It's not so uncommon these days to find women at the helm of a great horse's breeding or racing career; in fact, there are now syndicates made up entirely of women. In the first part of the 20th century, of course, the picture was somewhat different. There were two ways for a woman to gain total control of a racing stable: she could take it over for a deceased husband or relative, or she could build one from the bottom up. Women found success at racing's highest level using both strategies.
Among the most enduring names on the turf is that of the Whitney family, currently headed by Marylou, who was honored with a special Eclipse Award after famously tracking down the C.V. Whitney mares from her late husband's breeding program. The Phipps name is another that has long been inscribed on trophies, and it had its own racing matriarch: Lillian Bostwick Phipps (Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps' mother), who owned a stable of steeplechase horses on her own before her marriage to Ogden Phipps Sr. Lillian maintained her steeplechase string while Ogden built a flat racing empire, and she enjoyed tremendous success—two Hall of Fame jumpers (Oedipus and Neji), who were elected American Steeplechase Champions five times between them, in addition to eight American Grand National wins.
Other pioneering women came before both of them, though, with such dominance that an April 1962 edition of Family Weekly did an entire feature titled, Horse racing—sport of queens on the female owners who had risen to power by that point in history.
One of the earliest heavy-hitters no doubt was Isabel Dodge Sloane, who is often credited as the first woman to top the American owners list by earnings as Brookmeade Stable in 1950.
A daughter of John F. Dodge of Dodge Bros. Motor Company, Sloane lost both her parents at a young age and inherited her father's fortune at 24. Married and divorced from stockbroker George Sloane, Isabel purchased her first horse in 1924—a steeplechaser named Sky Scraper II, who won the Manley Steeplechase.
After that, it seemed she was hooked. She began buying her horses at auction and purchased a 850-acre farm in Virginia to house them. The expenses provided returns during the 1934 season, as Sloane became the fifth woman in history to own a Kentucky Derby winner when Cavalcade picked up the roses. (The Daily Racing Form took note of the historic importance of Cavalcade's run just before the race, with an article that mentioned the other four female winners—as Mrs. Husband's Name only.)
Sloane went on to campaign Sword Dancer and champion 2-year-old filly Bowl of Flowers, although she confided to reporters that a colt named Okapi was her favorite runner. Okapi may not have been the most successful of Sloane's competitors (though he did win a handful of sprint stakes), but it seems he had the most character. Per a report in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the horse could be somewhat unruly but did thoroughly enjoy food. His favorite treats were said to be doughnuts and coffee, though the Post-Gazette reported he also enjoyed chewing tobacco.
Sloane's most successful year was 1950, when Brookmeade topped the American owners list by money earned with $651,399. At the time of Sloane's death 12 years later, her stable had 1,144 wins and earnings of $8,940,679. Brookmeade was also listed as breeder of 21 earners of $100,000 or more, exceeded only by Calumet and Greentree Stables.
While Isabel enjoyed her first Kentucky Derby win, another well-connected woman was just getting started in the business. Ethel V. Mars, second wife of Mars Candy founder Frank Mars (his first wife, incidentally, was also named Ethel) started her turf career in 1934. Using the excess cash from his candy company, Frank had purchased 20 yearlings from Arthur B. Hancock in 1933 to start a breed-to-race operation. When Frank died the following year, Ethel decided not just to carry on in ownership but to revamp the business plan from breeding to buying.
“From a percentage standpoint of number bought, I do not believe anyone ever acquired from the yearling sales as many top-grade stakes winners as Ethel Mars,” wrote John H. Clark in 1989. “Wayne Lukas, maybe. She defied the axiom that 'you can't buy your way into racing,' and she did it in a hurry.”
For seven consecutive years, she was the leading buyer of yearlings at auction. Mars picked up Gallahadion, eventual winner of the 1940 Kentucky Derby, for $5,500 as a yearling. He won $92,620. Promising 2-year-old Sky Larking won $41,135 and cost $13,500; juvenile filly champion Forever Yours was just $3,600 and raked in $34,865. Additional successes included The Fighter, Reaping Reward, Case Ace, Tiger, Dinner Date Dogpatch, and No Competition.
As U.S. involvement in World War II dragged on, Mars retired from the industry in 1943, selling her horses and her 6,000-acre Milky Way Farm. She died two years later.
Just two years after that, another pioneering female owner picked up her Derby victory: Elizabeth Arden Graham, a character so colorful a writer referred to her as one of racing's “loveable eccentrics.”
Graham, originally Florence Nightingale Graham, told a Daily Racing Form reporter that she was “born with a whinny in my ears,” as the daughter of a Scottish jockey and trainer.
True to her given name, Graham was originally a nurse and was working in a salon when she met female chemist A. Fabian Swanson and began thinking about how science could revolutionize the beauty industry. The pair began making cosmetics in Graham's kitchen and borrowed $6,000 to launch a business which grew into an international empire worth $75 million at the time of her death in 1966. Elizabeth Arden Cosmetics still thrives today.
Despite her sharp (by some accounts, ruthless) eye for business, Graham was said to view her horses through rose-colored glasses. She bought her first under the advisement of Samuel Riddle in 1931 and grew to think of the Thoroughbreds as her children, often calling them “her darlings.” Graham sent huge quantities of highly expensive beauty creams to the barns and insisted trainers apply her eight-hour facial cream to the horses' legs each night, a notion that won her plenty of raised eyebrows. (For what it's worth, trainer Ivan Parke believed the cream did wonders for cracked heels, and used it even after he left Graham's employ. He did not comment on Graham's assertion that horses loved the smell of perfume.)
Graham took over for Mars as leading buyer of yearlings from 1943 to 1945 and raced under Maine Chance Stables. She purchased a farm by the same name off Newtown Pike in Lexington, Ky., and went on to tremendous success, campaigning such champions as Derby-winning Jet Pilot, Star Pilot, Beaugay, Rose Jet, Myrtle Charm, and Jewel's Reward, giving her the leading owner title in 1945.
She was almost as notorious for her treatment of trainers as she was well-known for her successful horses. Depending upon who's counting, Graham hired and fired between 60 and 65 different trainers in her three decades as an owner, though by all accounts, she paid them well for as long as they stuck around. The longest-running trainer seems to have lasted around two years; the briefest, four hours. One man was told he'd be fired if he didn't stop chewing tobacco. Graham was known to call trainers at all hours of the day or night for updates on her “darlings,” including one incident when she rang Parke in the middle of the night because she'd had a dream one of her fillies was up a tree outside the barn. (Dutifully, Parke went outside to check on the horse and the tree.)
Jockeys seemed able to do no right by Graham; she fired a number of them for whipping her horses, and at least one for not urging his mount hard enough. Eddie Arcaro sounded off to one reporter after being taken off a horse because Graham had a dream that he had lost an upcoming race.
“She acted like a lunatic,” Arcaro said. “One of the lady's problems was the fact that if she lost a race, she couldn't understand that her horse was not good enough. Her horse, in her eyes, was always the best.”
'Lunatic' or not, Graham had a savvy side to her. Before either of her two marriages, Graham began referring to herself as “Mrs. Graham,” thinking it would gain her more respect in the business world, and her concerns about perception weren't unfounded in an era when newspapers referred to women by their husbands' names only. She found success, as did other early pioneers like Sloane and Mars, by doing things her own way.
“Look at fillies: no filly should ever have a whip laid to her or hear a harsh word,” Graham told the Daily Racing Form in 1958. “They need constant love and the showing of it.
“Every time I hear a stable boy speak roughly to one of my fillies I want to pitchfork him.”
In addition to raising awareness about female contributions to the sport and industry, our series Women in Racing also serves as a reminder that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As part of the Paulick Report's annual Breeders' Cup or Bust fundraising efforts, please consider a donation to Breeders' Cup Charities. Your contribution can help fund the cure via City of Hope. Thank you!
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