End of the race for family farm

After a half-century of breeding champion racehorses, a Frederick institution yields to time and urbanization

November 26, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,sun reporter

They're at the top of the stretch ... On the outside, Efficiency. Here comes Town Cheer! ... Yankee Cashmere is trying to sweep from ninth ... Yankee Cashmere comes from last to take the stretch lead! A magnificent drive to ... win the Cadillac Breeders Crown!

Twelve years later, the thrill isn't gone.

"Fortunately, there have been many good races. This is one of them," says Chaz Keller on an early-November morning as he watches a video replay of Yankee Cashmere's 1994 miracle finish. "I still get goose pimples."

Yankee Cashmere, now retired and a broodmare, has the run of a picture-perfect pasture that lies just outside the door of this restored farmhouse in Frederick. So do more than a hundred other standardbred horses: the pride of Yankeeland Farm.

The neighbors have no idea what elevated company they're in, even though luxury homes nuzzle right up against Yankeeland's green grass, slowly encircling the farm like a lasso.

Or a noose.

"They just know it's a nice, pretty place that has horses," Keller chuckles.

Those horses will be gone soon. The harness industry's annual sale in Harrisburg is where Yankeeland usually offers up a crop of frisky yearlings. It's primarily a breeding operation, with a select few pacers and trotters kept for racing.

This year, however, is different. In a few days everything is going on the auction block, all but new colts and fillies that will be unloaded when they mature. This is not a typical "dispersal," the racing community's euphemism for a going-out-of-business sale. For one thing, Yankeeland is financially sound. It's also not a typical farm. The man who put the Yankee in Yankeeland was the late Charlie Keller, Chaz's grandfather - a Maryland farm boy who pounded a baseball hard enough to invite comparisons with another local hero: Babe Ruth.

Charlie Keller roamed the outfield with New York Yankee's legend Joe DiMaggio, making the All-Star team five times, earning three World Series rings - but never really leaving the farm.

When his playing days ended in the early 1950s, he bought land on the outskirts of Frederick, then added some racehorses, then more. Over the years, two sons and three grandsons helped him rise to the top of a second sport.

Now, with the suburbs creeping ever closer and with no younger Kellers inclined to share the workload, a family dream is being dismantled. The Harrisburg auction marks the beginning of the end of Yankeeland.

Fantasyland

Family-owned and -operated Yankeeland Farm is an anomaly. Charlie Keller could have called it Fantasyland. Little guys with no fortune behind them aren't supposed to reach such rarified heights in horse racing.

Windylane Hanover was Trotting Mare of the Year in 2003. Muscles Yankee and Yankee Paco both took the Hambletonian Stakes, harness racing's biggest prize. All of them are spiritual descendants of Fresh Yankee, winner of seven world titles in the 1970s.

"It was probably one of the most unique farms in the country," says Craig Landa, a Baltimore County veterinarian who has tended Yankeeland horses more than 20 years.

"Pound for pound, that farm has had tremendous impact on the breeding industry," says Jim Simpson, president and CEO of decidedly more corporate Hanover Shoe Farms in Pennsylvania.

Is there another Yankeeland on the horizon? Will somebody pick up their smaller-is-better baton?

"No," declares Simpson.

The older mares have enough horse sense to know something's afoot. They're being groomed more frequently.

"They're getting pretty and gussied," says Chaz Keller, who has to force a smile whenever talk turns to the demise of Yankeeland.

When he was a boy, his granddad warned him about becoming "attached" to colts. The horse business, like professional baseball, chews up romantics.

Stable hand Wade Cooney, at 60 a seasoned Maryland horseman, resists waxing sentimental. "In the 13 years I've been here, the traffic has gotten three times as bad," he says. "It's time for the land to be used for something else."

Like Cooney, Keller isn't sure what he will do next. He has a degree from Lafayette College but chose to work at Yankeeland because he's not suit-and-tie material.

At 46, married with two children, he has a lingering bashfulness about him. Sometimes Keller's body contorts while talking, as if he's back in grade school trying to muster the courage to ask a girl if he can carry her lunchbox.

Lately, he finds himself staring at the farm buildings and surrounding landscape, soaking up the memories. There are "a lot of lessons" to be learned on a horse farm. And he had a good teacher: a larger-than-life grandfather with hands the size of barbecue mitts.

"He was like John Wayne to us," says Keller.

The secret behind those big hands - which seemingly could crush stone and overpower any fastball - was milking cows. That's what Charlie Keller always insisted.

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