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Walnut Hall Quits Horse Breeding

November 4, 2005

By Janet Patton, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.

Nov. 4–Walnut Hall Ltd., one of the oldest breeding farms in America for harness racing, is essentially going out of business.

“We’re no longer going to be commercial breeders,” said Alan Leavitt, who runs Walnut Hall Ltd. in Lexington with his wife, Meg Jewett, who owns it.

Next week, about 140 broodmares and weanlings will be loaded on horse vans and shipped to Pennsylvania for a dispersal sale. Last month, 91 yearlings were sent to auction here at Tattersall’s.

The farm will keep its two stallions and keep breeding the mares who are not pregnant to increase their value before selling them, too, he said.

One stallion, the great pacer Cambest, the fastest standardbred of all time, is 17 and almost too old to be moved. The other, Like A Prayer, is 6 years old and likely to move to a better breeding state by the end of the year, Leavitt said.

Most of the remaining horses will be “pensioners,” mares 19 years or older. “Meg and I will be pensioners, too,” Leavitt said.

Stan Bergstein, executive vice president of Harness Tracks of America, said yesterday their departure is a blow to Kentucky breeding. “I don’t believe there’s ever been a larger consignment of weanlings and broodmares of high quality offered at one time,” Bergstein said. “I anticipate they will sell very well.”

Leavitt said they are leaving the business, which once rivaled the state’s massive thoroughbred breeding industry, because “Kentucky is dead as a doornail for harness racing. You can’t compete down here.”

The move comes despite new breeders’ incentive efforts from the state that will put almost $2 million — generated from stud fees — back into harness racing to attract breeders to Kentucky. But Leavitt said it isn’t enough. That will generate about $200,000 in purses for perhaps eight races, one race each for 2-year-old and 3-year-old trotters and pacers, with filly and colt categories.

“People aren’t going to buy Kentucky-sired yearlings for one race,” Leavitt said. “There are a lot more races for a lot more money in other jurisdictions.”

A legacy of breeders

The farm was once part of the largest and most important breeder of standardbreds in the world. Its predecessor, Walnut Hall Farm, was founded in 1892 by Lamon V. Harkness, who began with 400 acres. Eventually, the farm would spread to more than 5,000 acres, 1,200 acres of which is now the Kentucky Horse Park.

After the death in 1986 of former world champion harness driver Katherine Harkness Edwards Nichols, Walnut Hall Farm was divided among her four daughters. Jewett owns Walnut Hall Ltd., while sister Kitty Sautter owns Walnut Hall Stock Farm and sister Martha Brown owns Dunroven Stud, both of which are active standardbred breeders. The fourth sister, Beth O’Keefe, sold her interest to Jewett.

The Walnut Hall mansion sits on Walnut Hall Ltd., behind the Horse Park. The house was built in 1852 after a fire destroyed the original structure. When Harkness, whose father was an early investor in Standard Oil, bought it 52 years later, he enlarged the house to 30 rooms, including nine bathrooms.

Renowned stallions

Other important stallions at Walnut Hall Ltd. have included Victory Dream, Valley Victory, Conway Hall, Garland Lobell, Pro Bono Best, Striking Sahbra, and Blissful Hall.

Walnut Hall Ltd. also stands Tom Ridge, the fastest trotter of all time, in Pennsylvania.

Walnut Hall Ltd. is the only farm to have bred four consecutive world-champion 2-year-old trotters: Andover Hall; the undefeated Cantab Hall, who earned more than $1 million at the racetrack; Banker Hall; and Conway Hall.

They also bred 2003 Hambletonian winner Amigo Hall.

After a run like that, walking away from the business will be sad, Leavitt said. “There’s a saying on the racetrack, ‘You have to know when the race is over.’”

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