For Glen Riddle, it's the finish line


BERLIN - Glen Riddle Farm, one of the most historic equine sites in the state, if not the nation, is dead. Its nearly 1,000 acres on the Eastern Shore swarm with bulldozers and excavators resurrecting it as an upscale development with two 18-hole golf courses.

The farm was home to Man o' War, generally regarded as the greatest thoroughbred ever to race in North America, and his most accomplished son, War Admiral. The winner of the 1937 Triple Crown, War Admiral was Seabiscuit's nemesis in the famed 1938 match race at Pimlico.

The back half of the track on which they trained will be luxury houses. And the swath of earth on which they romped to the finish line will be the seventh and eighth fairways of the Man O' War Championship Golf Course.

Established in 1915 by Samuel D. Riddle, a Philadelphia textile manufacturer, Glen Riddle Farm was abandoned as a training center in the late 1970s. The farm, like a ghost town, fell into disrepair.

One of the nation's largest homebuilders, Texas-based Centex Homes, is the lead developer in transforming Glen Riddle into GlenRiddle, a gated community of 650 homes starting at about a half-million dollars each.

The site will include a 96-slip marina on Herring Creek providing access to the Atlantic Ocean and two 18-hole championship golf courses designed by McDonald and Sons of Jessup.

Centex has drawn heavily on the farm's history to market its project. Buyers can purchase homes in styles called "The Derby" and "The Belmont" on streets named Riddle Lane and War Admiral Lane.

The heart of Glen Riddle Farm, where horses trained for six decades, consisted of a one-mile track, living quarters for employees and two barns. The larger barn, where Man o' War and War Admiral lived, featured three cupolas and 24 oversized stalls. Centex is preserving the structure and converting it into the golf clubhouse.

Dave Ryan, Centex's on-site representative, said that, if possible, some stalls will be retained and incorporated into the design.

He said Centex will preserve a large wooden arch, in the shape of an upside-down horseshoe, that once displayed the letters spelling out Man o' War. A few faded letters are visible through the scraggly trees and vines that envelop it. Ryan said the builders might also preserve a two-story observation stand overlooking the track and a dilapidated water tower.

"We had engineers in to try to figure out what we could save," Ryan said. "Most of it was just too far gone. I think we got here a few years too late to save everything. But we probably got here just in time to save a little of it."

You can still make out the path of the training track, despite the encroaching weeds and pine trees. Much of the rail remains in tattered sections. In thick woods near the head of the stretch, a deteriorating starting gate is sinking into the earth and has become increasingly enveloped by vegetation.

Bob Carr is a 44-year-old musician and special education teacher from nearby Powellville who led the battle for preserving the farm's equine history. He and other citizens fought the project over environmental and preservation issues throughout its 14-year planning process.

Carr has visited the farm many times. He acknowledges that some of the buildings weren't worth saving, but that some were. He said the developers could have done more to preserve the history.

"They think it's just an old building they're knocking down," Carr says. "But what they're doing is destroying the legacy left for posterity that inspires youth and helps youth believe that something called greatness can be achieved.

"I'm no fan of horse racing, but I am a fan of great Americans. Man o' War was a great American. He just happened to wear a horse suit. There's an old saying: 'Poor is the culture that has no heroes, but beggared is the culture that has heroes and forgets them.' "

The 1932 book Maryland and the Thoroughbred described Glen Riddle Farm as "one of the most complete and up-to-date training plants in the country." Riddle's majestic barn displayed his racing colors - black and pale yellow. Man o' War was one of its first occupants.

He was a long-legged yearling, born in Kentucky, when he arrived in the fall of 1918. At Glen Riddle Farm, Man o' War learned to become a racehorse.

The next year as a 2-year-old, he won nine of 10 races.

After spending a second winter at Glen Riddle Farm, Man o' War cemented his reputation as the greatest American thoroughbred of all time. In 1920, he captured all 11 races.

After winning the Preakness against eight others in his 3-year-old debut, he never faced more than three challengers again. Six times, only one horse showed up to test him. Man o' War won one of those races by 100 lengths.

In eight of the 11 races, he set track records, five of them American marks. (None still stands.) He retired at the end of the year with what were then record earnings of $249,465. Man o' War returned to Glen Riddle Farm one final time before departing for Kentucky and a life at stud.

His son, War Admiral, also learned to race at Glen Riddle. War Admiral won 21 of 26 races, including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. His stature in the late '30s is better understood today because of the movie, Seabiscuit, and Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, upon which the movie is based.

Riddle died in 1951 and his partner, Walter Jeffords, died in 1960. The farm passed to a trust managed in part by Walter Jeffords Jr. Frank Holloway, 82, of Berlin, was the last Jeffords employee at Glen Riddle.

Holloway began working there in 1941, and he became foreman in the 1960s. He said Glen Riddle Farm ended with a whimper in 1977.

"The horses left in the spring," Holloway said, "and never came back."

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