The most interesting woman in racing is not the most successful, but Ellen Charles is the reigning Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association Owner of the Year, so do not pity her.
Besides, there’s still more to know about the 79-year-old Howard County native. A line or two about uncombed hair wouldn't capture the essence of Albert Einstein, so here are the basics: granddaughter of a cereal heiress. Daughter of one of the “grandest dames of Maryland racing” and a racing industry careerist. Mother of three. Longtime museum president. Vacationed at what became President Donald Trump’s private quarters. (No, not the White House.) Relative of Glenn Close. (Yes, that Glenn Close.)
Naturally, here was trainer Rodney Jenkins’ reaction upon meeting Charles more than a decade ago: “She's down-home.” No pretense, no indication she came from high society. Just an animal lover whose passion has taken their Laurel-based Hillwood Stable to the brink of its most prestigious win.
“A horse is just — they either win or lose or place,” Charles said Thursday, a day before her filly Shimmering Aspen was set to run in the $250,000 Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico Race Course, a Grade II stakes. “It's pretty cut and dried, and that's refreshing.”
No shades of gray, a reporter commented. “Except I love gray horses,” she said, laughing, “so I don't mind shades of gray.”
Charles had no choice but to love horses, not that it was a difficult ask. Her father, Merrall MacNeille Sr., was a former steward of Maryland thoroughbred racing who judged the Preakness and thousands of other races in his decades-long career in the industry.
Her mother, Adelaide Close Riggs, was, in her Baltimore Sun obituary, called “certainly one of the grandest dames of Maryland racing and an absolutely wonderful sportswoman” by the former editor of Maryland Horse magazine, after a long career raising horses for equestrian and thoroughbred racing. Praise came easily to the family: In Close, Riggs also had a niece who would go on to Academy Award-nominated roles in “Fatal Attraction” and “Dangerous Liaisons.”
Charles grew up on Happy Retreat, a 540-acre farm near the Howard County village of Daisy, between West Friendship and Lisbon. (About 20 miles away were the grounds that became Merriweather Post Pavilion, named for her maternal grandmother, American Post Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, whom Charles would visit at her Mar-a-Lago residence as a youth.)
Riding on the weekends with her sister, Melissa Cantacuzene, now a horse owner in Virginia, Charles developed an abiding love for horses, if not the skills to master them.
“The family always said that I've liked horses a lot better on the ground than I did on their back,” she joked.
Her earliest memories of Preakness Day at Pimlico are shrouded by age and field of vision. “You saw more feet than anything else” as a child, she said, before rattling off what she did remember: large hats and begloved spectators, J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. senators.
It was, more than anything, a celebration of the sport.
“Don't ask me who won the race,” she said, “because I don't think I was paying that much attention to it.”
Charles in 2014 stepped down after 25 years as board president of the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, a decorative arts museum bordering Rock Creek Park in Washington, but she had by then found new material for future biographies.
In 2004, she started racing her own horses in Maryland. She now has 21 horses with Jenkins, who said that as an owner, “you can’t beat her.”
“Sometimes I think we're running a petting zoo here,” said Jenkins, who also trained Bandbox, the winner of the 2014 Grade III General George at Laurel Park. “She's that nice to the horses. She loves them.”
For now, her racing career is catching up to another of the four-legged variety. In 2013, an American foxhound and bichon frise she owned were named Best of Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Her lucky charm at the time: a crystal horse brooch. Bought at a dog show, of course.
This weekend, she’ll be at Pimlico to root on Top of Mind in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Longines Dixie and two fillies also making the trip. But victory in the Black-Eyed Susan would be, she said, an “incredible moment.”
She turns 80 next month. Good luck getting one more into that life retrospective.