Champion Owner: The Fields Stable

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ST profiled the steeplechase champions in its December edition and will re-run those articles here.

Your Sum Man and Left Unsaid won the biggest races in the program at Far Hills Oct. 17, rewarding owner Betty Merck with $210,000 in prize money, a big day at her home course and praise from trainer Tom Voss.

“This is wonderful,” he 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 when you’re ready. She shows up to the point-to-points, goes to all the races, supports the whole thing. She deserves to win races like this.”

Far Hills propelled Merck’s The Fields Stable to the 2009 NSA owner championship, in a $3,975 photo finish with Irv Naylor. The Fields, named for Merck’s Bedminster, N.J. home, campaigned just five horses who made 14 starts, won four times and earned $292,000. Irish import Your Sum Man won the Grand National and placed second in the horse standings with $150,000. Former Bobby Frankel pupil Left Unsaid won the first-year novice championship and earned $137,700 to finish third.

But don’t think Merck simply got lucky for one year. Soon to be 90, she has been a horsewoman for her entire life – riding, showing, foxhunting, competing. She didn’t own a racehorse until 1996, but she rode in point-to-points at 50 and is still a master of the Essex Foxhounds near her home.

Racehorses became a part of the equation as part of her 75th birthday in 1995.

Merck’s family created a whirlwind present that included a trip to Saratoga, a day of racing with box seats, a cocktail party at the National Museum of Racing and – eventually – an introduction to Voss. Merck’s favorite horse growing up was Battleship, the American-bred who won the English Grand National at Aintree in 1938, and he was part of the birthday equation as well.

“We dreamed this whole business up as a way to get her to scale back all the riding,” said Merck’s daughter Josie. “We gave her a surprise birthday party, did all this research  we could on him, dressed my daughter up as (jockey) Bruce Hobbs, the whole thing. The big present, though, was the trip to Saratoga.”

The idea of owning part of a steeplechase horse – one that could run at Far Hills – bounced in and out of discussions too with Josie Merck making a few phone calls but coming up empty.

“We knew nothing of the process,” she said. “How do you own part of a horse? We thought it would be something Mom would like and maybe she’d stop foxhunting if we got her involved as an owner. I talked to Sandy Cassatt for a bit about it, but we couldn’t make it happen.”

On the birthday trip to Saratoga, the Mercks attended a cocktail party at the museum that exhibited a famous painting of Battleship. They wound up in a discussion with Phil and Bunny Hathaway, who campaigned horses with Voss.

“Are you involved as owners?” Josie Merck asked the Hathaways.

“Yes we are; you should meet our trainer,” replied the Hathaways, who participated in the Phoenix Stable partnership.

The next morning at 6, the Mercks went to Voss’ Saratoga barn to watch horses train.

“I don’t think Tom said a word,” recalled Josie.

By November, The Fields Stable owned its first horse – Brigade Of Guards, a purchase from the Paul Mellon dispersal.  He raced the next season – in the stable’s green and brown silks – and won seven career races and earned $216,269. He also kick-started a string that has included Approaching Squall, Lapseng, Equistar, Guelph and the 2009 stars. In 14 seasons, The Fields (which includes Merck’s son Laddie and, sometimes, Voss’ wife Mimi, as partners) has earned $1,126,152.

And Merck still foxhunts.

“I guess the idea was to see if I wouldn’t foxhunt so much,” she said. “They didn’t actually say so at the time because they knew it wouldn’t be very popular. I ride Approaching Squall (the 1998 NSA novice champion and earner of more than $125,000) and love to spend time with horses. I’m not going to stop now.”

In addition to Approaching Squall, former Merck horses Lapseng and Raider Brigade regularly hunt with Essex as staff horses.

Betty (Mead) Merck was born in Canada and moved to Lake Forest, Ill. as a young girl. She got her horsemanship from her mother, who trained and rode in Illinois and also in Aiken, S.C. Josie Merck said her parents met at an Officer Candidate School dinner party in Chicago during World War II. George W. Merck, the son of the chairman of the pharmaceutical company, Merck served in the Navy during the war and moved his family to New Jersey in the late 1940s. He worked for the family company until 1956 and later held positions with the New York Zoological Society, which owns the Bronx Zoo and was the executive director of the United States Equestrian Team, based in Gladstone, N.J.

George Merck, who died in 1984, and his wife raised three children – Tony, Laddie and Josie – and moved to The Fields in the early 1950s. The farm has always been home to horses, dogs, enviable gardens and a hard-working diminutive horsewoman who found time to hold an elected position on the Bedminster Township Committee (her campaign slogan: Put Betty to Work for You). In addition to Approaching Squall, she rides an old Ford tractor around the property.

Through it all, Betty Merck maintains a grace and a sense of style. She smiles broadly when the horses win and refuses to frown when they lose. She’s experienced great success (Brigade Of Guards, Approaching Squall, Guelph, Your Sum Man, Left Unsaid) and great sadness (the death of Perfect Match at Saratoga in 2000).

She also appreciates the experience of her involvement in the sport.

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

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