Wealth of love, rich tradition Horse racing: Colorful and revered as an elder statesman of Maryland's industry, 80-year-old Hal Clagett represents just one generation in a long line devoted to the business of horses.

December 25, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO -- The generations sweep over the hills of Weston farm as gracefully as today's young horses romp over its enduring fields. And those horses, along with horses past and horses yet conceived, will spice the conversation today as the ninth, 10 and 11th generations of Clagetts at Weston gather for Christmas dinner.

The main course features goose, but the central character at the family table will be the venerable Hal C. B. Clagett, 80-year-old courtly gentleman, lawyer and breeder of thoroughbreds. He is best known for masterminding the breeding of Little Bold John, one of the most revered state-breds ever to race in Maryland.

But Clagett's contributions to the state's rich tradition of horse racing stretch beyond the game, old gelding who thrilled fans for nine extraordinary seasons. And that tradition has no deeper roots than here at Weston in Prince George's County, where Clagetts and horses have resided since colonial times.

"Hal Clagett is easily the elder statesman of Maryland racing," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "He may be the most respected man across the board in this industry in this state."

Dressed nattily as usual -- tweed hat and sports coat, suede vest, corduroy trousers -- Clagett dismisses such talk with a look of impatience and a scornful grunt.

"And you'll probably find someone out there who'll call me a legend and all that," he said, laughing, his trim white mustache twitching. "I never think of that nonsense. I'm much more interested in the achievement of an individual horse, of being in the winner's circle, patting a horse on the nose and saying, 'Good job, well-done.' "

Although Clagett began raising thoroughbreds at Weston after World War II, he raises them now at Roedown Farm in Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County. In 1994, he married Jeanne F. Begg, owner of Roedown, prompting Clagett and his 47-year-old son, Hal III, to divide their horses. Hal III now runs Weston. His and his wife Kathryn's two children, 1 1/2 -year-old Grace and 6-year-old Wesley, are the 11th generation of Clagetts at Weston.

But wherever the senior Clagett plots the mating of broodmares and stallions, he remains a sharp competitor at Maryland racetracks. At Laurel Park tomorrow, two horses he bred at Weston should attract the majority of gamblers' dollars in a pair of $100,000 races for Maryland-bred 2-year-olds.

The horses -- the filly Assault John and the colt Bullet Valay -- are among the year's top young Maryland-breds. As Clagett looks ahead to their 3-year-old seasons, which officially begin Jan. 1 for all horses, he sees potential stardom for Bullet Valay.

"If he runs as I expect him to [tomorrow], I'm certainly going to nominate him to the Triple Crown races," Clagett said. "Even if he doesn't make it to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness is back at Pimlico on his own ground."

Jerry Robb, who has trained Clagett's horses for two decades, said he is not surprised by the owner's confidence -- which in this case, Robb said, is justified by Bullet Valay's ability.

"He goes to the racetrack expecting to win every race," Robb said. "Sometimes he's very disappointed with a second-place finish, when I'd have been happy with a third."

But disappointments dissolve into hopes because Clagett always has another horse racing or another mare foaling. Despite his age, he helps deliver foals even at the most inconvenient hour.

"He gets around like a 40-year-old," Robb said. "He still bales all his hay. He's on his tractor from dusk to dawn. And to this day he's an old-fashioned gentleman. He hasn't changed since I've known him."

One enduring Clagett trait is his eloquent loquaciousness. Robb recalled gently taking the microphone away from Clagett at an award ceremony honoring Little Bold John. Robb told the audience: "Now you know where Little Bold John got his wind."

Clagett recites dates, names and historical associations with remarkable precision. A journey through the history of Weston includes side trips into the lives of Napoleon, George Washington and Francis Scott Key.

But stripped to its essentials, the history of Weston begins in 1670 with Thomas Clagett, a captain in the Royal Navy, receiving an original land grant of more than 800 acres. He built a hunting lodge on the crest of a hill. The lodge remains part of the Clagett dwelling.

British troops swept over Weston's hills during the Revolutionary War and again during the War of 1812, each time burning part of the homestead. Each time it was rebuilt. But the family string ran out about 1890, when Thomas Clagett VII went bankrupt and sold Weston to Jerome Bonaparte, a descendant of Napoleon.

In 1908, two of Thomas VII's sons were able to buy it back, securing Weston for the Clagetts with no break in the generations.

One of those sons was Henry Contee Bowie Clagett, the father of this story's Hal C. B. Clagett. The father died in 1948, and Weston passed down to the son.

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