On February 21, Maryland lost horsewoman Gretchen Mobberly at age 84. She and her family made a big impact on Maryland racing. In our August 2009 issue, as our cover feature, writer Vinnie Perrone crafted a wonderful story about the Mobberly women.
Gretchen Mobberley and her daughter, Bird, carry on the Howard County, Md., breeding and racing enterprise launched in the 1960s.
“Indoor and outdoor rings,” come the advertised offerings of Summer Hill Farm in West Friendship, Md. “Boarding, layups and leg-ups.”
This proves an incomplete list of services. It ignores Sum-mer Hill’s range as animal Eden and conversational playhouse.
Down the long, paved drive, past a small marquee advising, “Please drive slowly. Our squirrels don’t know one nut from another,” to a comely white country house well trimmed with pines, azaleas and rhododendron, an engaging matinee awaits.
The Mobberley Story features farm owner Gretchen and daughter Bird as themselves, a cameo by Summer Hill manager Grady Griffin, and a supporting cast that includes a Thor-oughbred from death row, a nurse mare, three rescued cats (one an illegal immigrant) and a salvaged burro. (The adopted chickens? They’re clucking and crowing unconstrained at the Mobberleys’ Laurel Park stable.)
A dinette table off the Summer Hill kitchen, Gretchen and Bird seated at opposite ends. The coordinated furnishings reflect taste and style. The chef’s kitchen, with clustered pots and implements descending the ceiling, is an admitted prop; in this two-story, original 18th-century log home framed by two larger, stucco additions, the microwave does the cooking. Through sliding glass doors, a built-in pool can be seen and, beyond that, a brown-fenced field.
The dialogue between Gretchen and Bird presents a verbal serve and volley, deftly delivered without cue or affectation.
Gretchen Mobberley?–?At once saucy, tough and tender, a lifelong horsewoman and animal lover from Virginia who’s lived the past 40 years in Howard County, Md. After horse-training husband Jack died in 1995, Gretchen carried on the stable with accustomed pep; today, she still gallops and shows horses. Gretchen can incite or empower to full effect: known for lavish outbursts, she also co-founded the Howard County (Md.) Horse Show Association to better endear young riders to the undertaking and to coax accessibility. Gretchen has a smoker’s voice and a worker’s hand, blondish waves that frame her face and green eyes with bursts of brown around the pupils. Her raspy words impart spunk and drive, an educated past, self-assuredness. She has a nuanced bearing that implies patrician pedigree; her ancestry bears Harry Byrd, former Virginia governor and U.S. senator. Yet Gretchen resists opening the family scrapbook, other than to say an uncle raised her in Manassas, Va. Age too is taboo. “I’m over 50,” she says.
Bird Mobberley?–?Gret-chen’s devoted adult daughter and general aide-de-camp. Herself an accomplished horse-woman and preservationist, Bird contents to play a supporting role to her mother’s lead. She conveys without flaunting a broad knowledge of family Thoroughbreds and often finishes Gretchen’s spoken thoughts with fact or suffix. Gretchen named her Jenni-fer Bird Mobberley, used the middle name “because she looked like a little bird.” Bird’s understated way masks a piercing wit borne of an even, operatic tone. She’s given to commitment, taking lessons in golf and, even now, every other week, in riding with a show horse trainer. Yet she playfully acknowledges limitations, such as cooking. “I failed home-ec,” she says. “Food caught on fire with me, and alarms went off, and everyone had to evacuate the building. I got in trouble ’cause I thought it was funny.”
ACT ONE: Home
House lights down in a sun-washed room, Gretchen raises a half-clenched right hand to show a temporarily inseparable thumb, index and middle finger; she’d just re-glued the gasket to the driver’s door of her little green Honda SUV. This metaphor instructs that the plain-spoken Gretchen is accustomed to sticky situations. Often these involve people who fail animals.
People like Ernie Paragallo.
Bird: “I cannot believe some-one would do that to an innocent animal. They totally depend on us to take care of ’em. And the horses, they give you so much. They give you everything.”
Gretchen: “They’re like children. They depend on you to feed them, to clean after them. Everything.”
In 2004, the Mobberleys sold at Timonium a homebred yearling son of Partner’s Hero and the second foal from Pauline’s Prospect.
Gretchen: “And who bought the yearling?”
Bird: “M and H Stable. It was a pinhooker.”
Gretchen: “And he put him in the 2-year-olds in training sale, and he brought what? A hundred and . . .”
Bird: “Twenty thousand.” [Note: This appears a rare misstatement by Bird, the sale recorded at $110,000.]
Gretchen: “And Paragallo bought him. And he was named Scanlon’s Song, and he broke his maiden in New York by many, many lengths, and he nominated him to the Derby. Well. . . the horse went downhill. And he didn’t make the Derby. But, during this period, some agent from New York called and wanted to know if I would sell Pauline’s Prospect, and he wanted her for Paragallo.”
Bird: “And Joyce [a filly formally called Val’s Hero], who was a full sister” to Scanlon’s Song.
Gretchen: “The yearling. And I said, ‘Yes. Of course they’re for sale.’ And they paid me a very good price for them.”
A hand-written note on Summer Hill Farm stationery accompanied the horses to Paragallo’s Center Brook Farm near Albany, N.Y. It bore the good counsel of a loyal caretaker:
Pauline is timid with other mares. Pauline’s Prospect is a very sweet mare. She has no vices nor bad habits. She had been running in and out of a shed, fed twice a day. We always have round bales out in the winter. She is accustomed to coming in the barn nights at about 30 days before she is due to foal. She has never had any trouble foaling. The yearling also runs in and out of a shed. She is grained twice a day and has a round bale at her disposal. Our fields are large and she has been with six other yearlings. She comes in the barn once a week for dinner and to be checked and handled. Best of luck with them and if you have any questions call me ?–?Gretchen.
This past April, Bird happened upon an item on The Chronicle of the Horse Web site that reported the seizure of long-neglected horses at Para-gallo’s farm. She instantly thought of Pauline, Joyce and Hack, Scanlon’s Song’s pet name, and found her mother downstairs. “I have something horrible to tell you.”
Authorities had seized 177 ailing, starving, scabby, wormy, lice-infested horses and entrusted them to the Colum-bia-Greene Humane Society of Hudson, N.Y., for vetting, safeguarding and rehabilitation.
Paragallo, an investment banker and computer software executive, had founded Para-neck Stable in 1991 and soon made millions pinhooking. One horse returned to him for an ankle chip, Unbridled’s Song, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-G1 and finished fifth as 1996 Kentucky Derby favorite. By track, by auction ring and now as a sire, Unbridled’s Song became a nationwide attraction.
On April 10, Paragallo was charged with 22 counts of animal cruelty. Then Bird appeared in the Summer Hill kitchen, and Gretchen was dialing Columbia-Greene.
Pauline’s Prospect was among those rescued, they told her, but there was no record of Scanlon’s Song or Val’s Hero.
Gretchen: “Now, when the humane society took over at that place, there were five dead horses on the ground that they knew of. And the help said they had buried some.”
Gretchen: “But, I mean, would that ever occur to you? That somebody would give that kind of money for horses and starve them?” [With incredulity.] “And the man has money. Now, if you have almost 200 horses on a farm, wouldn’t you go and look at them sometime? Or you have somebody check. You go talk to your manager. You do something. Even if you have goldfish, you make sure.”
She petitioned Columbia-Greene for Pauline’s return, which required a wait for the 15-year-old mare to be fortified and deloused, and a Maryland veterinarian’s affidavit affirming Summer Hill’s commitment to the animal.
Bird: “At least they cared.”
Gretchen: “They wanted to make sure she wasn’t going to another concentration camp.”
Katrina Groboski, a Colum-bia-Greene adoption counselor, says Gretchen’s was among the first calls she received. “She made an impression on me because she was warm,” Groboski says. “It wasn’t like a business transaction. It was like she was putting her family back together.”
Gretchen made arrangements with a private shipper, who, for $500, brought Pauline home “in a big box stall with lots of straw.”
As April waned, Pauline’s Prospect gingerly descended a ramp to her old playground. Her chocolate coat was dull and patchy; her ribs were jutting, her hips sunken.
Gretchen: “I thought I was going to vomit. It was horrible.”
Then, as if to ease the grief, the mare nickered.
Gretchen: “And Bird had some. . .”
Gretchen: “Pauline always loved peppermints. And she gave Pauline peppermints, and we said, ‘This is probably the first time she’s had a peppermint since she left.’ ”
Back with some old pasture pals, Pauline was fed six times a day, small amounts, and allowed short paddock spells. Within two weeks, she was taking regular meals three times a day. She’d gained more than 100 pounds. Her coat and eyes and gait were brighter.
Gretchen: “Enough good things can’t be said about the humane society up there.”
Bird: “They were great.”
Gretchen: “They were wonderful.”
Bird: “Very helpful.”
ACT TWO: The sky’s the limit
After she graduated from William and Mary College, entered a pre-veterinary program at Virginia Tech (then commonly called VPI) and began dating classmate Jack Mobberley, a guy she’d known from the Virginia horse scene most of her life, Gretchen Burhen endured an experience so crushing that she quit school and entered the workforce.
As a flight attendant.
Gretchen [still trying to work the glue off her fingers]: “I wanted to be a vet, and all of my professors wrote wonderful letters for me to get into vet school. The head of our department was a common bastard who didn’t like women. And I went to see him for an interview about getting into that school, and he said he would do everything in his power to keep me out of that school. And the only reason was, I would be taking the place of a man who would go to vet school and be a veterinarian and practice, and I’d probably just get married and never practice veterinary medicine. And, I mean, I have a bit of a temper, and I wanted to reach across that desk [she uncorks a laugh] and hit that sonofabitch.
“Really, I had every right to go to vet school, and I was cut down just like that. And, I mean, I was devastated; I was totally devastated. Why would this man do this to me? I had worked hard at school; I mean, I could do anything that any of the boys could do. I sheared sheep. I castrated cattle. I trimmed cattle’s hooves. I showed cattle for the school. Well, after that, I didn’t want to do school any more. That was it. It totally crushed my spirit. I had to do something else and just clear my mind and get myself together.”
For Capital Airlines, long since absorbed by United, Gretchen donned a khaki skirt and stockings, waist jacket, brown shoes with a slight heel, a “dumb-looking hat” and became a stewardess. Both of her William and Mary roommates had taken to the air. Gretchen worked domestic flights. Chicago. Minneapolis-St. Paul in winter’s grip. A lot of charters.
Quiet at the table, Bird doesn’t feign a snicker until prompted.
Bird [pitch rising, giggle starting]: “Well, I can’t picture someone asking for another cup of coffee.” [Gathering herself]: “But she’s the kind of person that, if she puts her mind to something, she can do it.”
The job allowed Gretchen five days off at the end of each month, time enough to show horses back home in Manassas. Two years of flying eased Gretchen’s vet school angst; she closed the last overhead compartment and opened the barn door. She returned to Virginia and married Jack; they eventually bought a place in Middleburg, Va., made a living with show horses, hunters, race horses, broke yearlings. When the clients waned, Gretchen went to work for Audley Farm, then trainers Hubert Phipps and Glenn Ballenger. Ballenger wintered in Middleburg; when he shipped to Pimlico that spring, he asked Gretchen to gallop horses there temporarily.
Gretchen: “And then he had a horse called. . . “
Gretchen [excitedly]: Yeah! Equifun, who was a real nice filly. And she was a funny filly, and I got along with her real well, and he sent her to Chicago for a stake [the Beverly Handicap, Washington Park], and she won the stake, and set [tied, actually] an American record for fillies and mares going a flat mile” in 1:34.
Once Ballenger’s everyday exercise riders reemerged, Gretchen joined Jack in his burgeoning public stable. It was the 1960s; seeds planted, the next three decades yielded steady fruit.
Gretchen: “Our first stakes winner was. . .”
Bird: “All Ahead?”
Gretchen: “All Ahead.” She says she and Jack bought the filly at Keeneland for $3,500. Gretchen took her to Rockingham Park and left with the Rockette Stakes trophy and purse.
Gretchen [matter of factly]: “I did my thing. He [Jack] did his thing. I went to Rockingham. I went to Narragansett. I went to Detroit. I took a string every chance I got. I did not get along with Jack.”
However crossed the wires, the messages conveyed. After All Ahead, the Mobberleys developed multiple stakes winners Sarre Green, Jolly Johu, Applause, Scotch Heather, Jet Stream. Jet Stream out-earned the lot at $426,058, and the Mobberleys bred and stood Jolly Johu, but none lit the stable like Sarre Green. Reportedly claimed for $6,000 (Gretchen insists $4,000), Sarre Green retired 23-for-78, winning three stakes (two graded), placing in six others and becoming the Mobberleys’ foundation mare.
Gretchen typically galloped a dozen or more horses a morning then, gave assessments to Jack, then spent the afternoon ponying at the races or foxhunting at home and, if time allowed, schooling show ponies.
“There seems to be no limit to how much riding Gretchen will do,” Jack told a reporter in the early 1970s. “If we had an indoor ring, she’d be out there until midnight. I’m threatening to build a ring just to see how long she can ride.”
Gretchen: “I’m good at it. I’m not as good as I used to be?. . . It’s easy for me. It’s peaceful out there, usually. I like to ride. I like horses, and I like squirrelly fillies. I like mares that are nervous, and I can calm them.”
Bird: “She has gotten along with some Froot Loops. She can calm them and just give them confidence. They’ll be nervous and stuff, and pretty soon you look, and they’re walkin’ home on a loose rein.”
Loose rein? The front door opens, and a black Labrador Retriever tears in, trailed by farm manager Grady Griffin. The dog, Shadow, was a birthday gift to Grady from Gretchen and Bird.
Back to the fillies, and a few of the standouts.
Grady [quietly, from the kitchen]: “Mean bitch.”
Bird: “She was.”
Gretchen: “A big gray mare, and I really liked her, and she liked me; we got along real well. But she didn’t like other people except for her groom, Ike Rouse. He was the most talented groom I ever had; a great horseman. And she loved Ike. And a vet could not go in the stall with her, or a blacksmith, unless either I or Ike were there to hold her for them. And she was a wonderful kicker. And these people that are galloping wrong-way on the track, if they tried to come too close to her, she nailed them.”
Bird: “And remember when [former horse identifier] Coley Blind. . .
Gretchen [interrupting]: “And they couldn’t check her [lip] tattoo. Never could. She would rear up and slap you with her front feet. She was her own person, but she was great.”
Gretchen: “She was a feisty little mare. And speed. Bill . . .”
Gretchen: “[Owner] Bill Backer called me. She died this winter. She was pretty old.”
On the claim of Sarre (pronounced Sairy) Green:
Gretchen: “I was ponying horses then, and I was sitting on my pony one day, and I watched this mare run, and she made a fabulous run. I don’t remember if she won that day?–?I don’t think she did?–?but she came from way out of it. And I looked her over, and I liked her. And, I mean, she was not a pretty mare; she was a big, raw-boned mare.
“Sarre was another wonderful kicker. And she had been abused. She didn’t trust anybody. Scotch Heather was never abused; she’d abuse people. An abused horse will go to the back of their stall; they won’t come out to greet you; they won’t look for their peppermints and their carrots; they’ll stay in the back, and when you go into the stall with them, they’ll duck away from you. If you go to raise your hand for any reason, they’ll duck?–?they’ve been hit. If you’ve got to get the bridle on them, it’s hard to get the bit in their mouth; they’re head-shy. They have a fear of people. A horse’s defense is fight or flight, and they will take one or the other. Sometimes they’ll take both.”
ACT THREE: Passages
One morning in the early 1990s, a Laurel Park ambulance driver desperately summoned a medical helicopter from the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. A horse had savagely kicked a woman. Time was fleeting.
Gretchen: “Spence saved my life.”
Bird: “I think it’s Conrad Spence.”
Gretchen: “I had a horrible accident, and I was kicked in the stomach, and my stomach ruptured, and I lost a whole lot of parts. And Spence was there?–?he ordered the chopper right away. If he hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be here. I went to Shock Trauma?–?they were absolutely fabulous. The doctors did a wonderful job. My stomach had to be rerouted; I lost a lot of intestines. My pancreas was fractured, and that had to be sutured.”
Bird: “There’s not a lot to ya, anyway.”
Gretchen: “We joked a lot when I got better, and one of them even showed me how to get up on the roof, where I could smoke cigarettes.”
A quizzical reaction.
Gretchen: “Uh-huh. One of the doctors, he bent over me, and he had a pack of cigarettes in the shirt pocket, and I said, ‘Oh, you smoke!’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’ve been going crazy.’ ”
Doctors warned Jack and Bird of possible extensive down-side; a four-month hospital stay might be optimistic. Sixteen days later, Gretchen was home.
Injured June 19. Discharged July 5. On Chuckles the lead pony in August despite tubes to drain pancreatic fluid.
Bird, on attempting to dissuade her mother from overreaching in recovery: “Well, I tried. ‘You know, I really don’t think that’s a very good idea.’ She just said, ‘Well, this is what I’m gonna do.’?”
Gretchen: “I made up my mind. And I swam that [backyard] pool that fall, up until October?–?it was cold as hell. And I jogged. And I rode my bicycle. I put forth every effort to get myself back.”
What feeds such spunk?
Bird: “She smokes, and she drinks a martini.”
Gretchen: “You don’t want to bruise it.”
Bruises. Scrapes. Bumps. Gretchen’s managed plenty through the years, often dealt to stablehands who didn’t heed a horse or instruction.
“Gretchen can be very hard on the help,” says Bobby Lillis, the Maryland Horsemen’s Assis-tance Fund’s benefits coordinator who exercised horses full-time for the Mobberleys from 1979 to 1985. “I don’t want to say she was very hard on me, but she told you what to do and how to do it, and she wants it done that way. And you had better do it that way.”
He works a wry smile. “She had a towel that she used for a sweat rag. You get off a horse, and you’re just beading with sweat; you wipe your face off. It was the end of the morning, and we were cleaning tack, and I not knowing this was her sweat rag, I grab her rag, and I start cleaning my boots. And she looks at me. She says, ‘What are you doing? What the hell are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘Cleaning my boots.’ She’s like, ‘Bobby, that’s my rag.’ It’s a wet rag to me, and I’m just figurin’ it came out of a bucket or somethin’. I thought I was gonna get fired that day, but we lasted.”
With Jack’s death at age 66 in 1995, Gretchen and Bird maintained the racing stable and farm. Horses aren’t as plentiful at either place (nine in training at Laurel, about two dozen at Summer Hill), but the Mobberleys have replenished well in varied ways.
Near the time of Jack’s death, prominent owner/breeder Jim Ryan gave Bird a horse to train, Lifes Passage, by Caveat out of the John Alden mare Likely Passage. The filly won one of 11 starts, whereupon Ryan moved to sell her at Timonium. Gretchen stepped in and bought her for $7,500.
Lifes Passage’s fifth foal, a dark bay Partner’s Hero colt born in 2002, began his racing career in shades of gray. Heros Reward worked his way to a $20,000 claimer in April 2006, when trainer Dale Capuano snared him. It seemed a questionable pluck, Heros Reward soon challenging $5,000 claimers at Delaware Park.
Turns out he only needed a little grass.
Transformed on turf, Heros Reward became a local sprinter without peer; he was named 2007 Maryland-bred Horse of the Year, as well as champion older male, turf runner and sprinter in 2007 and ’08. As summer called, he’d earned $5,902 short of a million.
On a Thursday afternoon in April, 17-year-old Lifes Passage delivered a healthy Langfuhr colt at Summer Hill. Less than 24 hours later, Gretchen, Bird and Grady were scrambling to save her.
Gretchen: “It was obvious. We’d come up for dinner, and we were watching on the [closed-circuit] TV the foals. And the mare acted colicky, so we went down there and gave her Banamine, and she just got worse and worse. And Grady called the vet real soon. And within 40 minutes, we had to put her down.”
A nurse mare summoned from Kentucky connected with the foal almost immediately, becoming another glad addition to Summer Hill. Like Uno, the burro Gretchen nabbed from a wild-animal sale in Virginia to soothe the orphaned and the nervous, and Bailey, the red tabby she got from a Canadian trainer loath to quarantine the cat on re-crossing the border.
Gretchen: “Now you have talked to the crazy woman.”
Bird: “At least you don’t have 40 cats in your house.”
Gretchen: “And, of course, all my cats were strays. They wandered in.”
Three in the house, three in a Summer Hill barn, two at the track.
Gretchen: “I’m not the crazy woman with 40 cats. I’m the crazy woman with all these strange animals.”
Bird: “Tomorrow the man in the white coat’ll be coming in.” [In a sing-song voice]: “?‘Here I am. Coming to take you away. You too can be happy at Happydale.’?”
Contentment cloaks Sum-mer Hill’s 135 acres. Sure, paying clients have waned, reflecting a statewide torpor, but the headwind’s manageable.
Gretchen: “We’re eking it out. We’re not making any money; we’re treading water like a lot of people are.”
Slots may yet gird the Mary-land racing industry. Lifes Pas-sage lives on through Heros Reward, 2-year-old colt Crow Bar (by Dance With Ravens) and the Langfuhr suckling. And, if fate allows, Pauline’s Pros-pect, a granddaughter of Sarre Green, might be bred next year. There are horses to make, and lives to save, before the curtain falls.