Jim Penney - Washington Racing Hall of Fame

From cherry seeds has grown
a Washington racing dynasty

by Kate Barton

Historians 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 winner’s 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 trainer’s license in 1954 he had no plans to fill the next 50 years with such record-breaking accomplishments.
    “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 Jim’s 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.
    After 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 in 1911.
    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 state’s biggest producers of that crop. Senior Penney was crowned the state’s 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 grandfather.
    “He usually had five to seven horses,” recalled Jim. “In the late 1940s, after I got old enough and cherry season was over, I’d spend one to two months with him at Longacres to finish out the racing season.”
    Away from 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.
    His 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 farm’s early stars and winner of the ’57 Spokane Futurity and the ’58 Spokane Derby.
    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 Jim’s career began to flourish, his father and Jim’s 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 growing stable.
    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.
    The 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 family’s 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 second one.
    “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 John—Theonia, 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.
    Bobby 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 Jim’s 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 he’s just a rank, rotten, SOB and was only an allowance winner in the Bay area. Then I told him Theologist was running. He said he’d never heard of him, even though Theologist had won races at Santa Anita that winter. 'You’d 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 Jim’s daughter Kay, who was just beginning her career as a trainer at that time.
     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. Jim’s 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 Jim’s 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 Jim’s 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 Washington’s racing and breeding industry.
    When the decision was made to sell Penney Farms in Naches in 1987, Jim’s 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 that’s been one of the reasons for our success.”
    The Emerald years have added many chapters to the family’s 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 Kitty’s 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.
    When Jim 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 Edneator’s 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.
    Jim 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 he’s 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 Longacres Derby.
    “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 ‘You’ve 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.
    It’s 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 to me.”
    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 grandfather.
    “Keep your horses in the worst company and yourself in the best company possible.”
    “My feeling on the Thoroughbred is that there’s 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 can’t talk. Some develop quicker than others. I try to read them, and listen to them. Horses will tell you if they need more time. You’ve 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, it’s time to find a life for them where they’re better suited.”
    Observers might 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 state’s small tracks stay alive. He also spearheaded a group to form Emerald Racing Association when the sale of Longacres was announced in 1990.
    Since becoming 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 trainer’s 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 Governor’s 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 barn’s current stars.
    Whenever you see Jim in the winner’s 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, you’re readily reminded of the influence the Penney family has had – and will continue to have – on Washington racing for many years to come.

Click here for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.

WASHINGTON THOROUGHBRED, September 2004, page 740

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