by Murray Brown
He’s close to 86 years old, yet he still begins every day at about 6 a.m. feeding two stables of horses, followed by cleaning anywhere from 15 to 20 stalls at Winterwood Farm, a farm he built and lives on,
but no longer owns. According to his dear friend Dean Hoffman, “Hard work is what keeps Albert Adams alive.”
Albert, “Ab” to his multitude of friends, began his life’s journey close to the Ontario town of Brantford where his parents had a farm.
His schooling began in a country schoolhouse where one teacher taught eight grades consisting of a total of 60 students.
“School didn’t interest me that much anyway, so I never felt very deprived of a complete education. My dad put me in charge of the livestock at the farm at the age of 13. I always loved horses and enjoyed watching and reading about them, primarily thoroughbreds, because they were the only ones that I was exposed to.
“My first physical contact with standardbreds occurred when I was approached by a gentleman whose name was Vern Evans, who asked me to board and foal a mare for him at my father’s place. I jumped all over the opportunity and all went well. Little did I know that was the first foal of perhaps thousands of them I would help to deliver.”
While still a youngster, Adams went to work for Max Webster, a well-known automobile dealer in Hamilton, who had branched out to breeding, raising and sometimes racing trotters and pacers.
“Max was a wonderful man and a great person for who to work. He treated me as well as it was possible for a boss to treat someone working for him.”
By then, Ab had met, married and had his first of four children with the one love of his life, Sherry, to who he was married for over 58 years. He says that he hasn’t yet and never will recover from her loss six years ago.
Adams enjoyed working for Max Webster, but received an offer to go to the Bluegrass of Kentucky and work for the world renowned Almahurst Farm.
He spoke with Mr. Webster and Max told him that if his dream was to go to “horse heaven” in the bluegrass of Kentucky then that he should follow it. Adams says, “to show you what a great man Mr. Webster was, even though I was leaving him, he gave me a check for $300, which was a lot of money back in 1962, to help us with our moving expenses.”
When he first arrived at Almahurst, then under the management of Paul Throckmorton and owned by Californian Jim Camp, all was not quite as he was promised. Instead of the house that he was told they would get, Ab, Sherry and baby Lorrie were moved into a bug and rodent infested attic in the city which required going up 26 steps to reach. When Sherry became pregnant with their second child it became impossible for her to navigate all those steps. They were in an impossible situation.
Ab went to management and submitted his resignation. Miraculously, they were quickly moved into more livable quarters on the farm.
Two years after the Adams family moved to Almahurst, it was sold to P.J. “Jack” Baugh. Noted Hall of Fame horseman Francis McKinzie, who helped to arrange the sale, became its president and farm manager.
With the new ownership came a series of layoffs of the then overstaffed farm. McKinzie quickly recognized the work ethic of the young Canadian transplant and kept him on as his assistant.
Francis McKinzie is well recognized as one of, if not the greatest of all farm managers. His ability earned him a place as an Immortal in the Harness Racing Museum. Tell us a little about him.
“He was a great man, but not the easiest person in the world to work for. He was exceedingly demanding. However he would be willing to do anything that he asked you to do. He almost defined the word perfectionist. He could prep a yearling better than just about everybody. He could be very kind, but could sometimes be the opposite. There were some instances where he actually brought me to tears. I was ready to quit once or twice, but resisted the temptation. You know the saying ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, will make you better.’ Francis McKinzie definitely made me a better horseman.”
You worked at Almahurst for Jack Baugh for 30 years.
“All things considered, it was a great experience. When Francis left, Mr. Baugh made me the farm manager. We complemented each other well. I worked hard and remained exceedingly loyal. I was offered jobs at other farms, one of them at Hanover for a lot more than I was making at Almahurst. He was very kind to me and my family. He built us a brand new state of the art, five bedroom home. I always had a new vehicle at my disposal. Interestingly, when I left, I was still earning the same salary as when I began. But there was a great added benefit, in that I was allowed to kept all of my own horses at the farm free of charge. This was a tremendous advantage to both of us. When I left, I owned 13 horses. At the height of my time there, we would foal somewhere around 300 mares a season. I tried to be present for every new arrival.”
Tell us about Winterwood Farms.
“From the time I was a child I always wanted to own a farm of my own. While I was at Almahurst, I became aware of a 27-acre piece of land available in Central Ohio, which later grew to be 200+ acres. Sherry and I looked at it. We loved what we saw. We decided to go into debt to buy it. We had no real long range plans for it, other than when I stopped working for someone else, that would be the place where we would ultimately settle and if I was still working with horses, that would be where it would be. Anytime I could get away from Kentucky was spent on our farm. We constantly worked on it and made all the improvements that we could afford and maybe some that we couldn’t. Eventually, the debt that I was carrying became too onerous and I had to sell. Thankfully, we were able to sell to a very generous family who love the farm and the horses as we do. I’m grateful for everything. My son Mark runs the farm and does a great job of it. He also does an incredible job in taking care of his aged father.”
You are known for your affinity for grey horses, most specifically with the great Laag, a horse you bred and owned throughout his racing and breeding careers.
“Laag was a truly wonderful horse from the time he was foaled until he drew his last breath. He wasn’t a kid’s horse though. He definitely had a mind of his own. The trick with him was to make him believe you were doing what he wanted you to do, while doing what you wanted him to do. He was also very smart. There were people he responded to positively and others that he didn’t like at all. I loved grey horses well before I acquired Laag’s dam Tinsel and well before her, Blue Hurricane. My dad had a grey Percheron and I’ve loved greys ever since. Almahurst was the place where the greatest grey ever, Greyhound, was foaled. Maybe that in some undefinable way is what landed me there. Speaking of Laag, in going through his pedigree, there are five successive generations of tail end grey mares in it, maybe even more, but five is as far back as I could go with identifying their colors. My love for greys is still intact. I own a grey Somebeachsomewhere mare that is in foal to Fear The Dragon.”
You were around many great horses while you were at Almahurst.
“One of my favorites was Shadow Wave, a bright chestnut with lots of white — a color combination that most standardbred people tend to dislike.”
Did you get many of his yearlings that looked like him? Were they difficult to sell?
“Even though he was a chestnut, he didn’t sire that many of that color, but he did get a lot of white on some of his foals. It rarely presented that much of a problem though, since he was such a good sire and so many of his horses became good on the racetrack. He was as wonderful a horse to be around as any that was ever foaled. He was both kind and smart. He never was a problem in any respect. He wasn’t all that big, but was strong and stout. He probably resembled a quarter horse more than any other standardbred that I’ve ever been around. I was actually approached by more than one quarter horse
person to see if they could breed their mares to him. He was extremely game as well. He was foundered at 2 which became a life-long problem for him, to the point where near the end of his life he was close to missing one of them. That never stopped him from doing his job. His groom, Sam Brown, loved him and would have conversations with him. There were times where I believe that Shadow Wave actually understood what was being said.”
You, along with Francis McKinzie, Bill Brown, Carter Duer and Jack McNiven are generally recognized as being among the best to prep and show a yearling. Do you notice any difference in doing so today than in your era?
“At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I would say that the major difference is in finding enough good help to do the job. I think back then we had more people who loved what they did and loved and cared about the horse perhaps more than they do today. Of course saying that, back then there were only a few farms that presented their yearlings looking great. Today the ones that don’t do so are the ones that stand out, rather than the ones that do. Most people do an excellent job. I worked the Hoosier Classic Sale for Steve Cross as an advisor for several years. Back then a lot of the yearlings might have looked like overgrown goats. Today all the consignors are in competition with each other and most of them present a well grown out, very presentable horse.”
In all your years in the sport, what represent your greatest thrill and achievement?
“Actually both my greatest thrill and also my greatest disappointment could be summed up in one word — Nihilator! When we got him to stand at Almahurst, I was honored beyond my imagination. Here I was, believing the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle was coming to Almahurst Farm and would be under my direct supervision. My biggest disappointment was in his failure to live up to expectations in the stud and in his early death.”
As great as Nihilator was on the racetrack, why do you believe that he failed in the stud?
“Looking back, I would say that it was likely that the chief reason was because he sired so many poor individuals. He wasn’t the best individual himself. He had two front feet that looked as though they might have belonged to two different horses. He was able to overcome his physical deficiencies on the racetrack, most of his foals were not. He wasn’t the first great horse who wasn’t the greatest individual to enter the stud and become a disappointment. A notable other one might have been Prakas. On the other hand, Tar Heel was far from being a great individual and still became a great sire. When it comes to sires, there are more questions than there are answers.”
In all your years in the business, were there particular people you enjoyed showing horses to and conversely were there any whose appearance you dreaded?
“Most of the people were a pleasure to show to. If I had to pick one all-time favorite it would probably be just about everybody’s favorite, Billy Haughton. In addition to possibly being the greatest horsemen ever, he was one of the greatest human beings to ever walk this earth. He was remarkable in that he almost never had a negative word or thought about anybody, whether it be person or horse. There were others, many others. Those that immediately pop into mind are Jack Kopas, Gene Riegle, Dick Farrington and numerous others. There wasn’t anybody in particular who I disliked dealing with, but in general terms I wasn’t really that comfortable around people who jerked or prodded the yearlings. I feared not only for the safety of them and the horses that they were manhandling, but also for everybody around. I always felt that if someone were inclined to do that, they should ask that the horse be taken into a stall or if they could come after hours to inspect it. The rare person who would just go into a horse’s stall without permission would also upset me for the same reasons.”
Our mutual friend Dean Hoffman says that as great a horseman as you are, you are an even better husband and father.
“If that were true, in order to be a good husband, you would need to have a good wife. I was lucky enough to have the very best one ever. Sherry and I were married for 58 1/2 years before we lost her. She has now been gone six years. I still miss her so much, every single day. We raised four great children in order of their ages, Lorrie, Lisa, Mark and Jade. If any credit is given to how good those kids became, it would all belong to Sherry.”
What is life like for you today?
“For an old guy like me, I suppose it’s okay. I try to keep as busy as I am able to. I live in my own house on the farm that has been so big a part of my life. My son, Mark, who has grown into as good a horseman and maybe more importantly as great a person as there ever was, lives here with his family as well. That in itself is a great blessing. Mark takes as good care of me, as his mother took care of him and his sisters when they were growing up. He keeps me out of trouble and really looks out for what is best for me. What else could a person wish for?”
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