Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope to tell you, tonight, something of the story of the Thoroughbred horse in Maryland in a way that will appeal to you.
William Woodward Sr., at age 45, had owned historic Belair Stud in Maryland for just over a decade when he stood up to address the Maryland Historical Society at a special meeting Nov. 28, 1921, in Baltimore. The New York banker and Thoroughbred breeder launched into a well-researched, detailed and passionate description of the history of the Thoroughbred, the importance of Maryland to that history, and why every member in the room should embrace their connection to history. He lived by those words every day.
Woodward loved Thoroughbred racing. He read, studied, traveled, watched and recorded volumes of notes on his horses, and horses he admired, starting in his 20s after making his first Thoroughbred purchases in 1905. His impact extended far beyond Belair – and can be felt to this day. His collections – including those found at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore – provide history buffs a portal to the early days of Thoroughbred racing and breeding.
A Behind the Scenes Look at Belair Stud
The Belair Mansion and Stable are preserved through The City of Bowie Museums. Woodward’s passion about the Thoroughbred was almost an obsession. His desire to better the breed propelled Belair Stud and Stable into one of the most successful in history. His advocacy for fairness, sportsmanship and stewardship led to major reforms and advances in the sport. That leadership and success earned Woodward induction, more than six decades after his death in 1953 at 77, into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame as a 2016 Pillar of the Turf. He’ll be inducted along with Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock Jr., the son of one of his closest friends, at the ceremony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Aug. 12. The honor was foreseen back in the summer of 1938 by Humphrey S. Finney, editor of The Maryland Horse magazine
“. . . [Woodward] has been an upstanding pillar of the turf for many years, and a far-sighted breeder second to none.”
Courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art
Woodward’s Maryland farm
Finney noted in the July 1938 issue of The Maryland Horse, when covering the win by Woodward’s homebred Flares in that year’s Ascot Gold Cup in England: “All Marylanders feel a proprietary interest in the horses that race in the ‘white, red spots, red cap’ of the Belair Stud Stable, and all feel that, while foaled in Kentucky, the Woodward horses are no little benefited by their time spent on the rolling lands of the famous old estate at Collington.”
Woodward more than once expressed his views of raising horses in Maryland, and in his unpublished manuscript “American Racing” in which he detailed the history of the operation, he wrote: “Belair is a good place to raise stock of all kinds. We have ample pasturage for a yearling crop of 30. . .and the land is not ‘horse sick’, as it never has been overcrowded.”
While Woodward chose to foal his mares at the Hancock family’s Claiborne Farm in Kentucky by the 1920s, his weanlings would be brought to the Maryland farm “just after the first of October each year and raised there until they go to the training barn about August 15 of their yearling year [to future Hall of Fame trainer James Edward “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons]. This system has proved most satisfactory; Arthur Hancock and I have worked in close harmony and we have never had the slightest disagreement.” The management of the farm, which at one time covered more than 2,500 acres, included turning steers out onto the pastures once the yearlings had gone.
Woodward reflected: “During the 10 months the youngsters are at ‘Belair’, they partake of the best of air, beautiful drinking water, both of which relaxes their nerves and helps their dispositions. They grow well, we give them the best of clover, hay, oats of high quality. . . ‘Belair’ is noted for its calm and friendly atmosphere, which helps both man and beast.” Woodward inherited the farm upon the death of his uncle, James T. Woodward, in 1910, but during one of his many visits to the estate a few years earlier he set the wheels in motion as a Thoroughbred breeder. He purchased three mares, for $100 each, from the estate of the son of Maryland Governor Oden Bowie. Woodward recalled his purchases: “They were well-bred and in fair condition. Bringing them to Belair I needed some stalls for them and built three stalls at a cost of $100, for which my uncle made me pay, and he was quite right.” Woodward then purchased a local stallion, named Captain Hancock, for $60. “So Belair started with an expenditure of $360.” One of the mares, Charemma, produced a filly the next year (1906) by Captain Hancock. Woodward noted the odd coincidence that Charemma was bred at Ellerslie, the Virginia farm of Capt. Richard Hancock, the father of Arthur B. Hancock. The filly, Aile d’Or (named for a song Woodward heard while in Paris in 1906) was trained at Belair, and became Woodward’s first winner three years later when she won at the Southern Maryland Fair in Upper Marlboro. Aile d’Or delivered a colt, Lion d’Or, at Belair in 1916. He won the 1920 Toboggan Handicap for Woodward before being sold for $20,000 to Commander J.K.L. Ross and winning the Fall Highweight Handicap.
European racing influences
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1901, Woodward lived in London for two years, working as secretary for the United States ambassador to England, Joseph Choate. Woodward was exposed to the best of British racing, which fueled his passion for the sport.
Woodward became enamored by the pedigrees of European classic horses, and imported a number of mares and yearling fillies from Europe over the decades. In 1925, he joined Hancock and business moguls R.A. Fairbairn and Marshall Field in purchasing and importing one of America’s most influential stallions of the 20th century, the French classic winner *Sir Gallahad III, for $125,000.
Woodward’s first major European acquisition came in 1914, at the start of World War I. He happened upon a short paragraph in the New York Times about famed French breeder M. Edmond Blanc selling a number of his mares, five by Ajax, in Paris. As they were to be sold the next day, Woodward arranged through a network of friends to make the purchase of the Ajax mares. The price (the equivalent of $3,750 for the lot) was far less than he expected.
Due to wartime restrictions, the mares didn’t arrive at Belair until 1919. The shipment included *La Flambee, with her yearling and 2-year-old fillies in tow. The 2-year-old, *La Rablee, became a prolific winner and eventually produced the *Sir Gallahad III colt The Scout, Woodward’s first stakes winner in Europe. The yearling was *Flambette, who went on to win the Coaching Club American Oaks and proved invaluable as a broodmare.
*Flambette produced stakes winners Flambino, Flaming and Cycle, and was the granddam of Triple Crown winner Omaha, Flares, and Acorn Stakes winner Fleam. *Flambette’s unraced daughter by *Sir Gallahad III named La France was sold to Hancock and became the dam of Johnstown, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in Woodward’s colors. She was also the dam of champion 2-year-old filly Jacola, dam of Belmont Stakes winner and champion Phalanx.
Another yearling traveling with the group was the colt *Sarmatian, who went on to sire Gravita, the dam of Woodward’s Horse of the Year Granville.
Woodward was clear on his desire to win the Epsom Derby, and kept a diary about the decades-long pursuit, which included his association with trainer Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort. Among Woodward’s European-based homebreds were champions Foxbrough, Hycilla, Black Tarquin and Prince Simon. The closest he came to winning England’s Derby was with Prince Simon in 1950, who had the lead late but was caught at the wire, losing by a head.
Racing in Europe allowed rarefied experiences, including dining with royalty, all thoroughly documented in Woodward’s diary. In May 1931, as his second crop of homebred 3-year-olds aimed for the English classics, he headed out on a two-month trip around Europe. The first entry read:
“May 20 – Starting on rather an adventure – off to win the Epsom Derby – if possible – a difficult task – it is only done by the grace of the Gods of good fortune – but their lightning bolts do strike once in a while. . .”
On the evening before his Sir Andrew was to run in the Derby, Woodward attended a dinner party at Buckingham Palace, as guest of His Majesty King George V, at which time he was asked by the King to sit down and talk. “In fact I was the only person he spoke to after dinner while seated,” he wrote.
Woodward’s observations, and wit, were on display with his entry about lunch with the King and Queen the day after Sir Andrew won the Prince of Wales’s Stakes two weeks later. “At the table [of 12] were their Majesties, the German Ambassador and wife, the Portuguese Ambassador, the Duchess of York [a sweet looking kid], Lord and Lady Derby, James Hennessey of France, Princess Alice of Angleses, myself and about three others. . .
“When I arrived the King immediately recognized me and said he was so glad Sir Andrew had won. ‘It’s not winning the Derby, is it, but at least it’s a nice compensation,’ he said. I told him ‘yes’ and that I appreciated his kindness. Lunch went on, and only a fair lunch – rather messy – but it is supposed to be the best lunch in England.”
That “sweet looking kid” became the Queen Mother – whose daughter Elizabeth is the current Queen of England – and was 101 when she died in 2002.
Broodmares and Collections
“Looking backwards, I am amazed at the quality and, therefore, success of the yearling fillies I bought,” Woodward wrote. “Of course I had for years studied bloodlines and was a firm believer in certain strains. I also believed in the old adage, ‘Blood is blood, but Form is superior’ and the policy has succeeded; but even at that, I had the good fortune to strike the nail plumb on the head a good number of times.”
The broodmare collection produced two Triple Crown winners (Gallant Fox, 1930, and Omaha, 1935) and four additional Belmont Stakes winners (Faireno, 1932; Granville, 1936; Johnstown, 1939; and Nashua, 1955, the latter raced by his son William Woodward Jr. following his death). Of the 101 stakes winners he bred, seven were American champions (Gallant Fox, Faireno, Happy Gal, Omaha, Granville, Vagrancy and Nashua), in addition to the four champions in Europe.
Mares he bred but no longer owned proved valuable to other breeders. One was Laura Gal, the dam of Preakness winner Challedon. She was a daughter of *Sir Gallahad III out of Belair stakes winner Laura Dianti, the latter whom Woodward risked in a claiming race in 1926. “Fortunately for William L. Brann and me, no one claimed her. Had they done so, she would not have won the New Rochelle Handicap for Belair and that very high-class racehorse Challedon would never have been foaled,” he observed.
Woodward’s research included keeping volumes of scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine clippings about races in this country and in Europe, covering his own horses and those horses and races he admired. The clippings included race recaps, pedigree columns, photographs and stories on important figures and horses.
But there was more, for Woodward was an avid collector. Nine scrapbooks, starting in 1909 and running through 1939, are in the Maryland Historical Society collection, having been donated by his grandson, Thomas M. Bancroft Jr., and contain such treasures as race programs (from Epsom Downs to the Southern Maryland Fair), owner’s badges, telegrams, betting slips, and receipts – counted among the latter are two from The Jockey Club, when he registered the stable name “Belair Stud” Jan. 5, 1917, and his famous polka dot colors on April 15, 1911.
Bancroft had access to his grandfather’s vast collection, which prompted him to put together a family history in a book he titled The Red Polka Dots, which was printed privately for family and close friends in 2003. Upon completion, Bancroft donated, in addition to the scrapbooks, numerous photographs, diaries and a Belair guest book to the historical society, where they are kept in the special collections department.
Another collection found its way to the Baltimore Museum of Art, when in 1954 Woodward’s wife, Elsie Cryder Woodward, donated more than 56 works of art, 37 trophies and seven additional inscribed silver plates, plus gave $127,000 to build a wing at the museum to house the collection.
The majority of the works were done by J.F. Herring Sr., known for painting Derby and St. Leger winners. Woodward noted in a catalogue of the collection he printed in 1929: “I started collecting with the idea of gathering some attractive horse pictures, but very soon the number began to grow and soon the ‘gathering’ had almost developed into a collection of Herrings.”
Most of the paintings were portraits of horses considered “founders of the British turf” and when Woodward couldn’t find subjects done by Herring, he acquired paintings by George Stubbs and J.N. Sartorius. The largest (40 x 50 inches) and most recognizable is Stubbs’ Eclipse with Mr. Wildman and His Sons. Other paintings of great stallions include likenesses of The Godolphin Arabian, The Darley Arabian, and Diomed.
Also on display are 20 of the trophies, including Omaha’s Triple Crown trophy presented to the Woodward family in 1955, as well as Gallant Fox and Omaha’s Kentucky Derby trophies, Omaha’s Preakness and Belmont trophies, plus a Jockey Club Gold Cup and Ascot Gold Cup.
The BMA reported that in addition to providing funds for the construction of a new wing, Mrs. Woodward also “was actively involved with design and later provided many of the furnishings used to decorate it.”
The Woodward Room, near the museum’s famed Cone Collection, was “designed by Wrenn, Lewis, and Jencks of Baltimore and decorated by William Baldwin and Martin of New York, known for his work for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.”
Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art
One of Woodward’s most significant contributions to the industry, which happened on his watch as chairman of The Jockey Club from 1930 through 1950, was convincing England’s racing leaders to repeal the Jersey Act, which for more than three decades (1913 through 1949) kept many American horses out of the General Stud Book as purebred Thoroughbreds. He was elected an honorary member of the British Jockey Club in 1950.
He was also instrumental in establishing the Coaching Club American Oaks (which he won four times) and played a role in the development of the Grayson Foundation, which supports research for horses.
On the November evening in 1921 in front of members of the Maryland Historical Society, Woodward’s character and spirit came through as he summed up his speech:
Let me leave a parting word with you. Do everything you can to protect the Thoroughbred. Be advocates of sport, true and clean, good for those who participate, for those who look on, and for those who read about it; for in this way the cause of the best of animals is promoted and is protected. Cherish the Thoroughbred and love him for his many-sided and stalwart character. It is worthy of your affections.