It is a piece of the dream of so many of them when they come over the mountains at Crestline or Banning and look down for the first time on the great Los Angeles basin stretching away to the sea. Like the Okies of the '30s and the aircraft workers of the war years and the losers who followed them from the slums of the big cities, they all look down and dream of the house they will one day own and the new car and the swimming pool and—if things work out—a ranch. California has been doing that to its immigrants for a century, and sometimes the dream comes true.
To see how it does, drive east on Route 60 from Los Angeles and then south on U.S. 395 into the heart of the great basin that will one day be a land as dry and eroded as man's ancestral valley in Mesopotamia. Keep south through the valley with the gentle Santa Ana Mountains on your right and the jagged San Jacinto range to the east. Along the way are places with names like Ontario, Chino, Perris, Hemet, Murrieta, Temecula and Escondido—names that do not instinctively come to mind when you think of Saratoga, Belmont and Churchill Downs. Yet it is here that a lucky few who came over the mountains have built their ranches and raised their thoroughbreds, in some ways—if not quite exactly—like the Vanderbilts and Whitneys and Wideners elsewhere. When their luck is running right, they may show up in the front-row boxes with the Eastern toffs at Belmont and Saratoga, sometimes wearing the Stetson and the cowboy boots to flaunt their homeland, but just as often in the Savile Row pinstripes and Maxwell shoes they have learned to adopt as protective coloration around the snazzier courses. The very luckiest may even make it all the way to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. Rex Ellsworth did, and so did Andy Crevolin. Louis B. Mayer tried harder than any but failed.
When compared with the glorious patterns of the bluegrass farms, the tawny acres of this valley will not capture many hearts. The barns are functional only, the pastures dusty and the thoroughbreds stand apathetically in the hot sun. No effort is spent on showmanship. For the 35 years or so since thoroughbred racing was resurrected in California, this has been the heartland of the breeding industry. This is where the hardboots function, producing all but a handful of the racing stock with which California would challenge the world.
It was not always thus, and already there are signs it will not always be. To the northwest 150 miles as the jet flies is a softer, lovelier valley called the Santa Ynez. Here the land is verdant and clusters of live oaks dot the rolling foothills across the valley between the paternal ranges on either side. Esthetics alone confirm that this should be the site for California's two most ambitious, spacious, artistic and expensive thoroughbred nurseries of modern times—Flag Is Up Farms, Inc. and Westerly Stud Farms. Unlike their counterparts in Lexington, Ky. or Newmarket, England or The Curragh in Ireland, which they more closely resemble than their home-state neighbors to the south and north, these two farms have not grown casually with the generations. They are instant creations, thrown up overnight, so to speak, but with the devotion to perfection that millions of dollars can buy.
June 6, 1971
Metaphorically, at least, the founders of these two extravagant breeding establishments came over the mountains with their dreams like all the would-be ranchers who preceded them. Hastings Harcourt, the patron of Flag Is Up, came first, a self-styled dropout from his family's famous publishing house. "I had $500 a month and had to scrounge for the other $500," he says airily, now that the millions he has since made from Harcourt, Brace are his to spend as he wishes in the 63rd year of his life. "At the time, in 1943, I thought I'd just pick out the best place to live and let it go on from there."
Fletcher Jones, the founder of Westerly and just turned 40, came after the war in the floodtide of California's aerospace industry, a brilliant young boffin of the computer game who directed his talents into the multimillion-dollar Computer Sciences Corporation. As opposite as Ying and Yang, Harcourt and Jones stumbled into thoroughbreds almost simultaneously, neither having spent a day at a racetrack before 1964.
Harcourt was out of the gate with a bigger rush. He had bought a quarter horse for his son, now a successful builder in the Santa Barbara area, and sent the animal to a young trainer at San Luis Obispo named Marvin (Monty) Roberts. Soon the race talk began to intrigue him, and he decided to try a thoroughbred or two with Roberts' help. His first visit to a track to see one of his horses run was like a child's discovery of candy. Harcourt and Roberts began thinking about maybe a little thoroughbred farm in the Santa Ynez, where Harcourt owned a few acres. Aside from its scenic charms, the Santa Ynez was less than an hour's drive from the Harcourt house in Montecito, that stylish suburb of Santa Barbara where Pasadena vacations and rich Easterners retire with their golf sticks and their memories.
A small thoroughbred farm had been Monty Roberts' dream since childhood when he first started riding in shows and breaking rogues at his father's place in Salinas. "I was drawing pasture plans, horse barns and equine clinics when I was in the second, third and fourth grades," says Roberts. "In English I wrote papers on farm management. In math I wrote a paper on an octagonal foaling barn."
Harcourt, a big man who likes to paint his life with strokes of epic sweep, was just what Roberts needed to go with his visions. Before they were through planning, the two had designed a thoroughbred nursery to rival Claiborne and Calumet. The year was 1966, and the two partners were ready with checkbook and shovel when a rare wave of caution swept over Harcourt. "The Vietnam war was growing, and taxes and interest rates were bound to go up," he now recalls thinking, "so I wrote Monty a letter and said I didn't think this was a good time to have a million dollars tied up in the horse business. Then we had a winner at the track or something, and I got excited about it and changed my mind, and here we are with eight times that much money invested in the thing. If you heard someone was planning to sell Harcourt, Brace stock to put the money in oil and horses, you'd send 'em to Camarillo [the state hospital for the insane]."
While recently recollecting these events, Harcourt was sitting in a large housekeeping van on his way to the day's races at Santa Anita. Roberts was there, too, as were Harcourt's wife Fran and another couple from Santa Barbara. Everyone was seated around a table having the first Bloody Mary, which Harcourt had just mixed in the van's galley, and nibbling caviar sandwiches. Soon they would be in Harcourt's box at the track, where Flag Is Up had three horses running that afternoon. One of them, a promising 3-year-old colt named Nahallat, would win, and the familiar figures of Harcourt and his wife would again be in the winner's circle—he an imposing personality with his tall body encased in the bright checkered jackets he fancies, his gray-black hair brushed into a pompadour and his large face masked like a raccoon by his ever-present black sunglasses.
"This is the only way to go," Harcourt said with a grand gesture that took in the roomy interior of the van and the driver up front concentrating on the freeway traffic. "This is it. This is what I want to do." Harcourt and Roberts overflow with such euphoria when they talk about Flag Is Up and what they have accomplished in the four years since they first broke ground in the Santa Ynez. "We've had unprecedented success, I'm told," Harcourt enthused on one occasion.
The farm itself has been laid out with the devotion to detail of a Japanese garden. The main office, set back a few hundred yards from the highway that runs through the valley, is an attractive modern building of stained wood that blends with the countryside. One elegant touch is a glassed-in room on the second floor used for entertaining visitors. On the porch outside are comfortable chairs. There the Harcourts and their guests can sip their cocktails and watch the horses displayed on the lawn below. A few yards away is a model training barn with every item from the texture of the floor to the fittings on the stalls a matter of intense pride to the owner and the managing partner, as Roberts is officially designated.
Roberts does most of the talking, and none of the farm's overflowing gadgetry arouses his eloquence more than the fire-prevention system he has installed in the barns. Called Twisto-Wire Early Fire-Detection and Instant-Operating Sprinkler Systems, it is the invention of an Englishman named John Davies, who spent years refining it. There is even a special barn where the system can be demonstrated with a live and terrified horse in one of the three stalls as a fire is extinguished in a matter of seconds.
Phrases like "diatomaceous earth" and "density and maturation of bone" come frequently in Roberts' conversation as he extols the virtues of Flag Is Up. The former, which leads to the latter, describes an allegedly unique stratum of earth below the topsoil that, claims Roberts, provides up to two times more calcium in the grasses of Flag Is Up than one will find in the blue-grass of Kentucky and up to 12 times more than in the grasses around Florida's prime breeding area in Ocala.
Field upon field of neatly fenced pastureland covers Flag Is Up's 1,000 acres. Across the highway from the training facilities is the octagonal foaling barn that Roberts thought about so many years ago, a clinic with an operating room and therapeutic X-ray machines, and nearby is an equine swimming pool where lame horses can be exercised without straining their sore legs. In the same general area are a number of the 22 farm houses for the 36 permanent hands needed to keep every pebble in its well-raked place.
Finally, there is the 12-stall stud barn, an equine Waldorf-Astoria wherein reside what most California horsemen regard as the state's finest collection of thoroughbred stallions under one roof. The grand seigneur of the barn is Tirreno, a handsome 14-year-old chestnut from the Argentine who is a full brother to Forli, one of that country's leading handicap stars of recent years. Then there is Petrone, imported from France, who campaigned successfully in this country before being retired to stud. And there is Gladwin, a 5-year-old bought by Harcourt as a yearling and who last year won a pair of hundred-grand stakes at Monmouth and Hawthorne. Speculating, another newcomer to the stud barn, is a 4-year-old son of Bold Ruler who was injured last year in an accident at Saratoga before he had a chance to prove himself in the Phipps colors. There is also Fleet Discovery, a son of Fleet Nasrullah out of a Discovery mare, who had a good record in California racing. He and Tirreno have their first crop of Flag Is Up 2-year-olds coming to the races this year. Finally, there is a boarder, Mr. Right, winner of $667,000 and owned by a syndicate of three that includes Frank Sinatra. Harcourt also had Successor, who died last July of "an immature liver." Many horsemen anticipated he would be the star of the stud barn and possibly the outstanding California sire. A son of Bold Ruler, he was bought by Harcourt from the Phipps family for $1 million during the formatives stages of Flag Is Up.
The mere fact that such stallions are available to California mares is reason enough for local horsemen to throw a weekly banquet in Harcourt's honor, yet their response has been quite the opposite. They tend to cultivate a whole gardenful of petty jealousies, and often talk as if they wish Flag Is Up Farms would disappear into the San Andreas Fault. They suggest that Roberts is just a postgraduate cowhand who knows nothing of thoroughbreds, that Roberts and Harcourt are feuding or that the farm is losing so much money Harcourt is trying to unload it.
No wonder that Harcourt, who says of himself, "I can be a contentious guy if I'm pushed," describes the directors of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association as "a tight group of insiders who have resented and tried to thwart the success of Flag Is Up Farms." Or that Fletcher Jones calls them "chauvinistic and provincial, a self-perpetuating tea and sandwich club whose biggest decision is seating each other at their sales."
California badly needs Flag Is Up and its neighbor, Westerly. Ever since Louis B. Mayer fell ill and sold his best bloodstock to Kentucky, the state has been woefully lacking in outstanding broodmares and sires. The paramount reason for this is a punitive tax structure. Each of California's 58 counties must finance its budget through taxes on personal property appraised on the first of each March. When a county has the shorts, the appraisals of horseflesh are apt to be ridiculous. George Pope, whose El Peco Ranch produced the 1962 Kentucky Derby winner, Decidedly, plus many another of the state's best known thoroughbreds, discovered recently that Madera County had set an appraisal price of $25,000 apiece on two of his mares—Gloire Fille, 21 years old and barren, and Glorify, her 12-year-old daughter who had won a trifling $15,315 in her racing career and was dam of a single undistinguished winner. To make his point, Pope sent both mares to the Pomona sales and was able to bid one back for $6,500, the other for $3,500.
Bill Pascoe, another California horseman, moved all of his stock to Kentucky, where it was appraised at $442,000 last year. His tax bill was $4.42. In California it was $11,691.40 in 1969 and it would have been higher last year. Riverside County collected $44,000 on all the horses within its borders in 1968. Strapped for funds the following year, Riverside took in $287,000 on virtually the same horseflesh, a tax increase of some 550%. Successor, still an unproved sire at his death, was appraised at $1 million by Santa Barbara County. Harcourt managed to get this reduced to $600,000 thus shaving the tax on one horse from $25,000 to $15,000. In Kentucky the tax on a $1 million stallion is $10.
The CTBA has been trying to persuade the state legislature to put a reasonable limit on these taxes, but with no success so far. As a result, Harcourt and Jones are among the few horsemen with bloodstock of any value who are willing to pay the taxes necessary to keep their horses in California. Most send them to Kentucky or elsewhere, as Pascoe has done and as Ellsworth did with Swaps, the outstanding product of California breeding since World War II.
Almost as if he were cocking his snoot at the assessor, Harcourt freely admits an investment of $4 million in the land and facilities of Flag Is Up, plus another $4 million in his bloodstock. The latter consists of 21 2-year-olds being readied for racing, six stallions, 44 broodmares, 20 yearlings and 22 others of various ages and sexes in varying stages of training. Normally he keeps a dozen or so with R. L. Wheeler, who trains for him at the California tracks, and shuttles the others back and forth from the farm, where Roberts prepares the horses on their six-furlong training track.
Fletcher Jones, on the other hand, is a bit more wary of the assessor and prefers to give no specific figures on his investment at Westerly. Even the untutored eye can tell, however, that the more than 300 horses (120 or so being outside boarders) in residence on Westerly's 4,000 acres represent no less a commitment than Harcourt's. Sixty-four of these are broodmares, 41 are 2-year-olds coming to the races, 50 are yearlings, and this year's crop has just arrived in the foaling barn.
All of this activity is under the supervision of an Irishman named Jack Dempsey, a reed of a man with dark hair and bright blue eyes who sings his sentences in a tenor brogue that would do justice to a Sean O'Casey script. A disappointment to his physician father when he opted for horses instead of medicine, Dempsey began his career riding jumping races over the native sod. He made his way to California via Canada, where he trained for F. R. Conklin.
The conjunction of Jones and Dempsey occurred about seven years ago when Jones developed his sudden racing interest. In 1959 Jones had set up his computer consulting business in Southern California and achieved overnight success that he was able to translate into millions of dollars. He is the man people go to when they want to get the bugs out of their machines. Among the computer systems designed or implemented by Jones are those of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory which guide missiles in outer space, and those of the Panama Canal which lead the ships through the locks.
As Jones was building his business, a friend came to stay at his home for an extended visit, and the friend was closely followed by a number of thoroughbred publications he subscribed to. Jones found the magazines lying around the house and read them simply because, "Anything unread I'll attack, even at 2 in the morning." The next thing he knew, Jones was at the Del Mar Sales of 1964, where he ended up with two yearlings—an $11,000 filly he named Fallen Lady and a $12,000 colt he called Fleet Host. "Those two horses rather hooked me," Jones says. Fallen Lady "won out" her cost, while Fleet Host, a handsome bay, went on to earn $181,337. At 3 he won the $100,000 Hollywood Derby over the leading California colts of his age, and at 4 he equaled the American grass-course record for 1½ miles in winning the San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita. Now 8, Fleet Host occupies a third of Jones' stud barn at Westerly. The other stallions are Promised Land, a well-proven 17-year-old sire whom Jones bought from Hirsch Jacobs, and Rising Market, who won more than $460,000 in the shorter stakes races at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Westerly's first 2-year-old crop by Fleet Host is just getting ready to race this year. Promised Land's first Westerly crop is racing as 3-year-olds, while Rising Market recently covered his first mares.
Many people get Jones confused with a car dealer by the same name who runs a Ford agency in Los Angeles. The confusion should soon be rectified, for Jones, the computer-horseman, is not a type destined for obscurity. Tall and handsome with wavy gray-white hair, he might well have come off Hugh Hefner's drawing board, even down to his timed Michael Caine shades. When his picture is snapped in the winner's circle he is apt to be standing alongside one of the prettier young maidens of show biz. His office, overlooking Beverly Hills from the 19th floor of a Century City high-rise, is in Antonioni-modern, and he commutes to it daily from his ranch in one of his executive jets—the Morane or the Lear. He gives you an inkling of what Diamond Jim Brady would be like if he lived today.
Dempsey calls Jones "a perfectionist," and no one who has seen Westerly would care to dispute him. Every detail is a little masterpiece of its own—the mission-style, adobe-walled barns with their red-tile roofs, the stud barn and adjoining white-fenced paddocks as pampered as an Onassis wife, the well-equipped clinic and isolation barn, each of the three units—training, breeding and clinic—a mile from one another, "in case we get into any serious trouble," as Dempsey puts it so gently.
It is only natural that a man of Jones' profession would bring some neatly wrapped ideas to the inexact science of breeding thoroughbreds. "Breeding and computers," he says, "both involve problem solving, both are statistically oriented." It is Jones' contention that you must breed 100 horses to come up with any meaningful results. "Out of 100 horses you bring to the track," he says, "60 won't pay their bills. Fifteen pay their bills and stay there a year, earning somewhere between $7,000 and $9,000. Fifteen of the balance earn $25,000. The remaining 10 will make $50,000 apiece, and of these, three will make $100,000 and two more than $100,000. It is from these two that you hope to get the one that will make half a million. But it is necessary to breed 100 to get that one.
"And that one could break his leg," Jones adds. "That's where luck comes in. It is luck if the horse survives, but it isn't luck if your stable has high probabilities."
The purpose behind all the expense and care that has gone into Westerly, as Jones explains it, is "to control the controllables. We are shooting for the major 3-year-old races, so we are not interested in 2-year-old precocity. We are breeding for distance and for mature horses, so we breed only to proven champions. We base our judgment more on how a horse ran than on its breeding alone. Traditionalism is being replaced by analysis. I might add that we approach all this with a great deal of humility."
It is much too early to judge the results at either Westerly or Flag Is Up, since the first crops have just turned three and two, respectively. Only twice in this century has anyone in California made anything close to a comparable effort to breed distinguished bloodstock on such a grand scale. Louis B. Mayer was the first—in the 1940s—with his Mayer Stock Farm at Perris. On his 500 acres of irrigated pastureland he kept more than 100 broodmares, including some of the finest from E. R. Bradley's Idle Hour in Lexington, and he had two fine stallions in Beau Pere and Alibhai, both imported. Even Mayer's stars at MGM like Garbo and Harlow never had it as good as his 200 head of horses, but he died before the nursery really had a chance to prove itself. In the last years of Mayer's try, Rex Ellsworth mounted an equally ambitious if less luxurious effort in his dusty corrals at Chino, but taxes and assorted other misfortunes forced him to send his best horses to Kentucky as well.
Prior to Mayer one has to go all the way back to the latter years of the 19th century to find any real glory in California breeding. In the '80s and '90s, James Ben Ali Haggin, an emigrant lawyer who made millions in mining, built the historic Rancho del Paso outside Sacramento, a 44,800-acre spread that is regarded by many as the finest thoroughbred nursery in the history of American racing. Haggin was a fierce-looking man with a close-cropped white beard, and it has been written of him that he was "far and away the most successful, as well as the most colorful breeder and racing man of his day."
In 1892 alone, horses bred by Haggin won 500 races, and for 17 years he consigned more than 200 yearlings annually to the New York sales.
During the years 1885-88, California horses won four consecutive American Derbies (then the equivalent of the Kentucky Derby), and three of these winners were from the lovely 4,000-acre Rancho Santa Anita of Elias Jackson (Lucky) Baldwin adjoining the present site of Santa Anita racetrack. Baldwin's operation was small in comparison to Haggin's, but at one Saratoga meeting he won 15 races out of 25 starts.
At that time a Louisville paper wrote, "So frequently have events been captured by California stables that believers in Kentucky's superiority are beginning to have doubts." That same year the New York World said, "The success of California stables is the most prominent feature of the several meetings," and attributed it to "the magnificent climate and the superiority of the Pacific Coast during the winter months for the building up and development of [race horses]."
So the precedent is there for Hastings Harcourt and Fletcher Jones. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the state, including horsemen, will really back their efforts.