Woodberry Payne (pictured) says that certain places make good horses. But mostly, he said, what makes a good horse is something intangible inside them. It’s about a horse’s desire, what’s in a horse’s heart. (Photo by Carissa Dezort)
The spring race at Foxfield is Saturday, April 28, and Woodberry Payne will be there as usual. For the last four years he’s been a steward there, which basically means he keeps the show running. Before he was a steward, he was one of the patrol judges for…well, he doesn’t know how long. A long time. Between riding, training, and officiating, he’s been involved in steeplechase racing for over 30 years, but his involvement with horses goes back farther. There has never been a time in his life when there weren’t horses around.
Ingleside, the horse-training center Woodberry, 54, has owned since 1996, is located on the grounds of Montpelier. The historic home of fourth president James Madison has been a famous center for all things equine since Marion duPont Scott, the last private owner of the house, established the Montpelier Hunt Races in 1934. A lifelong rider, she imbued the place with a strong legacy. One of her horses, Battlefield, was the only horse to win both of steeplechase’s top races, the American and English Grand Nationals, and is buried on the property. The place is a natural fit for Woodberry, whom I’d been scheduled to meet in advance of the race.
I’m supposed to meet him at the barn, but I get lost, so I stop at the visitor’s center to ask where I can find him.
“He’s probably at the barn,” a nice old lady tells me, but there are a lot of barns at Montpelier, and it takes a while before I find the right one. When I get there, there’s no sign of Woodberry.
“He’s probably at the track,” someone there tells me. “He usually goes to the track about now to watch the horses.”
And that is indeed where I find him, hunched down in the front seat of an old, dark green Mercedes, the inside of which looks much like a mobile office/home. There’s a dog in the back and a cat in the passenger seat and Woodberry is sitting behind the wheel doing a crossword as two people on horses ride by.
“This area,” Woodberry said through the open car window, “has a tremendous, rich steeplechasing history.” A history that, as all things inevitably do, goes back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Woodberry, however, doesn’t train steeplechase horses anymore. He trains horses for flat racing. This is partly because, since he’s now a steeplechase official, training the horses would be a conflict of interest, and partly because flat racing is where the money is.
“The steeplechase market has contracted,” he said. There’s less money in it and limited opportunities. So like him, a lot of people in our area are less involved than they used to be.
After a while, Woodberry leaves the track and drives back to the barn. He gets out and walks inside to his office, leaving the car door open, and the dog, named Infield for the infield of the racetrack where he was found, ambles out after him. The door to the car will stay open the whole time I’m there. His office is inside the barn, but there’s very little demarcation between the two; the barn flows into the office and then follows Woodberry to his car. Everything around him seems to have at least some mud on it.
Curtis Beale “Woodberry” Payne has sandy/gray hair and blue eyes. He seems tall, even though he isn’t. He was born in Virginia, grew up in Virginia, and went to school in Virginia, and he’s been around horses his whole life. His mother rode and his family owned show horses, and from a very young age he worked as a groom and then as an exercise rider for a professional trainer named Dale Jenkins. (The nickname “Woodberry” comes from this time, when someone at a horse show, knowing that he went to a private school, referred to him as “the kid who goes to Woodberry,” as in Woodberry Forest, a school he eventually did end up going to.) In high school, he would go work in the stables after class, and in college he took off on the weekends to ride in races.
But when he graduated, Woodberry veered away from what seemed to be his natural course. In 1980, he got a job about as far away from the stable as you can find, working as an aid for Congressman Ken Robinson. He lived in Middleburg, a 45-minute drive from Capitol Hill that, with traffic, could take two or three hours. His old boss Dale Jenkins had moved to nearby Warrenton, and the two had dinner every night. Just as he did when he was in school, Woodberry snuck away from Washington on the weekends to ride. “The horses,” he said, “kept pulling me back.”
On a typical day, Woodberry goes back and forth between the barn and the track. He monitors the horses for injuries, weight, diet, everything about them. “They’re professional athletes,” he said.
“That reminds me, I’ve got a horse that needs antibiotics.” He grabs a huge hypodermic needle, goes into a stall and slides it expertly into a horse’s neck.
His office walls are covered with framed pictures of winning horses posing with their jockeys and owners. Many of the images are faded, stretching back over decades, and Woodberry has a story to tell about all of them. On most of them, his name appears as the trainer. Maybe it does on all of them, I don’t know. There are, he said, so many major players in the horse world living right here in our backyard that go unnoticed. Woodberry goes to great lengths to tell me about everybody but himself.
After leaving politics, Woodberry went back to working for his old boss until, in 1985, Jenkins “kicked me out of the nest.” He told Woodberry that there was a job open at Ingleside Farm and he should take it. So Woodberry got licensed as a trainer, and 10 years later he wound up buying Ingleside.
There are about 60 horses at Ingleside currently, most of them being trained for races in New York state, where the majority of the client base is located, but a few belong to Woodberry and they race throughout the year. He’s a “licensed trainer up and down the East Coast” and has a stable at Colonial Downs, the second biggest racetrack in the country, where he trains and races horses every year.
Horseracing is big in Virginia, but not as big as it once was. “In its day,” he said, “when the business was really thriving, it had its own night at the Saratoga Horse sales. ‘Virginia night.’” Now the business has shrunk and Virginia is no longer one of the top 10 horse regions.
But what’s the attraction for him? Why is he at the barn seven days a week? What keeps pulling him back to horses? “I guess just the horses themselves,” said Woodberry, whose wife, Olga, also works at Ingleside. “Each one is an individual, with their own personality. It’s pure sport: who gets there first.”
So, this Saturday, he’ll be at Foxfield races, as he always seems to be, as he was for the first one, on a rainy day in 1978. Foxfield is not a big race, but it’s fast and exciting. Many horse owners use it as preparation for other major races on the circuit, like the Iroquois races in Nashville held a few weeks later.
Foxfield is something of a local tradition. The spring races, Woodberry tells me, are about locals emerging from the long winter to spend a day in the sun. “Personally,” he said, “I love seeing the UVA students there.” He was a UVA student himself, and was there for the tail end of the famous Easters party, called “the best party in America” by Playboy.
“I hated seeing Easters taken away,” Woodberry said. The students needed a spring party, and so they found Foxfield, and that’s just fine as far as he’s concerned. “The students are the biggest part of the crowd on race day,” Woodberry said. “I welcome it. I’ve seen how the meet’s grown over the years. It keeps getting bigger and bigger.”