Joseph P. Pons Sr., 83, led family thoroughbred farm


Joseph P. Pons Sr., patriarch of the family that owns Maryland's oldest extant commercial thoroughbred breeding farm, died of a heart attack yesterday morning at his Bel Air home. He was 83.

Mr. Pons resided at Country Life Farm with his wife and four of their five children. Racing's all-time money winner, Cigar, was born at the farm, and 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Carry Back was bred there.

"It just won't be the same, walking out in the paddock and not seeing Joe," said William "Billy" Boniface of Bonita Farm. "He was a fixture to all horsemen. He was just about everywhere there was anything to do with racing around here."

Born in Garden City, N.Y., he was the son of Adolphe Pons, a horseman and adviser to New York subway system financier August Belmont II. The elder Mr. Pons founded Country Life Farm in 1933 and moved his family there.

Mr. Pons attended Bel Air High School before graduating from the old Newman School in Lakehurst, N.J. His studies at Notre Dame University were interrupted by Army service during World War II, in a cavalry unit.

After the war, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from Notre Dame and returned to Country Life. His father died in 1951, and Mr. Pons embarked on nearly five decades of the thoroughbred operation with his brother, John Pons, who died in 1996.

In the 1950s, the farm's leading sire was a stallion with the unlikely name of Saggy -- the only horse to defeat champion Citation as a 3-year-old.

"In 1957, an Ohio racetracker named Jack Price had a mare named Joppy stop at the farm on the way to Florida for a $500 breeding session with an aging stallion named Saggy. The result, improbably, was a Kentucky Derby winner named Carry Back," said a 1995 Sun article.

The article said that Carry Back's success guaranteed Country Life a place in racing history but that the farm declined in the 1970s because Mr. Pons was battling alcoholism.

By 1980, he was in recovery and a decade later, according to another Sun account, he was helping others in Harford County overcome addictions to alcohol and drugs.

Mr. Pons devoted Saturday mornings to inmates at the Harford County Detention Center, helping the down-and-out to regain control of their lives. He was credited with starting a support group and counseling program for alcoholic inmates in the jail and with starting another program at the old Fallston General Hospital.

"The greatest payoff for me is that it keeps me straight," Mr. Pons told a Sun reporter in 1990, recalling how he was on the brink of losing many of the things he valued most -- his family, his health and the 120-acre horse farm south of Bel Air. "I almost threw it all away by drinking," he said.

He held weekly support meetings for motorists convicted of driving while intoxicated and ordered by Harford Circuit Court to seek counseling.

"He bred a lot of good horses over the years," said son Joseph P. "Josh" Pons Jr. "But he was never shy about being in the [Alcoholics Anonymous] program."

"He was so upfront about all of his problems. He rose above it all with frankness and candor," said Ross Peddicord, a former Evening Sun writer. "But his greatest legacy was his family, who built Country Life into one of the top breeding farms in the state."

In recent years, the farm was home to Allen's Prospect, five-time national leader by number of winners, and Malibu Moon, sire of 2004 champion 2-year-old Declan's Moon. Cigar, the 1995 and 1996 Horse of the Year, is North America's all-time money leader at $9,999,815.

Mr. Pons attended so many racing meets that one friend told a head waiter at France's Arc de Triomphe race not to remove a chair at the club house because Joe Pons will probably show up.

He presided at an annual Preakness party at his home the Thursday preceding the May race. He would greet horsemen and turf writers from his home's porch, which at that time of the year was banked with white-flowering bushes -- and with mares and the newborn foals visible in the distance.

Mr. Pons, for all his struggles and successes, never took himself too seriously, friends and family said. He always had a joke ready and an easy laugh.

Active in racing circles and the farm's operation to the end, Mr. Pons chatted with friends for several hours at the last event he was to attend -- Friday night's Maryland Million Gala at the Maryland Club.

A memorial gathering for Mr. Pons, who donated his body to the Maryland Anatomy Board, will be held from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at Country Life Farm on Old Joppa Road.

Survivors, in addition to his son, include his wife of 55 years, the former Mary Jo Ryan; two other sons, Andrew M. Pons and Michael Pons; two daughters, Alice Pons and Honore "Norah" Pons, both of Piney Point; and six grandchildren.

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