Training Days

This has been one of my favorite stories I’ve written this whole year. Virginia Kraft Payson is an inspirational, intelligent woman who made me realize that there are no barriers for women, no limits to what a woman could do. I was happy for the chance to tell her story and that of Payson Park.

The story, “Training Days,” originally appeared in Stuart Magazine‘s January 2014 issue.

***

Virginia Kraft Payson is the matriarch of Payson Park.

Virginia Kraft Payson is the matriarch of Payson Park. // Photo by Robert Holland

HORSES ARE REVERED in these parts. They are the kings of this kingdom, and no one will argue with that. Payson Park Thoroughbred Training Center in Indiantown, Fla., has been North America’s elite training facility for more than three decades, a complex where champion horses and their training staffs hone their skills in the most professional of environments. Three recent grade I winners trained here, the Classic and the Ladies Classic Championships winners in the 2011 Breeders Cup, and from the looks of today’s training regiment, more wins are surely on the way. The world’s top trainers bring horses to Payson Park, including Hall of Famers Bill Mott, who notably worked with Cigar, Roger Attfield, a multi-Sovereign Award winner, and Christophe Clement, who has more than 1,000 wins under his belt.

Past the front gate of Payson Park, three-quarters of the way down the narrow dirt road where cars can go no faster than 10 mph, stands Virginia Kraft Payson. She is waiting at what the park’s employees affectionately call “the tower,” the one-mile dirt track with a two-story viewing tower. And she’s doing what she’s done since she bought her first colt in 1978: watch the horses get trained.

It’s easy to mistake Payson for someone she is not. For one, she’s no ordinary woman. She drives a 1978 Corvette. And, a 1934 Auburn Boattail Speedster convertible. She’s hunted – and I mean hunted – on six continents, taking down lions, tigers and the occasional polar bear. She counts King Hussein as one of her former hunting partners. The New York City native and Barnard College graduate was the 15th hire on the young Sports Illustrated staff, remaining there for 26 years and becoming a female pioneer in sports reporting. She met her second husband, Charles Shipman Payson, in 1977 while writing a story and hunting on his ranch west of Okeechobee (“It was gobbler season,” she recalls. “And I did wipe his eye a couple of times.”). And what she has contributed to the horseracing industry is nothing short of remarkable.

Quite literally the matriarch of this revered thoroughbred facility, Payson has made this training center the go-to place to train winners since she and Charles completed the purchase in August of 1980. Among her patrons are horses owned by royals, telecom billionaires and airline moguls. The aforementioned one-mile track has been rated one of the best in the nation, with its more than two feet of cushion easily the most generous of the elite tracks. The well-maintained lot includes 21 barns with 499 stalls, open areas for the horses to roam, as well as miles of riding trails. A separate 7/8th mile irrigated turf track and an electronic six-horse starting gate are among the fixtures here.

Elements of Virginia Payson are strewn everywhere on the 405 acres. “Payson Blue,” that royal blue color from the flag that’s an homage to the nautical letter “P,” is painted generously on stables and their doors. The grounds are exceptionally well-manicured, the staff well-mannered. A lit soccer field was installed, a nod to Payson’s acute awareness of the training staff, especially those from South America, and their interest in playing soccer during off-hours.

It’s still early in the winter horseracing training season, and Payson arrived only a few days earlier from her Kentucky home. And she’s noticed something is wrong with the facility.

“The bushes need to be removed from the track,” she tells someone from her cellphone.

The person on the other end says something.

“I’m not sure why it needs to be outsourced,” Payson replies. “I think we can do it with our staff. It just needs to be cut at the roots and removed.”

And so it will be done. Not because instructions to do so came from the owner, but because everyone in this industry respects Payson and her knowledge of maintaining such an intense and complicated operation.

A horse grazes on Payson Park. // Photo by Robert Holland

A horse grazes on Payson Park. // Photo by Robert Holland

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA KRAFT PAYSON?

Dressed in her typical Payson Park attire, which today includes tennis shoes with casual pants, two gold bracelets on both wrists and a black leather watch on her right one, Payson breathes in the fresh air of the countryside. “I love watching the wildlife that is here,” she says.

It’s a feeling she has long been familiar with, spending summers and most weekends outdoor as a child.

“It was freedom,” Payson says of going to her family’s home on Long Island. “Every Friday afternoon we’d go out there, and I just couldn’t wait.”

Her journalism career was spawned by her love of news and a particularly dashing and savvy radio journalist. When she was 7, Payson would sit next to the radio, listening intently to Martin Agronsky’s radio broadcasts from Ankara, Turkey (“I was so in love with him,” she reminisces). Though she spent 26 years at Sports Illustrated, Payson’s love of the outdoors was bolstered by her first job out of college as an editor at Field & Stream, where she wrote the back-page column. She read the tomes of materials at the magazine’s archives during her free time, and absorbed gallons of information on hunting, fishing and outdoor adventures. Calling it a “master’s degree” in outdoor education, Payson’s time at the magazine led to a memorable pheasant shoot season in Dutchess County, N.Y.

As Payson describes it, she arrived a day earlier than the rest of the hunting group. She woke up the next day at the crack of dawn for an early hunt by herself, the early morning air still crisp and quiet. On the hunting grounds the silence was enveloping. With each meticulous step she took deeper into the grounds, Payson gripped her bow and arrow tighter. She was looking for pheasants, but something else found her instead.

“A six-point buck was coming right at me. It was one of those moments,” Payson remembers. “I said, ‘It’s either you or me.’ And I hit him right in the jugular.”

The early morning sun is a signal for a new day of training.

The early morning sun is a signal for a new day of training. // Photo by Robert Holland

PAYSON PARK HISTORY

Payson’s foray into the horseracing industry came almost by accident. Charles and Virginia Payson both had casual interest in horses – Virginia grew up with hunting and riding horses, and later competed in polo matches after college – and on a whim decided to attend a Fasig-Tipton thoroughbred auction in Lexington, Ky., after visiting the retired Secretariat. The couple bid on an Arts and Letters yearling, Romanair, and won. In an instant they became racehorse owners.

Despite his pedigree, Romanair was what Payson called “absolutely crazy in the head.” He unseated riders and ravaged other horses. The Paysons hired a young trainer, Blaine Holloway, who did everything he could to break the horse. After painstaking months of trying everything in his arsenal, Holloway finally did manage to break Romanair, who eventually went on to a career in steeplechasing.

Feeling terribly about giving their young trainer a horse with a headcase, the Paysons bought six more respected yearlings (four colts and two fillies) for Holloway to train. The Paysons leased a field in Lexington close to their home and regularly watched their horses being broken in.

“We would pack our Winnebago and drive to the field every morning,” Payson remembers. “We had our breakfast there, tea and coffee, and my husband would read his paper there.”

It became a wonderful routine the Paysons didn’t want to give up. They grew fonder and fonder of their yearlings. Watching their horses being broken was as fulfilling as seeing their own child walk his first steps. And then winter came.

“We were bemoaning this,” Payson says of the days leading up to cold season. The couple had plans to winter in their Jupiter Island home, which meant leaving their horses behind at a stable in Camden, S.C., during winter. Reluctant to do so, they eventually left for Florida, begging for a short winter.

One night that winter, only three days after arriving in Florida and still bemoaning their now-detached relationship with their horses, Charles suddenly remembered passing by a racetrack in Indiantown years ago while boating in the St. Lucie canal. The next day, in the pouring down rain, the Paysons were on property, on what was once a renowned horseracing establishment.

They slushed through mud, about a foot high. Their car couldn’t even pass through the first turnoff because of the dense mud. And what they saw once going further on property shocked them. The property was completely abandoned. Conditions were deplorable. Stable roofs were dilapidated, some even caving in. Barbed wires littered the land. And the Paysons wanted to lease seven stalls for their six horses and pony.

After making several phone calls, the Paysons found out the history of the facility. Avid horsemen including Michael Phipps, Arthur “Bull” Hancock, Townsend Martin and Christopher T. Chenery bought the land in the early 1950s in hopes of someday opening a commercial racetrack. But after Phipps died in 1973, the land was purchased by an attorney who saw the property more as a land investment than a training facility. Maintenance of it dropped quickly and drastically.

Soon after their muddy discovery, the Paysons had Blaine Holloway, the young trainer, come down to get his assessment of the land. As Payson puts it, “He took one look at this place, and said no way.”

Still, the Paysons and Holloway experimented with the facility during that winter. And it didn’t get better. At least not right away. In the horses’ first week at this deplorable property, a diseased cow died right on the racetrack. Nobody was there to remove the cow, which laid on the tracks for days until it was finally picked up.

In spite of the dilapidated conditions, the track proved usable. The Paysons probed further into the idea of purchasing the property, did their homework, and had racetrack consultants come in to study the facility. Aside from the derelict state of maintenance, everyone came back with the same assessment of the track itself: It was the best they’d ever seen.

So after months of negotiating with the owner, the Paysons’ purchase of the land was completed in August 1980, costing them $3 million. The Paysons finally had their winter stables to house and train their horses. Now they just needed to clean things up and rebuild before the training season started on Oct. 1.

As Payson will be the first to say it, “We had no idea how much was involved in this.”

They had 499 stalls to fill before that deadline, and cleanup was eminent. The Paysons spent $15 million to refurbish the place, and when the facility opened two months later, all the stalls were filled.

Payson admits that “My husband knew Payson Park was my baby.” Charles, an attorney by education, avid outdoorsman, industrialist and former owner of the New York Mets, was content to watch the horses train, often sitting in his recliner that overlooked the track. And after Charles died in 1985, Virginia Payson forged on, keeping her baby as pristine as any in North America. She splits her time today between a few residences, one in Martin County, another in Kentucky. She remarried in 2008 and skis with husband David Cole in Colorado. Payson is many things, and retired is not one of them.

Payson Park

Payson Park

BRED TO WIN

There are horses. And then there are thoroughbred horses. The latter are a special species, remarkable creatures whose lore has been spoken of for centuries. Thoroughbred racehorses are extremely fit, strong beasts that reach peak performances while their bodies still mature. These are pre-pubescent athletes whose paths may coincide with grade 1 stake wins and more. And these are the athletes Payson has been breeding.

Payson began breeding soon after she and Charles bought their second sets of yearlings. Disappointed with some purchases (“We bought the most expensive colts and fillies at one auction, and it was a complete bust,” Payson admits), the Paysons decided to take matters in their own hands and began breeding on their farm, Payson Stud, in Lexington. It sparked a resurgent feeling in Payson, who thought she might have forever lost that spark after leaving SI.

“You create something with your brain and your research,” Payson says of horse breeding. “I approached breeding the same way as writing an article. I sought expert advice from specialists in the racing field and drew upon their knowledge, and put together a conclusion based on it. It’s become my M.O.”

And not unlike most things in her life, Payson has been focused on breeding winners. Her boutique breeding operation yielded several champion thoroughbreds, including European champion St. Jovite, grade III winner La Carriere and two Eclipse Award winners. Today Payson breeds for commercial purposes, keeping four broodmares at Payson Stud.

As the weather patterns have changed much for Payson over the years, another front came last spring when she put Payson Park up for sale. An absolutely heartbreaking decision for Payson, she quickly realized her time owning the center would come to an eventual end, adding that her four grown children were not interested in taking over the center.

During her more than 34 years of owning the facility, Payson admits she put so much “time, love, soul and dedication” into making Payson Park the training grounds that all other training grounds would envy. She says it made no sense to keep this in the family, so Payson has been searching for an owner who would feel her same dedication and resolve toward continuing to run Payson Park as the elite, world-recognized thoroughbred training center it has been. And most importantly, to carry on her legacy and that of Payson Park.

As the day nears an end, Virginia Kraft Payson is ready to leave the tower. She starts her Corvette, of course custom-painted with a Payson Blue and white exterior, its Goodyear Eagle tires ready for the road. The sports car’s engine roars to life. It’s a sound car enthusiasts could listen to over and over again, and never tire. She drives away from the tower, down that main dirt road, traveling no faster than the requisite 10 mph. On both sides of her Payson Park is alive and well, and in front of her is a new set of adventures.

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