Woodwards raised Triple Crown champions at their Bowie farm

Family was involved in scandal when wife shot husband, thinking he was a prowler

  • Jockey Jonathan Joyce prays for safety and running a good race before every race he has a mount in.
Jockey Jonathan Joyce prays for safety and running a good race… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
May 18, 2012|Jacques Kelly

My earliest recollection of the television that arrived in my family's Guilford Avenue home was the broadcast of the 1955 Preakness. We were all fixed on that black-and-white Sylvania mounted high on a wall. Nashua beat Swaps and went on to win the Belmont, too.

Nashua was named 1955 Horse of the Year and later bred to many other winners. A number of the horses competing at Pimlico today are his descendants.

Not long after that 1955 Preakness, my mother guided me through the recently opened Woodward wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art, where I was dazzled by the portraits of thoroughbred horses and of a tall and distinguished gentleman, William "Billy" Woodward, Nashua's owner.

My mother, never one to cloak a good story, immediately told me the tale of how his wife had recently shot and killed Woodward, mistaking him for an intruder. Nashua's owner, a man of 35, died at his Oyster Bay, N.Y., home, after attending a nearby party where the Duchess of Windsor was a guest. Although his wife, Ann Woodward, was exonerated, the incident never disappeared from the annals of the high society writers.

A few weeks ago a new book reached my desk, "Belair Stud: The Cradle of Maryland Horse Racing." The account of the Woodwards and their Maryland connections turned out to be quite a story as related by the book's author, Kimberly Gatto.

The book is a tribute to the Bowie estate where the Woodwards quartered their thoroughbreds. This week, I visited the stable, which is preserved and operated as a museum and educational venue by the city of Bowie.

I stood in the stalls occupied by two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and Omaha. I saw Nashua's Maryland home up close. There are Woodward family carriages, the family's distinctive pinkish polka-dot racing silks and a copy of the 1955 Life magazine whose headline called the accidental killing "the Shooting of the Century."

It turns out the Woodward lineage goes back decades in Maryland, but members of the family left the state and sought greater fortunes in New York. They achieved their goal, amassing staggering wealth. But they obviously never turned their backs on Maryland, and in the 1890s, banker James T. Woodward purchased Belair, a country house that needed a new owner with deep pockets. Established in 1747 by Samuel Ogle, Belair had been the "cradle of American racing," as a historical marker states.

For their new home in Bowie, the Woodward family hired Messrs. Delano and Aldrich, prominent New York architects. Soon Belair sported new wings to complement hundreds of acres, beech tree-lined avenues and stunning stone stables, originally built for fancy carriages, but easily converted for the thoroughbred champions who resided here when they were not competing at Saratoga, Belmont, Aqueduct or Churchill Downs.

The next generation of the family was William Woodward Sr., tall, dignified and dapper. He was also patient. It took a while, but by 1930, he had captured the Triple Crown with Gallant Fox. Five years later, he did it again, with Omaha. Woodward died in 1953, having made the cover of Time magazine as the national leader of the sport.

Nashua, one of his finest breeding efforts, hit his stride at this time. William Woodward's son Billy, who inherited Belair, joined his wife, Ann, in winner's circles as they accepted trophies for their sprinter.

Then the accident occurred. Reports said that a prowler was afoot in Oyster Bay that night. Billy Woodward armed himself and gave his wife a shotgun. She told the police she believed she was shooting an intruder.

The incident rocked the family. Belair was eventually sold. The horses were immediately sold. The elder Mrs. Woodward, Elsie, a New York grande dame, gave the home's racing art and trophies to the Baltimore Museum of Art and hired Billy Baldwin, the celebrated decorator, to design the room. But the pain continued. Ann Woodward committed suicide in the 1970s after Truman Capote wrote about the shooting. Her two sons also took their lives.

"It's an unpretty piece of business, and the effects have lingered for years," said Pamela Williams, who manages the properties for the city of Bowie. And yet, when some visitors arrive, the story of the tragedy is one of the first questions asked.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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