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Castleton Farm - A Continuing Legacy

Castleton Farm: History site section Logo of ancient snaffle bit.
By Cheryl R. Lutring  (A Horse history article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Turning in to face the gates and long approach road of Castleton Farm, Lexington, was an awesome moment. It is not often British visitors set foot on private American studs, let alone the hallowed Castleton. We paused in front of the ornate ironwork gates and stone pillars to gaze.

Straight driveway, manicured lawns, lovely shrubs and a powerful atmosphere, all combined to keep us silent. This was Castleton, the historic home of legendary Thoroughbreds, Saddlebreds and Standardbreds. Now this precious stretch of Kentucky Bluegrass had opened its gates to the Irish shamrock and the 1,200 acres were preparing for further glories. The gate swung open and we drove up to the first building. The office created an excellent first impression. Designed like a house, its dark wood paneled foyer was decorated with equine pictures. We were made welcome, given coffee and soon the estate manager, Arthur Finnan, arrived to take us on a tour.

Castleton is now owned by Dr. Tony Ryan, the founder of the successful European airline, Ryan Air. In true Irish tradition, Dr. Ryan breeds Thoroughbreds and, exhibiting impeccable judgment, could see no finer candidate for the expansion of his Irish stud than remarkable Castleton. He began restoration and is modernizing the facilities without sacrificing character. We walked up to the main house to stand in the magnificent portico where the decorative stone urns were taller than me and it was easy to feel the presence of David Castleman. He completed the construction of the Greek Revival house in 1840 creating an elegant family home that in England would be known as a stately mansion. We looked over the heart-shape central lawn to the peaceful view: in front the splendid avenue swept down to the gates; to our left a swimming pool provided a water hole to a drinking foal statue; to our right an arcade of wisteria led to a horse barn.

We were taken to the magnificent 1946 solid oak stallion barn where Ryan s Thoroughbred stallion, Malibu Moon, munched his hay amid cool opulence. Out through the big double sliding doors at the end, is the stallion parade ring nestled under a hedge of mature trees, its low white picket fencing interwoven with the riotous red blossom of knockout roses, which bloom cheerily from May to December. We followed Arthur up a flight of stairs to a luxurious lounge where, taking refreshment in luxurious comfort, mare owners could watch the conception of their next winner through a vast picture window overlooking the covering area.

We were chauffeured past many barns in differing degrees of restoration, they retained their numbers but were additionally named after Irish counties. Kerry Barn, Arthur told us, is to be the weanling barn. The original Red Oak was typical and housed 30 horses around a large airy open courtyard. Equine palaces.

Talking of the Van Lennep Saddlebreds and their talented trainer, Earl Teater, we stopped in front of a more modest but nevertheless sizable house, oddly labeled Heys Hotel, and surmised that this most likely had been his home. Looking up into the gnarled canopy of the old tree on the lawn, I wondered if Earl Teater himself had picked the fruits of this elderly walnut. Nearby Barn 13, now called Connaught, was probably the Van Lennep s show horse barn. It was a skin-prickling moment to stand outside the stall Wing Commander may have called home. He lived in the same one during his days at Castleton refusing even to swap to another stall across the aisle never mind move up to the stallion barn!

Castleton has over 200 successful years of horse raising history. At the time of George Washington s presidency, the land was first acquired by the Hon. John B. Breckinridge and named Cabell s Dale after his wife, Mary Cabell. Breckinridge was a keen Thoroughbred breeder, but by 1806 he had died of typhoid and part of the Dale passed to his daughter Mary.  In 1812 Mary married David Castleman.

The Castlemans renamed the property Castleton and began breeding Thoroughbreds, but on the arrival in Kentucky of the famous Hambletonian s sons, they switched to trotters. When Saddlebred enthusiast (and founder of the American Saddlebred Horse Association) General John C. Castleman took over the farm he naturally turned the facility s focus to Saddlebreds. General Castleman and his 1893 Chicago World Fair Champion Saddlebred mare, Carolina, are honored in a statue at the entrance of Lexington s Cherokee Park.  Surviving the Civil War, Castleton bred and raised many Saddlebred champions and the bloodlines developed and nurtured there are still prized in the Saddlebred world today.

In 1885 Castleton was acquired by Stewart Ford who turned the breeding program back once more to racing trotters and upon his sale to the Silver Fox of Wall Street, James Keene, Castleton became home to Spendthrift, the great grandsire of Man O War and was once again a Thoroughbred establishment.

In 1911 David Look, wealthy from the woolen trade, wished to buy good land in the Lexington area, and having reviewed Castleton queried the acreage and requested a real estate survey. Keene answered, Mr. Look, I m not selling you real estate and acreage, I m selling you Castleton. The legend was born.

David Look not only built the stunning stone wall that fronts the property on the Iron Works Parkway at a cost of $25,000, but made Castleton the center of  the trotting world. He owned the Standardbred foundation mare Emily Ellen and bred Spencer who won the 1928 Hambletonian and Kentucky Futurity. With the Depression came gloom for Castleton. Look s son, the politically-minded Sam, took over and vowed he would not invest in its maintenance while Franklin D. Roosevelt occupied the White House. Political and family circumstances cast the celebrated Castleton into decay. By 1945 it was for sale again.

Now the enchanted Castleton s fortune took a magical turn with its purchase by Frances Dodge Johnson who wished to expand her equine empire. Frances was the daughter of the motor pioneer, John Dodge. At the time one of the USA s foremost horsewomen, it was she who rode the great trotter Greyhound to his world record mile in 2:01 3/4 at the Red Mile in Lexington. This feat was all the more astounding because Greyhound had never been ridden before and therefore neither had Frances ever sat astride him. She was so impressed with the horse that she expanded her interests into harness racing and soon a successful trotting operation was added to her thriving Saddlebred facility at Dodge Stables, Rochester, Michigan.

Her purchase of Castleton was fortuitous because the once state-of-the-art, luxurious and beautiful place had fallen into dereliction. So ruined were its famous barns that it had been used as the set for the film The Green Grass of Wyoming, a story requiring a rundown farm as its backdrop. With vision and flair, Frances promptly set about returning Castleton to its former glory. After losing her first husband, Frances married Fred Van Lennep, the ceremony taking place in the elegant Castleton mansion. Though harness racing was the Van Lennep s business , Saddlebreds were Frances s love. Perhaps the shade of General Castleman found comfort in the return of the Saddlebred to Castleton.

On a corner in the long driveway around the barns and house, sheltered by an ancient hedge, is a peaceful poignant place where, under tended grass, lie the remains of the great horses of Castleton including: the iconic Saddlebreds Wing Commander, Flirtation Walk, Roxy Lee Highland, Anacacho Shamrock; 33 Standardbred mares and famed stallions such as Abercrombie and Worthy Boy. Wing Commander is also commemorated by his own memorial outside the perimeter fence on the roadside.

Once these famous horses had taken their daily training on a half mile covered track, but unfortunately the construction has long since vanished though the route is easy to follow on the ground and there are plans to reinstate it.  The stud is now called Castleton Lyons to link it with Dr. Ryan s Thoroughbred stud in Ireland which is based at a Georgian mansion on the Kildare/Dublin border. The historically important Lyons House has benefited from his restoration ideals and the same regard is being applied to the history and charm of Castleton from the splendid main house itself to the modest slave shacks. James Keene would be gratified that his century-old declaration of Castleton being more than real estate, is continuing to ring true.

Castleton is indeed a home to champions, a paradigm, a treasure. After a wonderful morning s visit, we left Castleton inspired, elated and conscious that a mighty triple legacy has come full circle: from Thoroughbreds to Saddlebreds, back to Thoroughbreds, then Saddlebreds and Standardbreds, and currently back to Thoroughbreds. Will Castleton open its gates to Saddlebreds again one day?

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