Abraham Lincoln was born two hundred years ago in what today is Hodgensville, Kentucky. With good reason, numerous observances and tributes have celebrated the life of the man who did the most to save the United States from disintegrating in the 19th century.

President Lincoln owned horses but did not race them in competition. Yet one of the famous men who worked closely with him was the father of a daughter who, with her husband, started a racing empire and whose bloodstock have prominent descendants today.

There is a direct linkage between John Milton Hay (1838-1905), one of Lincoln’s three private secretaries and main co-biographer, and Thoroughbred breeding and racing at the highest echelon. In addition, the practice of venture capital, which is responsible for so many leading companies, particularly in high technology, is an invention of a John Hay grandson and racehorse owner extraordinaire.

John Hay was born in 1838 in Salem, Indiana, and educated at Brown University. He moved to Springfield, Illinois, where in 1860 he was a volunteer in the successful presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln. The 22-year-old Hay went to work for the newly inaugurated Lincoln and moved into a bedroom on the second floor of the White House. Hay became a sounding board, confidant, and friend to Lincoln during the turmoil of the American Civil War. Hay was a fierce defender of the president and stuck by his boss when Lincoln was criticized over the faltering war effort and ridiculed as a backwoods buffoon. Hay was with Lincoln for the Gettysburg address and was in the room when Lincoln succumbed to the gunshot wound to his head left by the Derringer of John Wilkes Booth.

Following the war, Hay married the Cleveland-Ohio, heiress Clara Louise Stone and settled in her hometown. Clara’s father, Amassa Stone, was a self-made man of enormous wealth who lived on the city’s then-renowned Euclid Avenue. In the 19th century and early 20th century, Euclid Avenue was called “Millionaire’s Row,” a tree-lined street of mansions housing some of the most influential industrialists in the United States. Its most famous resident was John D. Rockefeller, who lived only miles from where he founded Standard Oil in 1870 in what is known as “the flats.”

During his esteemed career, John Hay was Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State for Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Named in his honor are a high school in Cleveland, a library at his alma mater Brown University, and the Hay Adams Hotel in the nation’s capital. The Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland owns the Hay-McKinney house. This home was built by the widowed Clara Hay and purchased from her by steel baron Price McKinney, who was a Thoroughbred owner of note, part owner of Churchill Downs, the father of Hall of Fame jockey Rigan McKinney, and the grandfather of Lexington, Kentucky- born Olympic skier Tamara McKinney and Thoroughbred owner Kathleen Crompton.

John and Clara Hay had four children. One of them was Helen Julia Hay (1875-1944), who was raised in her parents’ Euclid Avenue residence. In 1902, Helen married Payne Whitney (1876-1927) of New York and they lived at their Greentree estate in Manhasset on Long Island. Payne Whitney’s father, William C. Whitney, co-founded Belmont Park. Helen and Payne Whitney launched the world-famous Greentree Stable, and had a farm, Greentree Stud, in Lexington, Kentucky, which became a premier breeding and racing operation that produced many classic winners in flat racing and steeplechasing. Payne Whitney was named after his uncle, Oliver Hazard Payne of Cleveland, Ohio, who was an associate of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil. Payne Whitney’s nephew was Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney (1899-1992), who, like his father, Harry P. Whitney, before him raced some of the best horses of their day. C. V. Whitney’s former wife, Marylou, is still an outstanding Thoroughbred owner/breeder and stands Belmont-Stakes winner Birdstone.

The two children of Payne and Helen Hay Whitney more than ably carried on the family tradition in racing and business. John Hay “Jock” Whitney (1904-1982) owned many top-notch Thoroughbreds and was the originator of the practice of venture capital. His J. H. Whitney and Company (called Whitney and Company today) was the first venture capital company, started in 1946. Like his grandfather John Hay, he served as Ambassador to Great Britain. His sister, Joan Whitney Payson (1903-1975), was also a leading owner and breeder of Thoroughbreds. She was the co-founding owner of the New York Mets Major League Baseball franchise.

Very few families have left such long and indelible marks on politics, business, and sports as the Hay/Payne/Whitney families. Thoroughbred racing was integrally part of this history.

An interesting coincidence is that another family with Cleveland roots has some striking similarities to the Hay-Whitney story. In 1952, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president of the United States and named George M. Humphrey (1890-1970) as his Treasury Secretary. Humphrey, chairman of M. A. Hanna in Cleveland, was one of the prominent Thoroughbred owners of his day and an influential voice in world business affairs. Eisenhower said about him: “When George speaks, we all listen.” Humphrey’s daughter-in-law, Louise Humphrey, and her son, G. Watts Humphrey Jr., have carried on the family tradition in business and racing. G. Watts Humphrey Jr. is a highly successful Pittsburgh businessperson, a well-known racehorse owner and breeder, with a farm in Kentucky, and is  a leader in several of the major companies and organizations in racing.

The graves of John Hay, John D. Rockefeller, Price McKinney, and George Humphrey are all in the beautiful Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. These men, in their own way, were significant contributors to the history of the United States.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business