Peggy Augustus

Winning instincts

Robb Scharetg | ScharetgPictures.com

Peggy Augustus

Early on in life, growing up outside of Cleveland, Ohio, Peggy Augustus had an uncanny ability when it came to picking racehorses. As a 10-year-old in the 1940s, she kept a small book filled with statistics about the horses running that day at two or three different tracks in the Chicago area. That talent for picking the best horses would serve her well throughout her career as a leading breeder of Thoroughbred racehorses and champion show hunters.

Augustus remembers her mother, Elizabeth Augustus Knight, sneaking her into the racetracks. “You had to be 21 to get into the racetracks back then,” she says, sitting in her study at Old Keswick farm. “If I picked less than four winners, it was a bad day!”

One day, she asserts, she picked every winner at all three tracks. Her methods were unconventional by most standards. She did her fair share of regular handicapping by looking at performance statistics, but the names that caught her eye always won. “I tried to visualize the finish,” she says. “It was a gut feeling. If I felt like I absolutely had to pick that horse, he usually won.”

By the time she was a teenager, Augustus was heavily involved in showing and had lost interest in the racetrack. Between 1950 and 1965, she won every major championship, including the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, Devon Horse Show, Royal Winter Fair and the Pennsylvania National. “We had a really good time,” she recalls. “Today in the show ring, everything is so controlled, but back then we were more free and galloped over the fences.”

In 1952, the Augustus family bought Old Keswick Farm in Virginia but continued to live outside of Cleveland, where Elizabeth was involved in raising Thoroughbreds. When her father died in 1963, Peggy moved to Old Keswick and carried on the breeding business with her mother under the name Keswick Stables. Together, the duo built a breeding empire that would forever leave its mark on Thoroughbred racing.

Keswick Stables has had much success. From the late 1950s through the late 1990s, when she got out of the breeding business, Augustus bred 48 stakes winners. Many of her horses set earnings and sales records along the way. In 1977, Augustus sold Johnny D, a yearling that would later be named the 1977 Eclipse Award champion turf male, for $4 million. She also bred a yearling filly that sold for a world record of $2.1 million. Crown Silver, owned, bred and raced by Augustus, was the Champion Virginia 2-Year-Old Filly. Beaming Bride, owned and raced by Augustus, was a two-time Champion Virginia Broodmare and produced four stakes winners. Semoran, bred by Augustus, was the 1996-97 Champion Virginia-bred male, 3 and up. In the 1980s, Sabin, Simply Majestic and Alwuhush each won more than $1 million. In the 1990s, Eishin Guymon won 14 out of 36 starts and earned more than $3 million. In the late 1990s, Bop won the Pennsylvania Governor’s Handicap, equaled the world record for five furlongs (one furlong equals one-eighth of a mile) and was the Virginia Thoroughbred Association older male turf and sprint champion.

Augustus has a special bond with one horse. Sired by a stallion popular in Europe, Husband raced mostly in France but was slated to cross the Atlantic to race in the $1 million Rothmans International in Canada in 1993. “The trainer called me, concerned that he had swelling in his ankle and a temperature, less than 48 hours before the race,” remembers Augustus. She called animal communicator Beatrice Lydecker, a frequent guest on the Late Show with David Letterman, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America, to hear what Husband would have to say about his swollen ankle. Lydecker talked to Husband, and he said he was just fine—that in practice he wanted to do more, but the jockey was holding him back. Augustus decided to race him. “He was running in the middle of the pack,” she says, “then he took off down the homestretch and won by five lengths!”

A few years later, Augustus sold Husband to a man she knew well. But she was haunted by a dream that the horse had been sold again. “I dreamed he went to a horrible place, and I woke up crying. It was so real.”

Soon after, Augustus was at the Saratoga, New York sale and saw Husband’s new owner. She told him that if he ever wanted to sell Husband, she wanted the first chance to buy him. He assured her that he wasn’t planning to sell the horse. Later that week, a friend called to ask how she felt about Husband being entered in the sale. Augustus was shocked. She frantically searched the catalog, but it was too late. The horse had already been sold to a buyer in South America. Augustus tracked down the buyer and bought Husband back, paying double what he had just paid.

When Elizabeth Augustus Knight died in 1981, Peggy continued Keswick Stables with a band of 16 broodmares. When making breeding decisions, Augustus often bred to a lot of unproven young stallions. She admittedly was never one to follow the pack. She bred to horses that she felt would be great, and that unconventional philosophy paid off many times over. When breeding, she considered pedigree, race record and conformation. As she and anybody in the racing business will tell you, not matter how much data about bloodlines and ancestral racing performances one analyzes, it’s impossible to know which horses will become champions. Some with lustrous pedigrees fail to perform, and some with lackluster forebears become stars. As she says, “You are buying the dream.”

While Augustus is no longer involved in racing, she has left quite a mark on the sport. From her front porch at Old Keswick, she enjoys the view across rolling pasture and white board fences to Peter’s Mountain, the highest point in the Southwest Range, roughly 30 miles east and running parallel to the Blue Ridge, from Washington to Florida. Husband, now in his late teens, grazes in the pasture. “When he sees me, he comes running across the field to get his sugar,” she says.

The house, originally built in 1745, is home not only to Augustus but her seven dogs—among them, Pearl the whippet, Nelly, a rescue from Nelson County, Marla and Stubbs, both from the Albemarle pound, and Mac, a rescue from South Carolina.

Undoubtedly, horses hold a special place in her heart. In 2002, Augustus and her mother were inducted into the Virginia Thoroughbred Hall of Fame. Augustus is also a member of the Virginia Horse Show Hall of Fame and the National Horse Show Hall of Fame, and was a Living Legend of the National Horse Show in 1996. In 1997, she was elected into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame.

In the early 1980s, when Augustus needed flowers for a party, a friend suggested an orchid from a store in nearby Gordonsville. That idea sparked a new passion. Today, Augustus has a climate-controlled greenhouse—full of spectacular orchids blooming in every size, shape and color—on her farm. The greenhouse was built on the site of what had been the biggest rock elm tree in the United States. When the tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease, Augustus built up something special in its place

It’s no wonder that Augustus has turned her attention to orchids. For one thing, just as it’s notoriously hard to find or breed a champion racehorse, orchids are notoriously hard to grow. Yet they also symbolize beauty, refinement and perfection, all of which are qualities in racehorses. And Augustus has always liked a challenge—the unproven young mares and stallions, the promise of a yearling.

At home at Old Keswick, far away from the racetracks and the sales, Augustus keeps the sport close to her heart. The rich paneled wood walls of her study are lined with row after row of winner’s circle photographs and equine art. She is constantly reminded of the beauty of a well-bred horse and the refinement of a champion. As she describes the day when Husband tore away from the pack and won the Rothmans International by five lengths, it’s clear that the thrill of victory does not fade with time.

BACK TO The Midas Touch

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Originally published June 2008

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