For Union Rags' owner Wyeth, horses are in the blood

Jamie Wyeth with a painting of his that he says shows Derby favorite Union Rags as a yearling. "That's what he says," his wife of 44 years, Phyllis Wyeth, said. Union Rags, which she famously repurchased in 2010 after selling, is descended from a horse that was owned by her parents.
Jamie Wyeth with a painting of his that he says shows Derby favorite Union Rags as a yearling. "That's what he says," his wife of 44 years, Phyllis Wyeth, said. Union Rags, which she famously repurchased in 2010 after selling, is descended from a horse that was owned by her parents. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: April 29, 2012

In the dining room of their 18th-century Chadds Ford farmhouse, a Jamie Wyeth painting depicts a pastoral scene but a slightly chaotic one - his wife, Phyllis, in the midst of their farm animals.

"Just the menagerie Phyllis has created around this place - the peacock, the emus, the black cat. A fox carrying on with the chickens," Jamie Wyeth said the other day, standing in front of the painting, titled Pointlookout Farmlife.

Amid the swans and low-flying geese in the bottom right corner, kicking at some of those chickens with his hind legs, is a yearling.

"That's Union Rags," Wyeth said.

"That's what he says," Phyllis Wyeth quipped.

Artists are always after a larger truth, and if, in fact, this painting was completed before Union Rags was born, the horse will rate a most prominent place when the whole story of Point Lookout farm is told.

Union Rags is a Kentucky Derby favorite - probably the favorite, after his sizzling final workout Saturday morning. He's the latest equine star from this area, raised in the Chateau Country along the Delaware-Pennsylvania border.

The Wyeth property, Point Lookout, where Union Rags spent his time before going into training, straddles the state line just west of the Brandywine River in an area depicted in generations of celebrated Wyeth family paintings.

One question to be answered Saturday in the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby: Does Union Rags have as much willpower as his owner?

Five decades ago, Phyllis Wyeth suffered a broken neck in a head-on car collision on her way to work at the White House after a morning ride on her horse. For years, she walked with the aid of crutches. More recently, she uses a motorized scooter, rarely slowing down.

"I should have broken my neck riding 31/2-mile steeplechases," Wyeth said, explaining how as a 20-year-old in 1962 she had ridden a jumper, changed clothes, and jumped in her car. "Driving down to Washington, I was hit . . . straight on. It wasn't my fault."

Horses have been part of her life as far back as she can remember.

"She rode before she could walk," Jamie Wyeth said. "She wasn't just a country girl who went out riding. She mucked out the stalls, she was a 4-H member. She had a steer that she entered in competitions."

"I was the only girl in the 4-H club," Phyllis Wyeth said.

She also was a du Pont, on her mother's side, and has an adventurous pedigree. Her mother, Alice du Pont Mills, served as a flight instructor for military pilots in World War II and as an 18-year-old flew an open-cockpit seaplane up the Amazon River with her brother.

Phyllis' father, Philadelphia native James Paul Mills, was an officer who fought with the 319th Bomb Group assigned to the 12th Air Force during World War II. A polo star in the sport's heyday in the 1930s, he was posthumously inducted into the Polo Hall of Fame in 2012. When spinal arthritis ended his polo playing at age 37, Gentleman Jim took to the thoroughbred horse business. Because of his condition, he moved to the warmer climate in Virginia, his daughter said.

Eventually, Phyllis Wyeth's parents owned Devil's Bag, the champion 2-year-old of 1983, and Gone West, a top sire.

"It kept my father alive," Phyllis Wyeth said. "He wasn't doing well. His two horses kept him going." Mills died in 1987.

Phyllis had a rebel spirit of her own. Working on John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign and then at the White House was not considered appropriate behavior in her staunch Republican household.

"Literally, she was disowned from her family, told to get out," her husband said.

Not literally, Phyllis Wyeth said. She didn't have to leave the house.

"My mother wouldn't let that happen," she said. "They did cut my allowance. And I did support myself. . . . My father was so furious because he was running the Nixon campaign in Virginia."

And what did the family make of her bringing an artist home, even a celebrated and accomplished one?

"Oh my God," Jamie Wyeth said, laughing. "At one point, her father said, 'Jamie's all right, but his shoes are a little too pointed.' "

"My father didn't understand art," Phyllis Wyeth said. "They think they don't get up and work. Jamie works seven days a week. I think my father thought artists only work when they're inspired."

The son of iconic Brandywine Valley painter Andrew Wyeth already was a prodigy in the art world. Jamie Wyeth, whose works have been shown around the world, was commissioned by the Kennedy family to do a portrait of the late president, and painted younger brothers Robert and Ted in the process. A study of the JFK painting hangs in the dining room at Point Lookout.

He can remember meeting Phyllis Wyeth at a party in Wilmington and not getting her out of his mind. The next time he saw her, Jamie said, was several years later, at the Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase races. By that time, Phyllis Wyeth had spent nine months in a New York hospital after her accident.

"I spent most of the race with my binoculars looking at her up the hill, as opposed to the race," Jamie Wyeth said. "At that point, she was still pretty braced up, but still had this amazing-looking face. I'm always interested in things that I can paint. And that was really kind of my interest in Phyllis. I wanted to paint [her]. And so it just kind of went on from there."

They've been married for 44 years, living at Point Lookout, not far from where Jamie grew up. They also have a place in Maine.

"There are so many paintings of Phyllis around here," Jamie Wyeth said when asked about her as a model. "She's elusive, but great. She's not the greatest posing model, but I kind of like that, too, because she's always moving."

Phyllis Wyeth, 71, remembers the first time she posed for him. Jamie was concentrating, not talking, so she brought out a New York Times to read. "He told me, 'Let me know when you're finished with all that and we'll start.' "

It's obvious that back-and-forth humor has never left their house. But there have been tough days.

"Before she had an accident, she was a great athlete - in addition to riding, she skied and she rowed," her husband said. "I think that the physicality brought her through this thing. I remember when she was walking on crutches all the time. . . . These doctors always came to me at the end of the day and said, 'Physically, she shouldn't be walking. She doesn't have the muscles to do it. She's doing it out of sheer determination, and balance.' "

Phyllis and Jamie got to know politicians of both parties and she isn't afraid to push causes she believes are important. She was an environmentalist decades before it became fashionable. And she worked hard to get federal office buildings handicap-accessible, she said, not just through lobbying, but following the bill through the process, counting votes.

"I hear people say, 'Oh God, I have such problems,' " Jamie Wyeth said. "I think, 'You think you have problems?' For her to get up every day and not only just that, but to go on and do what she's done. She started a school in Maine to teach younger-generation fishermen - because the fishing's crashing up there - to get into aquaculture. She's now started a foundation here to bring inner-city kids out here to see that food doesn't grow in grocery stores, that you actually plant."

And she's stayed in the horse business, buying and selling on a small scale. It's part of the Union Rags legend how she sold the horse and bought him back.

"True story," Jamie Wyeth said. "She literally had this dream, woke me up in the middle of the night, said, 'I have to get that horse back.' "

Most horses are scared of her motorized scooter, Phyllis Wyeth said, but Union Rags got used to it early on the farm.

"He always had no problem with it," Jamie Wyeth said. "He'd come right up to her in the field. This continues to this day. We go back to the barn after a race, he'll go up right up and sort of nuzzle her. Usually, horses start backing up because they're terrified by that machine she's driving."

Union Rags was born at Royal Oak Farm in Paris, Ky., the last foal of his dam, the Gone West mare Tempo, finishing off a line from her parents' great sire.

Even as Union Rags began winning races, she didn't allow herself to dream too big, she said. Now this is getting real to her. She had just gotten off the phone with trainer Michael Matz, who had reported on the Friday morning gallop at Churchill Downs.

"It's still disbelief," Phyllis Wyeth said, talking about her operation as a "teeny little farm" going up against "conglomerates," as her husband calls them.

"I have four foals," she said, "and one makes the Kentucky Derby."


Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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