From cherry seeds has grown
by Kate Barton
istorians would need to search long and far
to find a horseman with more links to the past, present, and future of
Washington racing than trainer Jim Penney. Serious and soft spoken, Penney is
the central link in a racing family that spans five generations. In a half
century of training, he has saddled over 1,600 winners and won more than $8
million in purses. He has winners circle pictures from every major west
coast track, and is the only trainer who has won titles at Emerald Downs,
Longacres and Yakima Meadows, where he took the crown a record 17 times. He can
boast a record-tying four victories in the Longacres Mile-G3, and he has
saddled an amazing five winners on a single card not once but twice,
first at Longacres and later at Emerald Downs.
When he unassumingly took out his first trainers
license in 1954 he had no plans to fill the next 50 years with such
There was a
job to be done, and I just accepted it, recalls Jim. Gramps was
getting along in years and he needed me.
Gramps was Jims grandfather A.E.
Penney, an adventuresome spirit who combined his life-long love of horses with
orchard farming to make Penney Farms one of the most successful cherry and
Thoroughbred operations in the state.
starting his career as a school teacher in Staceyville, Iowa, Gramps Penney
moved to Naches, Washington around 1900. He met and married Roberta McPhee,
also a teacher, and the couple started raising cattle on their 40-acre farm in
1906. They had two children, daughter Esther, and son A.J. Penney, who was born
When elk herds ran the cattle off the
land, the Penneys were forced to reinvent the farm. Unlike most of the fruit
growers in the valley, they planted cherries and pears instead of apples.
Penney Farms soon became one of the states biggest producers of that
crop. Senior Penney was crowned the states first Cherry King by the
Washington Fruit Growers in 1945. That honor also was later awarded to son A.J.
All the while clinging to his passion for
Thoroughbreds, Gramps was determined that there would someday be a racing
season to complement cherry season. In 1926 he rode a Thoroughbred race on the
same site where Yakima Meadows was eventually built. He also trained horses in
the black and white Penney Farms colors at the 1933 inaugural Longacres stand.
A.J. Penney, who had been an out-standing polo
player at Oregon State University, returned to manage the farm in 1935, making
it possible for his father to concentrate more on the Thoroughbreds. The senior
Penney was one of the 16 original founders of the WTBA. His first registered
foal, Cherry Dart, was dropped in 1941. Jim and his younger brother, Bob,
inherited their love of horses and their first skills as horsemen from their
He usually had five to seven
horses, recalled Jim. In the late 1940s, after I got old enough and
cherry season was over, Id spend one to two months with him at Longacres
to finish out the racing season.
the racetrack and farm, Jim sharpened his own athletic skills playing baseball
at Yakima Valley College and later at Washington State University (WSU), where
he spent two years.
When the call came from his
grandfather, Jim, already married to Betty, made a full-time commitment to
training. Soon he was taking horses to Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields and
Santa Anita every fall after Longacres closed.
first stakes winner was Cold Command, an eight-year-old who pocketed the 1957
British Columbia Handicap at Longacres before retiring to stud at Penney Farms.
Around the same time Jim also developed Philbrick, another of the farms
early stars and winner of the 57 Spokane Futurity and the 58
Named after a character in the
popular television show I Led Three Lives, Philbrick also won at
Golden Gate. The family had high hopes for the son of Succession, but his
career was cut short when he cracked a sesamoid in a workout at Santa Anita.
Jim brought Philbrick back to WSU for surgery. The
trip marked another turning point in his career. His brother Bob was attending
WSU at the time, and it was not uncommon to find Jim at the veterinary school
showing students how to prepare a horse for the races.
While Jims career began to flourish, his father
and Jims sister Jean Harris expanded the breeding operation at Penney
Farms. In addition to Cold Command, they also stood the stallions Zulu Tom and
Rameses. A.J. Penney partnered with Wilbur Stadelman to found the Yakima Valley
Turf Club. The move gave the Penneys a close-to-home venue to race their
Jim dominated the trainers
standings at Yakima Meadows throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Overall, he
won more than 500 races, including the first two editions of the Yakima Mile
with Search Patch (1967) and Pataha Pete (1968). He saddled four winners in the
A.E. Penney Memorial Handicap as well, including the 1969 inaugural with
Bilmora and the following year with Wilbur.
success of his horses at the Yakima Meadows late winter/early spring
sessions carried over into Longacres summer campaigns. In 1968 he took
the training title with 41 winners. That same season, on August 11, he became
the first Washington trainer to win five races on a single card.
Among his first stars was the precocious Pataha Prince,
winner of the Washington Futurity and the Drumheller Memorial at Longacres in
1967. Later that summer he took Pataha Prince to Sunland Park in Santa Fe for a
win in the prestigious Riley Allison Futuriy. Destined to become one of the
leading Washington-breds of all time, Pataha Prince won or placed in several
more stakes before he was claimed from Jim in a race in California early in the
summer of 1973. An up-and-coming young trainer from New York named Bobby
Frankel haltered the then eight-year-old.
Ironically, Frankel brought Pataha Prince back to the
northwest later that summer to challenge a 10-horse field in the Longacres
Mile. Jim was prepared for the invasion with Silver Mallet, a Kentucky-bred he
had purchased earlier in the year for his eastern Washington owners, the
Hitchcock familys White Swan Stable and Tamarack Stable. With Larry
Pierce aboard, Silver Mallet nailed the front-running Pataha Prince by a neck,
giving Jim his first Mile trophy. It only took him four more years to win his
Winning the Mile with Theologist
in 1977 was one of my most satisfying days, he admits. He savors the win
for several reasons. Jim picked Theologist, a son of Prince JohnTheonia,
out of a Kentucky yearling sale. He and his brother Bob, by then a prominent
Longacres veterinarian and board member of the WTBA, shared ownership in the
chestnut with Arden and David Archer.
Frankel had come north again and won the 1976 Mile with Yu Wipi. Confident that
he could repeat in 1977, Frankel brazenly dismissed the field when he picked
Jims brains about horses bold enough to challenge Yu Wipi.
I told him Crafty Native. He said he was just a
Washington-bred. I mentioned Ben Adhem He said hes just a rank, rotten,
SOB and was only an allowance winner in the Bay area. Then I told him
Theologist was running. He said hed never heard of him, even though
Theologist had won races at Santa Anita that winter. 'Youd better get to
know him,' I said.
Theologist had the lead
from beginning to end in the 77 Mile, finishing three-quarters of a
length in front of Ben Adhem. Although Yu Wipi threatened at the top of the
stretch, the defending champ quickly dropped out and finished seventh.
Of course it was in our favor that the track came
up muddy, said Jim, But it was still very satisfying. Penney
family ties to Theologist went further than Jim and his brother Bob. Bryson
Cooper, the jockey aboard the chestnut, was (and still is) married to
Jims daughter Kay, who was just beginning her career as a trainer at that
It was more than 20 years before the next
Mile winner came along, but the Penney barn continued to develop an impressive
number of stakes winners. With 39 added-money victories, Jim finished fifth
among Long-acres all time stakes-winning trainers. Just a few of the most
notable include Screven, first in the 73 Belle Roberts Handicap,
Longacres premier filly and mare event. Irish Bear tallied in the
87 Spokane Handicap and Longacres Derby for owner Paskey Dedomenico. Jim
also trained the Dedomenico-owned Tortellini Roma to the Washington juvenile
filly championship that year.
By the time Edneator
captured the 2000 Longacres Mile, the Penney family homebase and the face of
Washington racing had changed drastically. Jims daughters Kay Cooper and
Jill Fabulich had become deeply entrenched in the day-to-day operations. After
training horses on her own for several years, Kay took over as Jims
full-time assistant in the late 1980s. Today she is responsible for the
majority of the daily decisions regarding their 25 horses at Emerald Downs.
Jill built a thriving business sewing owners silks and stakes blankets. Today
she also preps the young horses on the farm before they head to the racetrack.
The untimely death of Jims brother Bob in
1984 was a shock and a tremendous loss for not only the Penney family, but for
horsemen throughout the state, as Dr. Penney had dedicated his career to
improving Washingtons racing and breeding industry.
When the decision was made to sell Penney Farms in
Naches in 1987, Jims entire family spent two years searching for the
right piece of property. They settled on 22 acres in Edgewood, between Auburn
and Tacoma, and they broke ground for Homestretch Farm in 1989. With a
half-mile training track and 25 stalls, the facility allows them to van horses
back and forth between the track and the farm between races.
Jim laughs that people accused him of having
inside information when they bought Homestretch. Longacres was sold
in 1990 and closed permanently following the 1992 season. Emerald Downs, which
opened in 1996, is just eight miles up the road.
Homestretch is really just an extension of our
barn, explains Jim. Horses go back to the farm for some rest and
relaxation after each race. I think they recover more quickly at the
farm, and I think thats been one of the reasons for our success.
The Emerald years have added many chapters to the
familys storied history. Jim has been among the top trainers since the
track opened in 1996, and took the training title with 46 wins in 1998. Many of
those victories were under the reins of his grandson Geoffrey Cooper, who
finished second in the 98 jockey standings with 74 wins. Geoffrey was
aboard when Jim sent their home-owned Kittys Link to a win in the 1998
Washington Championship (now Muckleshoot Tribal Classic). Thirty years after he
posted his first five-bagger, he duplicated the rare feat by winning five races
at Emerald Downs on September 6, 1998.
entered Edneator in the 2000 Longacres Mile he was hoping the home-bred would
run well enough to be ready for the Washington Championship later in the
season. Unwilling to wait that long, the four-year-old equalled the track and
Mile record of 1:33 1/5 when he pulled off the biggest upset in Mile history at
odds of 41-to-one.
Winning with Theologist
meant a lot to me, said Jim. But I think Edneators victory
meant more. He was a complete family effort, so it will always hold a big place
in my heart. Edneator, a colt by Delineator out of Rainbow Writer, was
bred, raised and broke at Homestretch Farm.
cemented his co-eminence in Mile history in 2002 when his trainee Sabertooth
upset at odds of 17-to-one. The wire-to-wire victory put Jim in a tie with
Allen Drumheller for most Mile victories ever.
Outside the northwest, Jim has enjoyed success at every
track hes shipped to, winning at Exhibition Park, Portland Meadows, Bay
Meadows, Golden Gate, Turf Paradise, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar.
Early in his traveling days, he won the 1972
$50,000 San Marcos Handicap at Santa Anita with Triangular, a horse he had
purchased from Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens for first-time horse owners
Karen and Mickey Taylor. A North Carolina-bred that had run fourth against
Secretariat, Triangular became a multiple stakes winner for Jim and the
Taylors. The Washington couple later enjoyed a history making ride as the
co-owners of 1997 Triple Crown sensation Seattle Slew.
Jim counts his successes at Santa Anita as some of his
proudest moments, noting that it was an honor to have trained side-by-side with
horsemen like Willard Proctor, Noble Threewitt and Charlie Whittingham.
He recalls working Barrydown on the downhill turf
course at Santa Anita one Monday morning. Barrydown had run second in the
I clocked him
three-quarters of a mile in 10 flat. Whittingham was standing by the wire and
he came up to me and said Youve got the live horse. He was
pointing one of his horses for the same race. Barrydown drew the one hole,
which was not the preferred position for the 6 1/2 furlong turf course, but he
won the race anyway. Afterwards Charlie came back to me and said I told
you so. Earning his respect meant a lot.
Barrydown became an outstanding turf horse and won and
placed in graded stakes in California before he returned to the northwest to
stand at stud.
Its also been gratifying to
be known and respected on both coasts. Jim visited grandson Geoffrey when he
was riding at Monmouth Park one summer. There he renewed acquaintances with
Hubert Sonny Hine, with whom he had trained with at Santa Anita.
Sonny (who went on to train 1998 horse of
the year Skip Away, among others) used to joke about renting my pony horse
whenever he needed to train his filly, said Jim. More than 30 years later
he still knew my name. That may seem like a little thing, but it was gratifying
Another rewarding moment came when
Jim picked up Kent Hollingsworth at the airport. The then-editor of The
Blood Horse was in Washington to lecture at a WTBA short course.
I want to meet that Jim Penney guy, said
Hollingsworth to Jim. At the time he (Jim) was in the top 11 percent in the
nation among active stakes trainers.
When asked to
account for his many successes, Jim points to a lesson learned from his
Keep your horses in the worst
company and yourself in the best company possible.
My feeling on the Thoroughbred is that
theres a place for every one of them, Jim explains. I try to
develop them and get the most out of them. They are professional athletes. They
just cant talk. Some develop quicker than others. I try to read them, and
listen to them. Horses will tell you if they need more time. Youve also
got to remember that not all of them have the desire or the talent to be race
horses. As soon as you learn that, its time to find a life for them where
theyre better suited.
add that foresight and a generosity to give back to the industry are other
factors in his success. Like his grandfather, father and brother, Jim has been
a strong supporter of the WTBA. From 1985 to 1988 he also served as president
of the WHBPA. At that time he worked hard to ensure the passage of the
satellite wagering bill, which helped the states small tracks stay alive.
He also spearheaded a group to form Emerald Racing Association when the sale of
Longacres was announced in 1990.
one of the original induc-tees to the Washington Thoroughbred Racing Hall of
Fame in 2003, Jim has maintained a brisk pace at Emerald Downs this season.
Through August 22 he had sustained a fierce and
steady challenge for first place in the trainers standings and had 39
wins, second to Tim McCanna and Frank Lucarelli, who were tied for the lead
with 40 each.
Salt Grinder, first in the
Governors Handicap, Flamethrowintexan, winner of the Seattle Slew
Breeders Cup, and the standout filly Cascade Corona, dominant in the King
County and Boeing Handicaps, are the barns current stars.
Whenever you see Jim in the winners circle,
usually surrounded by wife Betty, daughters Kay and Jill and their husbands
Bryson and Jack, grandson Geoffrey and his wife Allison, and now
great-grand-daughter KayLee, youre readily reminded of the influence the
Penney family has had and will continue to have on Washington
racing for many years to come.
for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.