It can never be said that Virginia Kraft Payson is a passive observer of sports she loves. Race fans know her as the owner of Payson Park in Indiantown, Fla., as well as breeder of G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vindication and G1 Kentucky Oaks winner Farda Amiga; while her racing and breeding career is a source of endless pride for Payson, her name appears in sport history books in a few other places, too.
Payson spent every moment she could outside at her family's Long Island home as a child and passed evenings listening to radio news broadcasts. A graduate of Barnard College, she combined her love of outdoors and media with a job at Field and Stream magazine for a year and a half. In 1954, there were rumblings about a new magazine called Sports Illustrated, and management came knocking on her door looking for someone to cover the publication's new outdoor sports beat. Payson was the 12th person on staff and the only woman.
“They brought me in because I had a background in the outdoors,” said Payson, who recalled a lot of turnover as the magazine worked to define itself. “I certainly will say that every guy who was hired looked around and figured, ‘I can knock her off first.' I just did my job and created the opportunities.”
And create them she did. A short synopsis of Payson's career for SI reads like the back cover of an over-the-top adventure novel. In the Gonzo style of reporting, Payson experienced her beat first hand. She tracked wild boar with Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain (the first woman to receive an invitation to do so), hunted tiger with the Queen of Nepal, contested international fishing competitions, and piloted hot air balloons. She shot birds from horseback with King Hussein of Jordan. She was inducted into the Underwater Hall of Fame for her scuba diving work. All told, she hunted on six continents, but her favorite experience was a historic run in the World Championships Sled Dog Race.
Payson was asked to cover the 75-mile race and was surprised to learn that a woman had never contested the grueling ordeal. She decided she would be the first, preparing by marching up the stairs to her 20th floor New York City apartment in heels each day. After on-site training left her black and blue from body blows and falling behind the sled, Payson embarked from Anchorage the least experienced driver. She finished the race, the 16th of 22 in front of a roaring crowd on 4th Avenue that had stuck around to see her cross the line.
“They were all shouting, ‘We knew you could do it!' and when I finally got to the finish line, it was just a sea of people. They gave me the keys to the city and champagne and a big bouquet of roses,” she recalled. “I discovered [at the 75th anniversary of the race] that the next year they created a women's race, so that no woman would run against the Eskimos again.”
After a 26-year journalism career, Payson put away her typewriter and began focusing on a new type of sports participation: Thoroughbred ownership. She had met Charles Shipman Payson on a hunting trip and the couple married. Charles had formerly been married to Joan Whitney Payson, heiress of Greentree Farm, leaving Charles with some land after her death in 1975. Charles had kept the sport at arm's length, but Virginia was new to the business and eager to learn.
The couple purchased their first horse, an Arts and Letters yearling, for $17,000 on an impulse trip to Fasig-Tipton October. Romanair, as he was named, “proved a monster who hated training, racing, people, and probably himself,” Payson told the Racing Post in 1992.
His lack of success on the track didn't dissuade her. She threw herself into the study of pedigree and training, drawing on her days as a writer.
“In many ways, I transferred the skills I had developed at SI. More than anything else, a writer is a researcher,” she said. “We seek out expertise from many sources, distill and digest it, and then put it in readable form.”
Payson littered the couple's Lexington home with stacks of books on racing and breeding, hired a bloodstock consultant, and took careful notes from trainer Blaine Holloway. She decided breeding her own racehorses was more likely to yield success than buying at auction. Payson resisted some of the trends she believed were pulling at the seams of the American Thoroughbred; she kept her operation to no more than 12 mares and demanded conformational excellence from her breeding stock, independent of their resumes. She also didn't believe in crossing young mares with unproven stallions, preferring a foal to have solid credentials on at least one side of its pedigree.
Holloway taught her the importance of patience in Thoroughbred development, and Payson developed a program of sending her young horses to Europe for the early part of their careers, then racing them as 4-year-olds in the United States.
Although the Thoroughbred world was still seen by some as an “old boys' club,” as Payson embarked on her hands-on management style in the 1980s, she said she didn't encounter much prejudice as a female owner and breeder. She did recall one rainy afternoon when she traveled with one of her mares to a Lexington breeding farm. She was informed, upon reaching the doors of the breeding shed, that she would not be granted entrance to see the mating she'd paid $200,000 for—women weren't allowed in the shed.
“I said, ‘Connect me with Mr. Gaines,'” she remembered. “I got right through to him and he was sorta flustered. I said, ‘I'm not going to breed to your stallion if I can't ascertain with my own eyes that this stallion covered my mare.' He made an exception and that rule changed.
“Other than that experience, I never really encountered any prejudice. I was there, doing my thing, and it wasn't any different. But I think the women in Lexington are a different breed anyway, by and large. They are people who have played a very big role in the horse business.”
Payson counts St. Jovite as her crowning achievement as a breeder; the son of Pleasant Colony got so good during his time in Europe that he never came back. He picked up wins in the Irish Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes under the instruction of trainer Jim Bolger; his time in the Irish Derby remains the race's fastest in 150 years.
Additional successes included Travers winner Carr de Naskra, L'Carriere, Salem Drive, Lac Ouimet, Rutherienne, and Scipion. In 1999, Payson began selling her yearlings; from a combined crop of 20 in the 1999 and 2000 foaling seasons, her mares produced both Vindication and Farda Amiga.
Payson spent so much time traveling to monitor her horses that she began waking up unsure of which state or country she was in on any given day. She began stepping back from the business, selling all of her racing stock and putting her Payson Park training center up for sale in 2013. Then, like many true horsefolk, she had a change of heart.
“I didn't last a year, and I bought this filly back last September at the Keeneland sale,” she said. “I just decided I needed to watch a racehorse.”
And with that, quicker than her blue 1978 Corvette, she's off, planning the filly's next career moves. She hasn't finished writing her chapter of the history books.
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