Just 20 minutes southeast of the late-summer bustle of Saratoga Race Course is a different kind of horse country altogether—one that’s equal parts green and tranquil. Hulking Holsteins, golden sunflowers and armies of sweet corn flash by my car window as I spin along the two-lane roads. By the time I pull into Irish Hill Century Farm, where horses nip at the grass behind dark-brown fences and the only traffic is a flock of chimney swifts that circle over the pavement, I feel my blood pressure drop. Irish Hill dates back to 1883, and owner Rick Burke is the fifth generation in his family to manage the nearly 400-acre Stillwater farm. He breeds mares, raises their young and looks after the Thoroughbreds that run at the nearby Saratoga Race Course. “I do it because I love it,” says Burke. The best part of the job is “getting to see them on the racetrack…I brought that baby into the world, I raised it up until it was a yearling,” he tells me.
If you’re looking for a “best of” list of Thoroughbred farms in Saratoga County—forget about it. “Everyone probably thinks they’re No.1,” says H. James Bond, an award-winning trainer, owner and breeder, who runs Bond Racing Stables & Song Hill Thoroughbreds, also in Stillwater. (Among its many successes, Song Hill foaled and raised Mr. Groush, a New York Horse of the Year winner.) Besides Bond’s license to win, there’s nearby McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, founded by Joe and Anne McMahon. McMahon of Saratoga is best known for producing Funny Cide, the 2003 winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the first two legs of American horse racing’s Triple Crown. At Irish Hill, Burke’s riding high too: Bellamy Road, one of eight stallions standing stud there, is the sire of Diversify, the New York-bred bay gelding that won this past August’s Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course. (For those keeping track, “standing stud” refers to the period when male horses—i.e., sires—are available for breeding services.)
The proliferation of horse farms in the region is a big reason why Saratoga has become such a mecca for horse racing—it’s turned it into a year-round venture, and the numbers back it up. There are some 45 Thoroughbred farms in Saratoga County alone, and in turn, the County is home to about 11,000 horses of all kinds, more than any other county in the state. “Yes, it’s the horse capital of New York State,” says Jeffrey Cannizzo, Executive Director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc. (NYTB). “The horse corridor starts right here in Saratoga County, and it’s wrapped around this racetrack, which is one of the most prestigious racetracks in the world.”
Bond, a Rochester native who moved to Saratoga County 12 years ago, says what brought him (and kept him) here was “the soil, the land, the quietness and the tranquility of Saratoga.” I agree, Mr. Bond. I think you’re on to something.