouble. That's why they gelded him, they wanted to keep him light. On September 28, 1974, he won the GI Woodward at a mile and a half. On October 19, he drops back to win the GII Vosburgh over seven. On November 9, he wins the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup, then run at two miles.”

And the greatest changes these guys have witnessed? To Penn, as important as anything has been the involvement of the University of Kentucky in equine research.

“It was caterpillars made farmers out of horsemen,” he said. “Before caterpillars came along, you couldn't get a horseman to admit they were a farmer. The caterpillars really shook us all up: foals slipping, mares slipping, it was terrible. And the university entomologists figured out what it was.”

Williams lamented the decline of the breed-to-race programs, plus the incestuous nature of modern pedigrees.

He is also dismayed by physical dilution of the breed: cannon-bone, knee, foot. But he stressed positive changes, too, above all in veterinary medicine and female employment. When he came to Spendthrift, there were nine women on the payroll: “all in the office, wearing dresses.”

But he concurred that veterinary improvements have been transformative. He remembers when Walter Zent had the first ultrasound, and would take a weekly “puddle-jumper” to Chesapeake City to check on Northern Dancer's mates. Or when Gary Lavin had to perform arthroscopic surgery with the equivalent of “hammer and chisel.”

Having himself done much for the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, he could not deny that “we now have, not even arguably anymore, the best racing in America.” In 2019, Ellis Park had $1 million in KTDF funds. This year, they will supplement their purses with $6 million. Kentucky Downs, in the same period, have moved up from $5 million to $16 million.

Thornbury highlighted another side of the coin, with racetracks nationally under pressure. The loss of Golden Gate has reduced the total to 79, compared with 106 in 1976, with Hialeah, Hollywood Park and Arlington meanwhile consigned to history. More optimistically, he celebrated the rise of syndicates, new horizons through air transport, and above all the impact of Hispanic labor. “As much opposition as there is to immigration these days, these people are steeped in Catholic family values, and they're hard workers,” he said. “A lot of them are living on nothing, sending money home to take care of their families. I don't know what we'd do without them.”

Tom Thornbury (center) | Keeneland

So much for the past. What counsel could our sages offer looking forwards?

“Be aware politically,” Landes urged. “Become involved. You say, 'Oh, my legislator doesn't know me.' Believe me, I've learned the hard way, through some of our issues at the KTOB and KTA: yes, they do. Reach out and you'd be shocked how many email you back. You just have to let them know the issue that affects you, and what you want help for.”

But, yes, more broadly it was just as Williams had suggested at the outset. “Your reputation is your brand,” Penn said. “The toughest thing you'll ever have to do is reconstruct a tarnished brand. And with social media today, it can take a lifetime to build a brand, 15 minutes to blow it.”

Williams himself made another valuable recommendation. How many today cut their teeth the way he did at Pimlico and Bowie?

“Those of you that like being near the horse: you like what a horse smells like, like seeing that foal run around his mother,” he said. “I encourage you to spend some time working for a talented, ethical trainer on a racetrack. You will learn what this animal is, what we're trying to raise, what the final end is.”

But finally, above all for the younger audience, he condensed the message repeatedly endorsed since his first remarks: the value of trust and probity.

“You must have an uncompromising commitment to ethical behavior in every aspect of your life,” he declared. “It will serve you well. You'll never have to look over your shoulder. Always do right. It'll please some–and surprise others!”

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