Wyeth is part of one of Chester County's most storied families, with a pedigreed family history of her own in horse racing. The physical obstacles she has overcome in her life have friends lauding her as one of the sturdiest people they know. Her horse has been a late-in-life gift Wyeth could only dream of - and did, often.
"My sister said I've had all my bad luck - now I'm getting good luck,'' Wyeth said.
She doesn't have to be told that luck can change in an instant.
Growing up in Virginia, Wyeth could ride a horse before she could walk, she said. Her parents, James P. Mills and Alice du Pont Mills, owned Devil's Bag, the champion 2-year-old of 1983, and Gone West, a top sire.
"It kept my father alive,'' Wyeth said. "He wasn't doing well. His two horses kept him going.''
As a teenager, Wyeth loved to ride steeplechase horses. The danger never worried her.
"I should have broken my neck riding 31/2-mile steeplechases,'' Wyeth offered as a lead-in to how she did break her neck in 1962. That morning, the 20-year-old had ridden a jumper, changed clothes, and jumped in her car. "Driving down to Washington, I was hit by a car straight on,'' Wyeth said. "It wasn't my fault.''
Her own history is important background to the story of Union Rags. With this horse, Wyeth pulled off a feat, selling the homebred horse at a hefty price, then buying it back for more than twice that price, and still coming out ahead on the deal. Now, half the racing world would like to own a piece of her horse, or at least its breeding rights.
Wyeth has looked at the offers - even encouraged the offers - but she's decided she isn't selling, not even part of his breeding rights. She increased the insurance on Union Rags and will enjoy the ride.
"Why do I want anybody else to tell me how to run our horse?'' Wyeth asked outside the barn of Michael Matz, the trainer of Union Rags. "I don't have children, don't have grandchildren. I don't have big loans out. No one's going to tell me what to do with my horse. Am I right? I'm not in it for strict business. I love horses. I go down to the barn every single day, see them, talk to my grooms, make sure they're all OK, make sure the horses are OK, make sure the work is up. And that's what I love. I love seeing the babies.''
The farm is Point Lookout, in Chadds Ford, where Phyllis lives with her husband, Jamie Wyeth, the renowned painter. He accompanied her here, stopping off in Arkansas for a show that includes his work. She is the subject of many of his works. But the horses are her business. She's tried to run it that way for decades, as a business. That explains why she sold Union Rags at auction in 2010 for a nice price, $145,000.
So how did she come to buy Union Rags back earlier this year at a 2-year-old sale, for $390,000?
"It was a wonderful, wonderful accident,'' said her close friend and unpaid equine adviser Russell Jones, former co-owner of the Walnut Green bloodstock agency. "She sold the horse, and at the time she was very happy with the price. I think she thought about it, and when the horse came back up at the sale and I was going to be at the sale, she said, 'Go and look at him anyway. We may as well find out what he's turned into.' I went and looked at him and couldn't believe what he'd turned into. I called her and said, 'I think you've bred a monster.' "
"She had two dreams about it being a champion horse,'' said her friend Rick Porter of Wilmington, owner of Havre de Grace, one of the favorites in Saturday's big race, the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"I don't know how much I had a dream - it was always on my mind,'' Wyeth said. "Your subconscious, it's hard to say sometimes, is that a dream?''
Her friendship with Porter is a big part of this story, too. It's a wisecracking friendship. Porter spent part of his youth living in Chadds Ford, "across the hill" from a favorite subject of artist Andrew Wyeth, Phyllis' late father-in-law. Porter can remember the famed artist occasionally showing up at Porter's house.
Later, Porter bought a summer place near the village of Rockport, Maine, where Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth had a home. They became good friends and Porter, who made his money in the automobile business, began naming racehorses after Wyeth family paintings. (Another one of his fine horses was named Rockport Harbor.)
"He stole all the Wyeth names for his horses!'' Phyllis Wyeth joshed.
Another of her jabs at Porter: "He doesn't own a damned farm and he calls himself Fox Hill Farm. I told him, to give him credibility, he can put a Fox Hill Farm sign outside Point Lookout for a year.''
Her price: One mating session for one of her mares with Hard Spun, Porter's horse who finished second in the 2007 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic and is a highly touted sire.
"Rick tells me my mares aren't good enough to breed to Hard Spun,'' Wyeth said.
What's the comeback for that?
"I haven't got one,'' she said. "I need one. . . . All we do is give each other a hard time.''
"The other thing that's interesting - Rick looked at this horse at the 2-year-old sale and turned him down,'' Jones said. "I keep reminding Rick that he doesn't have all the answers either. And don't forget that Rick's a customer, a Wyeth customer. He buys a lot of pictures of Jamie's. There's all kinds of currents at work here.''
But she said Porter has explained the syndication world to her. She just remembers the handshake agreements her father used to do in Saratoga in a different time. Porter had gotten on Phyllis Wyeth for years about upgrading her mares, that she could afford to play at a higher level.
"But isn't it amazing that one of the old girls came along and delivered her a potential champion?" Jones said. "One of the mares she had all along."
That mare, Tempo, was sired by her father's horse, Gone West.
A lot of this tale ties together for Wyeth, who was told years ago she would live to only 50. She said because she has been "so sick,'' her husband would divorce her and doctor would kill her if they knew she was lighting up a small cigar Friday morning outside the Matz barn after watching her horse gallop. She also decided she could "care less'' if that appeared in the newspaper.
If Union Rags wins on Saturday, he will spend the winter as the early Kentucky Derby favorite. Already, Wyeth's horse is probably worth 10 times what she paid on the buyback. In her mind, though, that was no financial equation. She knows she got amazingly lucky: That horse is the reason she's getting out of bed in the morning right now, she said.
"What do you do in life that means a lot to you, that you enjoy - and you want to sell it?'' Wyeth said. "Come on."
Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489, email@example.com, or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter.