Saturday, February 16, 2013

Danada Farm, home of 1965 Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair

When I moved Limerick to her current barn just over five years ago, it wasn't long before I learned of Danada Equestrian Center and Danada House. Just a short walk as the crow flies (and the limestone trail meanders) from the boarding barn, Danada reminds me of a miniature Kentucky Horse Park, sans museums and Hall of Champions but open to anyone traveling through on foot, bicycle or horseback.

Past the Danada barns and down a short smooth blacktop road is the Naperville Road tunnel. I would later discover that this tunnel was created so that Thoroughbreds in training could safely travel from the barns to the training track. And yes, there is a racetrack--maintained turf, approximately one half a mile around, with a dilapidated starting gate standing at the head of the chute, its crevices full of paper wasp nests. I have been around this track several times, both on foot and Lim's back.

Riding Limerick down the chute (2011)

The final turn (2011)

Thoroughbreds in training? Yes, indeed, and one of these happened to be a Kentucky Derby winner. Wheaton's beloved Danada Equestrian Center and Danada House were once home to the generous philanthropists Dan and Ada L. Rice, whose names can be found throughout Wheaton, as well as above wings of Chicago museums. The Danada land was initially purchased as a 1,350 acre working farm in 1929. Over time, the Rices became seriously interested in Thoroughbred racing and in the mid-1940s they built a Kentucky-style barn, as well as the training track, on the property. They named their Thoroughbred farm Danada Farm, and the horses raced under Ada L. Rice's name. (1, 2)

In 1946, famed breeder Colonel E.R. Bradley of Idle Hour Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, passed away. Idle Hour's stallions Black Toney and Blue Larkspur, along with imported mare La Troienne and her daughters--and their daughters--are important foundations of the modern Thoroughbred. (3) Upon his death, Bradley's superb bloodstock and land were carefully divided and dispersed. The Idle Hour bloodstock was split up between Ogden Phipps, Robert Kleberg of King Ranch, and John H. Whitney of Greentree Stud. After the core of the farm itself exchanged hands a couple times, John W. Galbreath purchased it in 1949, naming it Darby Dan Farm. Darby Dan would go on to produce a line of mares almost as fine as that of La Troienne's ancestresses. Smaller parcels of the farm were sold to King Ranch of Texas and Dan and Ada Rice, who turned their new plot of bluegrass into a satellite location of Danada Farm.(4, 5)

In 1961, the Rices bred their young Count Fleet mare, Fresh as Fresh (out of Airy, by Bull Lea) to the solid racehorse, Vertex (out of Kanace, by Case Ace). Vertex was by The Rhymer, a son of St. Germans. Imported to the United States by Whitney/Greentree Stud, St. Germans had sired several good horses, including Twenty Grand (1931 Kentucky Derby winner), Devil Diver, and Bold Venture (winner of the 1936 Kentucky Derby). (6) Bold Venture in turn sired two Kentucky Derby winners himself, the only stallion to do so. They were Middleground (1950 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner) and Assault (1946 Triple Crown winner). Needless to say, there was no shortage of stamina in the blood of St. Germans.

This blood combined with the equally stamina-laden blood of Count Fleet (1943 Triple Crown winner) and Bull Lea (sire of Citation, 1948 Triple Crown winner) to produce Lucky Debonair, who was foaled at the Lexington branch of Danada Farm on May 2, 1962. As a two-year old, he was shipped to the Illinois branch of the farm for training. (1) The colt was later shipped to Atlantic City Race Course where, trained by Frank Catrone, Lucky Debonair had his one and only start as a two-year-old, finishing out of the money. (7)

The training track starting gate (2011)

A view from the starting gate. The limestone trail across the chute was added by the forest preserve (2011)

In early 1965, Lucky Debonair was shipped to Santa Anita Park in California. With Bill Shoemaker as his regular rider, he won the San Vicente and finished second in the San Felipe. He then established himself as a major Kentucky Derby contender by winning the March 6 Santa Anita Derby in the record time of 1:47 flat. To this day, no horse has run the Santa Anita Derby faster. Lucky Debonair shares the record with two other noteworthy horses: Sham (1973) and Indian Charlie (1998).

Frank Catrone then shipped Lucky Debonair to Laurel Park in Maryland with intentions to run him in the Chesapeake. (7)  But severe spring weather disrupted these plans. Feeling it was unsafe to even work his Derby horse over Laurel's track, Catrone shipped Lucky Debonair to Churchill Downs in Louisville with plans to enter him in prep races at Keeneland in neighboring Lexington. (8) By the time Lucky Debonair stepped into the gate for the April 15 seven furlong Forerunner Purse at Keeneland, he had gone well over a month without a race and was in desperate need of one. Racing over a sloppy track, he gave nine pounds to a "mudder" son of Sword Dancer, Bugler, and lost by a neck to him. (9, 10) Lucky Debonair started again one week later in Keeneland's prestigious Blue Grass Stakes, which he won by a half length.(11)

The Kentucky Derby was run a week later on May 1, one day before Lucky Debonair's actual third birthday. Running his third race in as many weeks, the colt won by a neck over the fast-closing, regally-bred Dapper Dan, with Tom Rolfe third. (12) It was a Kentucky Derby finish of which the ghost of Coloney E. R. Bradley would have approved. Lucky Debonair was foaled on former Idle Hour Farm ground; Dapper Dan was of a direct female line descending from Bradley's beloved La Troienne, and by bright new Darby Dan Farm stallion, Ribot; and Tom Rolfe, also by Ribot, would go on to be one of the more important sires of the 20th century, particularly through his son Hoist the Flag. The Derby win was also deeply satisfying for Bill Shoemaker, who had lost the previous year's Derby by finishing second to Northern Dancer. Prior to that race, he had been given the choice of riding Hill Rise or Northern Dancer--he chose Hill Rise. (13)

Lucky Debonair was entered in the Preakness but faded to seventh after bucking a shin during the race. Dapper Dan and Tom Rolfe finished 1-2. (14) While Lucky Debonair never returned to the top form he maintained in the spring of 1965, he did return as a four-year-old and won three of five starts, including the Santa Anita Handicap over the great California horse, Native Diver.

Rolling Rock ad featuring Lucky Debonair. Photo from eBay

He stood stud at the Lexington branch of Danada Farm until 1976. Upon her husband's death, Ada L. Rice dispersed her Thoroughbred stock and Lucky Debonair was sold to Venezuela, where he died in 1987 at age 25. (2) Although he was not a huge success at stud, he did produce some stakes winners and a few thin lines of his blood can be found to this day, particularly through his grandson Fortunate Prospect (by the Mr. Prospector stallion Northern Prospect, out of Fortunate Bid, by Lucky Debonair). Fortunate Prospect himself has proven to be an excellent broodmare sire, as indicated through his recent sons Musket Man (wins include the 2009 Illinois Derby, Tampa Bay Derby, and 2010 Super Stakes) and Ron the Greek (wins include the 2012 Santa Anita Handicap, Stephen Foster, and 2013 Florida Sunshine Millions Classic).

Lucky Debonair stallion ad from the Thoroughbred Record, 1968. Photo courtesy Kelly Jecmen

The Lexington branch of Danada Farm was sold to equine surgeon Dr. William O. Reed (whose patients included Hoist the Flag and Ruffian). The farm was re-named Mare Haven Farm, and several good horses were foaled there, including Goodbye Halo, Known Fact, and Lion Cavern. But perhaps best of all was Reed's homebred Secretariat mare, Secrettame (out of his foundation Tim Tam mare, Tamerett), who produced influential sire and broodmare sire, Gone West. In 2004, Mare Haven was sold to Susie and Clint Atkins from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, whom re-named the farm CASA Farm. As a part of the contract, resident matriarch Secrettame was to spend the rest of her days on the property. The Atkins honored this request. (15)

Ad for Danada Farm stallions, including Lucky Debonair, from the Blood-Horse in 1970. Photo courtesy Kelly Jecmen

In 1980, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District purchased Danada Farm and the surrounding acreage. Much of the property was turned into a public-use forest preserve, complete with groomed limestone trails. Danada Farm was kept in its original state, with some additions, and became Danada Equestrian Center.  Danada and the DuPage County Forest Preserve continue to maintain the grounds and buildings that Dan and Ada Rice lovingly built, and their mansion--the Danada House--can be rented for weddings and other celebrations. In 2002, the city of Wheaton and Danada Equestrian Center honored Lucky Debonair with a brass memorial plaque. (16) I have a feeling that Dan and Ada L. Rice would greatly approve.

Brass memorial plaque dedicated to Lucky Debonair at Danada Equestrian Center (2013)

A view of the old barn (2013)

The old barn with new technology--solar panels (2013)

  1. Keeping A Rein On Progress. Chicago Tribune. 2000 February 17
  2. Group collecting memories of philantrophists Dan, Ada Rice. Daily Herald. 2010 August 24
  3. Zeh, Lucy. Etched In Stone: Thoroughbred Memorials. 2000 April. Pages 42-43
  4. Zeh, Lucy. Etched In Stone: Thoroughbred Memorials. 2000 April. Pages 80-81
  5. Grave Matters: Darby Dan Farm, Lexington KY
  6. On the Fate of the Holy Bull Male Line. Blood-Horse Publications. 2012 July 10 (comments section)
  7. The Bay And The Gray Were A Perfect Parlay. Sports Illustrated. 1965 March 15
  8. A Long Trip In A Short Race. Sports Illustrated. 1965 April 12
  9. A Roundup Of The Sports Information Of The Week. Sports Illustrated. 1965 April 26
  10. The Two Upsets Were Not Really Upsetting. Sports Illustrated. 1965 April 26
  11. A Roundup Of The Sports Information Of The Week. Sports Illustrated. 1965 May 3
  12. Roses For The Shoe. Sports Illustrated. 1965 May 10
  13. Hunter, Avalyn. The Kingmaker: How Northern Dancer Founded A Racing Dynasty. 2008. Pages 99-100
  14. Like Father, Like Sons. Sports Illustrated. 1965 May 24
  15. Livingston, Barbara D  . More Old Friends. 2007. Pages 165-166
  16. Forest Preserve District of DuPage County: Danada Equestrian Center


Sid Fernando said...


Teener Thoroughbreds said...

Very well done. There is so much rich information here, very nice to see all those little connections.

Randall Gave' said...

Thank you so much for this excellent article about Lucky Debonair and Danada Farm. Most enjoyable! As a 9 year old boy in Houston, Texas, in May of 1965, my grandmother asked me if I wanted to bet on a horse race called the Kentucky Derby. I accepted the challenge and perused a list of horses I knew nothing about and had never heard of - and one name stuck out for me almost immediately - Lucky Debonair. I plopped down my hard earned ten cent wager with her, and watched that little black and white TV with amazing focus. Lo and behold, my Lucky Debonair won that day, and Grandma sweetened the pot with a $5 dollar payoff! I thought to myself, this horse racing business is for me! I moved on from that day, but the memory of Lucky Debonair never faded. A short five years later, another mellifluous name, Dust Commander, brought me back into the fray - and I never looked back...

But, it was LD who started it all for me. Thanks again for taking the time to write such a superb and interesting article, and for remembering Lucky Debonair and the good people at Danada Farm. It brought back some wonderful memories...

Randall Gave'

Frank Mitchell said...

Heidi, This is a cool post with a lot of interesting information about Danada. I wasn't as familiar with their Chicago connections as you, but they were serious owner-breeders who gave themselves a lot of fun with their horses.
Best of luck with yours too.

Heidi E. Carpenter said...

Frank, glad you enjoyed it. I'm thinking of writing another post on Danada Farm down the road--I have to do some research first.

And Randall, thank you for sharing that Lucky Debonair won the first Kentucky Derby you watched! I'm glad the post brought back good memories for you!

Josh said...

I love that Lucky Debonair Rolling Rock ad! Great post!

Anonymous said...


My father JPConway trained the Rice horses during the 1950's.

I am so pleased to read this info -it complements the part of the Rice's racing history which included my father.

Lucky Debonair was not the only great horse to come off of the Rice's farms. And current champions such as Royal Delta can be traced back to the Rice's horses.

Helene Conway

Heidi E. Carpenter said...

Helene, thank you for commenting! I appreciate it, and how awesome that your father trained for the Rices. Royal Delta is a huge favorite of mine and I am considering writing a second piece about Danada Farm and the enduring lines they have produced. I'm hoping to visit CASA and get photos of the land for this piece, but we will see what happens.

Millionaires Row Kentucky Derby Seats said...

The best way to attend the Kentucky Derby is to purchase a package that includes your tickets to the Derby and Oaks (upgrades available), Airport Transfers, Hotel Accommodations, Hospitality access, a free gift and much more.

Kentycky Derby Home Rental said...

Hotels are not the only places filling up for Derby weekend. With a few key strokes, people from all over the world can find the comforts of home in the Derby City. Dozens of sites are offering visitors homes of every shape, size and style imaginable.
Derby Home Rentals