In the mist of early morning, Lazy Lane Farms lies gentle on Virginia’s rolling green hills. Just outside of historic Upperville, along Route 50, the colonial, pale yellow manor house sits stately on a hill at the end of the long drive lined with inviting Bradford Pear trees and looks almost translucent in the filtered light.
Though the nearly 1,800-acre farm as it is today was once just a vision of the late banker and communication mogul, Joe Allbritton, the scene is a trick of the imagination. There is nothing ephemeral or temporary about the farm that has been here, in one form or another, since at least 1764.
Even today, more than four years after Allbritton’s death Dec. 12, 2012, the farm goes on.
Its rich pastures are home to Thoroughbred broodmares, registered Angus cattle, and Hansel, the oldest winner of the Grade 1 Preakness and Belmont Stakes at 28.
As you walk its lanes, talk to employees and see the easy contentment of Hansel, the mares and cattle, you can see and sense the satisfaction that goes into the daily labor that keeps Lazy Lane Farms pointed to the future.
“Everyone who works here takes pride in the farm and what they do,” says Frank Shipp, Lazy Lane’s president. “You can see it in the condition the farm is in, the condition the horses are in and in the care they’re given.”
Everything appears perfect, from the upkeep of the barns to the immaculately mowed lawns; from the elegant, stark black board fences to the farm’s asphalt roads. And, of course, the way the staff talks about its work.
“It is amazing to work here,” says Thad Lewis, 49, who every day drives an hour and a half from Gordonsville, Va., to work as a groom at Lazy Lane. “I have a Preakness and Belmont winner to care for. You don’t get too many farms that have that. And I think we all feel the pride of it. This is the first farm I’ve come to where when you walk out of the barns you see the plaques hanging over the door recognizing graded winners. It’s amazing to see.”
The plaques number 13. Hansel has one and so does fellow pensioner Silent Greeting (23), who won the 1996 Grade 3 Martha Washington Stakes at Laurel Park. Secret Hello has a plaque, as do Seeking the Pearl, Beal Street Blues, Mr. Sinatra, Ocean Crest, Fast Catch, Frisco View, Chilito, Kitwood, Elizabeth Bay, Navesink and Bright Valour.
“Nothing has changed [since Joe Allbritton’s death] in the way we run things,” says Shipp of the operation that continues to revere its history, while planning for the future. “The farm is still owned by Mrs. [Barbara] Allbritton and the family-owned corporation [Capital News Company]. She’s still involved. She was out here helping us foal a mare [in May].”
Shipp, 63, who came as an assistant manager two years after Allbritton bought Lazy Lane in 1981, has stayed 33 years.
Though the farm is evolving, it is still operating in line with Joe Allbritton’s original vision. He wanted to breed and race horses, to run some cattle and to raise crops to support the farm.
“We continue to do that,” Shipp says. “But the emphasis now is much more on the commercial market for selling the product of our broodmares. Our No. 1 goal is to breed a top-class racehorse, so the people who buy from us can buy with confidence.”
The farm is even older than Hansel. Part of it was previously known as Amandale Farm and owned by cattleman John Gail, but the largest portion, about 850 acres, was owned by Isabel Dodge Sloane.
Heiress to the Dodge automobile fortune, Sloane bought the property then known as Brookmeade in 1929 and she retained ownership until her death in 1962.
She developed the estate into a breeding farm, Brookmeade Stud. The farm was successful and most notably laid claim to a Kentucky Derby victory in 1934 by Cavalcade, a New Jersey-bred who called Brookmeade home. Other Brookmeade champions were Bowl of Flowers, by the farm’s top handicap horse Sailor, and 1959 Horse of the Year Sword Dancer, who was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1977.
Calvalcade, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993, is buried at Lazy Lane, near the original stallion barn built in the late 1920s.
Also resting here are Secret Hello, Lazy Lane’s first Grade 1 winner, Toll Booth, the 1991 national Broodmare of the Year, and Kittiwake, a two-time Virginia Broodmare of the Year and one of the most successful producers of the 1970s and 1980s.
Looking at the graves, Shipp points to an open space among them.
“Hansel will go in the middle, when it’s his time, I suppose,” the farm president says. “But we haven’t talked about that.”
Since Allbritton established Lazy Lane, by cobbling Amandale, Brookmeade Stud and others together to create his vast domain, the farm has bred 35 stakes winners and purchased and raced another 21 for a total of 56.
It also has bred 13 Virginia champions, raced classic winner Hansel, its living icon, and bred French champion Seeking the Pearl, who was sold as a yearling and trained in Japan.
She became a Group 1 winner there and then the first Japanese-trained horse to win a Group 1 race in Europe. Before her 2005 death, she became the leading Virginia-bred money winner, a distinction she still holds, with more than $4 million in earnings.
Over the past 10 years, Lazy Lane has bred five graded stakes winners, including 2013 Grade 1 winner Bond Holder, five more who were graded placed, and seven Virginia-bred champions.
“Mrs. Allbritton would like to continue the farm as long as she can,” Shipp says. “But we have made the decision to transition primarily to a commercial breeder, which means we sell most of the offspring.”
Some still are raced occasionally. Last year, Rapid Rhythm won at Laurel for trainer Susan Cooney.
Now that the focus is off racing, Shipp spends most of his time following the breeding and selling business, which he says has gotten much harder than it used to be.
“What I want to see is a bell-curve in prices, but what we have now is the extremes,” he says. “There are horses everyone wants and horses no one wants. The middle market has suffered in recent years and the low end is no man’s land.”
When a horse appears at a sale with flaws, watch out, he warns.
“One flaw and you can get a reasonable sale,” Shipp says. “Two flaws, you are going to suffer. Three, you might not get the horse sold at all. But no flaws and a good pedigree and you get a really good price for your horse.
“Our goal is making our products flawless. We are quite selective in the broodmares we keep and try to be in position to make the parameters at the sale work in our favor.”
One future broodmare is Precious Daughter, Hansel’s last foal. Shipp says she showed promise on the racetrack, but was retired at age 4 due to an injury.
Decades ago, much of the training and breaking of young horses, including Hansel, was done at Lazy Lane and most of the scouting for quality horses was done by Lazy Lane’s staff.
But over the last 10 years, that’s changed.
Now, the farm works with sales agents, Kitty Taylor at Warrendale Sales, Joe Seitz at Brookdale Farm, and Stuart Morris, all in Kentucky, to market its yearlings, weanlings and broodmares. Nick de Meric in Ocala, Fla., works with the 2-year-olds.
“When our horses go to auction, they handle them, presenting them to buyers and conferring with us on possible reserves, on placement in which sales and on which session within a sale,” Shipp says.
Lazy Lane also has a pedigree advisor, Fiona Craig, who travels everywhere looking at stallions at sales and on farms.
“Fiona has been doing that for us for over 15 years,” says Shipp. “Kitty has been with us at least 10 years, Joe and Stuart, five and seven [respectively].
“Nick worked the first sale for us in 2013. We hadn’t sold any horses in training until then. We tended to race what we didn’t sell. But we’ve cut back on our racing operation, gradually, over the last 10 years.”
The New Reality
Lazy Lane, as designed, is self-sufficient in terms of crops – producing hay and straw and also wheat and soybeans for market sales. The registered Angus number about 450 and also are sold for profit. But you’ll also find vegetable gardens and poultry houses, whose produce is used by the residents and employees.
There are nine employee tenant houses and 21 full-time employees, who work in equine, agriculture, cattle, ground maintenance, security and staff the office.
Shipp says the employee numbers, which have varied from 20-25 over the last several years, are not far off from the height of the farm’s activity, when there were about 30 full-timers.
“There was never a written plan for what we were going to do here,” says Shipp. “Mr. Allbritton owned two mares at the time I came and what you see now was totally his vision.”
While the farm operation remains the same, how decisions are made have changed.
“It’s now more of a team decision and Mr. and Mrs. Allbritton have the final word,” Shipp says, referring to Barbara Allbritton and her son, Robert. “Mrs. Allbritton is interested and that’s comforting for the farm.”
When Shipp arrived at Lazy Lane there were a couple barns, no roads and no fencing, aside from more than 40 miles of sturdy, picturesque, gray stone walls that pre-date the Civil War.
Now there are four active barns and one more, far removed from the mares and breeding activity; that is a well-maintained, three-stall stallion barn that Hansel calls home.
Besides the “old” stallion barn there is a “new” stallion barn built in the 1980s, and a yearling barn, which once held 20-25 yearlings between the late 1980s and 1991.
There is also a broodmare barn that was finished in 1990. When it was built, and the program was at its peak, there were 20 or more foals each year. Last spring, there were 11 mares with seven foals.
Last spring the total population was 32, varying from that low of 11 in early spring – when most of the mares have taken road trips to Kentucky or elsewhere to be bred – to a high in the mid-30s in the fall just before the yearlings leave for more advanced training in Florida or are sold at the yearling sales.
There also is a training barn with 23 stalls and an eighth-mile sand track. That barn saw a lot of action in the 1980s and early 1990s, too.
“We broke a lot of young ones here, including Hansel,” Shipp says. “The barn would have been full in those days. You can say we have plenty of room for the horses we have now.”
Currently, Lazy Lane has only one horse in training for racing, Life’s Fortune, at Walnut Hall in Boyce, Va., with Cooney, who breaks and trains the horses Lazy Lane intends to race.
Shipp says after all these years at Lazy Lane, the Allbrittons and the staff still have a lot to do.
“We need to breed a Derby winner, a Breeders’ Cup champion and more champions overall,” he says. “Every foal that comes out looks like she/he could win the Oaks and the Derby, which is one of the great attractions of the sport.”
Shipp smiles at the audacity of the dream. Every breeder wants to breed a Derby winner and every horse owner wants to own one.
“[Derby winner] Mine That Bird was bought for $9,500 as a yearling; Canonero II [1971 Derby and Preakness winner] for $1,200,” Shipp says. “That means anyone can achieve that goal.”
Sure, but you have to be in the right place at the right time and luck, definitely, has to be on your side.
Lazy Lane will try its luck in the sales arena this fall with two colts at Keeneland September – a Tiznow colt from the Mr. Greeley mare Brookhaven and a Mineshaft colt out of the
Lemon Drop Kid mare Lemon Crusta.
A Lucky Find
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lazy Lane was surrounded by horse farms – as it is today. Its broodmare and yearling barns were full of horses and its racing program was strong.
And Allbritton always had Shipp and trainer Frank Brothers on the lookout for good yearling prospects.
It was 1989, when Shipp and Brothers, on a road trip looking for possible future stars, stopped by Marvin Little Jr.’s farm in Kentucky.
Little had been a Virginia neighbor and had acquired the mare Count On Bonnie when another nearby farm, Newstead Farm, was being sold. He bred her to a young stallion named
Woodman, champion 2-year-old in Ireland. The pairing produced a colt, a perfect colt, Little would take with him to his Kentucky farm, and it would be there that Shipp and Brothers would see him and suggest Allbritton buy him.
“Frank and I were looking at a lot of yearlings for Mr. Allbritton when Junior said we should look at this youngster that would be going in the Keeneland yearling sales in September,” Shipp says, recalling the first time he saw the colt that would be named Hansel.
“Hansel had exceptional balance and had a terrific walk and he acted intelligent,” Shipp continues. “At the sale, we showed him to Mr. Allbritton and he thought so, too. He said, ‘I can’t tell you anything about a horse’s legs, but I can tell class when I see it.’
“We bought him for $150,000 and felt lucky to get him for that.”
Susan Diggs, who has worked at Lazy Lane for 15 years taking care of the mares and foals and Hansel on the weekends, notes the serendipitous nature of the situation.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Diggs says. “Mr. Little was right down the road at Newstead, a couple miles away, but they had to go to Kentucky to find Hansel.”
Hansel, whose name Brothers once explained came from the “Hansel and Gretel fairytale, in which their father was a woodman” had the makings of a fairytale.
From the colt’s earliest days, Little told everyone the colt was special.
“From the moment he was born, he was smart,” Little says now. “The morning after he was born, he walked right over to me and nuzzled. It’s unusual for a foal, they’re usually afraid of people – but not him.
“When I was selling him, my sales pitch was that he was the only horse I’d ever been around who I felt could win the Derby.”
He didn’t, but Little points out he was the betting favorite and went on to prove his greatness with Preakness and Belmont victories. And to this day, Little says Hansel is “the most beautiful horse” he’s ever seen.
Hansel was a multiple graded winner at 2, never off the board in five starts. It took a couple of starts to get back to his winning ways at 3, which he did emphatically when setting a track record in the Grade 2 Jim Beam before trampling the competition by 9 lengths in the Grade 2 Lexington on his way to the Kentucky Derby, as the pre-race favorite.
He finished 10th in the Derby, a loss that remains a mystery to those who knew him best. But he made a strong recovery and won the Preakness in 1:54, a time that still stands as the sixth fastest in race history.
“You think the horse wants to redeem himself,” Brothers says now, “but you don’t know. The bottom line is he has to do it and if he doesn’t, you’re going to look like a fool.”
But Hansel did and then, at the Belmont he became the first Virginia-bred to win since Triple Crown winner Secretariat in 1973. Hansel’s time of 2:28 was the 10th fastest in history at the time.
The Allbrittons fell in love with Hansel, as he took them on a joyful ride across racing’s biggest stages and earned the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old male.
In September 1991, Hansel was sold to Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who retired him and sent him to Gainsborough Stud, his breeding farm in Kentucky. Allbritton retained a breeding interest and promised to bring Hansel home to Lazy Lane when his breeding career was over.
In 2006, Hansel was in Japan and Allbritton no longer owned him. But he had told Shipp to always keep his eye on the horse and when Shipp learned there were no longer any breeding plans for the classic winner, Allbritton told him to bring Hansel home.
“Mr. Allbritton went to great expense to work out an agreement to buy the horse back and return him here,” Shipp says, recalling the long negotiation in Japanese and English. “He repurchased him and paid the cost of bringing him back. It was complicated.”
Hansel is thought to have gone through quarantine in Japan before a flight could be arranged. “He had to have his own space when flying,” says Shipp. “He couldn’t be next to another horse.”
And when he got to the United States, there was another quarantine before he could return to the farm.
“Once here,” Shipp remembers, “he had to be bred to a test mare under the direction of federal vets.”
The good news was, Hansel arrived looking well-cared for.
Hansel, home with family
Asked what it means to have Hansel at Lazy Lane, Shipp smiles.
“It means we get to enjoy his company. And, he still spreads goodwill by being here. It’s a good thing. He’s so important to our staff because they revere him and they dote on him.
“It puts a little extra push in your step when you’re caring for a classic winner. He’s a member of the family.”
Hansel lives alone in his three-stall barn. His abode is 16 feet by 16 feet and there is thick straw, “lots of it,” under his feet. He has two fans to keep him cool, two paddocks and a three-acre pasture to wander in.
Jimmy Pierce, 52, has been working with horses since he was 7 years old and hearing about Lazy Lane Farms almost as long.
His grandfather, his uncle and his dad all worked here long ago, going back to before the Allbrittons bought the farm.
“It’s a wonderful place to work,” he says. “I love watching the foals grow and seeing how they do. I get attached to all of them.”
At Lazy Lane he primarily works with the mares and foals, prepping them, “getting them used to having hands on them,” getting them ready to go out into the world of racing, where he and many of the employees follow their progress closely.
And of course, he has a hand in caring for Hansel.
“Everyone here does,” he says. “It makes you part of the farm.”
While everyone does help with the great horse, there are three men who look after him on a daily basis: Denis Byrne, Thad Lewis and Tony Byington.
They check on him every two hours or so during the day, and every 60 to 90 minutes at night. They answer his every whim.
“I didn’t know Hansel before I came here,” says Byington. “But I take care of him just about every morning now. He’s a special, kind horse. He loves attention and loves carrots. I visit him 12 to 15 times a day and he gets peppermints.”
“Not more than 15 – and I eat some of them, too,” Byington says.
Standing nearby, Lewis, 49 and an 18-year employee, listens to the conversation. He has pointed out that Hansel “doesn’t do anything silly and is pretty laid back for a stallion.” The man is very aware of the horse’s love of carrots and mints. When he hears Byington talking about the peppermints, he can’t help but add a little information.
“It’s one for the horse and two for Tony,” he says, laughing.
“He probably does get mad at us for eating his stuff,” Byington says chuckling sheepishly.
It is easy to tell that besides peppermints and carrots, Hansel gets love, which he also returns.
“When he sees Mrs. Allbritton, he comes running,” Shipp says. “He buries his head in her neck and nuzzles. He just loves her.”
He also appreciates his fans, who send mail from out of the blue and who have been coming more regularly since this year’s Preakness celebrated the 25th anniversary of Hansel’s victory.
“We are getting calls weekly now from people who want to come see him,” Shipp says. “He’s loving it. The visitors always bring him carrots or mints. He’s shining like new money, just like a yearling.”
Shipp says the farm welcomes Hansel’s admirers, as long as they call ahead.
“There was a man here from Chicago not long ago,” says the farm president. “He cheered for Hansel during his racing career and when he noticed he had a business trip that was going to bring him within a couple states of here, he called and asked if he could come by. He said it was something he had had on his bucket list for a long time.”
Besides the one-time visitors, there are those who come somewhat regularly, including a couple from Pennsylvania who bring Hansel carrots almost every month.
“She’s in a wheelchair,” Pierce says. “Hansel gives her kisses; a little peck on the cheek.”
Hansel pretty much runs the show. He stays in when he wants to, goes out when he wants to and comes back in when he wants to. Hansel, it is agreed, wants what he wants when he wants it.
“Sometimes he’ll be standing at the fence looking for you,” says Byrne, 53. “He sometimes suggests he wants something and you might be slow to answer, but he’ll outwait you. He’s really no trouble. He’s like an old gelding, easy to be around, easy to handle.”
Byrne is one of the newest employees with five years of service. He works in equine management with the veterinarians and Shipp, and describes his job as “a lot of fun.”
Diggs, the regular caretaker of the mares and foals, followed Hansel when he was racing. “To have him here, back from Japan, is wonderful,” she says. “He’s a personable horse. I tell people about my job and Hansel all the time. He likes attention. You often see him posing.”
Diggs recalls the early days of Hansel’s residency here, when Allbritton still had mares bred to him.
“He’d hear the van coming, and he’d know it was a mare,” she says. “He’d go to the back of his stall and start hollering. He knew that mare was coming for him.”
They all talk about the intelligence in Hansel’s eyes, about his kind disposition; about how he would let 5-year-old kids run around him and pet him during the years he was on the Hunt Country Stable Tour that raises money for outreach programs at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville.
“We’ve discontinued his participation in the tour,” Shipp says. “At his age, well, we’d have to transport him to another part of the farm, near the mares, and when he’s around the mares he goes crazy. He’s still all boy.
“But when he did take part, the kids loved him and we’d set up a room near him where we’d run videos of his races. It was very popular.”
Though Hansel comes from good stock, “His mama lived to age 32 and his grandmother to 36,” Little, his breeder says, Lazy Lane Farms doesn’t take any chances.
“He’s old at 28; every year over 20 is a gift,” Shipp says, while Hansel proudly stands with his head up, his ears pricked, knowing he is still the center of attention.
Although Lazy Lane Farms is evolving, Hansel remains the same, to the delight of co-workers and visitors alike.