12/27/2002 12:00AM

Greenfields tradition can live on

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New Jersey's Thoroughbred industry lost a key player when longtime breeder-owner William A. Purdey died in September at age 65. But if Purdey's widow, Frances, has her way, the grand old family farm, Greenfields in Colts Neck, N.J., established by Purdey's grandfather in 1937, will not disappear from the landscape any time soon.

"There's a lot of pressure from developers for the land," said Frances Purdey. "But I see this as a stronghold. We have established clients who like to breed and race in New Jersey.

"My husband enjoyed every day on this farm, and that has become my mantra," added Purdey, who looks forward to the day when the couple's two children, Mary, 17, and Billy, 15, take a bigger role in maintaining the farm.

Greenfields, now comprising about 100 acres, has spawned many good runners. The most famous recent stars are Spruce Fir, the 1987 New Jersey-bred horse of the year and fourth-generation homebred who carried Bill Purdey's colors to victory in a dozen stakes, earning $698,703, and 1991 Triple Crown contender Dance Floor, whom Purdey sold for $90,000 at a Keeneland yearling sale.

Bill Purdey struggled with severe health problems for nearly a year until his death, yet he managed to leave the farm operation in ship-shape condition, said Frances, who plans no major changes for the upcoming breeding season.

Two young, commercially viable stallions arrived at Greenfields in 2002, and both will continue to hold court there next year. They are Dennis Drazin's Mr. Nugget (by Mr. Prospector) and Fort Wayne, a son of Seattle Slew belonging to Menotti Lembo.

Mr. Nugget, a winning three-quarter brother to champions Hector Protector and Bosra Sham, covered almost 30 mares in his first season at stud in 2002. Many of his first foals will be born at Greenfields.

Fort Wayne, out of a half-sister to major sire Miswaki, had his first crop race in 2001.

The total horse population at Greenfields now numbers about 40, and will nearly double during the breeding season. Five of the horses are farm-owned, including two broodmares.

"I'm very fortunate in having good people helping me," Purdey said. "And I must especially mention Rick Abbott [of Pennsylvania-based Charlton bloodstock agency] who had a strong working relationship with Bill for many years."

The horse business had been Bill Purdey's full-time occupation since 1967, when he inherited Greenfields from his mother, Mary Purdey. Her father, William A. LaBoyteaux, established the farm as his private enclave 30 years earlier.

LaBoyteaux, who was also instrumental in the establishment of the modern-day Fasig-Tipton firm, was one of the most influential racing men of his era. And it is through his breeding acumen that Greenfields became the birthplace of Imperatrice, maternal granddam of Secretariat.

In addition to running his own farm, Bill Purdey was a two-term president of the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association of New Jersey (in the late 1980's and early 1990's) and a member of The Jockey Club (since the late 1970's).

The sense of history is never far from Fran Purdey's mind, as she walks through the snow-covered pastures at Greenfields.

"Meeting Bill was a Cinderella story," she said. A schoolteacher for some 15 years, she attended the races at The Meadowlands one evening when Purdey happened to be running a horse. A casual conversation between racing fan and owner gradually led to something more serious, and Bill Purdey - until then a confirmed bachelor - married for the first time at age 46.

"Right now we're just holding on to the past, and hoping for a better future for New Jersey racing," Fran Purdey said.