Betty Merck: The Owner’s Owner

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“We could…” Richard Hutchinson and I learned early, don’t offer any choices. Back in the early 2000s, we took a group of Americans to England for stable visits, racing trips, dinners, drinks. It was a whirlwind. It was glorious. At the end of each night, we would offer choices…

“We could go for a night cap…”

“We could go to Jackdaws Castle in the morning…”

“We could squeeze in another day of racing…”

“We could go see a horse for sale…”

After every choice, Betty Merck would stand up, gently raise her hand and say, “I think we should…” The oldest person on the trip was the youngest at heart. Jet-lagged, tired from ushering Americans around Ludlow to Cheltenham, we wanted sleep. Merck wanted experiences.

Sadly, there won’t be any more experiences.

Elizabeth Mead Merck died April 3. She was 95.

A director of Far Hills Steeplechase and a former master of the Essex Fox Hounds, Merck was one of the best owners this sport will ever see – in statistics and spirit. Operating The Fields Stable with her son, Laddie, Merck was leading owner in 2009 when Your Sum Man and Left Unsaid turned a double at Far Hills. Beyond those two, Merck campaigned Brigade Of Guards, Approaching Squall, Wanganui and Guelph. The latter was champion filly/mare and champion novice in 2005 and filly/mare champion again in 2008. In a relatively short amount of time, the Fields Stable won big races and secured a prominent spot in the annals of the game.

Merck was born in Canada and moved to Lake Forest, Ill., as a young girl, learning about horses from her mother, who trained and rode horses in Illinois and Aiken, S.C. Merck showed horses, foxhunted, rode point-to-point races. She met George W. Merck at an Officer Candidate School dinner party in Chicago during World War II. The son of the chairman of the pharmaceutical company, Merck moved his company to New Jersey in the late 1940s. They raised three kids, Laddie, Josie and Tony.

Though she didn’t become an owner until 1996, Merck displayed the spirit of steeplechasing. She simply loved the sport, her horses, her team. She’s wasn’t pushy, but she wasn’t a pushover either. 

Tom Voss said it best after Your Sum Man and Left Unsaid turned the ultimate double in 2009, winning major races at Merck’s hometown meet.

“This is wonderful,” Voss said. “There’s no better owner, no better sport; she’s the perfect owner. She doesn’t tell you to run them, she says run them when you’re ready. She shows up at the point-to-points, goes to all the races, supports the whole thing, She deserves to win races like this.”

Merck admired the personalities, knew the score, rode the rollercoaster with humor and grace. The Fields Stable had one place for the horses, Tom and Mimi Voss’ Atlanta Hall Farm in Monkton, Md.

“Down deep, it’s been a great experience having a partnership with my youngest son, Laddie, and watching everyone else appreciate those wonderful animals,” Merck said in the championship edition of Steeplechase Times in 2009. “We’ve also all had the great pleasure of becoming great friends with the Vosses – it’s far more than a business relationship.”

Beyond horses, she was an elected member of the Bedminster Township Committee from 1975-89 and also served on boards and commissions including the Open Space Farmland Advisory Committee, the Lamington Conservancy, the New Jersey Nature Conservancy, Raritan Headwaters Association, the Lamington Conservancy and Miss Porter’s School.

Merck once explained why her children got her involved as an owner for her 75th birthday, in 1995. She’d been a big fan of the great Battleship, the American-owned Aintree Grand National winner of 1938, and the kids planned a steeplechase-themed gift – complete with a trip to Saratoga, where they met Voss, but there ws an ulterior motive to the gift. 

“I guess the idea was to see if I wouldn’t foxhunt so much,” Merck said in 2009. “They didn’t say so at the time because they knew it wouldn’t be very popular. I ride Approaching Squall and love to spend time with horses. I’m not going to stop now.”

In reality, Merck never did stop.

“We could…”

I think we should…

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. May 30 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 182 Main St., Gladstone, N.J. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Raritan Headwaters Association, or to Atlantic Home Care Hospice, 465 South St., Morristown, N.J., 07960.

For more, see Tod Marks Photo Gallery.