Thoughts from our editor, Joe Clancy. For archived editorials click here.

Donald Barr and Milton Higgins were born in the same Massachusetts hospital, not that that made them instant friends or even the same age, but it was at least the taproot of a long friendship. It ended in April when Higgins died in Hawaii. He was 85.
Higgins – officially Milton P. Higgins III – bred and owned Thoroughbreds in Maryland. He served on the Maryland Horse Breeders Association board of directors, became the treasurer, poured plenty of work into the responsibility. He helped people, supported causes, studied pedigrees, owned horses, bred horses, sold horses, bought horses. Barr trained horses for Higgins. Dr. Tom Bowman and his family co-bred horses with Higgins. All were in regular contact with the man about horses.  

Among the many influential Thoroughbreds Higgins bred and/or owned were Who Wouldn’t, a Bowman and Higgins homebred who won 13 races and earned $448,187 topped by a score in the 1995 General George Handicap-G2 as part of a five-race winning streak. Higgins bought Dear Janet (the dam of Who Wouldn’t) for $9,500 as a yearling. 

“Milton always wanted a Full Pocket mare, he was huge at doing a lot of research – mares’ backgrounds, all that, he was really into that – and this was a Full Pocket yearling,” Barr said. “We were trying to buy a mare, but that was him too. He made it work.”

Dear Janet won four races. Her son nearly made it to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Bowman and Higgins campaigned Richetta, who won five races (four stakes) and $296,848 for trainer Robin Graham. Richetta’s foals included $461,140 earner Concealed Identity, stakes winner Peach of a Gal and seven other winners. Bowman and Higgins bred Love the Chase, sold her as a 2-year-old and watched her become a winner in California. She went on to produce two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome. He will be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame this summer.

Higgins grew up in Worcester, Mass. His great-grandfather founded the Norton Company, which turned into a worldwide business specializing in abrasives such as sandpaper and grinding wheels. Today, it’s part of the Saint-Gobain company, and employs 2,200 people in the United States and Canada. Higgins’ father was the third-generation president and chairman of the board until his retirement in 1974 and became one of Worcester’s leading citizens. He had board seats with area banks, led the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (a technological university founded in 1865) and the Worcester Art Museum, and served on the President’s Business Council during the Lyndon Johnson administration. 

His son was destined to follow that path, but also blazed his own. He went to college in Colorado and competed in rodeos before circling back to the professional world to get a master’s degree and help navigate the family company through a hostile takeover and ultimately a sale. 

“He was sort of a rebel, a rare combination of, ‘I’ll do it my way’ and enough brains to graduate from Harvard and run a company,” said Bowman. “When I first met him, he was living in New England, but he moved to New Mexico because he wanted to have a ranch out there.”

A Quarter Horse connection led Higgins to Barr, and then to Bowman.

“I trained horses for a guy in Kentucky who had an employee who had a horse for Milton when Milton was in the Quarter Horse business,” Barr said. “He was in Santa Fe, and they sent a horse to me because I was from Massachusetts I guess. Then I met Milton. He was never a very public individual, but if you knew him there was a lot to know.”

Higgins and some partners started buying mares as potential breeding stock, and recruited Bowman to help with evaluations. Then Bowman and Higgins started working together.

“It went on from there and we had a relationship the rest of our lives,” said Barr. “We were in the same league – Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins – he was a great sports fan, a big Red Sox fan. We never thought they’d ever win anything for pretty much all our lives. Now look.”

After finding ways to lose for 86 years, the Red Sox won four World Series between 2004 and 2018. Barr’s training career is in its sixth decade. Higgins co-bred the dam of a Hall of Famer, and five Maryland-bred champions. Awesome Flower (bred with Tom and Chris Bowman and Three Chimneys Farm) earned $556,593. Her half-brother First Mondays sold for $450,000 as a yearling. Bowman’s daughter Becky Davis narrated that 2016 sale to Higgins over the phone. There were tears.

Higgins read all he could about racing and breeding, studied pedigrees and kept working to improve the various components of a business plan that involved mares, stallion seasons, sales drafts and racing.

“He always said one of his great joys was reading about Thoroughbred horses, studying pedigrees and just following it,” said Bowman. “We had a five-year plan. He was providing some of the money for stud fees, we were caring for the horses, getting them to the sales or the racetrack. Last year’s sale crop was pretty good.”

For years, Higgins sent Bowman a regular email with notes about horses – some they bred, some they owned, some they had talked about, some with no connection whatsoever to the two friends. For several mornings after Higgins died, Bowman looked for the email. 

“We had no idea he was sick, or that sick,” Bowman said. “He had moved to Hawaii 10 years or so ago, for the climate and to be closer to his brother. We always thought he would come back. I talked to him two days before he died and he was talking about who we were going to breed mares to next year – not this year, next year.”

Long a supporter of various causes such as the Maryland racing scholarship fund, Higgins made an impact on lives with everything from small gestures to big gifts. A simple note reached Bowman crediting Higgins with helping someone overcome addiction. Another pointed to Higgins’ support of programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center veterinary hospital. A Higgins donation helped support a small community church in Maryland. He may have never been there.

“He was absolutely a first-class human being,” Bowman said. “One of the turning points of my life would have to be when I met him. He was just an exemplary person on his approach to life. He was a little bit of a social renegade. He marched to his own drummer, but he had convictions. He believed in human beings, almost like there was nobody too bad not to help.”

For all that good work, Higgins was not one to seek attention.

“Getting him to talk about himself was difficult, you had to work at it, so I don’t know exactly what made him turn to horses and racing,” Bowman said. “I think it was a little bit of, ‘I’m going to go to Colorado, I’m going to have a ranch, I’m going to be a cowboy . . .’ How many of us have said that? Some of us might even go out west and work on a ranch for a while or something. Milton had the financial means to actually do it. Was he a big-time cowboy? I doubt it. Was he a great bronc rider? I doubt it. But he did it. You know that song by Sinatra, ‘I Did it My Way?’ They should play that at his funeral.”


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