The thoroughbred racing industry is dominated by men and the state of Kentucky. Or is it? Meet a few Virginia women who, with their smarts and their passion, have made a mark on the sport of kings.
Robb Scharetg | ScharetgPictures.com
Horse racing, long known as the Sport of Kings, is something of a peripheral sport in America’s mass-market sports culture. And yet, every May, in the days leading up to the famed Kentucky Derby, it commands our attention. The nation is overcome with horse racing fever. Even the most casual of fans selects his or her favorite horse in the Run for the Roses, horse racing’s crown jewel in the Triple Crown series. Some find a name they like; others are impressed by a horse’s performance statistics; still others become enamored with the look of a particular horse, and some just get a feeling they are looking at a champion.
Thoroughbred horse racing was born in Virginia. The first Thoroughbred horse, Bulle Rock, was imported from Europe in 1730, to Hanover County. George Washington managed a track in Alexandria and trained racehorses at Mt. Vernon. Sir Archy, the first great Thoroughbred stallion in the country, was born and bred in Virginia in 1805 and became one of the greatest runners of his day.
Over time, the business of horse racing faded in Virginia. Other states, with prominent tracks, stepped to the fore—Kentucky in particular, home of Churchill Downs, Keeneland and Turfway Park. New York (famous for Saratoga Springs and Belmont Park), California (known for Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Delmar) and Florida (Gulfstream) also established themselves as centers of the racing industry. In 1997, with the opening of Colonial Downs, near Williamsburg, Thoroughbred horse racing returned to Virginia.
Many Virginians have made their mark on the sport over the years, producing Derby winners, stakes winners and other champions, none more famous, of course, than The Meadow Stable’s 1973 Triple Crown winner, Secretariat. Like every great horse, Secretariat had a stellar team behind him—including the breeder, owner, trainer and jockey.
Historically, racing has been a sport largely dominated by men. However, if recent decades are any indication, women, and in particular a talented group of Virginia women, are rewriting the history of Thoroughbred horse racing. For some, it’s a family legacy; they’ve taken up where their forebears left off, making their own marks in the history books. Others have started from square one and have built a successful business.
Peggy Augustus, Nellie Mae Cox and Debbie Easter, whom we profile here—along with one particularly special icon, Penny Chenery—are all passionate about Thoroughbreds. Cox is successful breeder, as was Augustus before her retirement. Easter got her start in breeding and is currently making a name for herself as a bloodstock agent. Each has a keen eye for equine talent in a business that is notoriously fickle. None of them can imagine a life without horses. Whether breeding, buying or racing Thoroughbred horses, they have produced and selected champions. Some might say they’ve been lucky, others might call it intuition. In the world of racing, these are women with the Midas touch.
READ THE PROFILES:
Originally published June 2008