When Alwaysmining enters the starting gate for Saturday’s 144th running of The Preakness Stakes at historic Pimlico Racecourse, Harford County horsewoman Avla “Poppet” Robinson Pitts will be paying closer attention than most. The reason? Alwaysmining was bred by Pitts and foaled at her Fallston farm.
Alwaysmining is now owned by Caroline and Grey Bentley of Runnymede Racing. He finished third, fourth (twice) and seventh in his first four starts before finishing first in his last six consecutive times out of the gate. His most recent victory in the April 20 Federico Tesio Stakes earned him his Preakness slot. He has been training at Cecil County’s Fair Hill Training Center under the tutelage of trainer Kelly Rubley and exercise rider Felix Astudillo.
Born in Biarritz, France to a Philadelphia socialite mother and an English father, “Poppet” Pitts was destined to a life among horses. She spent her early years in England with her parents at their home near Cowdray Park Polo Club where her father, professional polo player Major Jack Robinson, was a member of the cavalry troops the Royal Scots Greys and 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. She began riding at the age of 3 and was a member of the local pony club. She attended boarding school in Scotland and at the outbreak of World War II moved with her mother to California.
Adding to the horse racing influences in Pitts’ life was that of her step-father, Joseph Flanagan. “Judge” Flanagan as he was known, was a former amateur rider, avid foxhunter and president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association from 1945-1946. He was Chief Steward of the Maryland Racing Commission and a steward in Delaware and also the breeder of the champion steeplechaser Elkridge, who is a member of both the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame and the Maryland Thoroughbred Hall of Fame.
Although her place of birth and parentage made her eligible for tri-citizenship, Pitts is American and spent the majority of her life in the mid-Atlantic region. She spent 10 years in the Middleburg area of Virginia where she worked for noted steeplechase trainer Dot Smithwick. She had great success riding show hunters and, in 2011, was inducted into the Virginia Horse Shows Association Hall of Fame. She also had experience riding in steeplechase races including the locally run Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point. In the early 1960s, she rode the D. M. “Mikey” Smithwick-trained Hill Tie in a series of point-to-points. Hill Tie, under jockey “Paddy” Smithwick, would go on to become a two-time winner of the prestigious Virginia Gold Cup race.
In addition to her showing and racing experience she is a longtime member of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt.
“Poppet” Pitts makes her home at Hitchcock Plains, a Fallston farm on the edge of My Lady’s Manor which she inherited from her step-father who purchased the property in 1929. For the majority of Pitts’ ownership, it has been a foxhunting stable where she has kept her own hunters as well as those of others, usually family friends with some outside boarders. One of her most recent clients was 2015 Maryland Hunt Cup winning rider, Mark Beecher.
Although she started breeding horses in the 1970s she only began breeding Thoroughbreds to sell eight years ago and has had some success in the endeavor. Her operation is small. She breeds two mares a season, often in Kentucky, and then brings them home for the duration of their pregnancy. Neighbor and good friend, former rider and trainer, Vivian Rall fills the role of midwife when foaling time comes. She has overseen the foaling of all of Pitts’ mares however, in the case of Alwaysmining, she was absent due to the passing of her own mother. Difficult as it was to fill Rall’s shoes, neighboring Willow Oaks farm manager Darin Martin was on call and handled the delivery.
In January, a filly Pitts bred sold at the Keeneland Sale of Horses of All Ages for a hammer price that moved the breeder “to tears.” The dam — the female parent — of that filly, What Will Be, is also the dam of Alwaysmining. The gelding’s success has prompted offers to purchase his dam, all of which Pitts has turned down. Her homebred horse, Simply Certain, has run under her own silks in area steeplechase meets.
The family love of horses has also been passed on to another two generations. Poppet’s daughter Helen Pitts Blasi is a successful trainer based in Kentucky where her husband Greg is the head outrider at Churchill Downs. The couple’s two daughters are also beginning to ride ponies. Pitts’ son CP Pitts grew up with his sister in Pony Club and foxhunting. His wife, Janet rides hunters/jumpers.
Pitts has been described as “shy,” “extremely modest” and an “under the radar” type of person. Her family and friends have been encouraging her to enjoy the moment and to savor what it means for someone who breeds on such a small scale to have bred a Preakness runner. When asked for her own thoughts on the current attention she and the horse she bred are receiving, she says with a slight smile, “It’s hard to describe.”
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All around “The Manor” fingers are crossed for Saturday’s race in the hope that Alwaysmining becomes only the second Harford County horse to wear a blanket of Black-eyed Susans on Preakness day.