Racing's Alfred G. Vanderbilt dies at 87

A life of privilege, a devotion to sport

November 13, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, one of the most influential men in 20th-century horse racing, died yesterday at his home in Mill Neck, N.Y., after returning from his daily morning visit to Belmont Park. He was 87.

A member of one of America's legendary families, Mr. Vanderbilt was a driving force in nearly every aspect of thoroughbred racing. His mother gave him Sagamore Farm, the rolling horse farm near Glyndon in Baltimore County, when he was 21.

When Mr. Vanderbilt was 25, he became president of Pimlico, where he orchestrated the famed 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

He went on to become a leader of racing in New York for decades during a time when New York was the leader of racing in America.

"He was one of the really big, big men in racing of all time -- in racing, breeding and management," said Snowden Carter, retired editor of The Maryland Horse magazine.

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, described Vanderbilt as "the last of a breed, one of the people whose interests were so far-ranging that he was involved at all levels. He understood the business of it, but above all he was a sportsman. There are very few parallels to him, ever."

Despite his fading eyesight, Mr. Vanderbilt, accompanied by a driver, regularly visited Belmont Park on Long Island in the early mornings during training. He would stand on the track apron as horses galloped past, responding to greetings from people he could hardly see.

Yesterday, after returning to his home, a 30-minute-drive from the track, he went to his bedroom to take a nap, said Mary Eppler, the Pimlico-based trainer who has conditioned Vanderbilt's horses for the past 10 years. He apparently died in his sleep, she said.

"That's how he wanted to die," Ms. Eppler said. "He always told me he didn't want to suffer or ever be put in a hospital. He's a legend. There aren't going to be many more people like him."

Mr. Vanderbilt called Ms. Eppler at 9: 30 every morning, on the dot, to talk about his horses, to talk about anything.

In recent years, Mr. Vanderbilt had seemed lonely, a man with tremendous wealth, a brilliant past, but an empty present.

During interviews two years ago at Hialeah Park in South Florida, where Ms. Eppler tried in vain to prepare Mr. Vanderbilt's last good horse, Traitor, for the Kentucky Derby, Mr. Vanderbilt said losing his sight had robbed him of much enjoyment.

"I can't look anything up in a book," he said. "I can't read a newspaper. I go to the track pretty much every day, but I can't see, really."

Ms. Eppler described races to Mr. Vanderbilt as they huddled together at trackside.

"I'm interested in what happens in racing. It's been my whole life," Mr. Vanderbilt said. "But it ain't what it used to be. The important thing is seeing the horses, the sport of it. It's just become a gambling thing."

Mr. Vanderbilt always told the story of visiting Pimlico as a boy. Although his age changed in the telling -- 10, 11, 13 or 14 -- the fact that he got hooked did not.

"This was the most exciting thing I ever experienced," Mr. Vanderbilt recalled. "It was like a kid being taken to the circus for the first time. It was what I wanted to do all the time."

He was a descendant of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, a farm boy who founded the New York Central Railroad and became one of the 19th century's wealthiest men. Mr. Vanderbilt's father, also Alfred Gwynne, died in 1915 on the Lusitania after it was torpedoed by the Germans.

Mr. Vanderbilt's grandfather was Capt. Isaac Emerson, "the millionaire druggist of Baltimore," who invented Bromo Seltzer. Captain Emerson helped his daughter, Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt, start Sagamore Farm in 1927.

In 1933, Mrs. Vanderbilt gave her son the farm and about 50 horses. He improved upon her stock by buying the colt Discovery, who won 22 stakes races. Discovery retired to Sagamore as the foundation sire of Mr. Vanderbilt's world-class breeding operation.

A grandson of Discovery, Native Dancer, was born in 1950. He became one of the country's greatest racehorses, winning 21 of 22 races, earning Horse of the Year honors in 1954 and becoming television's first equine star. And then, back at Sagamore, he turned into one of the world's top stallions.

Mr. Vanderbilt was known for his clever names that reflected the parentage of the horses he bred. For example, Native Dancer's sire was Polynesian, his mother, Geisha.

In management, Mr. Vanderbilt became majority stockholder in Pimlico and the track's president, where his innovations included an improved starting gate and the photo-finish camera. He was also a founder of the forerunner of the New York Racing Association and head of the association that operated Belmont Park in 1940 and 1941.

During World War II, Mr. Vanderbilt served in the Pacific aboard a U.S. Navy PT boat. He was awarded a Silver Star.

Mr. Vanderbilt was the top-earning owner in the United States twice, 1935 and 1953. The New York Turf Writers voted him "The Man Who Did the Most for Racing" a record four times.

He served four years in the early 1970s as chairman of the New York Racing Association, which operates New York's major tracks. In 1987, he sold Sagamore. When he died, he owned 13 horses, six with Ms. Eppler at Pimlico, six broodmares at a farm in Maryland, and one racehorse with the trainer Allen Jerkens in New York.

Mr. Vanderbilt was married three times. He is survived by two sons, Alfred Jr. and Michael, and three daughters, Heidi, Wendy and Victoria. A son, Nicholas, was reported missing during a climbing expedition in British Columbia in 1984.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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