By Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence
We take it as a given that horse racing and politics generally don’t mix well, and most states have laws and rules that try to keep government officials from having interests in racing operations.
Yet, in the years before these regulations, there have been times when political interests were invested in racing. Tammany boss Richard Croker was heavily involved with horse racing in the late 19th and 20th centuries. He even won the English Derby in 1907 with his horse after he had retired to Ireland. Tammany leader and Congressman “Big Tim” Sullivan ran a stable of horses in the early 20th century and also had interests in various racetracks. John Morrissey, the principal founder of Saratoga Race Course, served as a Congressman and as a state senator. It is likely that Morrissey’s involvement in government was to protect his illegal gambling establishments.
Ogden Mills – a congressman from New York State who ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for New York State governor in 1926 – founded the Wheatley Stables with his sister Gladys Mills Phipps. Mills also served as the Secretary of the Treasury under President Herbert Hoover. He was the uncle of , both of whom were dominant owners and leaders of the American turf.
William Collins Whitney – the founder of the Whitney interests in horse racing – was an active Democrat. He ran unsuccessfully for district attorney in New York City, was a long-time supporter and a member of the cabinet under President Grover Cleveland, and was nearly nominated as the Democratic candidate for governor in 1894.
August Belmont, , the namesake of the Belmont Stakes, served as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the 1860’s.
Log Cabin Stud
Yet of all these potentially politically powerful stables, the most potent was probably the Log Cabin Stud of the mid-1920’s. The stable was significant politically when it was formed due to the wealth of its partners, but only in retrospect can the political clout of this stable be seen. Ninety years after it was established, the extent of the political influence of this stable is still being felt.
Log Cabin Stud was the partnership of W. Averell Harriman and George Herbert Walker. They were at the time principals of the Wall Street investment banking firm, W. A. Harriman & Co. Harriman had inherited one of the largest fortunes in the world. Walker founded, owned, and ran the very successful St. Louis investment company, G. H. Walker and Co., and had amassed his own very ample fortune. When W. A. Harriman & Co. was formed, George Herbert Walker moved in 1920 from St. Louis to New York City to become president of W. A. Harriman & Co. Harriman was the chairman of the board.
In the 1920’s, both Harriman and Walker would have been considered to be major sportsmen. Walker was a former president of the United States Golf Association. He established and provided the trophy for the Walker Cup which is the amateur golf tournament between Great Britain and the United States. He was the amateur heavyweight champion of Missouri. He played competitive tennis. (His friend in St. Louis, Dwight Davis, had established the Davis Cup in tennis.) He was one of the original investors of the Madison Square Garden which opened in the 1920’s. He was a member of The Jockey Club, and for approximately a decade – until 1934 – he was a member of the New York State Racing Commission. Eventually his son George Herbert Walker, Jr. would became one of the initial investors and a director of the New York Mets. His son-in-law Prescott Bush also served as a president of the United States Golf Association.
Harriman was more than 15 years younger than Walker and an equally accomplished sportsman. He was a talented harness driver, a world-class polo player (allegedly the 4th-highest rated player in the nation), a star croquet player, and a coach and an oarsman on the Yale crew team. Harriman was also a talented skier who developed the Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho.
Given their positions, their competitiveness, their wealth, their social prominence, and their mutual interests, it only made sense that they would get involved in thoroughbred racing. In 1922, Harry Payne Whitney offered to sell Harriman two horses in training plus six yearlings. Harriman took him up on the offer and started the Log Cabin Stud with Walker.
Their major plunge into racing did not occur until January 1925. For $250,000, they bought the 20-horse racing stock (17 yearlings and three older horses) of August Belmont Jr., who had died in December of 1924. Belmont had been a major force in racing. He built Belmont Park. He bred Man o’ War. He won three Belmont Stakes. He owned the excellent race horse and terrific sire Fair Play. Much of the Belmont racing stock had been sired by Fair Play.
The purchase of the Belmont horses made Log Cabin an immediate force in racing. The Log Cabin partners even took on as their trainer August Belmont’s trainer, Louis Feustel, who had been the trainer of Man o’ War. Their race results, however, were mixed. The big horse in the Belmont purchase was not successful. The best of the Belmont horses had been Ladkin, who had defeated the great French horse Epinard in the International Special No.2 at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, N.Y. in 1924. Ladkin had been valued at $100,000. However, Ladkin had gone lame in October of 1924. He would never win a race for Log Cabin – including a last-place finish in the 1925 Yonkers Handicap – and was retired in the fall of 1925. Nonetheless, Log Cabin Stud had 37 winners in 1925, and Log Cabin finished 19th in the nation in earnings for owners
By far the best of their horses was Chance Play who was a two-year-old in 1925. Chance Play won his first two races at age two, and to a number of observers, his style was reminiscent of Man o’ War, who like Chance Play had been sired by Fair Play. But his early successes at two were not repeated later in the year. Chance Play finished third in both the Hopeful and the Futurity.
There were numerous controversies about the handling of Chance Play in his three-year-old season. The horse was ill early in the year and missed the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The horse won a stakes race in preparation for the Belmont, but a decision was made not to enter the horse in the Belmont.
Apparently, there was considerable antagonism between Walker, Harriman, and Feustel over the handling of Chance Play. This culminated in Feustel announcing in July of 1926 that he had resigned as the trainer of Log Cabin Stud. Feustel had desired to handle the horse conservatively and wait until the horse was in top condition. At least one of the owners wanted to run the horse far more often. At least one source claims that Harriman wanted to run the horse more frequently, but it seems likely that Walker – often described as a reckless gambler and risk-taker – who probably wanted the horse to race more frequently.
It was reported that Walker and Harriman turned down $150,000 for Chance Play. Instead, the partners decided to disband their partnership and split up the horses. Walker kept the Log Cabin name and its colors. Harriman received Chance Play and formed his own stable, the Arden Farm Stable.
The racing dispute did not prevent Harriman and Walker from remaining friends and business partners. According to one Bush family biographer, Jacob Weisberg, after dividing the horses, Harriman and Walker bought a 150-foot yacht together.
Harriman clearly got the better of the deal. Chance Play in 1927 was likely the top horse in the nation, winning six stakes races including the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Saratoga Cup. (At Saratoga, Harriman accepted the trophy from Governor Al Smith. It is likely that this was the only time that one New York State governor awarded a racing trophy to a future governor.) In 1927, the Arden Farm stable finished 14th in the nation with nearly $100,000 in purse earnings. By contrast, Walker’s Log Cabin Stud had four wins and total purse earnings of less than $9,000.
Chance Play was not nearly as successful as a five-year-old but still won three more stakes races. He was retired after the 1928 season having won 16 of 39 races. Chance Play was also a very successful sire, twice leading the United States in sire earnings.
After Chance Play, both Walker and Harriman continued their involvement in horse racing, but neither were major players. Harriman continued to run horses into the late-1930’s. Walker ran horses under his Log Cabin Stud until the 1940’s.
Eventually, their business partnership also ended. After W. A. Harriman & Co. merged with Brown Brothers in 1931 to become Brown Brothers Harriman (now the oldest private commercial bank in the nation), Walker was forced out of management. His son-in-law Prescott Bush, however, remained as a partner of the firm. Again, the apparent belief was that Walker’s desire/tolerance for risk was not what the firm wanted during the Depression. Walker’s fortune was not threatened or harmed as he managed to liquidate his holdings before the Depression hit. He returned to running G. H. Walker & Co.
The Future Racing Side of Harriman
Even after his formal involvement with racing had ended, Harriman still had significant contacts with racing. First of all, his second wife – Marie Norton – to whom he was married for 41 years until her death in 1970, was the first wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt “C. V.” Whitney. Whitney was arguably the leading owner in thoroughbred racing for many decades. C. V. was the son of Harry Payne Whitney who had started Harriman off in thoroughbred racing. Marie Norton left Whitney to marry Harriman.
Harriman was also the governor in 1955 when The Jockey Club plan – which established the New York Racing Association to revamp New York thoroughbred racing – was passed. Harriman did not play an active role in drafting or negotiating the proposal. After the Republican leadership of the State Legislature signed on to the proposal, he apparently advised the parties that he would also agree to the proposal. He did not, however, say anything publicly on the bill, and there was still some public speculation on whether he would sign the legislation. He signed the legislation on the last possible day for approval and made no comments on the bill in his approval of the legislation.
The Political Legacy
The political legacy of Log Cabin Stud is hardly in doubt. George H. Walker was initially a Democrat who became a Republican. His son-in-law Prescott Bush became the United States senator from Connecticut. Prescott won two elections for the Senate and decided not to run for reelection in 1962.
Prescott’s son George Herbert Walker Bush served as vice president and president of the United States. George Herbert Walker Bush’s oldest child, George Walker Bush, served as governor of Texas and president of the United States. George Herbert Walker Bush’s second son, John Ellis ‟Jeb” Bush, is a former governor of Florida who is currently running for president. You can hardly have been part of a more politically influential family.
On the Harriman side, Averell provides almost all the political connections. In contrast to Walker, Harriman was a Republican who became a Democrat in 1928. He was a governor of New York State and twice (1952 and 1956) tried unsuccessfully to be the Democratic candidate for president. He was the ambassador to both the Soviet Union and to the United Kingdom. He was Secretary of Commerce, and in the 1960’s served in various high positions in the U.S. Department of State. After his death, his third wife, Pamela, became the Ambassador to France in the Clinton administration.
Log Cabin may not have been the most successful racing stable, but it’s just not possible to find a racing stable that ever left a greater political legacy.