Around Unionville learning the ways of horses is a family affair. The skills are treasured and honed for generations.
Traveling along winding country roads, emerald fields roll away in every direction, punctuated by naturally wooded creeks and grand, historic horse farms. Much of the land is dotted with rambling old stone houses with a horse trailer half-hidden behind a barn.
You'll find gorgeous stretches of land that devlopers would love to get their paws on. Following the death of their neighbor Arthur Choate five years ago, Michael and Anne Moran purchased the 200 acres of rolling hills and pastures and placed it under a land conservation easement.
Once a cattle pasture, the Morans have transformed 100 acres of farmland into a handsome course for the annual Pennsylvania Hunt Cup race meet. Owners of the three-time Eclipse award winning steeplechaser McDynamo, the couple are co-chairmen and have managed the Hunt Cup for the past three years.
"Michael has spent a lot of time, effort and money improving the quality of the turf course and promoting the event," said Clipper LaMotte, president of the Cheshire Hunt Conservancy. "The Morans have taken the Hunt Cup to another level."
November 4th marks its 73rd running. It's an afternoon to take in autumn's splendor while watching timber and flat races including the $30,000 Hunt Cup, an amateur's timber race over four miles of vivid green countryside. Instead of soaring over brush hedges, it's up and over 22 jumps of post-and-rail along with a few sturdy timber fences (3-1/2 to 4 feet) that can do serious bodily harm to horse or rider.
First run in 1921 over a course in Whitemarsh, PA, the Hunt Cup moved to its present location in Unionville in 1964. From its inception, the Cup was intended as a substantial test of both horse and rider. It is one of just three 4-mile steeplechase races sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association.
The Hunt Cup trails only the Maryland Hunt Cup and the Virginia Gold Cup as the most prestigious and challenging timber races in America. Unionville trainer Louis "Paddy" Neilson rode in every Hunt Cup from 1964-1977, winning the second and third runnings on Sir George and Half a Day.
In the early days talented riders like Neilson, Barclay Tagg, Buzzy Hannum and Russell and Richie Jones helped ramp up interest in the event. Neilson points to Vonszadek as the best timber horse ever in the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Other top-notch jumpers included Fort Devon, Dubliner, Buck Jakes, Freedom Hill and Can Cottage.
Last year the Hunt Cup switched to amateurs, hoping to develop new riders.
"The idea was to give them the chance to compete at the highest level, but they had to dig down pretty deep to fill the race," said Neilson. "I think they took an arrow out of the professional's quiver. We'll see how it goes this year."
In addition to the racing, the Hunt Cup brings awareness to a number of organizations involved in the preservation of the southern Chester County countryside.
The 30,000 acres surrounding Unionville is the largest contiguous mass of land under conservation easement from Washington to Boston, according to Cuyler Walker, the president of the Land Preservation Fund.
Said Walker: "One by one landowners like Michael and Anne have stepped up to preserve the land and celebrate the horse."
Both Michael and his wife Anne grew up with horses and farm animals, roughly 3,300 miles away from each other. Michael and his five siblings lived on a 20-acre farm with an eight-horse barn near Paoli, PA. It's just down the road from his mother Betty's glorious thoroughbred operation, Brushwood Stable.
After spending time working with trainer Ruby Walsh, Michael went to work for Hall of Fame steeplechase trainer Burley Cocks.
"He was the consummate horseman who ran a first-class operation," recalled Michael. "It was just a lot of fun. I would ride good horses every single day."
Anne was raised in Tara, County Meath, Ireland. Her father was an amateur jockey who later worked for the Irish Racing Board. An accomplished three-day eventer, Anne later did a stint at an eventing stable in Germany.
After spending a summer in Canada, Anne stopped by Unionville and went to work for top equestrian Betty Bird. She also exercised racehorses for Jonathan Sheppard and inhaled the wisdom of the local Hall of Fame trainer.
"Between Jonathan and Betty, you would never find two better tutors," she said.
Riding Buck Jakes, Anne captured two Maryland Hunt Cups, a pair of Pennsylvania Hunt Cups, two Maryland Grand Nationals and a couple of International Gold Cups.
"When I asked Anne to ride I had no idea she was the 37-year mother of three who sang in the church choir," said owner Charlie Fenwick with a laugh. "If I did, I'm not sure I would have. Seriously, she had the perfect touch-- gentle, but persistent."
Introduced by a friend who worked with Sheppard, Anne and Michael spent a winter in Ireland with trainer Ruby Walsh. When they returned and married in 1984, the couple purchased a 69-acre mushroom farm with splintered barns near Unionville.
"It was pretty run down," Anne recalled. "Being a mushroom farm it was dark and dank. There was an old 3/8-mile training track that was completely shot. We started with six horses. I rode them and Michael trained them, all at the farm, both flat and jumpers."
Today Appleton Farm is a sparkling showplace. It's grown in scope and size over the years to 225 acres, encompassing some of the most picturesque land in Unionville's horse country. A year ago Michael completed the construction of a classic stone training barn where he conditions a string of 15-20 horses that he owns along with his mother and a couple of outside clients.
40 In Training
"In the old days we would have 40 horses in training, back when Ann and I could ride 15 a day," Michael said. "There is no problem getting horses ready to run here. Basically, it's home schooling."
There is a challenging work strip of seven furlongs, straight up hill. The farm was one of the first local horse farms to put in a walking machine, a starting gate, an indoor arena, swimming pond, and in fall 2005, they installed the Tapeta artificial surface on the half-mile training track.
At Appleton Farm the horses spend the winter outdoors running up and down the hilly ground. It forges muscle and toughness into them, providing a solid foundation for their racing careers.
Moran's stable star is four year old gelding Silent Roar (Unbridled's Song--Jane's the Name). Last year he won the Patterson Stakes at the Meadowlands and scored a Grade-2 win at Monmouth in July.
"I have animals that love to run on the turf," said Michael. "Maybe it's how I train them or how they're bred. At the sales I'm attracted to horses with turf pedigrees. We'll have about 20 horses in training next year, a half-dozen of those will be partnerships."
The Morans' McDynamo shoots for his fourth Eclipse Award this fall. The 10-year old had a chip removed from his ankle in June, but is slated to run in the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase race at Far Hills, N. J. October 20.
The couple has kept a close eye on the talented three year-old Hard Spun. Runner-up in last May's Kentucky Derby, the handsome bay colt's dam was Michael's Turkish Tryst. In a foal sharing agreement with his mother, the mare was bred to the legendary stallion Danzig. The speedy colt was foaled at Betty's Brushwood Stable near Malvern, Pa.
Hard Spun has won seven of his 12 career starts, with two second-place finishes and one third. In early October he defeated Derby champ Street Sense in the Kentucky Cup Classic that pushed his lifetime earnings to almost $1.7 million. His next start is in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27.
Michael trained Turkish Tryst, who raced 15 times (4-1-2), earning $84,362. Her sire was Turkoman, who was sired by Alydar.
"She's the goose that laid the golden egg for me," said Michael.
All five of her foals are winners, including the restricted stakes winner Our Rite of Spring and the stakes placed Wild Current. Turkish Tryst produced a Kingmambo filly in mid-March and is booked to Storm Cat in '08.
When Turkish Tryst went to board at Brushwood, negotiations began.
"I worked on my son for two years," said Betty Moran. "I've always liked the Alydar and Turkoman bloodline. He didn't want to sell, but I had to have her."
The $500,000 purchase price helped pay for Appleton's Tapeta synthetic surface. As for Hard Spun, his breeding contract paid owner Rick Porter $15 million, with another $15 million for winning a Grade 1 race at Saratoga. There is another huge kicker for a Breeders' Cup Classic win.
Michael says he doesn't look back.
"It's like your old girl friend, you say goodbye and good luck," said Michael with a laugh. " I'm just glad I had the opportunity to have bred him."