jointheclub
jointheclub
homedelivery
contenttopspacer

 Features

Featured stories from our publication.  For archived features, click here.

Horses graze in rolling pastures along the lengthy driveway as you pull into Long Branch, the Virginia farm bought, restored and preserved by Maryland Thoroughbred breeder Harry Isaacs.

The local hunt rides through the property and beaglers go afoot. Couples get married inside the historic house and people walk their dogs around the Clarke County property, with the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. Art exhibits, speaker series and lectures fill the Long Branch calendar. You can visit the rose garden. Isaacs, who bred such famous runners as Intent and Intentionally, bought this 400-acre place when he was 83 years old. Its life today – as a wedding venue, open space and horse retirement farm – makes sense, given Isaacs’ lifelong emphasis on method and legacy. 

In a comment to Baltimore Sun racing writer Bill Boniface, Isaacs said he used the letter I to name his horses – Intent, Itsablue, I’d Like To and so on – because “it was easier to get names than try naming horses at random.”

Nothing Isaacs ever did appeared random. He believed, as Boniface wrote, that “every step on the way to racing should be a considered one. Horses should get the best possible care, they should be broken properly, and everything else done to make them valuable racing instruments when they are turned over to the trainer.”

Isaacs grew up in Baltimore, part of a family that owned a riding-clothes company originally called Over the Top Sport Togs. According to a 1939 catalog, these were made of the “choicest fabrics, carefully designed and tailored by conscientious craftsmen, born to the needle, and ever mindful of an unvarying creed, which is absolute satisfaction.” As an adult, Isaacs ran the business, by then called I. C. Isaacs and Co., which had expanded beyond riding gear and owned factories in Milford, Del., and Newton, Miss. Isaacs named his Glyndon, Md., farm Brookfield, after his first elite runner, and served as the president of the Maryland Kennel Club. He bred dogs, including Rottweilers, and once owned an English bulldog named Sirloin O’Pugilist. Throughout, he cared for horses. He bred 42 stakes winners; 36 raced for him.

Isaacs was a friend of Hall of Fame trainer Max Hirsch (who won the 1946 Triple Crown with Assault and trained standouts Bold Venture, Sarazen and others) and Hirsch fueled an interest in racing in 1939. Isaacs bought eight horses from Idle Hour Farm’s Col. E.R. Bradley, who named his horses – including champions Burgoo King and Bimelech – with names starting with B. Isaacs followed suit with those I names, and in 1947, the filly Itsabet became his first stakes winner.

A year later, Intent was born. The brown colt by Man o’ War’s son War Relic out of Liz F. (by Bradley’s Bubbling Over), did not race as a juvenile and won the 1¾-mile San Juan Capistrano in 1952 and 1953 for trainer Buddy Hirsch (Max’s son and fellow Hall of Famer). Disqualified from a win in the 1952 Santa Anita Handicap, Intent retired to stud with eight wins and $317,775. 

Isaacs involved himself with all decisions regarding his horses, preaching the value of patience and planning. “He is modest about his part in the success of the establishment but the record reveals that his studies and his care have produced results, which is what counts – whether in business or sport,” Boniface wrote in 1958. 

Isaacs liked to explain his methods in broad strokes.

“Getting the right mare to the right stallion is the first step in breeding and racing,” he once said. 

As much as he studied up on bloodstock and attended his horses’ lives closely, Isaacs was less consumed by attending races. 

“He had a magnificent apartment on Park Avenue,” said Colette Poisson, who worked for Isaacs for 19 years and still lives at Long Branch. “He had a beautiful place in Baltimore County. He very seldom went to the track. We used to sit in his den [to watch] the Preakness because he would give away his place at the track. Very seldom went to Belmont, unless he had something to do in New York.”

Supported by Isaacs while standing in Kentucky, Intent outdid himself as a stallion. From 205 named foals, he sired 119 winners and 11 stakes winners. One practically changed the game. Isaacs sent his Discovery mare My Recipe to Intent in 1955 and entered her in a sale at Keeneland. Almost in the ring, she stayed with Isaacs when he realized he might be selling his best mare and told the consignor to buy her back.

The Intent—My Recipe colt became Intentionally, who won 18 races, earned $652,258 and landed the 1959 sprint championship. Trained by Baltimore’s E.I. “Eddie” Kelly, Intentionally was a top 2-year-old of 1958 with wins in the Tyro, Pimlico Futurity and Belmont Futurity. At 3, he won the Withers, Jerome, Warren Wright (in a world-record tying 1:331⁄5 for a mile) and Delaware Valley Stakes on the way to that sprint title. As an older horse, he added the Equipoise Mile and the Toboggan, Quaker City, Sport Page, Seminole and Palm Beach Handicaps for Isaacs and later William McKnight’s Tartan Farm.

Once, with characteristic understatement, Kelly called Intentionally “a real nice colt.” The trainer elaborated a little, telling the Evening Sun in 1958, “You could tell he was a good one when he was a yearling. Horses are like fighting chickens. You didn’t teach them to run. They either have it or they don’t.”

Intentionally had it. He was fun to watch, with his black coat setting off the Brookfield colors, sky blue with purple sashes. “Throats tightened when a pocket quickly formed,” wrote a Daily Racing Form reporter. “[Jockey Bill] Hartack gunned Intentionally toward the gap. The colt gave a wonderful response, and within a twinkling he had changed his course.”

Jockeys loved him, too. In the winner’s circle after the Withers, Manuel Ycaza called Intentionally the best horse he had ever ridden. “He does everything you ask him, coming out of the gate properly, rating perfectly and moving away with ease.”

“He did everything right,” Willie Shoemaker said in April 1959 after the horse’s 3-year-old debut at Jamaica, a win by 6½ lengths. “You couldn't be anything but tickled to death with the way he ran."

Like his sire, Intentionally didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby. He was healthy after his fourth in the Wood Memorial, but, as Isaacs told the Associated Press, “We don’t think he wants to go the distance.” He would not make the Preakness, either. Turf writers understood that with Isaacs, taking pains was key.

A Daily Racing Form feature gave the owner credit for the decision, “Harry Isaacs . . . quite correctly surmises that the Preakness is no easy place to try a colt who has only had a single six-furlong race in nearly a month . . . Besides, as trainer Eddie Kelly pointed out recently, the colt does not like to have his races placed too closely together. Isaacs and Kelly are sportsmen of the old tradition, and neither is about to ask the improper of their horses for the sake of mere glory.”

Kelly’s son, Mike Kelly, said that Isaacs hired his father at Tropical Park in Florida, when a Kelly runner kept finishing in front of Isaacs horses. Isaacs put it bluntly, “I’m Harry Isaacs and I can’t beat you, so I want to hire you.” That’s how the team started.

Eddie Kelly, like Isaacs, sweated the details. If a horse didn’t eat well during the day, the trainer would have her fed in the middle of the night, said another son, Kel Kelly. If a horse lost by 20 lengths, Eddie Kelly took it personally, and would run to see the horse after the race. He checked the temperature of the bath water. 

Kelly was Isaacs’ trainer for decades, a matter of pride. “I’ve bred horses for more than 50 years,” he told an Evening Sun reporter late in his life, “and my horse trainer, Ed Kelly, has been with me for 38 of those years, longer than any trainer in any other stable in America.”

“When he’d shake your hand, that was the end of it, there was no paper required,” said Mike Kelly. “Those guys did 44 years on a handshake.”

“They carved out a pretty good niche,” said Kel Kelly. “They were in there with the big boys – you name it – Calumet, Whitney, Greentree, Rokeby. They did all right.”

At stud at Tartan, Intentionally sired 140 winners and 20 stakes winners (from 189 named foals of racing age) before dying of a heart attack at just 13 in 1970. He cracked the top 10 on the general sire list four times and sired turf star Tentam, two-time sprint champion and Hall of Famer Ta Wee and future sire In Reality (whose mark on racing continues). 

“Isaacs was just short of being obsessed with the Fair Play male line,” wrote Joe Hickey in a 1990 Maryland Horse remembrance. “Though Triple Crown winner War Admiral was Man o’ War’s most proficient son on the track, it was left to War Relic to reinforce a faltering male line through Intent to Intentionally to In Reality, who is inbred 3x3 to War Relic.”

In Reality’s daughter Desert Vixen won two Eclipse Awards and made the Hall of Fame. Son Known Fact won England’s 2,000 Guineas and that country’s 3-year-old crown. Son Smile captured the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Sprint-G1 and is the damsire of champion Smarty Jones. Another In Reality colt, Believe It, placed in the Kentucky Derby-G1 and Preakness-G1 and is the damsire of champion Real Quiet. Another son, Relaunch, won Grade 3 stakes and became the grandsire of Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Tiznow and damsire of Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Ghostzapper. 

As a broodmare sire, In Reality is responsible for champion Meadow Star, Japan’s leading sire Real Shadai (out of Desert Vixen) and Kentucky Broodmare of the Year Toussaud (dam of Grade 1 winners and leading sires Chester House and Empire Maker plus Grade 1 winners Honest Lady and Chiselling and Grade 2 winner Decarchy). 

As extraordinary as Intentionally was, Isaacs kept Itsabet, who left a legacy as a blue hen mare. The chestnut filly won three stakes as a 3-year-old and went to the breeding shed after a single win in 13 starts at 4. Bred to Intent, she foaled Ironically, who in turn foaled Imsodear, creating a bloodline that goes through Mariah’s Storm to Giant’s Causeway. 

Pedigree expert Alan Porter called her influence on the female line “breed-shaping,” and Tom Hall wrote in 2021 that her offspring have “carved her a place among the outstanding broodmares of the 20th century.” 

The Intentionally and Itsabet bloodlines collided in at least one high-profile case. 

“Giant’s Causeway was a European champion before he came to America and was beaten inches in his only start on the dirt in the [2000] Breeders’ Cup Classic,” Porter said. “The horse that beat him was Tiznow, and Tiznow is a male line descendant of Intentionally. So one was the Harry Isaacs male line – Tiznow – and Giant’s Causeway is the Harry Isaacs female line. Running one and two separated by inches in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”

Keep pulling on the pedigree strings, and Isaacs bloodlines are responsible for even more current stars of racing and breeding. 

There is 2022 Horse of the Year Flightline, the highest-rated horse on the dirt (since the existence of international classifications). His sire Tapit is out of Tap Your Heels, inbred to In Reality.

Looking at the pedigrees of recent Kentucky Derby-G1 winners demonstrates the Isaacs influence, Porter said. Mandaloun, the 2021 winner, is out of an Empire Maker mare inbred to In Reality. The 2017 winner Always Dreaming is by Bodemeister, a son of Empire Maker. 

“Most of the great races around the world have probably got a winner with those bloodlines in them,” he said. “Either In Reality, Intentionally or that [Itsabet] female line.”

“They used to call [Isaacs] the professor of pedigree,” said Mike Kelly. 

“Mr. Isaacs never went crazy with stallions,” said Kel Kelly. “He stayed in his lane, and he always looked for that nick.” 

A barn fire in 1970 at Garden State Park killed eight of the 11 Isaacs’ horses stabled there, including Intentionally’s stakes-winning daughter Inevitable. A trainer rushing to the fire died of a heart attack, 32 racehorses and a pony died, and the 1942-built barn burned down. Isaacs never forgot the disaster, and forever scrutinized hay storage locations on his own properties.

“Mr. Isaacs told my dad, ‘Eddie, you and the guys at the barn, you hang in there, because we’ll build this thing back up,’ ” said Mike Kelly. “A lot of guys would have turned and run away.”

But Isaacs didn’t lose heart easily. When he bought Long Branch in September 1986, the 400-acre property admittedly needed some work. 

“Needs some work?” said Poisson. “That was an understatement. It was sad. You entered that magnificent property. It’s overgrown. The barn is falling apart. The stable is not any better. The fence is barbed wire. Then we came to the house and are faced with plaster, peeling paint, and a lot of water damage because of a leaking roof.”

But Isaacs was intrigued, Poisson said, and traveled to Virginia to see for himself. “And he loved it.” 

He thought the original asking price was too high, but when it went up for auction, he bought it. “The first thing he did,” Poisson said, “was to put the farm on easement, like many nearby properties.” That meant that the property couldn’t be developed; visitors today see much the same pastoral view Isaacs did. Besides restoring the mansion, Isaacs added the gate, the gate house, the stable, the machinery shed, the run-in shed, 14 miles of fence, and a few miles of road. And then he furnished the house “magnificently,” said Poisson. 

When Isaacs’ Thoroughbreds were stabled here, security patrolled at night, said farm manager B.J. Lewis, a Long Branch employee for 34 years. There was also a large feed cooker in the barn for warm mashes, made with oats and molasses. 

Isaacs would sit on a chair in the stable and speak of plans for specific horses. “That goes to Kentucky to be bred to so and so,” he told staffers. “This one’s still a little off. Don’t send him to the track yet.”

Today, the stable and adjoining paddocks are leased to others. The pastures are home to retired horses, who crop grass peaceably, framed by the Blue Ridge scenery. Many are former eventers, a legacy from Olympic rider Karen O’Connor’s tenure as the stable’s early tenant. Some owners visit often, but many are far away. Lewis cares for them all.

Long Branch exists for more than horses, however.

“I’ve worked for some other gentlemen of the same caliber as Mr. Isaacs, like Mr. [Paul] Mellon,” said Marianne Casey, Long Branch’s executive director. “They appreciated the open space. And I just think how lucky we are that they allowed others to have it. Some of the people that come through don’t have the means or the way to walk around a farm like this. If you don’t foxhunt, you don’t beagle, you don’t belong to one of those clubs, [then] you’re stuck with just what you see from the roadside. But here we’re able to open it up and they can walk end to end.”

The house at Long Branch, built in 1813 by Carter Burwell, was designed with advice from Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the United States Capitol. When Isaacs rescued it from disrepair, he chose every detail, and today, it is an elegant mansion. Horse people are most drawn to the study where a Richard Stone Reeves portrait of Intentionally hangs, and a table has the horse’s shoes embedded in its corners. 

Isaacs gave a party for 330 people when the house was complete. “He was very sick then,” said Poisson. “But it was finished. We were all praying that he would make it to the end.” He had chosen everything, from andirons to equestrian wall decorations to the household china. 

Isaacs never married. 

Facing a cancer diagnosis and with a year left to live, Isaacs called Kelly to New York, Kel Kelly said, to tell him to train the horses as he always had. When Isaacs died at 86 in 1990, the Mississippi town of Newton passed a resolution to commemorate his life, since the city and citizens had “benefitted from Harry Z. Isaacs’ friendship, leadership and commitment to our community.” 

“Like the true sportsman he was, Isaacs also established a trust for the employees who took care of his horses, to provide for them throughout the remainder of their lifetimes,” wrote Hickey.

Isaacs had formed the Harry Z. Isaacs Foundation, which took over Long Branch after he died. Poisson moved to the gate house and opened the property to the public in 1991, and 38 of Isaacs’ horses were sold at Keeneland’s January dispersal that same year.

“There can’t be any weak links in the chain if you are to succeed in racing,” Isaacs told a reporter in November 1958. That was his philosophy all along: thoroughness, systems and attention to every detail.

 “For the man who loved Fair Play to be responsible for the continuation of the Man o’ War line,” said Porter, “I’m sure he would see it as a life satisfying achievement.”

“He was not going to pat you on the back,” said Poisson. “If he didn’t complain, you were good. I have tremendous respect for that man. And I will fight until I die so his memory would be remembered for what he did. He deserved it.”

contenttopspacer

Archives | Features

Click here to view our online Featured Stories archives.

The Mill Leaders