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Kentucky Farm Time Capsule: Mereworth Farm
While some major racing and breeding operations like Elmendorf were names that shifted control and ownership over time, others, like Mereworth Farm in Central Kentucky, were strictly one-family endeavors. Walter Salmon Sr., a real estate mogul from New ...
This week, we continue our series exploring the history behind some of racing's most famous farm/racing stable namesLast week, we studied the background of Elmendorf Farm, which occupied several tracts of land north of Lexington, Ky.
While some major racing and breeding operations like Elmendorf were names that shifted control and ownership over time, others, like Mereworth Farm in Central Kentucky, were strictly one-family endeavors.
Walter Salmon Sr., a real estate mogul from New York, began racing horses in 1918 and acquired the property he named Mereworth between Lexington and Midway soon afterSalmon's preferred tactic in real estate was to lease rather than purchase, and it had served him well in businessThe portfolio he started with a leased property at the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue expanded into holdings that covered much of midtown Manhattan, including Salmon Tower, the now-iconic structure he constructed in the late 1920sHe applied the same philosophy to Mereworth, leasing much of the land rather than purchasing it.
Unlike many other empires, which raced some or all of their homebreds, Salmon decided in 1931 he was no longer interested in seeing his own silks on the racetrack and preferred to focus on commercial breedingHe leased his remaining horses in training to Adolphe Pons and concentrated on breeding sale horses.
Mereworth enjoyed success as a breeder of racehorses and sale prospectsIts greatest claim to fame was Display, who started an astonishing 103 times, earning more than $256,000 and becoming one of Mereworth's three Preakness winners (in addition to Vigil and DrFreeland)Display went on to become known as a sire of horses almost as durable as he was, with the most famous being Discovery, top sire for Alfred Vanderbilt's Sagamore Farm and eventual Horse of the Year and Hall of Fame inductee.
Additional top horses under Salmon's supervision included Annapolis, Battleship, Dark Discovery, Snowflake, Sunglow (sire of Sword Dancer), and Education, among 93 stakes winners.
In the sales arena, Mereworth sold a record-breaking filly – a full sister to champion filly and eventual Hall of Fame inductee Twilight Tear – for $60,000 in 1951.
An undated file photo of Mereworth Farm
Salmon had no issue with thinking outside the box when it came to innovation for his new commercial businessIn 1932, when he noticed auction prices for fillies had dropped significantly, he advertised three of the stallions standing at Mereworth as having fees payable only if they produced coltsHe recognized the value of genetics in breeding and reportedly spent $250,000 in the 1920s to fund a project at the Eugenics Records Office of the Carnegie Institution at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, N.Y., looking for a formula to predict the potential of a given matchAllegedly, the formula researchers created proved successful but ultimately “too complicated for general usage.”
Salmon was a problem-solver, if a frustrated one, when it came to some health issues in his herdHe recognized the dangers of parasites for horses, and before the advent of phenothiazine for worming, apparently tied leather bags to his mares' tails, hoping to catch manure before it hit the ground and contaminated his pastures(Shockingly, this didn't work.) Once phenothiazine was on the market, Mereworth was one of the first farms to use it in low doses to address the problem.
A 1955 photo of yearlings at Mereworth
Like any good businessman, Salmon was also interested in diversificationMereworth grew corn, wheat, and a special low nicotine variety of tobacco during his administrationIt also gained one of Kentucky's larger populations of breeding stock for beef cattle, and was one of the only farms at the time to test out cross-breeding among its Angus, Hereford, and Charolais cows.
As Salmon's involvement in the commercial business grew, so did unrest among Kentucky breeders when travel restrictions during World War II made it more difficult for them to transport yearlings to Saratoga for auctionSalmon gathered with other Kentucky horsemen to establish the Breeders' Sales Company, which started Keeneland's legendary July yearling sale, and which ultimately became part of the Keeneland AssociationThe sale's first edition sold eventual Kentucky Derby winner Hoop Jr.
Mereworth rose to leading breeder by earnings in 1946, and continued its dominance when ranked by wins for seven seasons, until Salmon's death on Christmas Day 1953.
Upon his death, Walter Salmon Jrtook over his father's Mereworth Farm, which by then had swelled to 3,200 acres on different tractsSalmon Jrcontinued Mereworth's success as a breeder and took a particular interest in stallion syndicationsHe was involved in deals on Nashua, Tom Rolfe, DrFager, Buckpasser, Never Bend, Damascus, and Secretariat, among othersMereworth bred another 50-odd stakes winners during Salmon Jr.'s reign, including Palace Music, sire of CigarSalmon Jralso seemed to carry on his father's interest in the role of science in farm management, as president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation for 13 years and member of the fundraising committee for the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center.
The younger Salmon did reverse course in one way, however; in the 1960s, he determined it was no longer financially feasible to purchase young broodmare prospects for his band and returned to racing as a way to test out young fillies' genetic potentialDuring this time, Mereworth sent its mares to outside stallions Salmon was involved with, rather than standing its own.
Salmon Jrdied in 1986 and Mereworth dispersed much of its stock at public auction throughout that year, alongside Spendthrift's liquidationWalter Sr.'s granddaughter, Susan Salmon Donaldson, inherited the property and kept control of it until 2011Before her death, the remaining 1,200 acres of Mereworth were preserved as a sanctuary for unwanted equids and retired racehorsesNew Vocations Thoroughbred Adoption is in the process of constructing its new base on the former MereworthThere are 220 horses on the property, 50 of which are adoptable through New Vocations.
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