SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
April 09, 1973
But do call him 'Mr. Van Lennep.' An old-fashioned man of elegant mien, he is right up to date when it comes to harness racing
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April 09, 1973

Freddie Is Setting The Pace

But do call him 'Mr. Van Lennep.' An old-fashioned man of elegant mien, he is right up to date when it comes to harness racing

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Even more than Frederick Van Lennep's other accomplishments as a horseman, credit him with spectacularly avoiding the fate of Mrs. Miles Frank Yount, an oil-rich widow from Texas who resolved in the '30s to crash Kentucky's bluegrass society. Pansy Yount had a string of fine show horses. She broke ground on a $1 million mansion and, with the last crystal chandelier hung and the last bronze door in place, threw a party for the horsey set. Some of the local gentry attended out of curiosity, only to be insulted to find that their hostess had seen fit to install locks on the cupboards and Pinkerton guards at every door. The party was reckoned a partial success: Mrs. Yount never made local society, but neither did anyone steal her silverware.

Fred Van Lennep, by contrast, gets along in Kentucky just fine. He can pass for a local squire as he strides of a Sunday morning into the stone church on the grounds of Castleton Farm, the harness-horse spread he owns near Lexington, and he fits right in as he presides over the traditional Christmas party for the farm's workers, distributing gifts to the children that in years past have included 43 bicycles at a crack. A trim, well-tailored man of 61 with chiseled Barrymore features and lacquered hair that suggests the wet look is not dead everywhere, Van Lennep might have stepped at such moments from the pages of Vanity Fair .

But if Fred Van Lennep's appearance suggests a bygone era, he is in point of fact a figure of major current clout in the world of U.S. harness racing. He owns a large chunk of one harness track in Kentucky—the Red Mile. He has bestowed on an undeserving world Pompano Park, a handsome Florida harness facility that in almost a decade has not yet returned the first nickel of the millions he has poured into it. He is the dominant figure in Detroit's thriving Wolverine harness meeting, whose success has come partly at the expense of the same track's thoroughbred racing—which he also runs. And he is involved with show horses and greyhound racing, sometimes making money and sometimes losing, but seldom allowing either contingency to disturb his considerable aplomb.

His racing accomplishments—or lack of them—make it hard for horse people, in their obsession to separate winners from losers, to figure out Fred Van Lennep. Nor do his own characteristically discreet words always help. "The breeding farm has been my most important concern," he says in the paneled comfort of a Castleton office that bulges with the spoils of harness racing conquest—a Hambletonian bowl in a trophy case here, a Little Brown Jug on a shelf there. "Of course unexpected circumstances and opportunities have drawn me into other things, too. But there's always been a reason behind everything."

It is hard to believe that Van Lennep's roots do not go deep in Kentucky soil after all. Not that his upbringing on Philadelphia's Main Line was in any way deficient, but the fact remains that when he arrived in Lexington in 1949, he was laboring, even as Mrs. Yount had earlier, under certain handicaps. He was 38 and had just gone through a divorce and remarriage. His bride Frances, socialite daughter of the late automobile pioneer, John F. Dodge, had bought a breeding farm that Van Lennep, at that point more experienced at selling advertising space than horses, was now undertaking to run. Those were the delicate days before Women's Lib reduced us all to one sex, which made it all the more awkward when people carelessly said of the newly weds, "There go Mr. and Mrs. Dodge. He's the automobile heir, you know."

Frances Dodge Van Lennep died two years ago, but any doubts about her husband had been dispelled long before that. "When Fred came here, some people thought, oh, here's just some guy who married a rich woman," recalls Horseman Albert Clay, who as a member of Kentucky's reigning thoroughbred aristocracy might not be expected to speak quite so approvingly of a harness-horse breeder in the best of circumstances. "I may have thought it myself. But Fred has convinced everybody. He's a doer. When he gets involved in something, watch out."

As Clay's remarks suggest, Van Lennep's impact on the horse world owes less to whatever fine figure he cuts at Castleton's Christmas party than it does to another of those old-fashioned qualities: hard work. When he spent a few days last summer relaxing on a Caribbean beach, nobody could remember when he had last taken a vacation. His appetite for long hours astonishes underlings like Jonathan Figgs, a young man who confides, "You keep busy enough working for Mr. Van Lennep." At the root of this particular lament is the fact that while Fred Van Lennep owns three cars, poor beleaguered Jonathan is his only chauffeur.

With everything else, Van Lennep keeps busy in Lexington as one of the two biggest stockholders in both the historic Red Mile track and the 79-year-old Tattersalls sales company. The Red Mile's clay surface is considered the fastest in harness racing, but the track was financially distressed until Van Lennep merged it with Tattersalls, renovated the facilities and launched a spring night meeting. These steps saved the Red Mile and produced trickle-down effects not displeasing to Van Lennep: the track's venerable Lexington Trots, traditionally the last major stop on harness racing's annual Grand Circuit, lends ambience to the Tattersalls yearling sale, which is where Castleton Farm peddles its horses and makes its money.

By such farsighted means has Van Lennep built Castleton into a leading breeder of quality trotters and pacers. One can think of the standardbred industry today as polarized between Castleton and Pennsylvania's larger Hanover Shoe Farms, each of which heads what amounts to its own geo-equinal bloc. Where Hanover speaks for smaller breeders in Pennsylvania and Maryland, Castleton tends to represent those in Kentucky and Ohio; Hanover dominates the nearby Harrisburg yearling sale as surely as Castleton does Tattersalls; Hanover enjoys rave notices in the Harrisburg-published magazine, The Harness Horse, while Castleton receives a gratifying press in the Lexington-based The Horseman and Fair World of which—almost inevitably—Frederick Van Lennep is co-owner. Van Lennep cannot resist noting that Hanover Shoe had a head start. "We've done in 20 years what took them nearly half a century," he says.

Castleton Farm and Dodge Stables, the firm's prestigious show-horse division, encompass 1,400 carpeted acres. Van Lennep can frequently be seen there, passing beneath aisles of stately button-woods, perhaps stopping to check on a herd of grazing blood horses, or to poke his head into one or another of the green-shingled barns. His involvement in Castleton is deepest during the Tattersalls yearling sale, where last fall 91 Castleton fillies and colts brought $1,961,000. The $21,549-per-horse average, a figure not even Hanover Shoe has matched, reflected a demand generated by the racetrack performance of such Castleton-sired winners as Strike Out and Speedy Crown, as well as by the farm's own stable of 35 horses, most of them younger animals like Colonial Charm, the filly who was 1972's 2-year-old trotter of the year. In all, Castleton-sired horses won $7.5 million last year, the high point being the Little Brown Jug, pacing's premier event, in which Strike Out won while other sons of Castleton stallions took the next four places. Strike Out retired to stud at Castleton soon after, joining his own sire, Bret Hanover, the broad-shouldered bay who is largely responsible for the farm's recent blitz both in the sales ring and on the track.

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