By Chris McGrath

His name runs like a seam of silver through the daily annals of the sport–an understated, patient presence to contrast with the brash, fleeting meteors among rival stables. Last weekend was typical: G. Watts Humphrey Jr. was listed as co-breeder of Dabster (Curlin), who ran Battle Of Midway (Smart Strike) to a neck in the GIII Native Diver S. at Del Mar on Sunday; and as owner of High Regard (Will Take Charge), third in the GII Golden Rod S. at Churchill the previous day.

True, the most exciting animal lately through his hands appears destined to benefit only his reputation, rather than his pocket. Humphrey co-bred Improbable (City Zip), who is due to test his status among the leading juveniles in the GI Los Alamitos Futurity S. this weekend, but unfortunately culled the dam five minutes after selling him as a weanling. But then however little Humphrey’s pocket might need a boost–relatively speaking, at any rate–then his reputation would need one even less.

Humphrey is one of the pillars of the modern American Turf. Until stepping down as chairman in the spring, he had served for more than 20 years on the board of Churchill Downs, Inc. He is a director of the Keeneland Association, has held multiple senior positions at the Breeders’ Cup, and served four terms as a Steward of the Jockey Club. The alphabet soup goes on–the NTRA, the American Horse Council–and far beyond racing, too: back in Pittsburgh, for instance, from the university to the symphony orchestra.

All this, of course, simply reflects those principles of public service long recognized by patricians as integral to privilege. “I think all of us involved in the horse business are obligated to try and look to its best interests,” Humphrey says with a shrug. “Some people would rather be in the racing side, on racetrack boards, some in breeding organizations, but all of us should give of our time and hopefully some wisdom.

“If you look at other sports–football has done it, soccer has done it–they’ve recognized it’s about entertainment, about the experience, and that state-of-the-art facilities are required as a result. That’s what they’ve done at Newmarket and Ascot, or in this country at Churchill Downs. Better experience turns into higher attendance, that turns into higher pools and it’s the betting that drives the whole engine. But as well as rebuilding our fan base, we have to get new owners into the business. And I think the partnerships are doing a very good job about that, offering excitement and hopefully success without the managerial responsibility.”

Needless to say, Humphrey also has to meet a more literal price for his passions. As such, all those responsibilities on the Turf have had been embraced alongside a lifetime at the helm of various industrial and investment enterprises. Certainly the scrupulous modesty of his bearing, combined with the quietness of his tone, gives no indication of the breadth of his accomplishment.

Sure, it is well known that Humphrey–as a partner in the St. Louis Cardinals–saw them win the 2011 World Series the day before he finished Keeneland’s fall meet as leading owner. But how many people know that he was the quarterback of the Yale football team and, after joining the Marine Corps on graduation in 1966, was ultimately awarded three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Navy Commendation Medal as a first lieutenant in Vietnam?

One thing you can guarantee: among those who do know, none will have discovered as much from Humphrey himself. “I started off as a platoon commander, and one day you became the company commander because you were the last one left!” he says, in wry effacement of his military record.

Neither Humphrey’s natural authority in the field, nor the sense of duty he has manifested in a private capacity since, can be considered the slightest surprise in view of his pedigree–his grandfather George M. Humphrey having served as Secretary of the Treasury under Eisenhower. But besides that willingness to serve, and a certain physical resemblance, there would be another very important legacy.

“It was my grandfather who really got me interested in racehorses,” Humphrey explains. “In fact, he took me to Saratoga for the first time when I was seven years old. We were very close and I spent quite a bit of time with him in Washington, and we’d go out to the farms in Virginia and, because my grandmother wasn’t that interested, to the races.”

Back in rural Ohio, his own household had been more oriented to show horses and foxhunters; but his aunt, Pansy Poe, had bought Shawnee Farm in Kentucky in 1939 and after the war began to broaden the family foothold in Thoroughbreds. After Secretary Humphrey left Washington in 1957, moreover, he bought Whileaway Farm and began to assemble what became a highly influential band of broodmares.

He died in 1970, bequeathing his grandson a first broodmare. Having just graduated from the Harvard Business School, Humphrey came to assist Pansy Poe in running Shawnee while beginning to race a few with his close friend Will Farish of Lane’s End. On Pansy’s death in 1978, Humphrey bought Shawnee from her estate and began developing his own stock, in partnership with his mother; another aunt, Pamela Firman; Farish; and Brereton Jones of Airdrie.

Another important mentor was Paul Mellon, who had been a close friend of Secretary Humphrey. As Humphrey started out, Mellon told him: “The only thing I can tell you about breeding that you may not already know is to be sure you don’t end up drowning in your own blood.”

In other words, as Humphrey clarifies: “Don’t wake up and find out you have a whole bunch of half-sisters to six winners that aren’t stakes winners.”

And that is the perennial balance he has sought to strike. In principle, the policy would otherwise be the standard one: race the fillies, sell the colts. Naturally that doesn’t always work out, and if, for instance, a colt of stallion potential fails to realize adequate value, Humphrey will try to get a racing partnership together. The other angle is to have a stake in maybe half the stallions they support, and he retains a strong relationship with Farish’s team at Lane’s End.

“I think you have to be on both sides,” Humphrey says. “Each year we’re probably breeding 55 mares but selling 10, because the core broodmare band is about 45, taking us down to around 38 foals–and the way we’ve set up the farm over the years is to accommodate those kind of numbers. Obviously the foundation females we’ll retire and keep. But even the mares that have been very good to us, when we get to three or four fillies out of them, we’ll probably sell either the mare or some of the daughters.”

Inevitably, that kind of pragmatism means that there will be the odd one that got away. Improbable’s performance in the Street Sense S., on the Breeders’ Cup undercard, left many wondering whether he might return to Churchill Downs next May. If so, Humphrey may come to regret allowing his dam Rare Event (A.P. Indy) to go to Calumet for $150,000 when in foal to Quality Road at the Keeneland November Sale in 2016–immediately after the weanling Improbable himself was sold for $110,000. But Rare Event had failed to muster any black type and an enterprise on this scale needs it efficiencies.

“I think you need to have some sound business plan of what you’re trying to do,” Humphrey observes. “From the time I first owned horses with Will Farish, we tried to run it as a business: here’s what the plan is, here’s what we’re trying to accomplish, and how are we doing against that? And just like anything in life, you measure how well you’re doing against your goals. But I do think of it as a first love. You have to operate it as a business but it’s really a sport for us, something enjoyed by our whole family and all our friends.”

And the real joy, to that extent, is in developing families. Rare Event was a ship that passed in the night. Some of his stock, in contrast, extends to an eighth generation lines developed by his own kin. Moreover Humphrey’s wife Sally has always been equally devoted to horses, while now their daughter Vicki Oliver trains for them as well.

Both Watts and Sally Humphrey, in fact, have bred a Classic winner. Genuine Risk, indeed, represented Sally’s debut as a breeder when (very aptly, in the circumstances) beating the boys in the 1980 Kentucky Derby.

“Sally would follow us around when we were buying yearlings, and one day said she’d like to have a mare of her own,” recalls Humphrey. “So I said: ‘Okay, for your 30th birthday I’ll buy you a mare, but you have to pick the pedigree, you have to go find her, and you have to do the bidding.’ And she could have $30,000, to match her birthday. So she bid to 30–but then stopped. There were two more bids. And then I came in and bid! The mare had her colt [in utero] and then when we bred her to Exclusive Native, the result was Genuine Risk.”

Five years late Humphrey himself was responsible (in partnership with Aunt Pamela) for Belmont winner Crème Fraiche. “She was out of Likely Exchange, who won the Grade I Delaware H.,” Humphrey explains. “She was a wonderful mare we raced until she was seven, in fact she was carrying Crème Fraiche in her last race at Keeneland.”

What made Likely Exchange so special was the fact the she was a great-granddaughter of a mare bought by Secretary Humphrey. Another of her foals to win at Grade I level was Dream Deal (Sharpen Up {GB})–in turn dam of Clear Mandate (Deputy Minister), a coast-to-coast achiever and also an important mare in her own right. She died in 2011 after delivering Strong Mandate (Tiznow), himself winner of the GI Hopeful S. and now standing at Three Chimneys.

“Clear Mandate was one of our favorite horses,” Humphrey says. “She did something few mares have ever been able to do, winning Grade Is at a mile, a mile and an eighth, and a mile and a quarter. To me, that’s how you judge a great horse: if they can win at seven-eighths when they’re young, and then go through like that, it’s an owner’s dream.”

Clear Mandate was trained by Humphrey’s longstanding ally “Rusty” Arnold. “Rusty is not only a very good horseman but a very good friend,” Humphrey says. “He started training for us in 1991, almost 30 years ago now. His attention is always on the horse’s best interests; he takes time to develop them, which is our style, too. For Rusty, it’s not a numbers game. Some trainers maybe treat them all the same, and the ones that survive win under that regime. Our whole programme is to develop each horses as an individual, to the utmost of their ability.”

It is not just in his standards of horsemanship, however, that Humphrey belongs to the old school. As they say, you can take the boy out of the Marines but you can’t take the Marines out of the boy. And while reluctant to dwell on his military distinctions, Humphrey is too courteous to deny that Vietnam left its scars–both on the nation, and those who served there–and too immune to cynicism not to suggest the positives that could also be derived from the experience.

“I think the way I’d phrase it is that you learn to live with it, but you never really get over it,” he says of what he saw. “But probably the most important lesson the Marine Corps teaches you is teamwork. Everybody has to pull their oar, if you will. To contribute to the team. Some will lead; some will be the specialists; but everyone will be part of the team. And that’s true in business, it’s true in everything.”

Humphrey duly applied this same philosophy in corporate life; even in labour relations. He has an interesting story about one of his steel enterprises in Pittsburgh, during a tough period for the industry in the mid-1980s: how the board resolved that the best way to prevent militant union action making the situation worse was to render unions unnecessary.

“So everybody was a salaried worker, from the janitor to the chairman,” he explains. “There were no layoffs, we were in it together and we’d hold out. And there were some very interesting remuneration systems: bonuses were paid on a monthly basis, but everybody got it or nobody got it. And we decided what should be accomplished on a monthly basis, as well, as opposed to the eight-hour turns [used elsewhere] in the industry at that point, which didn’t build teamwork. And the final piece of the puzzle: a profit-sharing plan. Again, on a monthly basis. And for the lowest person on the floor to earn the same dollar amount as the chairman.

“When business was down, sometimes for weeks, they’d be out painting the lines in the parking lot. But they were still working, and their pay was the same. Obviously bonuses weren’t, because we weren’t producing the same amount of steel. But they all understood that. They knew that if we were going to succeed, we were going to succeed together. It was a wonderful experience, and worked great for everybody.”

This mild, dignified septuagenarian becomes quite animated by the memory. On the one hand, Humphrey comes over as a realist, who knows that every walk of life requires tough decisions–whether in the pursuit of pleasure or profit. He also knows these are again divided times in America. But he has seen those before; and the one resource everyone needs in this game, besides funds, is a still deeper well of optimism.

“I’m very optimistic about this country, and about all our allies,” he says, with a calm firmness. “And about what can be done, by going back to working together, to co-operation, to understanding what’s for the greater good.”

By the same token, what he values most in horses cannot, you suspect, be very different from what he most values in people. “Good horses obviously come in all different shapes and sizes,” he says. “But I think the most important characteristic, in the best, is heart–that, and a sound mind.”

And if we apply the same criteria, then three Purple Hearts and that story of Pittsburgh steel together permit no doubt that here is a man of authentic Grade I caliber.


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