In his “Broker’s Tip” column in the January 2021 issue of this magazine, Rick Abbott wrote:
“Some clients are a pain in the ass. Some know nothing about horses in general and Thoroughbreds specifically. Some clients are a dream come true, and Adele Paxson was one of those.”
Later in the piece, Abbott mentioned Paxson’s trainer Michael Dickinson and continued:
“Michael called me one day and offered to give us one of Mrs. Paxson’s 2-year-olds who wasn’t handling the rigors of training.”
Twenty-eight years later, Rick and his wife Dixie Abbott still have that 2-year-old. His cranky ankles ended his racing career before it started; his Jockey Club name, Bid to Fore, was never called by a track announcer. But “Freebie,” as they rechristened him, lucked into a jackpot with the Abbott family.
Socialite, conservationist and philanthropist Adele Warden Paxson was passionate about Thoroughbred racing and breeding. Husband Henry D. Paxson inherited Elm Grove Farm in Bucks County, Pa., which served as the base of their operation. They also kept a stable in Florida and a barn at South Carolina’s Aiken Training Track. Both avid foxhunters, their holdings included several champion show hunters.
Best known among Mrs. Paxson’s racehorses was 1978 co-champion 2-year-old filly Candy Éclair. In 1980, she earned the Eclipse Award for outstanding breeder.
Freebie was a product of Mrs. Paxson’s favorite families. Foaled in New York on April 8, 1991, he was sired by Loustrous Bid (Illustrious—Heavenly Ade, by Cannonade) from the Foretake mare Miss Fore (out of Bender Miss, by Never Bend). Both were unraced. Heavenly Ade set a track record when she won the 1980 Delaware Handicap-G1. Foretake won the Knickerbocker Handicap-G3 and the Longfellow Handicap-G3 in 1980.
Freebie’s surprisingly early retirement sent him directly from Dickinson’s barn to Charlton, the Abbotts’ farm near Coatesville, Pa. The 160-acre property was the nucleus of Charlton Bloodstock, the business they owned and operated for nearly 40 years. After some extended R&R, the bay gelding settled into his new life as a project for Dixie and their daughter Carly, a teenager when Freebie arrived in 1993. Older brother Red didn’t spend as much time riding by that point, but Carly remembers Freebie pressed into service as a mount for young ladies who visited Red at the farm.
“He’d bring girlfriends home and take them for rides, because that was a move,” she said. “He would ride my dad’s big Percheron mix, Harris Tweed.” Both Carly and her mother rode Freebie in baby green hunter divisions at local shows. Along with Rick, they often foxhunted him with the Cochran Hunt, a farmer’s pack based near Charlton.
One such outing remains forever vivid in Carly’s mind. Home from college, she accompanied her father in the hunt field one morning. Rick rode Freebie, with Carly on another off-track Thoroughbred Heshie’s Halo.
“We had a big day, and we were just starting to think about heading home when the hunt moved into an area we didn’t go into very often,” she said. “A lot of riders stayed behind to hilltop it because they knew there were some huge log jumps back there. But we decided to keep going with the field, and our horses jumped like absolute rock stars. Just boom, boom, boom over these giant jumps. And then we got through them all and out to a driveway which led back to where the rest of the field was waiting. The main field kept going, but we said ‘OK, the boys were great, so let’s hack home.’ ”
Out of the woods and still high on the athleticism just displayed by their mounts, they headed back toward the remainder of the field.
“They were all on the opposite side of this little three rail. I trotted toward it, and Halo stopped. So I turned around to go again, and Dad tried it on Freebie. Freebie refused, and Dad fell off right in front of the rest of the field.”
“He was our guest horse too,” Dixie said. “If we were busy at a sale, people would stay here and hunt Freebie.”
And “busy at a sale” was a frequent state of affairs for the entire team at Charlton. Throughout the years, Freebie was a lighthouse for Dixie. When the hectic schedules and long days became overwhelming, she took mental health breaks with the horse. Bareback with just a halter and shank, they’d escape on a cross-country hack.
“I never really tacked him up because I never had time,” she said. “And he was so parrot-mouthed that bits were a problem. We always used leather covered bits.”
There haven’t been many hats the gelding hasn’t worn. Pleasure horse to all four Abbott family members. Coveted foxhunter. Pony horse for youngsters prepping for the sales. Babysitter to countless young horses on the farm. But one particular role was a tad unusual.
When the Abbotts lost their teaser stallion, Freebie came in from the bullpen. A confirmed bachelor, his interest in mares was long since squelched. But Charlton farm manager Liz Eglington Mitchell had a solution.
“We got it to work by putting grain on the hindquarters of the mares and letting him nibble away,” Dixie said. “The girls thought he was Don Juan!” When Rick and Dixie retired and sold the farm five years ago, Freebie was literally the last horse off the property. As she had so many times, Dixie grabbed a halter and shank and rode her dear friend through the woods to Chestnut, the farm next door owned by Chris and Lisa Kozik Demars. He’s lived there ever since.
Now 30, he’s the wise, old sage looking after his younger pasturemates.
“One of the Thoroughbreds, Robbie, is the dominant horse in the herd,” Lisa Demars said. “And if you offend Robbie, he’ll take action. Security, the Warmblood, and Freebie are best friends, like a school of fish. Side by side in the field, one moves and the other moves, like magnets. One rainy day, Security was anxious to get inside and he started to bumble his way over toward Robbie. Freebie saw what was about to happen, and he hurried over and put himself between Security and Robbie and herded his friend several fence panels away to safety. Robbie would have pounded Security, no question. Freebie looks after him.”
Rick Abbott smiled. It means the world to the entire family that their old boy has the best possible retirement home. But he couldn’t resist adding a postscript.
“I never expected him to live this long,” he deadpanned. “I’ve been paying board on him for the last five years!”
“And trust me,” Carly Abbott said. “Every time Dad writes that check, his hand probably twitches.”