To her friends in Maine, Phyllis Wyeth of Tenants Harbor is the gracious and determined lady who overcame terrible misfortune and happened to marry into a family of beloved American artists.

In the world of horse racing, she is the owner of Union Rags, a favorite to win Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. When the television cameras find her after the race, they may also find tears. Hers is the age-old story of separation and reunion.

Wyeth sold Union Rags as a yearling on the advice of her accountant, and immediately had regrets. She found him at an auction and bought him back a year later, paying nearly three times his original selling price.

Her reason was personal. Union Rags is family, with bloodlines back to Glad Rags, a horse raced by her parents in the 1960s.

For Wyeth, this is first a love story. Business? Maybe a distant second.

“It’s a true story,” she said, responding to an email to Point Lookout Farm in Chadds Ford, Pa., where she and her husband, the artist Jamie Wyeth, spend much of their time when they’re not in Maine. “I had a dream.”

Union Rags could be the exclamation point to a family’s legacy of breeding and racing horses. And Wyeth returned the horse to where he belonged. Not for profit, but for the love of the tradition and culture of raising the animals.

Her dream has come alive in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby, and continues today at Churchill Downs in Louisville with the draw for positions in the starting gate.

“All the horses and their owners have stories, and they’re going to be told,” said Christopher Brownawell, director of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, where works by Jamie Wyeth, his father, Andrew Wyeth, and grandfather N.C. Wyeth are displayed.

“Before that gate opens, people will hear her story,” he said. “She’s going to have a lot more fans. It’s time for her to get that recognition. It’s typical of Phyllis to be very understated.”

As a young woman, she rode horses in steeplechase racing, jumping fences and ditches. That ended in 1962, when an impatient driver pulled out to pass a truck and hit the car that Wyeth was driving in the opposite direction.

The head-on collision broke her neck. At the age of 21, she was paralyzed from the waist down.

She turned to the sport of carriage driving, a competition of precision and control, in two- or four-wheel carts. And she turned to her farm, which straddles the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware.

By all definitions, her Chadds Ford Stable is a small breeding operation. That was one reason her accountant urged her to sell Union Rags. She needed sales to qualify as a business for tax purposes.

Wyeth sold Union Rags for about $140,000 at auction two years ago. She bought him back at auction for $390,000. That flies in the face of good business. But it was no longer about business.

Union Rags’ victory at Saratoga in August was Wyeth’s first win in a graded stakes race, just one grade below a race like the Kentucky Derby. She was 71 years old and having the time of her life.

She has never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby, the first race in each year’s Triple Crown. The renowned race is as much a part of Americana as Wyeth paintings.

Union Rags’ success last year as a 2-year-old came as news to some of Wyeth’s friends and many Mainers. She is a down-to-earth but private woman.

“We’re longtime friends, but I’m pretty clueless on the horse-racing end of things,” said Peter Ralston, a co-founder of the Island Institute in Rockland, which promotes awareness of Maine’s coast and islands. “I don’t know beans about Union Rags.”

Mostly because Wyeth didn’t see a need to talk about her horse.

Ralston is excited for his friend. “Certainly, I want to see her win,” he said.

So does Peggi Loveless, a librarian at the Katz Library at the University of Maine-Augusta who has never met Phyllis Wyeth.

Loveless will host a small Kentucky Derby party at her home in the Augusta area. She got caught up in the twin stories of Phyllis Wyeth and Union Rags.

“I’m incredibly excited about this,” she said. “If the word got out and more Mainers understood that Union Rags is owned by Phyllis Wyeth, there would be even more attention.”

Mainers haven’t had a real rooting interest in the Kentucky Derby in 65 years, since Jet Pilot won the race in 1947. The colt was owned by Elizabeth Arden, of ladies’ cosmetics fame. She had a home and spa in the Kennebec County town of Mount Vernon and named her racing stable Maine Chance Farm.

There was a lot of emotion at Churchill Downs on the day Jet Pilot won. A barn fire at a racetrack in Chicago had killed 22 Maine Chance Farm horses in 1946. Jet Pilot was on the road to another track when the fire started.

Wyeth is aware of the increasing attention in Maine. She said, “There seems to be more excitement in Tenants Harbor about this race than in Louisville. As Jamie and I divide our time between Maine and Pennsylvania, I like to think our Chadds Ford Stable as being partly a Maine farm.

“I’m thankful and overwhelmed,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: SteveSolloway/PPH