In September 1961, Betsy Roosevelt went to the Fair Hill Races, and saw jump jockey Ronnie Houghton win the Cecil County Steeplechase aboard Trout Line.
“I was so proud to know somebody who won a race at Fair Hill,” Betsy said Tuesday of her then future husband who died Sunday at age 79. Houghton bred, owned and trained Thoroughbreds, was a father to four children and a grandfather to 11. The Pennsylvanian leaves behind a long legacy and, though he’ll be missed, not a lot of pain.
“I’m sad, but I’m great too,” said Betsy, who married Ronnie a little more than a year after that day at Fair Hill. “He was the luckiest person. He had the three things he always wanted – the farm, me and the kids – everything he ever wanted.”
The Houghtons, routinely among the leading breeders in Pennsylvania for years, own Sylmar Farm (first on Sylmar Road in Rising Sun, Md. and later in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County) and produced standouts Princess Of Sylmar, Banjo Picker and Whistle Pig – the latter two as breeders. The 300-acre farm foals mares, raises babies, breaks yearlings, preps racehorses on its racetrack and even finds time and space for 50-head of cattle. It was Ronnie Houghton’s pride and joy, behind (or alongside) Betsy and the children.
“We try to do a very, very good job . . .” Ronnie said in 2010 while describing the Sylmar philosophy. “We’ve got a pretty nice reputation. Or clients appreciate what we do for them. We raise a pretty nice, tough individual. Too many horses are what I call hot-house raised.”
There were no delicate flowers at Sylmar, though Princess Of Sylmar grew into a Grade 1-winning, $2 million earner for Sylmar client Ed Stanco. The Majestic Warrior filly was born and broken at Sylmar – Betsy Houghton walks by her stall every day – and went on to win nine of 15 for trainer Todd Pletcher. She broke her maiden at Penn National, but pressed on to win the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama and Beldame in 2013. At the end of it all, she sold for $3.1 million as a broodmare prospect and resides in Japan.
“We liked her, but we never thought she was great,” said Betsy Houghton, who added that Sylmar’s young horses rarely get saddled with high expectations. “We treated her like any other horse and that had to help her grow up. We went to Saratoga and Belmont to see her run, saw her run a lot. It’s still hard to believe.”
Born in New Jersey, Ronnie Houghton grew up near Newtown Square, Pa., where his parents worked on the Wetherill family’s Happy Hill Farm. He and Betsy first met in pony club. He got a two-year degree at Penn State and went to work for trainer Ridgely White in Virginia. Houghton rode Trout Line, who was trained by future Hall of Famer Sidney Watters Jr., to four consecutive timber wins in 1961 – at Fair Hill, Rolling Rock, Monmouth County and Far Hills. Houghton also won the Carolina Cup, then a timber race, that year aboard Ingo.
By the mid-1960s, Ronnie Houghton was a trainer on the steeplechase circuit and quickly found success, while bouncing from Pennsylvania to South Carolina with a stable of horses. He won 15 jump races in 1968, placing fourth behind Hall of Famers Mikey Smithwick, Burley Cocks and Mickey Walsh, and ahead of another young trainer Jonathan Sheppard.
In 1970, the year Ronnie and Betsy bought the original Sylmar – a few miles west of Fair Hill near the Pennsylvania/Maryland border – in Maryland, Houghton won 20 races (second only to Sheppard’s 21) including a dozen for main owner Henry Elser. Early standouts in the barn included The Critter and stakes winner Summer Crop. By the 1980s, Pala Mountain and Le Sauteur led the way on the steeplechase side – though the stable branched in all directions and topped 30 wins for nine consecutive seasons from 1984-92. Le Sauteur won the New York Turf Writers Cup in 1986, the Grand National in 1985 and Monmouth Park’s Midsummer Hurdle Handicap in 1984.
The Houghtons’ son Bernie won the National Steeplechase Association jockey championship in 1985, a year in which Le Sauteur led the earnings list over eventual champion Flatterer.
Turf horse Crystal Moment gave Ronnie Houghton his only graded stakes victory, in the 1990 Fort Marcy (a Grade 3) at Aqueduct. The son of Super Moment also won the Battlefield Stakes, the Sycamore at Philadelphia Park and Hialeah Turf Cup and placed in four graded stakes on the way to 15 wins, 15 seconds, 14 thirds and $560,666 in earnings.
“He was a real good horse and Ronnie was proud of what he did,” said Betsy Tuesday. “Ronnie was a very good horsemen. He loved it. He was extremely successful but his true love was the cattle and the farm. That’s why we moved here. We had a racetrack in Rising Sun and everything, but we had no room for the cattle.”
Ronnie Houghton’s training business slowed in the 2000s, as Sylmar’s other areas expanded, and Bernie took over in 2005. Based at Penn National, the younger Houghton won a career-high 78 races (with earnings of more than $2 million) last year and has trained dual Maryland Million winner Crabcakes among others.
Ronnie had a mild stroke four years ago, but was still a regular at regional stallion shows and other events. A month or so ago, another stroke hit him harder. He died Sunday, with his family by his side, eight days shy of his 80th birthday.
“What a life,” said daughter Wendy Kinnamon, who runs a Thoroughbred farm just over the hill from Sylmar. “He was a wonderful man; it was tough as hell to be his kid sometimes but he must have done something right. Look at all of us.”
In addition to Betsy, Bernie and Wendy, survivors include daughter Robin Perry, son Michael (the cattle are his responsibility now), sister Doris Green and 11 grandchildren.
The family invites friends to an informal drop-in memorial celebration from 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14 at Sylmar Farm, 151 Maple Shade Road, Christiana, Pa. 17509.