01/16/2009 1:00AM

Horse crazy at 8, Eclipse winner at 83


With the announcement this week that Alice Headley Chandler will be honored with the Eclipse Award of Merit, two of the last three winners now have been women. What's the game coming to?

Do not be alarmed, though. It's hardly a trend. Before this year, the Award of Merit had been presented 31 times, and women were rarely invited. The exceptions included Beverly Lewis, who was honored alongside her husband, Robert, in 1997, and any women who may have been referred to under the category "The Cella Family" in 2004. Penny Chenery was the first woman to stand alone and accept the award at the 2006 ceremonies.

It is a difficult process to understand, beyond its habitual maleness, since there was no Award of Merit designated last year, when Alice Chandler was every bit as deserving as she is this time around. But never mind. Let's instead follow the lead of radio commentator Thom Hartmann, who from time to time likes to "catch people doing something right," instead of wrong. Nice going, Eclipse Awards.

Chandler joins a list of notables that includes Paul Mellon, Frank E. Kilroe, Alfred Vanderbilt, John Gaines, and Richard Duchossois, along with regular blue-collar guys like Bill Shoemaker, Jim McKay, John Nerud, and Joe Hirsch. Had Chandler's father, Hal Price Headley, lived long enough, he would have won one, too. It was his death, at age 73 in 1962, that launched the career of his daughter Alice as force to be reckoned with in the Thoroughbred world. The fact that she was a woman did not seem to faze her at all.

"I never really thought about it," Chandler said. "When Dad went, it never crossed my mind to turn it loose."

The Award of Merit winner is married to Dr. John Chandler, president of Juddmonte Farm's North American division. She googles impressively, as does her father, who was the first president of the Keeneland Association and bred horses like champion Menow and his dam, a gold vein of a broodmare named Alcibiades (named, in a roundabout way, for daughter Alice). Chandler took her inherited corner of the family's Beaumont Farm, near Lexington, leased more acreage from her brother and a sister, and over the years developed Mill Ridge Farm into one of Kentucky's finest nurseries.

But the Award of Merit, when it goes to a breeder, is not meant to honor mere commercial husbandry. Chandler's influence has reached far beyond the rolling meadows of her farm, into the boardrooms and the halls of legislature, as a tireless advocate for the best the game can offer.

As one of Kentucky's first citizens, Chandler has on her desk a letter from the governor, asking her to name the commissions on which she would like to serve. This comes with a warning, though, since Chandler takes such tasks seriously, and rarely fails to speak her mind.

In recent years she has risen to the issue of greater control of racehorse medication, a cause that made sense for someone who also served as chairman of the University of Kentucky Equine Research Foundation, as a member of the Equine Drug Council and a director of the Gluck Research Center. Kentucky's begrudging medication reforms, bringing the state in line with most of the rest of the country, are owed in large part to Chandler's steady pressure.

"My first thought is always for the good of the horse, and whatever we have to do to see that it happens," she said Friday from Mill Ridge, the day after celebrating her 83rd birthday. "That's what has led me through the years."

When it is introduced on the evening of the Eclipse dinner, the Award of Merit usually brings down the house. Because it is intended to recognize a life's worth of achievement and service to the sport, the winner stands apart from the other happy souls being lauded for a single season's fine work.

On Jan. 26 at the Fontainbleau Resort in Miami Beach, the audience - both live and via TVG - at least should be aware that the petite, elegant woman before them is the fourth of five girls in a Headley brood of six, who was recognized as completely horse crazy early by her father and lived up to the description every waking day, or at least until her mother thought it was a good idea for young Alice to go away to Ethel Walters boarding school in Connecticut.

"I'd try to ride every yearling on the farm," she said, a little amazed at her own bravado. "I would ride to Keeneland on my pony. Can you imagine riding down Versailles Road now? Lexington was a pretty peaceful place back then. I even took Dad's car and went to town one night when they'd gone out for dinner, and I was 8 years old."

And though the barn brat grew up into a graceful wife, mother, and industry leader, Chandler still savors the tale of jockey William "Smokey" Saunders, winner of the Triple Crown aboard Omaha and a regular aboard the Headley runners.

"I got him hooked up in a crap game one day up at the barn," Alice said. "Took his car, everything he had except his clothes, then drove his car up to the house. Daddy wouldn't let me keep it."

Instead, she kept the farm . . . and the promise that went with it.