Caviart Farms’ Judy Chaffee on her family’s growing investment in standardbreds

Caviart Farms’ Judy Chaffee on her family’s growing investment in standardbreds

June 25, 2022

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by Murray Brown

Despite growing up in an immediate family without significant connections to the standardbred industry, Judy Chaffee, owner of Caviart Farms with her husband Buck, believes that it was always her destiny to fall in love with standardbred horses and racing. She said the emotional attachment to the horses and sport were innately passed from grandfather to granddaughter. Her grandfather, Lowell Chapman of Rockland, ME was full-time an engineer with the Maine Central Railroad. He also owned a small farm and trotters that he enjoyed sitting behind at the local trotting center.

“My mother, who also loved the horses, told me how my grandfather’s horses raced the Canadian-New England Circuit – that she remembered that his horse named Jollity was very successful,” said Judy. “She used to tell me that she wished that my grandfather, who had passed away, and I could have sat down to ‘talk horses’ because we both would have loved that.”

It was not until adulthood and meeting Buck that the standardbred world became a significant part of Judy’s life.

“When Buck brought me to Virginia to meet his parents, we arrived at their house to find a note pinned to the kitchen door. It said, ‘Come to Rosecroft.’ When we met there that evening and I saw the beauty and athleticism of the horses, it changed my life. Buck’s dad and mom, Clarence and Helen Chaffee, began buying some standardbreds and even a small Virginia farm. When we went to the backstretch of Rosecroft to see their horses, I loved the early mornings there, a cup of hot coffee in hand, watching and listening to the activity as the horses came and went to and from the track for jogging and training.”

It was still a handful of years before Buck and Judy became owners. In 1984, they went to the Harrisburg sale “just to watch,” said Judy. “Of course, the sale atmosphere, the thought of buying one of the beautiful horses was infectious – so when Buck asked if I would rather buy a house or a horse, I answered, ‘a horse.’”

Buck raised his hand with the winning bid on an Ohio-bred filly by Good To See You named Good Tal. Judy said that after buying her, they looked at each other and asked, “‘What do we do now?’ A kind gentleman sitting behind us overheard, and told us to contact Joe Adamsky. He said that Joe was a good man and a good trainer who would do well by their filly.”

Joe did train her, and Good Tal went on to with the Home Talent Colt Stake Championship for her age and gait.

Today, about 40 years later, the Chaffees have climbed the ladder of horse ownership to the point where they not only have racehorses, but also breed horses on their own 235-acre farm in Paris, KY in the heart of the world’s horse breeding industry. Down the road is famed Claiborne Farm and next door is Stone Farm owned by Arthur Hancock III, the breeder of such noted thoroughbreds as Risen Star, Fusaichi Pegasus and Sunday Silence.

The Chaffees also have a significant interest in the ownership of two of harness racing’s most promising stallions, Tall Dark Stranger and Captain Crunch.

It was shortly after four of their 2-year-olds had won baby races at The Meadowlands that this scribe caught up with Judy Chaffee.

Q: You and Buck are two of the biggest fans and owners in our wonderful sport. Why are there not more like you?

“I’m not actually sure. A big factor is likely that not enough people know about our sport, or understand that we have the most incredible equine athletes that truly put on the greatest show on earth. It is an amazing experience to stand next to the track, hear the thunder of hooves as the horses pass by behind the starting gate – and then watch the strategy and the drama of the race unfold. I realize that there is considerable competition for the entertainment and gambling dollar, but what our sport offers seems completely unparalleled. At some time all racing fans and participants became captivated by the different aspects of harness racing. I believe there are others who could and would feel the same if only exposed to it.

“I wish that the casinos with racing would seem more receptive to promoting or even acknowledging our racing. Within many casinos it seems difficult to find signs pointing toward the racetrack, and there seem no windows to allow patrons to even see that racing takes place there. It is incumbent upon us to get help get the message out that ours is a terrific sport and a whole lot of fun.”

Q: You and Buck have risen from small time owners to becoming among the most prominent owners in our sport. How did this come about?

“Obviously, because of our love of horses and the sport, along with an interest in building a successful business, we have continued to expand and increase our investments. This increase has not only been financial, but also goes to time invested, the number of people working with us in building and expanding our breeding operation including stallion shares, constructing new paddocks and our recent contracting for new fencing and a new barn. Where for years we bred and raced almost exclusively pacers, we have ventured into adding some trotters as well. Perhaps the biggest and most critical change on the racing side has been joining in partnerships on yearlings. That allows greater opportunities for having a Grand Circuit type of horse, which is what we are always looking for. It also means that there are more eyes viewing each yearling for what we each like and see as possible flaws. Outside of an occasional partnership with trainers of our horses, our first real partnership with other ‘owners’ was with Captain Crunch. We really were lucky with our very first partnership. This past year, all but two of our yearling purchases were in partnerships. We purchased a filly named Kygo at the Lexington Selected Sale – a Captaintreacherous daughter of My Little Dragon — and regardless of her racing career she is destined to become a broodmare on our farm. We also purchased an American Ideal out of Darlin’s Delight. We have thus far retained and raced most of the horses that we have bred and raised on our farm.”

Q: How many horses does Caviart Farms now own?

“Currently, I believe we have just under 100 horses. There are 32 that are 2- and 3-year-olds – and of those 17 are owned in partnership. We also have 30 broodmares, nine yearlings, 17 sucklings, one retired horse with a forever home on the farm and have shares in 10 stallions including a significant number of shares in Tall Dark Stranger and Captain Crunch two horses that we campaigned.”

Q: Who are your trainers?

“The majority of our horses are with Nancy Takter and Tony Alagna. We have been owners with both for several years. They are top class trainers. Additionally we have horses with Noel Daley, another terrific trainer who was actually the original trainer of Caviart Ally before he returned briefly to his native Australia. We also have horses with Ray Schnittker, Linda Toscano and Paul Kelley.”

Q: How do you go about establishing who will be training which horses?

“Selecting yearlings from the Lexington and Harrisburg sale catalogs is my domain. I enjoy compiling a list of the most interesting yearlings in terms of pedigrees listed on the sale pages and from watching the accompanying videos. Buck and I eventually go over that list together, sometimes reducing it,. It definitely becomes shorter once we are able to preview the yearlings. Our trainers also offer their own suggestions either via a list or my suggesting particular horses that they have seen and liked. As for our homebreds, we try to divide them, at the same time taking into consideration which trainers may seem best suited for particular individuals.

“The year that we bought Tall Dark Stranger, Buck and I were actually only looking at fillies. Tall Dark Stranger was the only colt that I placed on the list. I never expected that we would buy him, but I was so taken by his breeding that I wanted to see him. When we did see him, I remember turning to Buck and asking, ‘Is there any such thing as a horse being too perfect?’ I loved him! Then when Nancy Takter called that afternoon to discuss fillies, while shuffling through my papers I mentioned that there was one colt that I absolutely loved. She asked his hip number. I told her, and if I recall correctly he was Hip number 60. Immediately she said, ‘How much of him do you want?’ Buck was not around at the time so that I said that we would take 25 per cent. The rest of the story is history.”

Q: What has been your greatest thrill in the sport?

“It is hard to name just one. Early on it was probably when our homebred filly Caviart Sydney won the 3-year-old Matron final over My Little Dragon. Or when Sydney as a 2-year-old won the Bluegrass Stake from the outside post 10, being in last place as the field made the final turn toward the finish line. She passed them all to win.

“More recently it was a thrill to watch Caviart Ally win the 2019 Breeders Crown over her arch rival Shartin N. It was always my dream for her to win the Breeders Crown. It meant a great deal to Buck and me when she was voted O’Brien Older Pacing Mare of the Year. I will say that probably the one race that was most exciting, one of the most exciting matches in the recent history of our sport was Ally nosing out Shartin N in the TVG! It was a race for the ages — a nail-biting duel all the way to the finish line. I still recall Ken Warkentin calling out ‘a photo for the win in a bang bang finish’ and then ‘1:48.3! What a race!’ I really think that the rivalry between those two great fillies was terrific for our sport.

“It was also amazing when Tall Dark Stranger won the 2020 Meadowlands Pace! In that race, just when it looked like he was going to be beaten, he did his classic ‘dig down deep,’ fought off his foes and came right back to win in 1:47.2!. He was the most gritty, gutsy horse with the determination to win every race. He retired as the only horse to ever win the Metro Pace and Breeders Crown at 2 and then the Meadowlands Pace and North America Cup at 3.

“Of course, it was amazing to see Stranger win the North America Cup the year after our Captain Crunch won it in a stakes record of 1:47.2. Stranger’s entire career was one big thrill. But we also had such a great time with Captain Crunch.”

Q: How about disappointments?

“One disappointment came last year. I believe that it was just one week after watching Caviart Camden set a world record 1:48.3 for 2-year-old pacing colts, besting Pebble Beach. He went to the Metro final – drew post 9 in a field of a dozen horses which included two trailers. Camden was three-wide for most of the race before finally fading. The race went according to the rules, but I believe that it is a great injustice to take such youngsters, just starting in their racing careers, and putting them in a field of 12 horses — worse yet with two trailers. I believe that this race continued to haunt Camden for the rest of his 2-year-old year.

The other disappointment was in the 2019 Breeders Crown. The judges ruled that Papi Rob Hanover, who was first across the finish line, had impeded Tall Dark Stranger, causing Stranger to lose momentum – and the win was awarded to Stranger. All of the colt’s connections then and now believe that was the correct call. Yannick Gingras, his driver, knew him best and said that he knew that Stranger was going to win. It was the colt’s way to let a competing horse be close, and then step up and beat him. While Stranger indeed captured the win, it broke our hearts that there was never the chance to actually prove which horse would have won minus that impediment. Regardless of the outcome, I personally wanted the best horse to win. I believe that it would have been Stranger. Forever and always there will be a disappointing 2P1 next to his name for that race.”

Q: Have you gone from training and racing horses to also breeding and raising them?

“The entire reason for buying our Kentucky breeding farm was so that Caviart Farms could breed as well as race horses. Buck and I consider ourselves equally involved in both. However, our son Terry is most interested in the breeding side of the business. In fact, it was back in 2007 that the two of us traveled to Kentucky in search of a farm. Our necessary criteria was a decent amount of land, after hearing that the old timers believed that Kentucky’s limestone rich soils promoted strong bones, we wanted the best soils. We did find and buy a farm with that great Maury soil. Once the farm was purchased, Terry took the helm of the operation, both as farm manager and COO. He is brilliant at caring for the horses and leading the day to day operation of the farm. He is the best. However, since Terry’s main interest is in breeding and the farm will eventually pass on to him, we expect to transition to selling some of the farm-bred and raised horses at the yearling sales – aiming for 2023. Buck and I will continue to both breed and race, but once Terry completely takes over it is expected that all yearlings will be sold.”

Q: To which stallions are you breeding your
30 broodmares this year?

“Caviart Farms is among the original owners of both Tall Dark Stranger and Captain Crunch. We have retained a significant ownership in both. This year we bred eight mares to each. Additionally, we have bred mares to Bar Hopping, Captain Corey, Downbytheseaside, Greenshoe, Huntsville, Lazarus, Stay Hungry, Sweet Lou and Tactical Landing.”

Q: You and Buck have a large and growing family in which you take great pride.

“Absolutely. Our lives revolve around our seven children and 16 grandchildren. Our sons and daughters are all very successful and good people, and beyond that they are wonderful parents and great role models for our grandchildren. The grandkids are all great too. They are really growing up quickly. Terry is the only one of our children actually involved in our standardbred business, but all of the kids support our horses and can be seen at some of the bigger races cheering our horses on.”

Have a question or comment for
The Curmudgeon? Reach him by email at: 
hofmurray@aol.com

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