The nursery holds the distinct honor of being the oldest continuously operated Thoroughbred breeding farm in Kentucky, according to the Daughters of the American Revolution. Runnymede is now the domain of Catesby W. Clay, a grandson of Col. Clay and one of the most respected breeders in the business. Although the breeding, raising and selling of horses has changed markedly in the nearly 150 years since the farm was founded, Runnymede’s commitment to quality has never wavered. Even today, Catesby Clay and his son, Runnymede President Brutus J. Clay III, remain true to the beliefs and principles utilized by generations of their family in hopes of breeding and raising the best horses possible.
There is no farm with a prouder, more dedicated or more proven sense of tradition than Runnymede. The 365-acre farm nestled sweetly among Bourbon County’s hills predates all other Kentucky Thoroughbred farms, even longstanding landmarks such as Calumet and Claiborne Farms. The story of Runnymede is unique, one in which the Clay family and the raising of Thoroughbreds are inseparable. The traditions embraced by the Clays have not only served the farm well, but they have come to be an integral foundation of the Thoroughbred industry as a whole. The patriarchs of this esteemed estate have not only produced some of the finest horses ever to grace the American Turf, they also have been pillars of the Thoroughbred and local communities whose foresight and dedication have set the standard for others in the sport to follow.
The history of Runnymede Farm is entwined with key eras in both the history of the United States and of American racing.
In the late 1860s, Col. Ezekiel "Zeke" Clay returned from the Civil War to his new estate located just north of Paris, Kentucky. The property—which local residents had considered "magnificent," according to historical accounts—had been purchased by Col. Clay's father, Brutus, for his son and his son’s new wife, Mollie. The manor house had been built in the 1830s by a relative of the Clay family, former Kentucky Governor James Garrard.
Col. Clay named the estate "Runnymede," after the site in England where the Magna Carta was signed. He would settle down with his wife, father six children and live the life of a gentleman businessman, having gotten involved in the local banking and cattle industries. He was regarded as "a man of knowledge, high moral character, compassion and humanitarianism," according to historic journals, and was looked upon as a leader in various business and social circles.
In the early 1870s, Clay joined a neighbor, Col. Catesby Woodford, in forming a partnership to breed Thoroughbreds at their respective Runnymede and Raceland farms. Both Cols. Clay and Woodford originally set out to race the products of their breeding enterprise, but demand for their runners soon became so outstanding that by the early 1880s the partners had initiated a production sale.
It was at a sale such as this in 1885 that Phil Dwyer purchased the yearling colt Hanover for the then princely sum of $1,350. Hanover was a son of Hindoo, the 1881 Kentucky Derby winner that Phil and Mike Dwyer campaigned before they traded him to Col. Clay. Hanover would go on to be one of the greatest runners of his era, retiring in 1889 with 32 wins and record career earnings of $118,887. He would also establish himself as a foundation sire of the breed, going on to lead the general sire list for four consecutive years from 1885-’88.
Interestingly enough, when Hanover took over as the leading money-earner in the U.S., he did so at the expense of another Runnymede homebred, the great filly Miss Woodford, who was the first American horse to earn more than $100,000. The daughter of the first stallion to stand at Runnymede, Billet, would ultimately be transferred to the Dwyer Brothers in complex deal that involved $9,000 cash and two other fillies. That deal also brought Hindoo to stand at Runnymede. Miss Woodford, who won 37 of 48 starts and $118,270, is regarded as one of the greatest American-bred fillies of all-time.
Meanwhile, Col. Clay’s life changed when Mollie passed away in 1900. Two years later, he married the widow Florence "Agnes" Lockhart and he lived out his days at Runnymede until his death in 1920. Always a passionate leader, he sold all his bloodstock to John Madden in 1912 as a protest when racing was temporarily banned in New York.
"The Clay family has long dedicated itself to the breeding and raising of the best Thoroughbreds possible. That process must start with good mares and proper matings but, just as importantly, it must also include fertile land."
At Colonel Ezekiel's passing in 1920, Ezekiel's son, a successful attorney in Atlanta, Brutus J. Clay and his wife Agnes McEvoy Clay and their five children returned home to operate the family farm. After Brutus J Clay’s untimely death in 1926, Agnes eventually married Senator Johnson N. Camden, and the couple carried on the tradition of Runnymede until Catesby Clay, Ezekiel's grandson, took over primary custodianship of the nursery in the 1950s. Like his step father, Sen. Camden, Catesby Clay, served on the Board of Churchill Downs, Inc. and earned the coveted honor of the Thoroughbred Club of America’s Honored Guest in 2009. After six decades, Catesby W. Clay remains the farm chairman. He is joined by his son, Brutus J. Clay, III, who serves as president; his son-in-law, David Blee, who serves as vice president, and Martin O’Dowd, Runnymede’s longstanding vice president and general manager, in providing direction for the future.
Runnymede breds have won virtually every prestigious race on the American racing calendar. Either alone or in partnership with Col. Woodford, Runnymede bred and/or raised seven runners to compete in the Kentucky Derby, including two winners—Ben Brush (1896) and Agile (1905). The farm produced a Preakness winner in Buddhist (1889) and two Belmont Stakes winners, Hanover (1887) and Sir Dixon (1888). In just a sample of the farm’s remarkable accomplishments, Runnymede-breds have won the Alabama Stakes six times, the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs six times, the Kentucky Oaks twice, the Saratoga Special five times, the Spinaway Stakes three times, the Suburban Handicap twice and the Withers Stakes three times.
Perhaps even more impressively, Runnymede has bred four horses who are enshrined in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame—Ben Brush, Hanover, Miss Woodford and 1914 Horse of the Year Roamer.
Runnymede has been just as vibrant in the modern era as it was in bygone days, setting the pace in recent years as one of America’s most internationally prominent breeding operations. Although the farm maintains a broodmare band that has averaged only about 30 mares in recent years, Runnymede has bred horses through matings with top stallions in Ireland, England and Japan as well as Kentucky. Some of the resulting foals have been sold at the most prominent Thoroughbred auction houses in the world, including Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton in the U.S., Tattersalls in England, Arqana’s Deauville sale in France and the Japan Racing Horse Association select sale in Chitose, Japan. Many of those horses have gone on to secure prestigious racing achievements.
It is on the racetrack that Runnymede’s horses truly shine. Elite stakes horses produced through the farm’s breeding program in recent years include Grade/Group 1 winners Awesome Gem, Jaycito, Marylebone and Divine Park in the U.S.; Palace Episode in England; Agnes Digital, a champion in Japan who also won the Hong Kong Cup (G1), and Irish Group 2 winner and Group 1-placed Laughing Lashes, a star juvenile in 2010 who is pointing to European filly classic races in 2011. Concurrently, Runnymede-bred colts Jaycito and Rogue Romance, the latter of which races for Catesby Clay and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), are both aiming for the 2011 Kentucky Derby (G1).
Runnymede has a long connection with the Kentucky Derby. In addition to the winners in the 1800s that were bred at the farm, Runnymede also bred Tejano Run, a Grade 2 winner at two who went on to finish second in the 1995 Derby; Partez, third in the 1981 Derby, and Wild Gale, third in the 1993 Derby.
"Runnymede has always been committed to raising the very best Thoroughbreds we possibly can," reflected Catesby Clay. "Breeding horses is more than a business for us—it's a family tradition that's been a way of life for generations of Clays. Everything we do is a testament to my grandfather, Ezekiel Clay, and his dedication to the breed. That aspect of Runnymede will never change."