2016 AHP Award Winner
Tucked away in a rural corner of Chesterfield Township, New Jersey, where the land still remains mostly forest and pasture, much the same as when Quaker settlers first set eyes upon it in 1677, is Christine Connelly’s Bright View Farm.
Founded in 1975 by Connelly’s father, Philadelphia businessman and manufacturer John Connelly, Bright View Farm is one of the last remaining Thoroughbred nurseries in the state that breeds for racing and the auction ring. When John Connelly first purchased the 275 acres, part of the state’s “inner coastal plain,” a geographic area that contains some of the world’s most fertile soils, he knew he had found an ideal place to raise horses. Centrally located to three racetracks as well as the Philadelphia and New York City metropolises, the farm was peaceful, scenic and historic.
Christine Connelly lives in a 1736 farmhouse at the crest of a small rise which overlooks fenced green pastures and outbuildings; open land that is a migratory home to grassland species of birds and a favorite spot for local ornithology clubs; wetlands and forested tracts that contain deer, beaver, red fox, and other small mammals.
Unlike many private landholders, Connelly has opened up Bright View Farm to birders, welcoming them onto the property throughout the year to catch a glimpse of Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Dickcissels, several species of sparrows, grosbeaks and warblers, Pileated Woodpeckers, American Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks, to name just a few.
Connelly, who also has a strong interest in birding, provides a logbook and maps in a wooden box perched atop a fence so birders may record sightings and make comments about their visits. They need not call ahead to make an appointment; instead, Connelly allows them to come onto farm property from dawn to dusk. “When a Dickcissel was found in the front paddock, the word went out because it was unusual in this area,” she said, adding that birders are “very quiet and respectful” of the farm property.
Don Jones, a former president of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, said that Bright View Farm is a special place, not only for its beauty, but because it is home to threatened species such as Bobolinks. He said that, since the mid-1800s, Bobolinks have been in a steep decline for a myriad of reasons. Bobolinks nest in extensive open hay fields, and conversion of meadows and farms into urban and suburban areas took a heavy toll, along with changing agricultural practices, especially the early mowing of hayfields that destroys nests and chicks.
“If you look at the New Jersey Breeding Bird Survey results [found in Birds of New Jersey, by Joan Walsh, et al.] you will find a single square for Bobolinks in northern Burlington County; that square represents Bright View Farm,” said Jones. “Dickcissel, another grassland bird extirpated as a breeding bird in New Jersey in the early 20th century, actually nested and fledged young at Bright View in 1997 and 1998, undoubtedly a result of delayed mowing. This was the first successful nesting in the state in decades; to my knowledge there have been none in the state since.”
Jones described what it is like to spend a spring morning birding at Bright View.
“Visiting the farm is an absolute delight in every respect,” he said. “Arriving on an early morning the setting itself is breathtaking?–?the beautiful old farmhouse, an array of fenced grass fields stretching before you to the horizon on rolling terrain, an occasional small pond here or there, and on the hillside to your right a mature woodland. The tranquility of the place is so omnipresent it touches your soul.”
No doubt the horses like it too.
Bright View Farm homebreds have earned multiple awards from the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association of New Jersey, and the farm has been honored several times by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association as Breeder of the Year for New Jersey, most recently in 2014 and 2011.
In 2014, Bright View-breds Exit Stage Left and Silent Appeal earned TBANJ championships, while their dam, Hana J, was named Broodmare of the Year.
Exit Stage Left, a son of Noonmark, earned champion 3-year-old male honors after winning the $100,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields. Owned by Mark DeDomenico and Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, he has career earnings of $157,750 from six starts. The colt was New Jersey-bred champion 2-year-old male when he won his only two starts that year, both Golden Gate stakes.
Silent Appeal was honored as champion turf runner of 2014 after his victory in the Dan Horn Handicap at Monmouth Park for Kasey Two Racing. The son of Hook and Ladder won three of 10 starts and earned $94,320; lifetime, he earned $325,541.
Hana J is also a Bright View Farm homebred. The 14-year-old mare was the last foal produced out of the Bright View Farm homebred Judaire, who won five stakes, two on turf and three on dirt, and earned $186,798.
Sitting at a small table by a picture window, Connelly looks out at the dark figure of Hana J grazing in a distant pasture with another broodmare. On the table are clippings and paperwork that document nearly the entire history of the farm?–?and her life. There are yellowed articles from the Daily Racing Form; a notebook with result charts divided into sections by horse; an old board bill from Dorchester Farm in Ocala, Fla., with a letter from owner Jack Price, of Carry Back fame, that states his regrets for raising prices; a colorful photo book with scenes of the farm and its horses that she published for a longtime employee who retired.
One article has photos of Connelly, perhaps in her early 20s, with her father and longtime Bright View trainer Tony Bardaro at the farm, watching the homebreds. Another article, published several decades later, has images of Connelly with mares and foals. In the blink of an eye and the turning of pages, four decades have passed, yet the farm continues on.
The early years: John Connelly
John Connelly succeeded in business without the benefit of a college degree, taking control of a lackluster company named Crown Cork and Seal in 1957 and transforming it into an industry leader with more than 17,000 employees and annual revenues of $1.9 billion by the time he retired in 1989.
Connelly left school at 15 to work as an office boy after the death of his father, a blacksmith. According to an obituary in the New York Times, Connelly worked for several packaging companies and from 1940-’45 was vice president of the Philadelphia plant of the Container Corporation of America.
He started his own company, Connelly Containers, before becoming chief executive at Crown Cork and Seal, which made cans, bottle caps and bottle-washing machinery.
“Runaway spending wrecked many a firm’s balance sheet but Connelly’s austerity became the stuff of legends,” the obituary noted. “His directions to his staff at Crown Cork were plain and to the point: ‘Answer your own phone. Travel on weekends, not on company time. Stay at Holiday Inn, not Hyatt Regency. And always fly economy.’?”
Yet for all his frugalness and attention to the bottom line, Connelly and his wife Josephine gave generously to Catholic charities and other philanthropic causes through their family foundation, totaling more than $74 million. At Villanova University, the Connelly Foundation funds a deanship in the College of Nursing, supports technology and laboratory resources
in the nursing program and supports the Connelly-Delouvrier International Scholars Program for international studies. The latter is named for Christine Connelly’s sister Judith Connelly Delouvrier, an international businesswoman who died in the TWA Flight 800 tragedy in 1996.
Christine Connelly said racing Thoroughbreds was her father’s passion. Since his horses ran at Monmouth Park, Atlantic City and Garden State Park, it made sense to buy farmland in New Jersey. She set about helping to plan the layout of the farm, determining where the barns and fencing would go, with her father and Bardaro.
“My father enjoyed coming to the farm, mostly on Saturdays mornings, where he would sit here [by the home’s picture window],” said Connelly. “He liked the farm, he liked to be involved, and we were very close and had an affinity for the horses.”
Bardaro trained many top-flight horses for Bright View before the farm started producing homebreds, including Buck’s Bid, who was second in the 1974 Louisiana Derby, third in the Florida Derby and seventh in that year’s centennial renewal of the Kentucky Derby. Others include multiple stakes winner Collegiate and R. Tom Can, a multiple graded stakes-winning son of Tom Rolfe.
The first crop of Bright View homebreds hit the ground in 1974, and the results were three foals, three starters and three winners. A hallmark going forward would be the amount of winners from each crop, many times achieving 100 percent. The farm’s first stakes winner was Super Spike, a black son of Maribeau foaled in 1976, who won the Linwood Handicap at Atlantic City and set a new track record at the Meadowlands for a mile.
The class of 1977 was the first that Connelly had planned the breedings for and then foaled herself, as she had become involved with every aspect of the farm. “Waiting for a mare to foal is really a joyful time,” she said. “I love that part?–?nature not having a timetable.”
That year produced two memorable runners?–?graded stakes winner Wistful ($413,082), as well as multiple stakes winner Bill Wheeler ($552,178).
Wistful, a daughter of Maribeau out of the Native Charger mare Margaret’s Number, captured eight stakes and placed in seven more, including the Grade 1 Delaware Handicap in 1981. As a broodmare, Wistful left a lasting impact on the sport when her daughter Cloud Break, by Dr. Carter (foaled at Bright View) became the dam of champion sprinter Lost in the Fog.
Bill Wheeler, named after Connelly’s uncle from Rydal, Pa., was an iron horse. The son of Mister Pitt made 94 starts, won 23, placed 39 times, and captured eight stakes, including the 1979 New Jersey Futurity.
Just Smashing, a foal of 1982, was a dominant sprinter during her five years on the racetrack, winning 25 times and earning $532,383. She won eight stakes and placed in 10 more, with four wins coming at Monmouth Park. For many years, Monmouth Park honored the daughter of Explodent by running the Just Smashing Stakes, last contested in 2013.
Through the first seven crops of Bright View homebreds, Connelly achieved an incredible 100 percent starter rate, as all 56 foals started, and 52 won. Eight were stakes winners and another four placed in stakes.
Consider this: As of 2015, with 37 crops to race, Bright View boasts 201 winners from 248 foals, or 81 percent, with 92 percent of those foals starting. Total money earned is nearly $16 million.
By the mid-1980s, after a career that spanned almost two decades, Bardaro decided to hang up his binoculars. The door opened for Gary Contessa, a young New Yorker who had apprenticed under Frank “Pancho” Martin and had recently struck out on his own and was stabled at Monmouth Park.
“I read in the Daily Racing Form that Bardaro was going to retire, and there was an ad from Bright View Farm, looking for a new trainer,” said Contessa. “I wrote out my resume in pencil and sent it in. That was THE job to have?–?a salaried, private position, 40 of the best horses in New Jersey?–?and they got 80 applications for it. They called me for an interview, liked me, and offered me the job. I felt blessed that I was chosen.
“It was a dream job,” said Contessa. “I had 40 rock-solid horses?–?babies, stakes winners, graded stakes winners?–?and all I had to do was just watch my bills.”
Contessa recalled that, while he did not have daily communication with John Connelly, the Bright View patriarch always kept a close eye on the stable. Several times a year Contessa had to report to Connelly’s office to review the particulars, which he said he approached “with a little bit of fear.” As Contessa put it, “Mr. Connelly was all business, all about the dollars and cents.”
For Bright View, Contessa trained a slew of stakes horses, including Derby Hat, who gave him his first added-money victory when he captured the Gettysburg Handicap at Philadelphia Park under Chris Antley in 1986, besting stablemate Bill Wheeler and making it a 1-2 finish for the farm’s homebreds.
Contessa also conditioned the popular Jersey campaigner Owens Troupe, a son of For The Moment out of the Drone mare Mandy’s Gray, who captured the Longfellow Handicap-G2 at Monmouth Park in 1987 and several other stakes during his 55-start career. A 20-time winner and earner of $384,102, Owens Troupe was a familiar name in the Oceanport entry box during his seven seasons of racing.
“He was named after my brother-in-law,” said Connelly. “He was an engaging man who played golf, and always seemed to have people around him. We used to say, ‘that looks like Owen’s troupe,’ and so we decided to use that name.”
Contessa recalled that one year, Bright View horses received so many awards from the TBANJ that he “had to have help carrying the trophies home.”
“It was the greatest job in America,” he said. “Christine and I are still very good friends, and the family is near and dear to my heart. After the birth of my children, working for Bright View Farm was the single best thing that happened in my life.”
Today and tomorrow
After the death of John Connelly in 1990, Christine Connelly chose to carry on the farm’s business, although not to the same extent.
“In that I had been the most active family member from the beginning, it wasn’t much of a transition. It was a continuation,” she said. “But by the time of my dad’s death, that was really the time when I started selling the best, the better-bred horses, to help sustain the farm. That’s something that people face all the time. You hope to make the best choices for sustainability. So the transition was quite easy.”
The gradual contraction of the New Jersey racing circuit since 1990?–?the permanent loss of Garden State Park and Atlantic City, and the Meadowlands scaling back to only a handful of days?–?led Connelly to reduce her annual foal crop to two or three, as well as to accept outside horses.
At present, she has three homebreds in training, all with Doug Nunn: Our Hazel, a 6-year-old daughter of Value Plus out of Hana J, who won at Monmouth last May; Poochy, a 5-year-old daughter of Offlee Wild out of Blumin Exuberant, who won at Monmouth and Meadowlands last fall; and 4-year-old True Blue Ellie, a daughter of E Dubai and Act of Glory who got her first win at Meadowlands in October in her second start.
Connelly has been an active member of the TBANJ, serving on its board in the 1970s, and always willing to lend a hand to its current executive director, Mike Campbell. She is also the former chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center Board of Overseers.
“When I began working for the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association of New Jersey [in 2002], one of the first farms I visited was Bright View Farm, and that is when I met Christine,” said Campbell. “The care and attention Christine and her dedicated staff provided to each horse still holds true today, and that is one of the reasons the horses raised on Bright View Farm have success on the racetrack. She has always been helpful and supportive of the TBA; whether I am calling her and asking a question about Bright View Farm, or to volunteer for an event we are having, she is always available to assist.
“Her love of horses and the support she provides to the New Jersey equine industry also extends to various charitable endeavors she volunteers her time to,” said Campbell. “They are fortunate to have someone of Christine’s experience and integrity associated with them.”
Connelly has also been recognized by the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club for her efforts in bird conservation.
“During my presidency of the DVOC in 1998, the club created the Rosalie Edge Conservation Award, given at the annual banquet to one or more non-members of the club who have made a significant contribution to conservation of the environment,” said Jones. “Christine and Hannah B. Suthers were the first recipients. Christine’s decision to allow birders access to freely roam the entire farm is truly remarkable in this day and age of litigation. Her willingness to share her beautiful farm with others, most of whom she likely doesn’t know, reveals what a trusting, sincere, and lovely person she is.”
To also help with the farm’s sustainability, Connelly has ventured into raising grass-fed beef, selling hay, and exploring other income streams.
She has thought about foaling her mares in another state with a more lucrative breeding program, but concluded it would not be cost-effective. She also wants to raise the foal as she wishes.
“I love raising young horses, I like striving for a safe and secure environment for them, and I love bringing out the trust of a youngster,” she said. “If I was 25, I’d be figuring out something. I’m winding down in some ways, I value my heritage and all that I’ve done. I’m not sure what my future will be.”
Connelly said she would like for Bright View to remain in the family, and is hopeful one of her nieces or nephews will be interested in carrying on tradition with the horses, or growing organic crops or raising grass-fed beef, on a centrally located farm in a beautiful township.
“The future of racing in New Jersey is really at question,” she said. “The days of a New Jersey circuit are long gone. The governor and legislature of New Jersey have undervalued the industry and have failed to support it, preferring to give only convenient and expedient lip service.
“I am, however, grateful to many individuals in New Jersey for their stalwart leadership and dedicated efforts to secure Monmouth Park and the presence of Thoroughbred racing.”