The Pons family keeps the flame of horse-racing history

The farm in Harford County teeming with mementos and trophies of Maryland and Preakness thoroughbreds

May 21, 2011|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Country Life Farm in Harford County is a place where the bloodlines of the humans and of the horses have flowed through time and into the future with the ease of a stream.

On this Preakness Week morning, the thoroughbred mare Go Steady nurses her 12-day-old foal in a paddock, while up at The Big House, as it is known, three strapping young men circle their grandmother's refrigerator with the same thing in mind — food.

"I may grow old," said Mary Jo Pons, the matriarch of a family that has lived and bred horses here since the Depression. "But I will never be old. Not with this crew around."

Her hungry grandsons, David, Philip and August Pons, live on the farm with just about every other member of this extended family, all of whom have built some kind of house — from a log cabin to a traditional Colonial — on this 100-acre farm.

It was 50 years ago this racing season that Carry Back, bred at Country Life Farm, won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. But his was not the only success the farm has known.

The stud Allen's Prospect was one of the most successful sires of all time before he died in 2003. And Malibu Moon, who began his stud life at Country Life but continues it now in Kentucky, is highly rated as well. And they are just the most recent.

The result is that crystal bowls, silver pitchers and even lamp bases in The Big House are not just bowls, pitchers and lamps, but trophies awarded for the success of horses bred or foaled here.

The crystal bowls are given to the Maryland horses who perform best in the Maryland Million. And there is also a vaunted Eclipse award for Josh Pons' lyrical diary of life at Country Life Farms. The house is lined with photos of family and portraits of horses.

You have the sense that the memorabilia ranges from priceless and irreplaceable to just plain sentimental: from the collages of famous sires, the originals of which hang in the Baltimore Museum of Art, to the sketch of the tennis shoes Joe Pons would purchase new before each trip the Saratoga horse sales.

"It is pretty awesome when you can walk out the door, and your whole family is here," said David Pons, whose father, Mike, runs the business side of the farm. "I love this house. I want to live here some day."

Legend has it that the great stone house was designed by the architect Stanford White, but there is no telling for sure. Just clues, such as his signature arched door with beveled glass, the stained-glass trim around the windows and his attention to light.

"In the morning, the windows in the balcony catch the light," said Mary Jo Pons, standing in the foyer, where that light flows like a waterfall. "And the evening light spills in through the front door."

The Big House is at the heart of more than 100 acres that include not just stud corrals and foaling barns, but eight homes built by family members and staff. The grassy front yard was once covered in hay so that a mare, sedated, could have corrective surgery done by a doctor from the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute.

This house, with its huge wraparound porch, has been the scene of Thursday night Preakness Week parties since 1962, when Mary Jo Pons cooked up some beef stew and apple pie and served it to the newspaper people who covered racing.

"I put all the bachelor horsemen I ever cooked for to work peeling potatoes," Mary Jo said.

This year, however, the legendary party — there is a bar built in the foyer, right under the steps to the balcony — was canceled. Funeral services for Mary Jo Pons' brother, Charles Ambrose Ryan Jr., were to be held Friday.

The house was built in the 1880s and it sat atop a cow farm near Bel Air.

Adolphe Pons, a protege of the financier and horseman August Belmont Jr., for whom the New York racetrack is named, purchased the farm in 1933 after years of managing Belmont's horses in France and the United States, in order to start his own breeding operation.

Pons' father had been a French vintner so noteworthy that the medal awarded the family in 1873 by the French government for their wine hangs from a chain that Mary Jo Pons wears around her neck every day — and all her children and grandchildren have cut their teeth on it.

The elder Pons was brought to the United States as Belmont's wine steward, but when he died unexpectedly, leaving 9-year-old Adolphe, a brother and a sister, Belmont took them in and arranged for their education.

Adolphe would become Belmont's chief of staff, as it were, and confidant, but his genius was in bloodlines, and for 35 years he managed the breeding of the rich man's horses with remarkable success. He brought together Fair Play and Mahubah, and the result was Man o' War, considered one of the greatest racehorses of all time.

Adolphe Pons' son, John Paul and Joseph Philip, took over Country Life Farm when their father died in 1951. Joe had just brought his bride to live on the farm, in an addition to The Big House built just for them.

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