Skip to main content
Original Issue


But do call him 'Mr. Van Lennep.' An old-fashioned man of elegant mien, he is right up to date when it comes to harness racing

Even more than Frederick Van Lennep's other accomplishments as a horseman, credit him with spectacularly avoiding the fate of Mrs. Miles Frank Yount, an oil-rich widow from Texas who resolved in the '30s to crash Kentucky's bluegrass society. Pansy Yount had a string of fine show horses. She broke ground on a $1 million mansion and, with the last crystal chandelier hung and the last bronze door in place, threw a party for the horsey set. Some of the local gentry attended out of curiosity, only to be insulted to find that their hostess had seen fit to install locks on the cupboards and Pinkerton guards at every door. The party was reckoned a partial success: Mrs. Yount never made local society, but neither did anyone steal her silverware.

Fred Van Lennep, by contrast, gets along in Kentucky just fine. He can pass for a local squire as he strides of a Sunday morning into the stone church on the grounds of Castleton Farm, the harness-horse spread he owns near Lexington, and he fits right in as he presides over the traditional Christmas party for the farm's workers, distributing gifts to the children that in years past have included 43 bicycles at a crack. A trim, well-tailored man of 61 with chiseled Barrymore features and lacquered hair that suggests the wet look is not dead everywhere, Van Lennep might have stepped at such moments from the pages of Vanity Fair.

But if Fred Van Lennep's appearance suggests a bygone era, he is in point of fact a figure of major current clout in the world of U.S. harness racing. He owns a large chunk of one harness track in Kentucky—the Red Mile. He has bestowed on an undeserving world Pompano Park, a handsome Florida harness facility that in almost a decade has not yet returned the first nickel of the millions he has poured into it. He is the dominant figure in Detroit's thriving Wolverine harness meeting, whose success has come partly at the expense of the same track's thoroughbred racing—which he also runs. And he is involved with show horses and greyhound racing, sometimes making money and sometimes losing, but seldom allowing either contingency to disturb his considerable aplomb.

His racing accomplishments—or lack of them—make it hard for horse people, in their obsession to separate winners from losers, to figure out Fred Van Lennep. Nor do his own characteristically discreet words always help. "The breeding farm has been my most important concern," he says in the paneled comfort of a Castleton office that bulges with the spoils of harness racing conquest—a Hambletonian bowl in a trophy case here, a Little Brown Jug on a shelf there. "Of course unexpected circumstances and opportunities have drawn me into other things, too. But there's always been a reason behind everything."

It is hard to believe that Van Lennep's roots do not go deep in Kentucky soil after all. Not that his upbringing on Philadelphia's Main Line was in any way deficient, but the fact remains that when he arrived in Lexington in 1949, he was laboring, even as Mrs. Yount had earlier, under certain handicaps. He was 38 and had just gone through a divorce and remarriage. His bride Frances, socialite daughter of the late automobile pioneer, John F. Dodge, had bought a breeding farm that Van Lennep, at that point more experienced at selling advertising space than horses, was now undertaking to run. Those were the delicate days before Women's Lib reduced us all to one sex, which made it all the more awkward when people carelessly said of the newly weds, "There go Mr. and Mrs. Dodge. He's the automobile heir, you know."

Frances Dodge Van Lennep died two years ago, but any doubts about her husband had been dispelled long before that. "When Fred came here, some people thought, oh, here's just some guy who married a rich woman," recalls Horseman Albert Clay, who as a member of Kentucky's reigning thoroughbred aristocracy might not be expected to speak quite so approvingly of a harness-horse breeder in the best of circumstances. "I may have thought it myself. But Fred has convinced everybody. He's a doer. When he gets involved in something, watch out."

As Clay's remarks suggest, Van Lennep's impact on the horse world owes less to whatever fine figure he cuts at Castleton's Christmas party than it does to another of those old-fashioned qualities: hard work. When he spent a few days last summer relaxing on a Caribbean beach, nobody could remember when he had last taken a vacation. His appetite for long hours astonishes underlings like Jonathan Figgs, a young man who confides, "You keep busy enough working for Mr. Van Lennep." At the root of this particular lament is the fact that while Fred Van Lennep owns three cars, poor beleaguered Jonathan is his only chauffeur.

With everything else, Van Lennep keeps busy in Lexington as one of the two biggest stockholders in both the historic Red Mile track and the 79-year-old Tattersalls sales company. The Red Mile's clay surface is considered the fastest in harness racing, but the track was financially distressed until Van Lennep merged it with Tattersalls, renovated the facilities and launched a spring night meeting. These steps saved the Red Mile and produced trickle-down effects not displeasing to Van Lennep: the track's venerable Lexington Trots, traditionally the last major stop on harness racing's annual Grand Circuit, lends ambience to the Tattersalls yearling sale, which is where Castleton Farm peddles its horses and makes its money.

By such farsighted means has Van Lennep built Castleton into a leading breeder of quality trotters and pacers. One can think of the standardbred industry today as polarized between Castleton and Pennsylvania's larger Hanover Shoe Farms, each of which heads what amounts to its own geo-equinal bloc. Where Hanover speaks for smaller breeders in Pennsylvania and Maryland, Castleton tends to represent those in Kentucky and Ohio; Hanover dominates the nearby Harrisburg yearling sale as surely as Castleton does Tattersalls; Hanover enjoys rave notices in the Harrisburg-published magazine, The Harness Horse, while Castleton receives a gratifying press in the Lexington-based The Horseman and Fair World of which—almost inevitably—Frederick Van Lennep is co-owner. Van Lennep cannot resist noting that Hanover Shoe had a head start. "We've done in 20 years what took them nearly half a century," he says.

Castleton Farm and Dodge Stables, the firm's prestigious show-horse division, encompass 1,400 carpeted acres. Van Lennep can frequently be seen there, passing beneath aisles of stately button-woods, perhaps stopping to check on a herd of grazing blood horses, or to poke his head into one or another of the green-shingled barns. His involvement in Castleton is deepest during the Tattersalls yearling sale, where last fall 91 Castleton fillies and colts brought $1,961,000. The $21,549-per-horse average, a figure not even Hanover Shoe has matched, reflected a demand generated by the racetrack performance of such Castleton-sired winners as Strike Out and Speedy Crown, as well as by the farm's own stable of 35 horses, most of them younger animals like Colonial Charm, the filly who was 1972's 2-year-old trotter of the year. In all, Castleton-sired horses won $7.5 million last year, the high point being the Little Brown Jug, pacing's premier event, in which Strike Out won while other sons of Castleton stallions took the next four places. Strike Out retired to stud at Castleton soon after, joining his own sire, Bret Hanover, the broad-shouldered bay who is largely responsible for the farm's recent blitz both in the sales ring and on the track.

Bret—the Hanover part of the name can be dropped when talking of him around Castleton—retired in 1966 after a brilliant racing career, and for $1 million Van Lennep bought a 50% interest in him. "We had depth in trotters but were a little shy in pacers," he says. It was, at the time, the biggest payment by an individual for a single piece of horseflesh of any breed. Surely it is the best million Van Lennep will ever spend. Bret is now 11 and dwelling in oak-paneled serenity at the Castleton stallion barn. He commands a $10,000 stud fee, and the performance at the track of his first three crops invites favorable comparison with his own sire, the legendary Adios.

Less uniformly successful are Van Lennep's various racetrack holdings, most of which are subsidiaries of Castleton Industries, a Florida-based mini-conglomerate of which Van Lennep is president, board chairman and 40% stockholder. Related to the Kentucky breeding farm in name only, Castleton Industries has lost nothing but money since 1968, its shares declining on the American Stock Exchange from a high of $17 to around $2 today. The problem lies partly with a couple of disastrous manufacturing operations and partly with Pompano Park, that cheerfully troubled harness track between Miami and Palm Beach on Florida's condominium-lined east coast.

Pompano, decorated in shades of what its publicists call "Pompano pink," opened in 1964 after a struggle with the state legislature that lasted 10 years. The $15 million track soon won acceptance as the wintertime headquarters of Billy Haughton, Stanley Dancer and other leading trainers, who found southern Florida perfect for getting behind jogging carts in the morning and golf carts after lunch. As a pari-mutuel proposition, however, color the place Pompano red—for the ink in the ledgers. Van Lennep's efforts to make a go of Pompano have prompted suggestions that the track is too ambitious, that its commodious grandstand and its grand clubhouse lavishly hung with Currier & Ives prints actually might scare serious horseplayers away.

Considering the matter in his office there not long ago Van Lennep said, "Maybe we are ahead of our time. But the sport can always use a little glamour." It seemed consistent with this call for glamour that while most of his Pompano aides had reported for work this sunshiny Florida day in the most casual of sports clothes, Van Lennep was, as always, dressed to the hilt—down to the monogrammed handkerchief that blossomed from his breast pocket as splendidly as the palm fronds outside the window.

But an air of formality surrounds Van Lennep nearly everywhere. At Castleton's racing stables at Pompano, parking spaces for the three trainers bear signs reading GLEN GARNSEY, DICK BAKER and RUSS WHITE. The owner's space reads MR. VAN LENNEP. "I wouldn't call him Fred for all the world—he's just not Fred," explains Garnsey, the head trainer.

What inspires some to call him Mister prompts others to charge that Van Lennep is cold or distant. At times the whole man seems withdrawn. "One minute Fred can pass you without a word," says Bill Van Buren, longtime treasurer at Castleton Farm and Wolverine. "The next minute he'll come up and put his arm around you. Sometimes strangers think he's moody or aloof, but usually he's just concentrating."

Others tell of personal kindnesses performed by Van Lennep. Associates complain that he is too quick to loan money and too slow to fire errant employees. He truly dislikes giving offense to anyone. Recently he took a long-distance call in his Pompano office from a horseman interested in breeding a mare to Bret Hanover.

"Well, he's got a pretty full book at the moment," Van Lennep began, a little uncomfortably. He talked to the man a while more without settling the matter but without giving in to him, either. Eventually, he hung up with a sigh. "How do you tell someone his mare just isn't good enough for your stallion?" he asked.

"I know some people say I'm a stuffed shirt," Van Lennep says. "I suppose I ought to relax more." But he also knows that a seigneurial manner can be of diplomatic value in high-level racetrack politics. "Fred's careful to be as good a Democrat as he is a Republican," one friend says. It is no accident that Van Lennep enjoys the lasting goodwill of governors wherever he does business. But he also knows how to operate with lesser officials, such as J.W. (Bill) Stevens, a Broward County commissioner whom he phoned recently to ask about the construction of a highway near Pompano Park. Stevens obligingly showed up at Pompano with maps, which the two men spread on the floor of Van Lennep's office and studied together on their hands and knees. Stevens, an ex-baker who calls himself "just an ol' country boy," recalls the scene with elation. "Can you picture us on the floor like that? He's really a regular guy." Of course, it was Stevens who went to Van Lennep's office, not the other way around. Also, while the racetrack owner addressed the 55-year-old Stevens as "Bill," he was always "Mr. Van Lennep" in return.

Fred Van Lennep's upbringing scarcely prepared him to take any ol' country boy part himself. His Dutch-born father emigrated to the U.S. as a youngster, becoming in time a successful Philadelphia surgeon. Fred remembers that Dr. Gustave Van Lennep "made us dress for dinner and kept us out of trouble." As a teen-ager on the Main Line, Fred played tennis at the Merion Cricket Club and became interested in horses. He graduated from Princeton in 1933 and joined the Philadelphia advertising agency of N.W. Ayer, but not before marrying Celeste McNeil, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia lawyer.

Celeste was a standout on the horse-show circuit, where she and her husband soon became friends with another skilled horsewoman, Frances Dodge. They attended Miss Dodge's 1938 wedding to James B. Johnson Jr., a polo-playing cavalryman from New Jersey. The splendid affair was held in her family's Meadowbrook Hall, a 100-room mansion outside Detroit so capacious that later, when Frances turned 25, it was possible to sneak 180 friends plus Tommy Dorsey's entire band inside for a surprise party without the guest of honor, who was off in another wing, suspecting a thing. Fred Van Lennep was an usher at the wedding.

Frances Dodge Johnson became seriously interested in standardbreds, and at the Lexington Trots in 1940 somebody dared her to try her equine skills on the celebrated trotter Greyhound—under saddle, not behind a sulky. As most of the big names of harness racing looked on, she rode the gelding to a 2:01¾ mile, a world record for trotting under saddle that still stands.

Some people call the record a gimmick, ignoring the fact that trotting under saddle, uncommon nowadays in the U.S., is a regular feature of European racing. One witness to Frances' ride who knows better is Owner-Driver Del Miller. "It was one of the greatest performances of horsemanship I've ever seen," he says. "The trick was to keep Greyhound on stride. I doubt if he'd ever had a saddle on before. Frances had to post all the way around." Frances soon hired Greyhound's trainer, Sep Palin, and began campaigning a string of trotters and pacers. Then in 1945 she bought Castleton, a romantic but rundown farm, moved Dodge Stables from Detroit to Kentucky and began breeding a few standardbreds.

Fred Van Lennep, meanwhile, had taken a job selling advertising space for Newsweek in Philadelphia, only to have his career interrupted by World War II. He was a gunnery officer in the Navy, a specialty that upon his discharge in 1946 led him into the manufacturing of components for radarscopes. But his own sights had been set on Frances Dodge Johnson. After respective divorces—each had one child—the couple was married in early 1949 in a small ceremony in the drawing room of Castleton's antebellum manor house.

Forgetting about radar, Van Lennep began building up Castleton, reasoning that "it didn't make sense just raising a few horses on a property so big." Frances lent a keen eye to the acquisition of breeding stock, but otherwise seemed content to have Fred run things. Friends remember her today not as one woman but two: warm, generous and quick to laugh, yet painfully shy around strangers. She traveled a lot, but disliked flying, preferring instead her $125,000 custom-built bus equipped with phone and shower.

Van Lennep's decision to expand Castleton coincided with harness racing's postwar boom. When the chance came in the early '50s to take over the new Wolverine night meeting in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, he seized it both as a way of generating capital for the farm and for philosophical reasons. "Horsemen are always criticizing racetracks," he says. "I feel we should take part in track operation, too. That's the only way tracks will be run for the benefit of horsemen instead of as sheer promotion."

But the breeder in Van Lennep often prevails over the racetrack operator. Reflecting the preference of horsemen for longer tracks that provide more room to maneuver, the courses run by Van Lennep are all at least ‚Öùths of a mile. He tore out Wolverine's half-mile oval and now operates the harness meeting on the mile-long thoroughbred course. (Accepted wisdom has it that horseplayers favor the twice-around action of shorter tracks.) And it was Van Lennep the horseman who was offended on arriving at Wolverine one night last year to learn that a trotting race for 2-year-old fillies had just been staged before empty stands at dusk as a non-betting affair.

Confronting his Wolverine aides, Van Lennep said, "Don't do that again. People who buy young horses deserve to race them under proper conditions."

"But nobody's going to bet on 2-year-old fillies," he was told.

"Take the longer view. Don't just think of the pari-mutuel handle."

Similar vision was involved in the creation of Pompano Park. Florida already had a winter training center, but it was a municipally owned facility in Orlando with no pari-mutuel track. "We knew trainers would also like to race a few horses," Van Lennep says. "Besides, there wasn't much to do in Orlando." Scouring southern Florida for suitable locations in a private plane, he noticed, as in a mirage, the weed-covered outline of a track west of Pompano Beach that had been built for a gypsy flats meeting in 1926. He bought the abandoned facility as the site of a new training center and harness raceway.

It might have made greater sense to locate an hour farther south in Miami, where bettors abound, but Van Lennep hoped that by selecting what was practically virgin territory he would avoid a head-on fight with Florida's politically powerful thoroughbred and dog tracks. He didn't. They fought him hoof and fang just the same. After failing in the Florida legislature three times between 1955 and 1959, Van Lennep's well-organized forces finally got their desired bill passed in 1961—only to run into a governor's veto. They overrode the veto, and withstood the expected opposition from the pulpit to win easily a required referendum in Broward County. Then, with victory seemingly at hand, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the bill unconstitutional.

"Maybe it's the stubborn Dutch in me, but that just made me try harder," Van Lennep says. When he finally coaxed through a constitutionally acceptable measure in 1963, even his closest friends dared not ask Van Lennep what his successful crusade had cost in T-bone steaks for famished state senators. There now arose the matter of actually building and operating the track. The night Pompano Park opened in February 1964 the temporary clubhouse roof leaked. It rained for three straight days. Indeed, it has been raining on Pompano, figuratively speaking, ever since.

With Pompano's annual losses running to $1 million or more, Van Lennep bought the flourishing Hollywood Dog Track in nearby Hallandale as a source of income to offset the drain. His involvement with the accursed dogs embarrasses him among his fellow horsemen, and it was amusing last December to watch Frederick Van Lennep, in his capacity as harness-track owner, fight to defeat a proposed dog-racing bill in Michigan. In Florida, he sheepishly admitted, "The shoe is on the other foot up there."

Besides the dogs, Pompano Park faces competition from Miami's night life, thoroughbreds, jai alai and, as if the rabbit-chasing variety were not enough, Greyhounds that depart daily for Disney World. Large numbers of kibitzers offer Van Lennep advice on how to flush customers for Pompano out of the Miami Beach hotels, suggestions that tax Van Lennep's considerable patience. "We've tried everything," he says. "Club parties, convention groups, TV advertising—everything. But the people lying on the beach won't even turn over."

But some detractors insist Van Lennep finds the effort to reach hardened horseplayers somehow beneath his dignity. "He's trying to cater to the fancy Palm Beach trade, but that's not the people who make a racetrack," one critic says. With all the sniping, however, nobody questions the man's basic dedication to harness racing, not even Don MacFarlane, who became boss of Detroit's Hazel Park with help from Van Lennep, but later fell out with him. "Freddie's only real problem is that he surrounds himself with yes-men who flatter his great vanity," MacFarlane says. Indisputably, Van Lennep surrounds himself with relatives, including Hector, his son by his first marriage, who manages Pompano Park. Certainly one in-family choice has been excellent: Dick Wilson, the racing director of Castleton Industries, is a respected track administrator who also happens to be the late Frances Dodge Van Lennep's half brother.

As for Frances, she brought to the racetrack operation the refreshing perspective of a $2 bettor with such a weakness for Indian names that she never failed to buy a ticket on every Cherokee Sal or Apache Lady that went to the post. It was in a spirit of high adventure that Frances wore a pants suit for the first time the evening of Jan. 22, 1971, when she and Fred celebrated their 22nd anniversary at Pompano. The next morning, two months past her 56th birthday, she was drinking tea in her pink-shuttered oceanfront home up the coast in Delray Beach when she was fatally stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage.

Carrying on the projects that he and Frances had begun together, Fred Van Lennep talks now of "getting everything hitting on all cylinders." Meanwhile, one can perhaps forgive his enthusiasm in reporting that Pompano has finally started making money. While the track may be meeting its day-to-day costs, its average nightly handle is still barely $225,000, not enough to carry its large debt service. As at other tracks, the one sure answer is increased land use. One hopeful development was a 60-day quarter-horse meeting introduced at Pompano last year. Van Lennep could also reap a windfall by selling off peripheral chunks of Pompano Park's increasingly valuable 350 acres.

Meanwhile, he is streamlining in other ways. He has been reining in Castleton Industries, disposing of a number of unprofitable non-racing subsidiaries acquired along the way, including a coffee-processing plant in Pennsylvania and one manufacturing terry-cloth towels in North Carolina. Of Castleton Industries, Van Lennep now says, "We're going to concentrate on horses and leisure time. That's what I know best."

He is also concentrating on his avowed goal of relaxing more, in which effort his marriage in June 1971 to Mary Hazen Sprow, an ebullient Ohio widow, has assuredly helped. With encouragement from Rikki, 22, and Johnny, 20, Van Lennep's two children by his marriage with Frances Dodge, Mary has steered him toward wider lapels and bolder colors. It was at her urging, too, that the couple joined Lexington's exclusive Iroquois Hunt Club, whose members ride to hounds promptly at 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and otherwise pass their time at such affairs as the black-tie dinner the Van Lenneps hosted there during the holidays.

The 50 or so guests were mostly thoroughbred people. Before sitting down to beef tenderloin and champagne, they gathered for cocktails beneath the beamed ceiling of the Iroquois clubhouse, a 170-year-old converted flour mill set among the sycamores by the waters of Boone Creek. "This is just a chance to have some food and good conversation," Van Lennep said, setting the tone for a social affair that turned out far more agreeably than the party Pansy Yount threw for the thoroughbred crowd so long ago.

But perhaps too much is made of the thoroughbred aristocracy. In 19th century rural America, after all, it was harness racing that was the gentleman's sport. If the same sport is thought of today as a folksy down-home affair, it is partly because its promoters have found this an effective way to build for it a solidly middle-America appeal. Still, Frederick Van Lennep has brought a certain class to harness racing, an achievement underscored by a guest at his party, a thoroughbred owner's wife who talked about her host as she warmed herself near the Iroquois fireplace.

"Freddie's one of my favorite people," she said, helping herself to a hot hors d'oeuvre from a platter proffered by a white-jacketed waiter. "That's quite a compliment, too, because I don't like harness racing at all." She glanced across the room where Fred Van Lennep was dispensing glad-you-could-make-its to latecomers, his hair as glossy as the coat of a $100,000 yearling. The woman lowered her voice. "He's really the only person in harness racing I even know."