Sitting in the Tastee Diner in Laurel, Md., Clark Bedwell Shaffer Jr. orders scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and a cup of coffee and settles in to tell his family’s story. On a warm, summer morning, he is nostalgic and happy to dip into the past and into a little-known piece of Maryland’s Thoroughbred racing history.
“My great-grandfather trained the first Triple Crown winner,” Shaffer says. “He did it right here in Laurel and no one knows. In fact, the first three Triple Crown winners were from here in Maryland. With all the excitement around American Pharoah, I think Marylanders should know that.”
Shaffer is right about his Triple Crown history. To recount it, he turns back the clock to 1919 and Sir Barton.
“The way the story goes is that my father was born the day Sir Barton ran in and won the Kentucky Derby,” Shaffer says, smiling softly. “The date would have been May 4, 1919. And it sounds like a Saturday in May, doesn’t it? But it was a Sunday and they went to Kentucky and ran in the Derby on the 10th.”
It’s a way of saying Shaffer had to do a lot of his own research to find out what his family’s real story is. But this much is fact: Shaffer is the great-grandson of Hall of Fame trainer H. Guy Bedwell, who trained Sir Barton to the first Triple Crown in 1919, on a farm in Laurel.
The fact, and the memories, returned last summer when Billy Kelly–a stablemate of Sir Barton’s who finished second in the 1919 Derby–also joined the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. Shaffer accepted the plaque, taking a bow for his family and igniting all the memories. A systems services technician at Loyola University, Shaffer is a racing fan and a regular at Laurel Park.
He’s also related to the man who trained the first Triple Crown winner, in Maryland.
Sir Barton accomplished the feat in 32 days. The horse won the Derby May 10 and the Preakness four days later. Ten days after that, he prepped for the Belmont Stakes with a win in the Withers Stakes and, on June 11, Sir Barton won the Belmont, contested at 13?8 miles, in a then American record of 2:17 2?5.
Eleven years after Sir Barton, Gallant Fox won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont and Charles Hatton of the Daily Racing Form used the term “Triple Crown” to enter it forever into American vocabulary.
When American Pharoah won the last leg of the 2015 Triple Crown in June, many of the general news accounts only went back as far as the 1970s–to Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).
But the real history of the Triple Crown began before anyone knew what to call victories in the three races now considered classics. Sir Barton and Bedwell, his hard-as-nails trainer whose first name was Harvey, but who liked to be called “Hard Guy,” and his horse, who is said to have not liked people, were first.
But who knows or remembers?
Shaffer thinks all racing fans should know the history associated with such achievement: that the first, and in fact the first three, Triple Crown winners were connected to Maryland.
Sir Barton, who didn’t win a race as a 2-year-old, was conditioned into a champion by Bedwell in Laurel. Gallant Fox, the second to claim the Triple Crown in 1930, and his son Omaha, who did it in 1935, were both bred by Belair Stud of Bowie. Though all three were birthed in Kentucky they all came “home” to Maryland soon after to hone the talents that made history.
All cavorted in Maryland paddocks, breathing the fresh air in the “The Land of Pleasant Living.” And they left their auras here and their footprints in the fields and on the local training tracks.
Gallant Fox and Omaha still have a presence in the state. Their old barn at the corner of Tulip Grove and Belair Drives in Bowie has been made into a museum. You can drive there, tour Belair Mansion, the historic home of Maryland’s provincial governor Samuel Ogle, who with his brother-in-law Benjamin Tasker Jr. established the first Thoroughbred breeding lines in America with Spark, Queen Mab and Selima. In the 20th century, the farm became home to the Woodward family, who established Belair Stud, built the stables in 1907 and owned a stable of champions. William Woodward Sr. owned the two Triple Crown winners and his son William Jr. owned 1955 Horse of the Year Nashua.
It is a lovely place, lovingly cared for. The stables have been preserved and filled with artifacts. The stalls of Gallant Fox, Omaha and Nashua have been turned into individual memorials. The entire stable, from its entry door to the two wings embracing a green courtyard, have been turned into an exhibition hall filled with paintings, trophies, riding gear and books on the history of its long-ago residents and the sport in general.
But, less than 30 miles away, along Route 1 in Laurel, there are few hints for anyone looking for Yarrow Brae, the nearly 600-acre farm where Sir Barton trained.
With the help of Bedwell, the farm had been pieced together by wealthy Canadian owner Commander J.K.L. Ross. According to Howard County land records Ross bought a 360-acre farm called Bowlingbrook and another 200 acres from Bedwell to form Yarrow Brae, his training and breeding farm in the United States, and established Bedwell as the trainer in 1917. In 1921, when Ross was cutting back his operations, Bedwell bought back a portion of the farm and continued to train there until his death in 1951.
“My mom and dad got married at Yarrow Brae in 1945,” says Shaffer, who was born in 1954. “When I was a teen, maybe 17 or 18, I asked my mother, ‘Where did you live?’ In the 1920s and ’30s, it had a manor house, servants and a chauffeur. But when I saw it in the 1970s it was deserted and deteriorating.”
Neither Shaffer’s dad nor his great-uncle inherited the farm.
“For a long time I thought my great-grandfather just squandered his money,” Shaffer says. “But my great-grandfather trained right up to his death in 1951. I eventually learned that after my great-grandmother died–they had been married for more than 50 years–my great-grandfather remarried less than three months later. He had a heart attack two months after that and his second wife inherited everything. She sold the horses and the farm and moved away. I don’t know what happened to her.”
Lost Thoroughbred History
Looking for Yarrow Brae and Bowlingbrook Farm is fruitless. The bucolic countryside with fields filled with great horses is gone. In fact, the only horses you’ll see are a couple wooden cutouts near the local Exxon station at Route 1 and Gorman Road.
It’s something of a chilling thought–a heritage site for racing and breeding–basically erased.
Sagamore Farm in Glyndon, home of the great Native Dancer, could have gone this way without Under Armour founder Kevin Plank stepping in to restore it. Even Belair Stud could have disappeared once the 2,000-plus-acre estate had been bought by William Levitt in the 1950s and turned into a housing development called “Belair at Bowie.” Levitt is credited with creating the suburbs when he began building reasonably priced homes for the middle class after World War II.
“We owe the fact that we’re still here to William Levitt, who after using the mansion as an office building sold it and the stables to the city for $1, to be used for the good of the city,” said Bowie historic properties manager Pam Williams. “It was used as the City of Bowie’s first formal City Hall until a new one was built.”
Then came a sturdy group of volunteers who worked at restoration and a small museum was born. In 1999, the city did a major restoration to put the property back on its feet. It is now open to the public, Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
Yarrow Brae and Bowlingbrook found no such benefactors. Historic land records from Howard County detail the property boundaries of Yarrow Brae and document the sale of Bowlingbrook, including a contract on the sale by Charles C. Baldwin to Ross, but there are no maps and no photos.
Ross, whose father founded the Canadian Pacific Railway, was a sportsman whose pursuits included tuna fishing, Thoroughbred racing and yachting among others. He owned a mansion in Montreal, a fishing lodge in Nova Scotia, a private train car and two Rolls-Royces. In 1911, he set the world record for the largest fish caught with a rod and reel (a 680-pound tuna) and bettered it a few years later with a 720-pounder. Ross inherited $16 million when his father died in 1913.
Ross bought his first racehorses in 1915 and won the Preakness a year later with Damrosch. Ross based his stable on two farms in Canada, and established a base in Maryland when he hired Bedwell. Land records from 1917 show the sale of about 200 acres adjacent to the Bowlingbrook property to Ross by Bedwell to complete the Yarrow Brae property.
Ross built a showplace that eventually swelled to almost 600 acres complete with a quarter-mile indoor track, a mile outdoor track, 100 stalls, paddocks, housing for staff, an electric plant, water works and more. In January 1919, The Washington Post reported that Sir Barton and Billy Kelly were wintering at the Maryland farm in anticipation of that year’s classics.
In 1928, Ross went bankrupt and thus ended a Thoroughbred racing dynasty. Ral Parr, who had won the 1920 Kentucky Derby with Paul Jones, owned Bowlingbrook for a time and in 1948, the property was turned into the Standardbred track Laurel Raceway, which hosted 12,000 fans on opening night and operated for more than 30 years. Laurel Raceway eventually became Freestate Raceway, which was owned by Frank De Francis for 10 years. De Francis, also the owner of the Maryland Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred tracks Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, died in 1989. Freestate closed the next year.
Today, there’s a Freestate Drive, a Bowling Brook Apartments and a shopping center. It is home of Weis Markets, CarQuest Auto Parts, Laurel Toyota and a CarMax Superstore. Its large paved parking lots sprout with automobiles, which generate horsepower of a kind that fails to create the nostalgia that comes with the pounding hooves of Thoroughbreds.
Asked if driving by the area, part of which could have been his heritage, makes him sad, Shaffer shakes his head.
“No, not really,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of family connections growing up. My dad died when I was 16. He was an only child and so am I. What I think about is how I would really love, how really cool it would be, to be with them, my great-grandfather, my great-uncle and my dad, for just a day. Wouldn’t that be something? My dad didn’t talk a lot about that time directly, he would just let things slip in everyday conversations. Like one day when we were watching the Untouchables [television show], he said, ‘Al Capone didn’t look like that.’ My dad had been at Washington Park, Illinois, at the racetrack with my great-grandfather and saw Al Capone. It was 1929 or 1930. Unbelievable.”
It was a long time ago, but Shaffer feels the connection. As a child, there was a running joke that he was a mean kid. His parents would ask, “Where does he get it from?” and the answer would be “Hard Guy” Bedwell, his great-grandfather.
Shaffer, 61, laughs at the idea. He’s a soft-spoken, easy-going guy. But he acknowledges it might not be pure fiction.
Hard Guy’s Legacy
Shaffer never met his great-grandfather and until a couple of years ago had never seen a photograph. That changed when the Laurel Historical Society uncovered an old box.
“They made copies of some photos for me and mailed them,” he says. “There was my great-grandfather and my great-uncle in suits and ties. That’s how they dressed. I never knew them or saw them.”
On this day, Shaffer wears a brown sport coat with pale blue and yellow checks over a white shirt with a yellow-gold tie. The look, familiar to anyone who sees him in the Laurel clubhouse, is topped by a dapper, pale yellow straw hat. The fashion choices are unique today, but were common in his great-grandfather’s era.
“Never even saw a picture,” Shaffer says. “And look at me.”
He gives his head a slight shake, smiles sheepishly from under the hat and continues.
“I think you like the things your father liked and I think you’re shaped by your life,” he says. “My dad loved to bet, so I knew all about the horses and the jockeys, even though he worked at the post office. He took me to the Laurel racetrack when I was 7 after I begged him. He let me bet a daily double. I won $32 and I was the richest kid in Laurel. I think that’s the last time I won the daily double, but I still like going to the racetrack.
“My great-grandfather was a hard guy and I’m not. But I didn’t have to go on a cattle drive when I was 12. I had a Leave It to Beaver life. My parents dealt with World War II, while I grew up going to the mall and movies.“
But his great-grandfather’s story fascinates him, and the long ride of Hard Guy Bedwell is pretty fascinating stuff.
He lived a hardscrabble life. A cowpuncher before he was a teenager in a remote section of Oregon, he eventually migrated southeast to Grand Junction, Colo. There, he worked briefly as the county clerk before moving on to operate a livery stable, where he taught himself how to doctor horses. Eventually, he became a trainer and frequently used the things he learned at his livery to cure his racehorses’ ills.
Bedwell’s story is like a lot of hardworking trainers, who work for decades but turn into overnight success stories with the coming of a great racehorse. Though he led the North American trainers’ standings in wins for six consecutive years from 1912-17 running his own horses on smaller circuits, it wasn’t until he started working for Ross that real recognition came.
Bedwell found the mother lode for three years, beginning in the fall of 1918. That year Ross and Bedwell had Cudgel and Billy Kelly. Cudgel would be top older male champion twice, and Billy Kelly would go on to be the co-champion 2-year-old and Kentucky Derby favorite the next year.
Unfortunately for Billy Kelly, the winner of 39 of his 69 races, including 19 stakes, Sir Barton came to the Bedwell barn in 1918, too, and would come into his own the following year.
Under Bedwell’s care, Sir Barton excelled despite a less-than-lovable personality.
“He didn’t like people,” Shaffer says. “He liked to bite people. And he just tolerated his trainer. He didn’t like to train. He liked to eat. And he had foot problems.”
Foot problems, fortunately, were a Bedwell specialty. He had watched horses in the wild and at his livery years before seeking out muddy watering holes and wet stable areas and he believed the mud was balm to their hooves, nature’s natural moisturizer.
“My great-grandfather, no one knew more about treating horses’ hooves than he did,” Shaffer says. “And he took care of Sir Barton when he developed a bout of blood poisoning early in his 3-year-old season before the Derby, too. My great-grandfather took care of him for days, until he got well.”
In his book Masters of the Turf, Edward L. Bowen quotes Ross’ son as saying, “Night and day, an anxious Bedwell nursed the colt, seldom leaving his stall until finally, the crisis was past.”
Also in the barn in 1919 were Milkmaid, winner of the first Pimlico Oaks (now the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes), who would be co-champion 3-year-old filly; and Constancy, the co-champion 2-year-old.
But, at the time, it was Sir Barton, who garnered the most accolades as Triple Crown winner, champion 3-year-old, Horse of the Year in 1919 and a spot in the National Museum of Racing’s third Hall of Fame class in 1957.
Bedwell got his due, with a Hall of Fame induction in 1971 (nearly 20 years after he died) and Billy Kelly’s turn arrived in due course as well.
The horse joined his trainer and his stablemate Sir Barton last year–voted in by the Hall of Fame’s Historic Review Committee. Shaffer was more than happy to accept at the August ceremony in Saratoga.
“I was so excited,” he says of the phone call. “Wow. I still get excited just thinking about that call. Wow. It made me think about my great-grandfather and my father and my mother. It was an emotional, spiritual kind of thing. Do you understand? After all this time? That horse hadn’t run since 1923.
“My great-grandfather wasn’t sentimental, but of all the horses he had trained, Billy Kelly was the one he really liked. He was known as a sweet, easy horse, the complete opposite in personality from Sir Barton. And now, more than 90 years later–it’s like that horse and the honor of representing him and my great-grandfather just dropped into my lap.”
Shaffer said he never used to talk much about his great-grandfather’s connection to the Triple Crown, though he did tell stories about him as a horse trainer. But when American Pharoah won the Triple Crown last spring that changed and when he went to the Hall of Fame induction, he included the story in his acceptance speech for Billy Kelly.
“When I accepted the award, people there were so nice to me,” Shaffer says. “People would come up to me and say, ‘Aren’t you from Maryland? I remember seeing you at the racetracks.’ I talked about the horse and I talked a lot about my great-grandfather and explained how he had trained the first Triple Crown winner.”
The story resonates, and came full circle in 2015 with American Pharoah breaking the Triple Crown drought, with Billy Kelly’s induction to the Hall, and with Shaffer playing a small part.
“All of these great horses were based and trained here,” Shaffer says, seemingly still amazed at all that came before. “I want people to realize what Maryland racing is. The Maryland Jockey Club is the oldest [sporting] organization in America. Sir Barton, who seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield of Triple Crown winners, won the first Triple Crown. My great-grandfather trained the first Triple Crown winner–right up the road, here in Laurel. I just want people to know it, to recognize it.”
Consider it done.