UPPERVILLE, VA. — UPPPERVILLE, Va. -- There is the breathtaking landscape, miles of gentle rolling hills with the Blue Ridge Mountains serving as a backdrop. There is the landing strip, the sleek Gulfstream II corporate jet sitting a few hundred yards from Oak Spring, the magnificent estate that is occupied by a quiet billionaire and his wife.
This is Rokeby Farms.
There are the other, more essential parts to the place world-renowned philanthropist and horseman Paul Mellon has called home for more than half a century. The dairy barn. The paint shop. The famed "Brick House" that is Mellon's private art museum. The vegetable and flower gardens that occupy much of Bunny Mellon's time.
Little seems to be missing from the storybook property Mellon purchased from his mother in the mid-1930s and expanded tenfold to what is now some 4,000 acres. What has become noticeably absent in the past six months, however, is what put Mellon into the spotlight again with Sea Hero, this year's Kentucky Derby winner and the favorite in the 118th Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
Missing from Rokeby Farms are the horses.
Ever since Mellon, 85, decided to get out of the breeding business last fall and cut down on the rest of his racing operation -- selling 32 of his thoroughbreds for more than $6 million at a couple of Keeneland dispersal sales -- one of the sport's most distinguished and elegant horse farms has taken on the look of a well-preserved ghost town.
Recently, it even got too quiet for Mellon.
"He said the fields are a little too empty," recalled Ernie Bugg, a tobacco-chewing Tennessean who has been here for 13 years and succeeded his boss, Bernie Garrettson, as stable manager last year.
Mellon, who is in the process of selling off some of his acreage as well as his racing stock, announced recently that he would bring back one mare and three of the stable's older fillies after they are retired.
"Mr. Mellon just loves looking out his window and seeing those horses," said Bugg.
Mellon, who declined to be interviewed, is one of the last of a nearly extinct breed: the old-time, old-money horse owner. Those who made up the sport's royal families for more than a generation are all but gone: the Whitneys and Vanderbilts, the Wideners and du Ponts.
Even among this exclusive list, Mellon is spoken of in almost reverential terms. For all his money and power (Forbes Magazine reported last year that the family fortune was worth an estimated $4.3 billion), Mellon rarely crossed the line between an interested owner and a meddlesome one.
"He doesn't tell you what to do on a day-to-day basis," said trainer Mack Miller, 71, a Hall of Famer who has worked for Mellon the past 16 years. "He's beautifully informed."
Said Henry White, who has han
dled Rokeby's breeding plans for the past 25 years at Plum Lane Farm in Lexington, Ky., "He lets you do the job you're asked to do. There is never any second-guessing. He just sits back and enjoys the results."
Not that Mellon's association with horse racing has always been celebrated by success. Rokeby Farms has produced a number of great horses for American and European racing -- most notably Arts and Letters, the 1969 Belmont Stakes winner and Horse of the Year; 1970 Horse of the Year Fort Marcy; 1972 3-year-old champion Key to the Mint; and Mill Reef, the winner of the 1971 English Derby and l'Arc de Triomphe, the two most prestigious races overseas. But the stable also has had its share of bad luck.
Injuries have cut short the careers of some of Rokeby's most successful horses: Forrest Flower, Java Gold (1987 winner of the Whitney and Marlboro Cup) and Red Ransom. Mill Reef, whose bronzed statue stands at the center of one of the main stable areas here, broke a leg while training for the 1972 l'Arc. Most recently, it was Eastern Echo, who broke a leg shortly after winning last year's Futurity Stakes at Belmont.
"One of the keys when you produce your own is that you have to take what the good Lord gives you," said Miller.
Compared with Claiborne Farm, Rokeby was strictly a mom-and-pop (or in this case, pop) operation. In its heyday, Claiborne had as many as 50 broodmares among 300 horses boarding there; Rokeby never had more than 43 broodmares and usually never more than 100 horses.
"I remember when we got to that number , Mr. Mellon sent me a memorandum saying, 'I don't want that many,' " recalled Miller.
In part, it was because Mellon didn't want Rokeby to be known exclusively as a horse producer. Mellon
had a penchant for steeplechase riding and fox hunting that preceded, and might have exceeded, his interest in flat racing.
Also, there is so much more to his legacy than horses. While much of his fortune was inherited -- Mellon's father, Andrew, was a millionaire banker who would become Treasury Secretary from 1921 to 1932 -- much of his life has been spent donating his money to build everything from churches to art museums to the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga, N.Y.
Once reported to have donated $50 million in art to various institutions, Mellon founded the Yale Center for British Art -- giving $18 million as well as more than 20,000 paintings, drawings and prints. The East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington was built with Mellon's $31 million contribution.
"I think I can truthfully say that I have not collected to hoard, and I hope the pleasure I have derived from my collecting activity is shared by those who now visit," Mellon wrote in his 1992 autobiography, "Reflections In A Silver Spoon."
When the recession hit the thoroughbred industry in the late 1980s, most owners had to consolidate before they went belly-up. Although Rokeby never was threatened with foreclosure, changes were made.
"We lived high on the hog for a long time," said Miller. "Now we're getting back to reality."
After having as many as 40 horses in training last year, Rokeby Farm is down to about 25 this year. Among the 20 yearlings still romping about the fields is a yet-to-be-named colt with excellent bloodlines, by Danzig out of Glowing Honor, Sea Hero's half-sister.
"Everyone's eyes light up when they see him," said Ernie Bugg.
Especially Paul Mellon's.