Along Skipton Creek tundra swans take flight and a flock of wild turkeys forage in the woodlands. A blue heron fishes in a contented way as a sleek red fox trots past the shoreline. Bald eagles wheel above in a bright blue sky, while white tail deer dart across a meadow.
History runs deep here. York, Md. was a port of entry and the county seat. By 1869 the tiny village boasted the first measured (one-half mile) racetrack in Maryland. A mile across the creek sits the Wye River Plantation, originally the estate of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the third governor of Maryland. Now known as the Aspen Institute on the Wye River, it was the site of the 1998 peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Robert “Shell” Evans discovered these beautiful stretches of forest and open field parts in 1993 that serve his twin passions of sailing the meandering waterways and raising thoroughbreds at his Courtland Farm. A few miles outside Easton, his property once was that village of York. He purchased the 440-acre farm from its former longtime owner Dr. John Walker, a cousin of former President George H. W. Bush.
Except for horse vans rolling up and down an access road Courtland Farm maintains a low-key presence. That’s just fine with Evans.
“Being on the water and all the wildlife make this property very special,” Evans said. “It’s very accessible from our home in Connecticut, plus we enjoy the sophistication of Easton. Wish I could be at the farm more often.”
Evans is the non-executive chairman of Crane Co. in Stamford, Conn. He also is the younger son of Thomas Mellon Evans, a famed Wall Street titan. The elder Evans started Buckland Farm in 1964 where he bred and raced thoroughbreds for four decades, campaigning 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony. Robert’s brother Edward P. (Ned) Evans is also a highly successful owner and breeder in Virginia.
At age 21 Robert Evans purchased his first horse at the 1965 Keeneland yearling sale. He owned farms in Pottersville, N.J and then Ocala before relocating to the Eastern Shore in 1993. Sewickley brought Evans his greatest racing success. The homebred triumphed in the 1989 and 1990 editions of the Grade-1 Vosburgh Stakes, and retired a millionaire. At 25, Sewickley patrols the paddock adjacent to the Evans family home.
From the outset, Evans’ game plan was to build a top-quality broodmare band that would allow him to sell or race the offspring. His breeding operation is best known for the foundation mare Shared Interest that won the 1992 Grade 2 First Flight as well as the 1993 Grade 1 Ruffian, and was 11th in the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (now Ladies' Classic). Scotty Schuhofer trained both Sewickley and Shared Interest who won ten of 23 starts earning $667,610.
Shared Interest’s foal by Storm Cat topped the 1997 Keeneland July sale at $1.5 million. The colt Forestry went on to win the King's Bishop Stakes and today still is a leading sire. Shared Interest’s next foal, Cash Run, won the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
“Well, the bad news was I sold both of them and their success brought great expectations,” Evans said with a laugh. “But it was wonderful to see them run in the Breeders’ Cup the same year.”
Those deeds earned Shared Interest the award for Owner/Breeder Broodmare of the Year in 2000. She died in 2005 as a result of a difficult foaling at age 17.
“She was the kindest, sweetest horse and always recognized me when I was at the farm," Evans reflected. "Shared Interest was one of the great broodmares and the definition of class.”
Thomas Mellon Evans began his financial career at the bottom, despite his gilded name. Evans’ grandmother's first cousin was Andrew Mellon, the famous banker. By the mid-1950s the native of Pittsburgh had earned fame and fortune waging scores of corporate takeover battles. In 1956, Evans purchased a 495-acre cattle ranch in Gainesville, Va. and switched Buckland Farm from Black Angus cattle to thoroughbreds in 1964. Buckland’s dual classic winner Pleasant Colony was honored with the Eclipse award as the nation's top 3-year-old of 1981.
A decade later, Evans’ Pleasant Stage claimed the 2-year-old filly championship after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies race at Churchill Downs in 1991. The following year Michael Trombetta trainee Pleasant Tap captured the Suburban Handicap, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He earned an Eclipse Award as the leading older horse. He was foaled at Courtland Farm
Jointly owned by Evans and his brother Ned, Pleasant Tap stands at Lane’s End in Kentucky. He eclipsed the half-century mark for black-type winners during the 2009 season. Among the 100-plus stakes winners bred at Ned’s Spring Hill Farm in Casanova, Va. was Saint Liam, winner of the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic and Horse of the Year honors. Currently he campaigns Quality Road.
“It’s pretty exciting, I think Ned’s got the best racehorse I’ve seen in 30 years,” Evans relates. “When he’s right he goes out and breaks the track record. They have a good program mapped out for Quality Road this year. I’m thrilled when Ned does well, and he is too when I’ve had success.”
Evans relies on Scott Warner to handle the day-to-day operations at Courtland Farm. He is assisted by a staff of four including Vassi Cozaciuc who’s been there 14 years. A native of Sharpsville, Ind., Warner left the Hoosier state at age 18 and headed for Ocala to learn the horse business.
“I mucked stalls and tossed bales of hay for my uncles, they made sure I worked my way up,” Warner said. “Learned the hard way, then went on to be the yearling manager and assistant farm manager for my uncle. I interviewed for a job opening and found Mr. Evans owned the farm. I jumped at the chance to work with an owner that competed in racing at that level.”
Warner arrived at Courtland in December 1994. A few years later he met his future wife Jeannette, who trains hunters and show horses.
“I had no concept of the Eastern Shore other than it was across the (Chesapeake) bay,” Warner admitted. “It’s a much slower way of life here. Suits me perfectly.”
On the farm
Evans and his wife Susan’s primary residence is Greenwich, Conn., not far from the Stamford headquarters of Crane Co. A diversified manufacturer of highly engineered industrial products, Crane Co. employs a workforce of 1o,000 in five business segments across 25 countries.
From spring through fall the couple spends time at Courtland checking on their stock. Their beautifully restored house overlooks Skipton Creek that links to the Wye River, a waterway Evans navigates in his day-sailer. Surrounding Talbot County boasts the longest shoreline in America (588 miles) and is known for dozens of wealthy estates near Easton.
On a recent visit to Courtland, Warner sported a blue Colts cap and was trailed by a pair of brawny companions, a black lab and a golden retriever/poodle mix. The barns lean more toward functional than fancy with a 15-stall broodmare barn and 14-stall yearling barn. A new 10-stall barn to be used as a lay-up for racehorses is being planned.
Ten mares are turned out in a paddock next to the broodmare barn, including Colonial Play. During her racing career Colonial Play won or placed in nine of 23 starts with career earnings of $244,678. A. P. Interest, a daughter of Shared Interest, produced a Distorted Humor colt that sold for $520,000 at the 2008 Keeneland Sale.
Evans has horses in training with Mark Frostad in Canada, Neil Drysdale on the west coast, and in New York with Seth Benzel, a Todd Pletcher protege. Patrick Lawley-Wakelin is Evans’ racing manager. In 2008 his horses enjoyed a very good year. Akronism, a three-time stakes winner in the States, made her Canadian debut at Woodbine winning the Royal North Stakes. The four-year old daughter of Not For Love followed that with a victory in the Seaway Stakes. That summer Evans’ Lemon Drop Mom wound up on the losing end of a heart-breaking head bob in an epic battle in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga.
Marsh Side also shined in 2008 with a turf victory in the Canadian International (Can-I) at Woodbine for Drysdale. Last fall the six-year old son of Gone West finished first in Woodbine's Northern Dancer Stakes (Can-I), but was disqualified and placed fourth for drifting in during the stretch run. He also experienced a rough trip in the Japan Cup. Now seven, Marsh Side is stabled in southern California with Drysdale.
As for Courtland’s mares, most are bred to Kentucky stallions while staying at Taylor Made farm. Courtland expects 19 foals this year.
“We didn’t sell any of our yearlings last year, couldn’t get the stud fee,” Evans related. “Right now we have 23 horses, 3-year olds and up.”
The farm’s stock spends as much time as possible outdoors, even if that means hooking a snow-blade to the tractor and plowing a path to the paddocks. This winter three unprecedented “monster” snowfalls socked the Mid-Atlantic region.
“The fellow across the road has been here 60 years, and never seen a winter like it,” Warner related, shaking his head. “We get horses to the gate then clear an area and they stand there eating hay until we bring them in. It is what it is. My philosophy is to let horses be horses. Try and stay out of the way. They come in twice a day to be fed, get their feet picked and we paint their feet every other day. They get handled, but we don’t believe in hot-housing them. The more they’re outside getting grass and sun, running around and playing with each other, that’s what it’s all about.”
If there is one blemish at this gorgeous Eastern Shore farm it’s the size of some of the paddocks, one is 40 acres, another is 30.
“If the horses decide they don’t want to come in, and it’s a rainy and chilly day, and they’re way over yonder, it’s a challenge” Warner acknowledged with a sigh. “Forestry used to be that way. Could be amusing or irritating. As an older yearling he was very independent.”
On a winter’s day the broodmares are spread out across a nearby paddock, while yearlings romp across a distant pasture. Walking past the Evans’ home Warner points out retiree Sewickley as his white tipped muzzle digs and picks at hidden shoots of grass under a cover of snow.
Sewickley won 11-of-32 career starts, including back-to-back Vosburgh Stakes (G1) in 1989 and '90. He also won the 1989 Fall Highweight Handicap (G2), Tom Fool Stakes (G2), and Commonwealth Breeders' Cup Handicap and wound up with career earnings of $1,017,517. Retired to Florida, Sewickley experienced an uneven career in the breeding shed and returned to Courtland nine years ago.
“With the purses today that would have been real money,” Evans said with a chuckle. “I think he was the best sprinter of those years. When Sewickley went to stud he didn’t get that many mares in foal, so people were reluctant to breed to him. He’s quite a character. He’s a little nippy so you’ve got to keep an eye on him. Nothing big, but he will take a little nip.”
Sewickley’s bloodlines can be traced back to Evans’ initial breeding success, a daughter of Bold Ruler named Bold Sequence. A half-sister to Mr. Prospector’s dam Gold Digger, Bold Sequence entered Evans’ broodmare band (purchased in 1971) when the breeding operation was located in New Jersey. Bold Sequence was mated with Dr. Fager producing Surgery who in turn produced Sewickley, sired by Star de Naskra.
As for his family’s racing legacy, in a recent conversation Robert Evans’ pride and passion was clearly evident.
“My father got me interested in the game, so I’m very grateful for that,” Evans acknowledged. “But I know I can’t top what my father and my brother have achieved. Honestly, I never aspired to play at that level. For me it’s the intellectual challenge of breeding and the racing. And, I do love the horses.”