Few people have had the success in horse racing or get around the world as much as Virginia Kraft Payson.
When she worked for Sports Illustrated as an outdoors correspondent, she went on big-game hunting expeditions with such world figures as the Shah of Iran and Francisco Franco. Now that she's an international horse racing owner, she's friends with Queen Elizabeth II.
Her Payson Park Training Center, situated among the orange groves of St. Lucie County along Florida's Treasure Coast, has been called the "American Chantilly" or an "Equine Club Med."
Payson drives around the facility in a Corvette painted in her blue and white stable colors.
The training center comprises 750 acres, has stabling for 565 horses (at $1,000 per stall for the season) and accommodates about 30 trainers from October through April.
This year, about a quarter of the equine residents were from Europe, including horses owned by the Aga Khan and the Buckram Oak Farm of Mahmoud and Moustafa Foustok.
Trish Millner, the former Maryland trainer, is the clocker and outrider at the track. It is quite a sight to see Mohammed Moubarak, the Buckram Oak trainer, lead a set of 20 horses through the gap during training hours.
Moubarak brought more than 20 European exercise riders to get the horses and takes out three different sets each morning. "He has two barns with about $40 million worth of horseflesh -- in each barn," Payson said.
While a lot of traditionalists bemoan tracks such as Laurel/Pimlico going to multiple simulcast cards, it doesn't necessarily upset Payson.
"The multiple signals appeal to the hard-core gamblers, but there is also room to accommodate the hero horses and equine stars that live racing creates," she said. "I think it's possible to satisfy everyone. Life, after all, is a compromise. I have a friend who has a sports palace in Cuernavaca [near Mexico City]. His place is open from 10 a.m. to midnight and takes racing signals from all over the world. Now, he's trying to get in racing from New Zealand and Australia so that he can stay open until 3 a.m."
Payson said that as a horse owner/breeder she feels she's becoming part of "an extinct species."
"I can truly say that the only tracks that ever seem really happy to have me racing a horse at their plants are Oaklawn, Arlington Park and Laurel/Pimlico," she said.
"When I ran Lac Ouimet in the first Pimlico Special, it was one of my great racing experiences. I was treated like a queen the whole weekend."
Payson had hoped to run St. Jovite, Lac Ouimet's brother and a European champion, in this year's Pimlico race. But the horse already has been shipped to her farm in Kentucky to start test-breeding mares. An old tendon injury forced St. Jovite's unexpected retirement last week.
Farewell, Barn F
Pimlico opens its spring meet Thursday, and when horsemen return to the Hayward Avenue side of the stable area, they will notice the absence of Barn F, formerly occupied by trainer Dick Delp.
The barn was razed a couple of weeks ago and will be the site of an English-style walking ring for stakes horses that ship in to run in the Preakness and other races.
Barn D also is being converted into an additional stakes barn to take care of the equine stakes overflow from the Preakness barn during the coming meet.
There is the possibility that Lasix barns -- where runners being treated with the anti-bleeding medication are quarantined before race -- will be abandoned.
The opening-day Pimlico feature is the Hirsch Jacobs Stakes. Pimlico officials hope to lure a few New York-based 3-year-olds that were scheduled to run in the recently canceled Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct.
Barclay Tagg, Vinnie Blengs and Bill Donovan plan to start shipping large contingents of their Gulfstream Park-based stables back to Maryland next week. . . . The powerful Ben Perkins Jr. stable will be sending the majority of their runners to Monmouth Park this summer. In the fall, the Perkins outfit might send a division of their best horses to New York instead of returning them to Maryland. . . . Jeremy McNeill, 23-year-old trainer of Duc d'Sligovil, is just starting his career as a horseman, but he's surrounding himself with plenty of experienced employees. Helping him look after his Florida Derby starter is Dave Colberg, who was born in Rock Hill, Va. Colberg, 72, said he got his start at the Maryland tracks working for the late Jackie Bosley and his sisters, Sara Secor and Betty Bird. Cecil Paul gallops Duc d'Sligovil. He used to work for retired trainer Lucien Laurin and once galloped Secretariat and Riva Ridge.