Fast, slow, friendly, mean, large, small, English, Irish, American, filly, mare, gelding or stallion, the horses always mattered to Betty Merck. She grew up riding ponies, graduated to fox hunters and point-to-pointers, became a racehorse owner at 75 and led the National Steeplechase Association owners’ list at 89.
“I love to spend time with horses,” she said simply in 2009, when asked to explain why she was involved as an owner. Merck backed up that statement by retiring her horses, frequently to her farm in Bedminster, N.J., and giving them as much care and respect in retirement as they received while racing.
When she passed away in April 2015, at 95, it was only fitting that one of her wishes be to support Thoroughbred retirement on a bigger scale. Merck’s will left money to be distributed by her children – Josie, Tony and Laddy – in her memory. The causes had a familiar ring and focused on horses, nature and education.
The Mercks directed money to Betty’s alma mater Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut, the Nature Conservancy, the Raritan Headwaters Association and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Each gift was substantial, appreciated and generous. Merck had been a donor to the TRF for years and the contribution in her memory was one of the largest outright gifts made to the foundation, the world’s oldest and largest Thoroughbred rescue organization.
The TRF’s mission is to “save Thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete on the racetrack from possible neglect, abuse and slaughter. To that end, the TRF oversees 26 Thoroughbred retirement facilities in 13 states and is responsible for hundreds of ex-racehorses.
More than money, the support will help the TRF continue its work.
“It’s not only the financial assistance from the Merck family that means so much to us,” said Diana Pikulski, TRF’s director of external affairs. “Words can’t describe how the affirmation of our mission from the Merck family will help bring the TRF to new levels.”
Lenny Hale, CEO of the TRF, echoed Pikulski’s sentiments.
“Betty Merck was a good friend and the epitome of class,” he said. “She was a complete horsewoman admired by everyone who met her. Salvation for the TRF in her memory will continue for quite some time.”
In addition to its care of Thoroughbreds, the TRF adds a human element through its Second Chances program of nine farms at state correctional facilities where inmates care for the animals and learn a new skill. TRF horses also work with military veterans recovering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“I didn’t know that much about the TRF and the more I looked into it, the more I thought it was fantastic,” said Laddy of the foundation, which was founded in 1983. “The horses, the veterans, the incarcerated people, there’s so much to it. Mom would love that. It’s all pretty powerful.”
Betty Merck so routinely retired her racehorses that her family didn’t think too far beyond that small picture – filly/mare hurdle champion Guelph became a broodmare; multiple stakes winner Left Unsaid (trained and co-bred by Bobby Frankel) went to the farm; Merck rode stakes winner Approaching Squall (a Florida-bred who raced for Live Oak Plantation) herself; Hidden Trail (who raced for Juddmonte Farms and Frankel on the flat) was part of the staff with the Essex Foxhounds . . . the list could go on for a while.
“You don’t think of the big picture when there are horses at home the way Mom retired them,” said Laddy. “It’s something you never think about. Then you find out about places like the TRF. They’re really dedicated, their hearts are into it and the horses matter.”