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2013 AHP AWARD: Winner of Feature Single Article circulation under 10,000 (print)

After building a Thoroughbred business in Pennsylvania, Abbotts make plans for the future

201302Go back to the beginning.

Rick and Dixie Abbott rented a small farm at Whitehorse, the tiny crossroads near the Radnor Hunt Club grounds in Pennsylvania. The place with the long-retired stone blacksmith shop at the intersection of Providence and Goshen Roads.

Their one client, the Wetherill family, boarded horses there. Show horses. The rent was $500 a month. Rick’s job as a judge’s clerk came with a $7,500 annual salary. When he wasn’t putting his Villanova law degree to work for Judge D.T. Marrone, Rick taught Peter Wetherill how to be a show rider. Dixie ran the barn, rode the young horses, traveled to the horse shows on weekends. Young, fresh out of school, just married, productive, the Abbotts were on their way.

“We were working for the Wetherills at their farm across the street and they decided it would be cheaper to pay board on the horses rather than keep the farm with employees,” said Rick. “That was my dream place, that farm. Ronnie and Betsy Houghton were there when I was a kid. I loved that farm. But I didn’t have any idea how we were going to make it work.”

Abbott’s father, as fathers do, helped find the way when he asked his son what would happen if the Wetherills changed their minds again and went another direction. Ever since, at that small farm at Whitehorse all those years ago or at their home for the last 32 years on the other side of Chester County, the Abbotts have maintained a broad base of clients and a flexible, productive business model. Charlton, Dixie Abbott’s maiden name, is the region’s premier sales consignor and home to some of the region’s best broodmares. The Abbotts are regularly the first call for mare owners and breeders looking for advice, yearling sellers looking for an outlet, politicians looking for guidance, anyone with a connection to Thoroughbred racing in Pennsylvania or the Mid-Atlantic as a whole.

And they’re making big changes.

Charlton, 157 acres of working horse farm between the estates of Unionville and the farm country of Cochranville and Parkes-burg, is for sale. The Abbotts turn 65 this year and, while they’re not retiring to Florida, will pare down the action on the farm and back away from the commitments that come with foaling 50 mares a year and running a commercial operation. The change will be gradual, unless something surprising happens and the farm sells quickly, and will come with some pain.

“We started talking about our future and we’re not very good at delegating,” said Dixie last fall. “We couldn’t really see ourselves as owners letting someone else run the whole business. We just couldn’t see being absentee owners, living on the farm but not having a lot of involvement–and Rick pictured me driving in the driveway and seeing a horse running the fence and going out to get him, or three mares in a paddock where there should only be two. It would just make you crazy to do it that way.”

The Abbotts were 32 in 1980 when they bought Charlton. They raised a family, watched their two children grow up, find careers outside of horses, start families of their own. They also built a business, a hands-on business. Downsizing and selling the farm is the only real solution.

“When we told the kids, there were some tears and we cried, too,” said Dixie. “We’ve done a lot here and I would say we’ve enjoyed every minute even though there’s been some. . . stuff.”

Starting at Saratoga

The Abbotts got their first real taste of the racing industry on a trip to Saratoga after their honeymoon. They knew horses–they met in pony club (Radnor for him; Rose Tree for her); she was an eventer; he was a show rider–and had a superficial knowledge of racing through the Wetherill family (who bred Raise a Native and bred generations of quality Thoroughbreds). But a night at the Saratoga sales changed everything.

“How long has this been going on?” Rick Abbott said over the auctioneer’s chatter, arena conversation and barn-area banter. He’d worked with young horses, knew how to get them ready and make them look good on the right day. In the early 1970s, they took a couple of horses to Timonium for the Wetherills. The Abbotts sat on a bale of straw all day and played cards, the horses sold and a business was truly born.
On the way home from a horse show in spring 1974, Rick bought a yearling filly for $1,200. The daughter of Sky Clipper went to Timonium four months later and brought $6,700 to top the yearling section of the Maryland Fall Mixed Sale and give Charlton its first pinhook. Still at Whitehorse then, the Abbotts tried to repeat the model. They bought weanling “projects and experiments” with big hocks, club feet, contracted tendons and tried to fix them, and sell them.

“There’s nothing like having your own money in the game to make you learn the business,” said Rick. “We thought we could fix anything.”

They couldn’t, but the business soon outgrew Whitehorse, as the area sprawled into neighborhoods and the open space shrunk. The Abbotts started shopping for property. Western Chester County was the only real option and they nearly bought a place on East Friendship Church Road in 1979. The area is just over the hill from Derry Meeting Farm, birthplace of Danzig and other stars, not far from the miles of former King Ranch land owned by George Strawbridge Jr. and his sister Diana. It’s also on the outskirts of Amish country.

A year later, the Abbotts found their current home, across the street from that first potential purchase. Then owned by Susan and Doug Small, it had been a training/racing operation and the 95 acres included a converted dairy barn and plenty of turnout space. It wasn’t small and iconic like Whitehorse, but with its historic house (1811), pond and isolated feel, the setting fit.

They moved to the new farm in August 1980. Two days later Rick took several mares to a sale in Arkansas for client Joe Imbesi.

“He left me here with 25 horses, two little kids and no food,” Dixie said. “And I had no idea where the Acme was.”

It’s funny now.

As is Charlton’s brief history as a stud farm. Rise Jim and Ringside made up the stallion roster. Heard of them? Yes or no, it’s easy to see why the business didn’t last. The former was the most accomplished Massachusetts-bred in history. The son of Jim J. won 27 races, including nine in a row at Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs in 1978-’79. He won a Grade 2, placed in a Grade 1, earned $528,789 and was an abject failure at stud. His companion, a son of the great Sir Ivor, raced in the region for trainer John Forbes. He won five stakes and earned $302,647. Rick put together a group to buy Ringside, raced him, retired him to Charlton, promoted him as a stallion. And watched it all unravel.

Ringside got hurt early in his first season, didn’t have many foals. Rise Jim never really found a foothold. Clients sent mares, but tired of the long-term commitment. The stallion business, at that level at that time, was a losing proposition.

“You’re in this catch-22 because people call you and want to send you a mare,” said Rick, launching a monologue. “You can’t say no because you’re trying to make a stallion. They send her, pay the board on her, she gets pregnant. Then they realize there’s not going to be any outcome for three years. Eventually they stop paying and they give you the mare. What are you going to do? She’s in foal to your stallion you’re trying to make. She foals, and she’s standing there and you’ve still got the stallion so you breed her again. You can end up with a worthless stallion, ruined mares and a farm full of weanlings, yearlings and 2-year-olds that are worthless.”

Or maybe the Abbotts just weren’t cut out for the stallion business. They saw the future, “bankruptcy” was Rick’s word, and divested. They sent Rise Jim back to Massachusetts, sold Ringside and all those mares, concentrated on the sales prep and mare boarding.

“People tell you about all the tough things in this business, but I found standing stallions to be the toughest thing,” said Rick. “It’s different now with stallions in Pennsylvania, but in those days it was difficult. You’ve got to figure out what you do best and do it, and let everybody else do what they do best. There’s enough business out there for all of us to be successful. If you try and do everything you don’t do any of it well.

No more stallions

Rise Jim and Ringside behind them, the Abbotts concentrated on their other skills. For a while, Charlton was the place for Kentucky mares to spend time awaiting the courts of high-profile Windfields Farm stallions such as The Minstrel and Deputy Minister, an hour away in Chesapeake City, Md.

Rick had visions of buying more land and turning the place into “Spendthrift North.” Then Windfields closed, the equine population at Charlton shrunk and other parts of the business paid for the pitchforks. The Abbotts foaled 10-12 mares a year, rarely went above 30 horses on the farm, bought weanlings to re-sell, continued to build a client base. Charlton found a piece of the Thoroughbred equation, boarding and foaling mares, raising young horses, sending them off to be broken or taking them to sales.

Like all of Pennsylvania’s Thoroughbred industry, Charlton’s numbers climbed with the talk of slots legislation coming to the state. The numbers rolled: 22 mares foaled, 26 mares foaled, 30 mares foaled, 40, 50, 56, 60. The farm added stall space, turnout sheds, paddocks. Rick served on the boards of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. He was chosen to be a state racing commissioner.

“I become involved in a lot of things off the farm to promote the visibility of the business,” he said. “It’s like belonging to the Rotary Club. You meet other people in the business and your name gets out. I was aggressive that way. Being on the commission may have hurt the business more than helped it but I really enjoyed it. That was an opportunity to use my legal brain in what I?thought was a positive way. We did good things. I was pretty proud of what we did.”

Those responsibilities dovetail with the couple’s roles at Charlton. He runs the business?–?recruiting clients, strategizing about horses, providing pedigree expertise, making sales decisions. She runs the barn, oversees the horses, the farm staff. Despite the operation’s size, one Abbott attends every foaling.

Their clients appreciate the combination of hands-on care and business acumen, which breeds loyalty. They get the horsemanship of Dixie and key employees Diane Kubilus and Liz Mitchell. They also get Rick, whose expertise spans law, markets, pedigrees.

“Rick loves, loves pedigrees and loves to talk about it,” said Dixie. “People like to have him come visit, they trust him to build the consignments and help them make decisions with the horses.”

“Dixie has a very intuitive feel for horses; sometimes I think she’s more horse than woman,” said Rick, borrowing a phrase from trainer John Forbes. “She has that horsemanship and she’s taught it to Diane and Liz so they think like she does. And I defer to them on the horses. We have very few disagreements, probably because we stay out of each other’s way.”

While the horses are walking the fields, growing, learning, eating, dozing, Rick can be on the road, at a desk or on the phone. He visits clients, considers pedigree options, makes recommendations, works on it. He’s a pedigree guy, sort of?–?blending bloodlines, commercial appeal and gut feeling to recommend a mating, a sale, a decision.

The knowledge has deep roots. Abbott became interested in pedigrees through Cortright “Cortie” Wetherill Jr. Married to Ella Anne Widener, whose family was as prominent as any in racing, Wetherill was elected to The Jockey Club at 32 and served as a steward at Delaware Park. He campaigned Raise You, the stakes-winning dam of the great Raise a Native, and was connected to the highest levels of American racing.

Sold as a weanling at Keeneland to Keswick Stables for a then-record $22,000, Native Dancer’s son Raise a Native won all four starts at 2 in 1963 and was retired with a tendon injury. He went on to sire Majestic Prince, Alydar, Exclusive Native and Mr. Prospector. Fellow owner/breeder Alfred Vanderbilt was a frequent guest at Wetherill’s Happy Hill Farm and the two discussed racing in detail. Rick Abbott soaked it all up.

“He was a real pedigree guy and he got me into it,” Rick said of Wetherill. “He was a wealthy guy, but he never had a lot of money to spend on horses so he really studied. He bred Raise a Native, so he bred to Native Dancer and a few horses, but by and large he bred to modest horses. I would just hang on every word.”

The early education provided a foundation. Abbott built on it, honed his opinions. He’s still working at it.

“I’m not one of these three-removes-from-the-fifth-dam kind of pedigree guys,” he said. “My approach to pedigrees is very commercial because that’s what we do. I’m always thinking about who’s going to be popular in two years and that’s a guessing game by and large. I?look at if a stallion has had good horses through this family; that’s what I’m looking for. I?try to read those pedigree columns and my eyes roll back in my head. It’s not my thing I guess.”

Economics plays a big role. Through the old Matchmaker program, Abbott once bought a season to $15,000 stallion Gregorian for $3,500. The mare produced a superb colt, who turned heads at the sale. Abbott laughed to himself when a prospective buyer gave a dissertation on how clever the mating was.

“I’m showing the colt and this guy is there with an older couple who are obviously his clients and he’s got a book, a big, looseleaf binder that he could barely hold, and he delivers this lecture on how perfect this breeding was,” Abbott said. “All I?could think about was $3,500. That’s how clever I?was. We got $50,000 for him. That was a nick of opportunity, nothing more.”

A business matures

Through the years, the client base at Charlton has evolved with the flow of the industry, but like any long Thoroughbred business, familiar names abound.

Pennsylvania breeders Nina and Tim Gardner have been at Charlton for nearly 30 years. Mimi Thorington’s mares foal at Charlton and her yearlings return to the farm for sales prep. Virginia powerhouse Audley Farm uses Charlton as a consignor at the Mid-Atlantic sales. Harvey Clarke, breeder of Kentucky Derby-G1 and Preakness Stakes-G1 winner I’ll Have Another, is a client. Roy and Gretchen Jackson board mares at Charlton. Fitz Dixon and Adele Paxson trusted Charlton with their bloodstock decisions.

Charlton sold the sales-topper at Fasig-Tipton’s recent Eastern Fall Yearling Sale, sold $2.5 million in horses as part of Dixon’s dispersal, bred multiple timber champion Bubble Economy in partnership with the Gardners, sold nearly $1 million in babies from the $10,000 mare Christmas Strike. Graded stakes winner Sweet August Moon was born on the farm. Charlton sold graded stakes winners Palmeiro and Son of a Pistol, among others.

The Abbotts have their favorites, and the various successes are on the list, though sometimes more practical reasons come into play. The horses that paid for the driveway improvements, the new turnout sheds, the much-needed load of hay matter as much as any that went on to success at the track or in the sales ring.

“When he was training Afleet Alex, somebody asked Tim Ritchey about the pressure and he said pressure is when you’re at Waterford Park and can’t pay the feed man,” said Rick. “That’s the way it can be in this business. The horse that means the most to you might be the one who got you out of a jam or helped you pay a bill.”

The Abbotts put their success back into the farm. They built residences for Kubilus and Mitchell, upgraded the paddocks, reconfigured the drive to help trucks reach the barn with a little less angst. The place hasn’t changed all that much, however. The old milkhouse at the end of the barn is still the storage/tack room. The lunging shed at the other end still gets used, often. The 25-stall barn’s center aisle still shows evidence of the drainage trench from its original use. Doug Small’s homemade concrete natural equine whirlpool stall still stands?–?it’s a great conversation piece, but does not get used–behind the barn. Up over the hill, the new barn provides 12 stalls, round pens and some isolation. Paddocks flow around the big barn, larger fields give young horses places to run and mares places to rest.

Deeper, the fireplace stone in the house still shows 1811. The pond still provides the perfect backdrop for a conversation, a cup of coffee or the activity of four lively dogs. An old road, long since eroded into a cart/bridle path, divides the farm and provides an avenue for the tractor, the horses, the people to reach the far field. The three grandkids?–?ages 5, 3, and 2?–?rule when they visit.

Trees, left over from Rick’s foray into the nursery business, line the driveway. A patch of quaking aspens clings to life down by the pond, half on a dare (they’d prefer a colder climate). When the wind is right, and only when it’s right, the rumble of a truck from Route 10 rolls down the hill. Otherwise, the only sounds at Charlton are generated there?–?horses, dogs, walnuts hitting the ground, the bubbling of the spring that flows under the barn and out the other side.

Charlton never did become Spendthrift North, flunked out of the stallion business, never raised a classic winner (yet), but endures and thrives on hard work, passion for the industry, quality care.

“We stretched to buy this place, and it worked because we worked so hard at it,” Dixie said. “We put everything back into the farm. We love it here and we’re really torn. We don’t want to leave.”

But they’re going to. The new version of Charlton will include fewer mares. The Abbotts hope to have 12 mares on the farm. Four, “maybe five,” of their own and eight for family and close friends. The staff will shrink, as will the payroll, with the horse population. Though Charlton will still have sales consignments, the sales preparation will happen at other facilities and Rick will continue to advise clients on bloodstock matters along with chief assistant Debbie Moorfield.

“We’re not retiring from the bloodstock business,” said Rick. “A lot of it will continue full bore, but we’re not going to foal mares and prep horses anymore. We can’t just close down. The place shows better with horses on it, and we’re not prepared to just walk away anyway.”

Eventually, the grind of a farm full of horses–and all those details–will decrease. Maybe, maybe, Dixie will find a horse to ride. Maybe, maybe, the right buyer will come along but it could be a long time. Maybe, maybe, Rick and Dixie will take a few more trips. Maybe, just maybe, their children Carly and Red and their families will get used to the idea of not coming back to the farm for holidays and visits.

The future is there somewhere, and they’ve played out every scenario.

“We like to travel, we have grandchildren close enough by to visit,” said Dixie. “We’ve been doing this for 40 years. It’s been our home and our business for so long that it would be hard to stay involved but take away a part of it. We built a business because it was something we wanted to do. It’s not something that would transfer to someone else very well. Our children don’t want to do it. It’s ours. We’ve been very fortunate, we love it here and we’re really torn, but it’s time.”

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