by Ross Peddicord
Each year the Maryland Horse Council recognizes a professional who has had an outstanding career in the Maryland Horse Industry. Presented at the Maryland Horseman’s Party (a fundraiser for the Maryland 4-H Foundation and MHC), the recognition is designed to inspire children who have an interest in horses and show them that there are an array of rewarding career options in the horse industry. The Horseman’s Party will be held March 6, 1999 at Pimlico Race Course. See the MHC Newsletter in this issue for more information on attending.
In choosing Hal Clagett Jr. as “Horseman of the Year,” the Maryland Horse Council is honoring a man who is simply without peer in Maryland’s vast horse industry.
At age 82, Clagett has already packed into one lifetime three eminently successful careers as war hero, breeder of champion racehorses and brilliant attorney, an attorney who crafted legislation that fundamentally changed the Maryland racing industry, and perhaps racing in the entire United States. In addition, Clagett has served as president of the Maryland Horse Breeders’ Association, and has also sired an MHBA President: son, Hal III, who now serves as the organization’s chief officer.
Clagett has done it all with such apparent ease and style, from walking hots as a teenager at the old Marlboro Race Track to hunting in England with Prince Charles, that he has become the epitome, quite literally, of the quintessential Maryland horseman.
Clagett’s career with horses has nearly spanned a century—and he shows no signs of slowing down. He and his wife, Jeanne, have 53 horses at their Roedown Farm in Davidsonville, the site of the annual Marlboro Hunt Races. They are expecting 11 foals this spring and will breed close to 20 mares. All of these foalings will be personally supervised by Clagett, as he has done for nearly 70 years since he acquired his first brood mare, Glimpse, at the age of 16.
Although horses were part of the Clagett heritage, Hal was no mere dilettante, learning and working the breeding and racing business from the ground up. At the family farm, Weston in Upper Marlboro, his father bred and raced trotters. At age 5, Hal drove his dad to catch the morning train to D.C. (where he worked as a food broker). The carriage horse was a retired racemare, a mile record holder, named Carecedar.
“The engineer would see us coming and he’d give us three toots with the whistle,” Clagett recalled. “We’d beat the train to the station, Dad would get on board, and I’d turn around and drive home. The engineer used to say, “Here he comes–and there he goes!”
Clagett has been coming and going at breakneck speed ever since.
By the time he was 11, Clagett developed twin loves, racing horses and airplanes. He was captivated by the heroics of Charles Lindbergh and wore he, too, would become an aviator. By the time he had finished high school at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania and had enrolled in Princeton University, Clagett was galloping horses at 50 cents a head at the Marlboro Race Track (now known as the Prince George’s Equestrian Center). It was not until World War II that Clagett became a flier. By the time he joined the service, he had graduated from Princeton and had finished his second year of law school at Georgetown University.
But Clagett didn’t become just a flier; he became a hero, flying bombing missions in the South Pacific and, as a Group Wing Commander, flew B-29’s in the last five missions over Tokyo before the Japanese surrendered. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit for his war heroics and left the military as a Colonel.
” I was in command of a wing at Andrews Air Force Base after the war.” Clagett said. “But I new that because I was not from West Point that I’d probably never reach a Brigadier General, so I returned to civilian life and finished law school at Georgetown.”
Clagett transferred his derring-do to the hunt field, horse shows, and steeplechasing, all the while developing a law practice in Upper Marlboro and transforming Weston from a tobacco and cattle farm into a premiere Thoroughbred nursery.
By 1949, he had bred, owned, trained and had served as exercise boy, hotwalker and groom for his first winner, Glimpse O, a son of his first broodmare, Glimpse.
“I was riding him off the track one day, with two bandages falling off his hind legs, when (trainer) Donelson Christmas came up to me. He said, ‘You’d better get someone who knows what they’re doing to train that horse.’ So I gave him to Dick Christmas to train and he won a lot of races for me, first on the flat and then over jumps.”
At this time, Clagett also rode his horse, Black Knight, in horse shows and became a whipper-in for the Marlboro Hunt Club. “I whipped in for 15 years and was asked at one point to become Master. But by this time my law career had mushroomed and I had to turn it down,” he said. Eventually he became the president of the Maryland Bar Association.
Clagett, did however, serve as the president of the Marlboro Hunt Club, became a founding committee member of its popular Hunt Race meet and has been instrumental throughout his life in hunt activities.
It was in 1962 that Clagett combined both his passion for horses with his professional skills as a lawyer to revolutionize Maryland’s horse racing industry. He drafted legislation that established the Maryland-Bred-Race Fund program, which allocated a percentage of the money bet at the tracks to subsidize the state’s Thoroughbred and Standardbred breeders. He also wrote legislation that wrestled control of purse monies from the hands of track owners into the hands of the horsemen. This move insured guaranteed purse levels for horsemen and added stability to the industry. The Clagett proposals revitalized Maryland racing and set a precedent for other states.
It was not until the last 20 years that Clagett reached his prowess as a Thoroughbred breeder. Infusing his foundation Southern Maryland and Virginia bloodlines with the prepotent strains of such stallions as Bold Ruler’s son Bold Ambition, and Elmendorf Farm-bred John Alden, Clagett began to breed a succession of stakes winners, such as Little Bold John, who earned over $1.9 million, Alden’s Ambition, Carnirainbow, Assault John and numerous others. He has been a hands-on owner, not only foaling his own mares, but also showing yearlings and breeding stock in-hand himself at the Maryland Horse Breeders’ Annual Yearling Show and the Maryland Sate Fair. Champions on the line have eventually become stakes winners on the track.
In 1994, Clagett made an estate-planning move and turned over Weston and half of all his horses to his son, Hal III. Such a move would have decimated most breeding operations. Instead, the elder Clagett’s operations, moved over to Roedown when he married the former Jeanne Begg five years ago, have only gotten stronger. In 1998, he bred and raced four stakes winners and is now planning matings for many more future Clagett winners.
Clagett estimates that during his lifetime he has bred more than 500 Thoroughbreds. But such strength and endurance is apparently a family trait. He is the ninth generation Clagett to have lived at Weston, which was first built in 1670 by his ancestor, Thomas Clagett. He gleefully notes that his son Hal III, and his 8 year old grandson, Wesley, who both now reside at Weston, are the 10th and 11th generations, respectively, to live on continuously owned Clagett land—probably an achievement that no other Maryland family can match.
When asked to describe his career with horses, Clagett uses adjectives such as “enjoyable, challenging, interesting, rewarding. And when you hit bottom, sorrowful. It’s all of these things,” he said, “but most of all, being around horses gives you the adrenaline to get going in the mornings.”
For Hal Clagett, Jr., that adrenaline has come in heaping doses.