11/08/2012 1:58PM

Breeders' Cup 2012: Fateful purchase of mare impacts racing

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The influential broodmare Ballantrae at the farm of French breeder Marcel Boussac, who purchased her from Clarence Mackay in 1918.

Historians often refer to the early 20th century as the “Progressive Era,” a rather bland moniker considering the chaotic turbulence and high drama accompanying that period. In fact, those years represented a fast-paced, hair-raising time of war, revolution, and global pandemics, of political assassins and spies, extreme weather, monster earthquakes, rampaging social unrest, radical reform, brilliant innovation, horseless carriages, flying machines, and pictures that moved. Exhilarating, but often confusing and scary, this brave new world was not one into which everyone could segue seamlessly.

Such an outlier was New York capitalist Clarence Hungerford Mackay, a titan of business and owner of champion racehorses. Like poet Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” Mackay appeared to have it all − status, wealth, fame, family − but the swiftly changing tides of history tore relentlessly and without mercy at the private life of this very private man.

Mackay was born into money in 1874 – ridiculous, over-the-top, rolling-in-dough affluence, as the only surviving son of Comstock Lode partner-turned-telegraph magnate John William Mackay. During his youth, he traipsed across Europe with his adventurous mother, played a little polo, dabbled casually in the family cable business, and in 1898, married into American royalty. His wife, Katherine Duer, was a spirited debutante from the very highest stratosphere of genteel society, the granddaughter of Saratoga Race Course founder William Travers, descendant of several signers of the Constitution, and according to the Chicago Chronicle, the “prettiest woman in America.”

Life was good and getting better. When the senior Mackay unexpectedly died abroad in 1902, Clarence found himself in control of a $500 million inheritance and a burgeoning global network of telegraph cable companies. He rose quickly to the challenge, transitioning within two years from coddled dabbler to constructor of the first trans-Pacific cable system between the United States and the Far East.

A roller-coaster life

Before his 30th birthday Mackay was widely recognized as a man on an upward trajectory, with every duck aligned in an oh-so-perfect row. It was at that point he decided to emulate other wealthy, red-blooded American males of the time by investing heavily in art and Thoroughbreds.

Mackay had previously campaigned champions Banastar and Trigger, but now joined such high-flyers as banker August Belmont II and Wall Street giant James R. Keene in the breeding end of the business. His early acquisitions included a 5-year-old English-bred mare named Ballantrae, purchased privately from the estate of financier William Collins Whitney. Though no public record was made, she must have cost dearly, as two years prior the daughter of Epsom Derby winner Ayrshire had beaten male contemporaries in England’s marquee Cambridgeshire Stakes.

Yet even as Ballantrae joined the ranks of Mackay’s bloodstock holdings, things were unraveling for the telegraph titan. In the early aughts, Katherine Mackay began embarrassing him with her increasingly outspoken support of women’s suffrage. At age 34 in 1908, he was diagnosed with cancer, surviving only because of the skill of noted surgeon Joseph Blake − the very same Dr. Blake who soon after ran off to Paris with Mrs. Mackay. Within weeks, humiliation piled onto despair as the good doctor’s abandoned wife initiated a spectacular million-dollar “alienation of affection” suit against Katherine, thus dragging the Mackay name through acres of tabloid mud.

So when anti-wagering legislation halted New York racing at this precise point in time and threatened to destroy America’s breeding industry, Mackay flew into a blind rage and summarily packed his Thoroughbreds off to France, one and all.

With his horses and soon-to-be ex-wife overseas, Mackay was left on his own in New York raising three children under the age of 10, a job that presented extraordinary challenges. In 1926, Mackay’s gifted but defiant middle child, Ellin, further mortified her devoutly Roman Catholic father by falling for what he deemed a highly unsuitable man − an immigrant, an orthodox Jew, a musician. Mackay flipped out and declared to the world that his daughter would marry this son of a poultry inspector only over his dead body; when that threat failed to dissuade his headstrong girl, he disinherited her.

Mackay would be wiped out three years later in the stock market crash. Though he had by then divested himself of Thoroughbreds, this financial insult led to the sale of priceless art and medieval armor collections. He eventually regained some of his footing, but only through the kindness of his once-despised son-in-law, Irving Berlin.

Enduring influence

The life of Clarence Mackay was filled with romance and betrayal, wealth, loss, and scandal − truly the stuff of novels. But how, one might legitimately ask, is this man even remotely relevant to the Thoroughbred world of 2012? It all hinges on that chance, long-ago purchase of Ballantrae.

Horse racing had returned to New York by 1913, but Mackay’s sporting spirit never did. His bloodstock remained abroad until 1918, when he sold aging Ballantrae to a young French breeder named Marcel Boussac. The rest he brought home to disperse at Saratoga in August 1919, including Ballantrae’s stakes-winning daughter Balancoire II, who was hammered down for $11,000 to Harry Payne Whitney.

Herein lies the tale. A trio of Balancoire II’s daughters − Balance (1919), Swinging (1922), and Escarpolette (1917) − would go on to exert a profound genetic influence at the very highest levels of the sport. Swinging and Balance became the dam and grandam of Racing Hall of Fame champions Equipoise and Seabiscuit, and Escarpolette’s great-grandson Intentionally emerged as a sire of lasting import. Yet another of Ballantrae’s daughters − Coeur a Coeur (1921, by Teddy) − produced for Boussac the dam of 1942 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner and premier French sire Djebel.

This platinum blood continues to flow freely through distant arterial avenues of pedigrees containing such names as Seattle Slew, A.P. Indy, Gone West, Buckpasser, Tom Fool, In Reality, Never Bend, Mill Reef, Olden Times, Kingmambo, Riverman, Sadler’s Wells, Unbridled, Tapit, Affirmed, Carson City, Crafty Prospector, Toussaud, and Dixieland Band − horses whose influence has rippled outward across the industry landscape like a stone skimming water.

Last week’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up and recent Vosburgh Invitational Stakes victor, The Lumber Guy, traces in direct distaff line 11 generations back to Ballantrae, though most modern Thoroughbreds carry her name through more circuitous routes, from mother to son to daughter, and so forth.

Be that as it may, not one of the current crop of 15 Breeders’ Cup winners lacks the presence of Ballantrae in his or her extended family tree. Sprint winner Trinniberg and Dirt Mile hero Tapizar carry five crosses each of the 19th-century mare; Little Mike and George Vancouver − who triumphed in the Turf and Juvenile Turf − have five; Shanghai Bobby (Juvenile), Beholder (Juvenile Fillies), Mizdirection (Turf Sprint), and Hightail (Juvenile Sprint) − four; Royal Delta (Ladies’ Classic), Wise Dan (Mile), and Zagora (Filly and Mare Turf) − three; Flotilla (Juvenile Fillies Turf) − two; and Fort Larned (Classic), Calidoscopio (Marathon), and Groupie Doll (Filly & Mare Sprint) − one each.

Clearly, had Clarence Hungerford Mackay not acquired Ballantrae in 1904 − nor sold her to Boussac in 1918 − racing’s landscape would look very different today. Call it happenchance or a serendipitous confluence of circumstance and fate − which is, after all, what has propelled most of history. But however it happened, and why, we owe a profound debt of gratitude to a star-crossed gentleman of an earlier time and place, who brought an equine family to America and changed a global industry forever.

Epilogue: Katherine Duer eventually divorced Dr. Blake and returned to America in 1929 in hopes of reuniting with her ex-husband, but she died of cancer soon after at age 50. In 1931, Mackay married opera star Anna Case, who had recorded early phonograph “tone tests” for Thomas Edison. Case proved more true than Duer had been, standing steadfastly at her husband’s side throughout the Great Depression and during his recurring battle with cancer, right up to his death in 1938. Despite Mackay’s initial horror at their union, Ellin and Irving Berlin remained a loving couple for 62 years, until her 1988 death. Berlin, who had written the song “Always” for Ellin as a 1926 profession of love, was lost without his soulmate and followed her to his grave just more than a year later.