There's more sand than bluegrass here, but breeders and trainers still love coastal Delaware

By Bill Newcott
Photographs by Carolyn Watson
From the Winter 2021 issue


t’s Wednesday night at Harrington Raceway, and a contingent of the Marsh family is watching their 2-year-old filly, Babe Ruthie, trot around the half-mile oval. She is seconds from the biggest moment of her young life.

Head up, feet moving in classic trotting cadence, Ruthie’s distinctive gait lies somewhere between that of a toe dancer and wind-up toy. Wearing a blue sash, she pulls a flimsy-looking cart manned by a driver in gold and red silks. 

She focuses straight ahead, as if she understands the stakes. Not only will this be Babe Ruthie’s first race, it’s an elimination event for the Delaware Standardbred Breeders’ Fund competition, with a $20,000 purse. 

It’s also a big night for Ruthie’s trainer, Harry Marsh — although, as a long-established horseman in these parts, he’s certainly been here before. 

Earlier this afternoon, I dropped by the Marsh family’s horse farm near Ellendale. More than 20 horses live at the facility — all of them family-owned — but on this day everyone’s eyes were on Ruthie, who was getting a power-wash hosing from Harry. As he watered down her flanks, Marsh smiled broadly. He’s been doing this since he was a kid in the early 1950s on the family farm just outside Rehoboth Beach. With her mane sudsing up, Ruthie seemed to be enjoying it, too. 

But now, a few hours later, it’s showtime. There are only four horses in the race, all 2-year-olds: Just Pump It, Larimar, Lady Bluestone and Babe Ruthie. I’ve got $10 on Ruthie — the first bet I’ve made on a horse since an ill-fated visit to the Atlantic City track about three decades ago. (Long story — it was my boss’s horse, and a year later neither I nor the horse were still working for him.) Each horse, focused and sprightly, is pulling one of those spindly carts, their drivers leaning back and holding the reins.

Unlike thoroughbred racing, where jockeys sit up top and the horses explode into action from a standstill, harness races feature a running start, with the horses lined up, already moving, behind a mobile, folding starting gate mounted on the back of a small truck. 

The horses are in full trot. They pass the starting line. No one yells, “And they’re off!” But they are. 

While most of us here in coastal Delaware like to say we live at the beach, we could just as easily tell everyone we’re in horse country. Due to its proximity to Route 1 on busy Route 24, the poster child for local horse culture is probably Winswept Stables, a picturesque spread near Long Neck with a massive red barn and sweeping expanses of green bordered by a white fence. But that’s just the tip of the horse’s nose in these parts: A bit farther inland, from Frankford to Milton, you’ll find horses galloping and grazing on dozens of properties, private and commercial. 

In fact, drive far enough on any coastal Delaware backroad and you’ll most likely spot a horse, looking right back at you. 

I am bouncing along in a pickup truck with Rhonda Owens-Whitehouse, who with her brother, George Owens, owns Safe Haven Farms near Milton. We’re dropping in on just a few of the other equine facilities in her neighborhood — low-lying operations that could easily go unnoticed by someone passing through.

Owens-Whitehouse is a little frustrated with me. There are just too many facets to the horse business to try to explain to a city kid who, for a brief moment in his childhood, thought Mr. Ed could really talk. 

“I don’t know where to begin,” she says, glancing at me in the passenger seat of her pickup. “For one thing, there are so many kinds of horses around here. There’s standardbred, quarter horses, gypsies, Bashkir curly, miniatures, Chincoteague — more than I can name.

“There are breeders like me and there are trainers. And there are just people who love their horses.”

Owens-Whitehouse grew up not far from where she lives now and has been a horse lover all her life. “My parents ruined me,” she says. “When I was little, I wanted a minibike for Christmas, but instead they got me a horse to share with my sister. If I’d gotten what I wanted, I’d be a biker today.”

“That would have been something,” chimes in Chip Warner, sitting in the back seat. A registered nurse, Warner became hooked on horses while a kid in Delmar. “No one in my family was into them,” he says, “but the family across the street had racehorses, and I just became this crazy kid who loved horses.” 

With Owens-Whitehouse, he’s part-owner of a few standardbreds, the classic harness-racing horse. 

We’re pulling off Cedar Creek Road onto Winners Circle, the long driveway that leads to the sprawling horse farm owned by the Marsh family. Behind the long barn, a horse trots lazily around a 5/8ths-of-a-mile stone-dust track, pulling a driver and cart. Under the barn’s eaves, hay and feed and upended carts sit in the shadows. 

Outside, the view is bucolic; inside, there’s a whirl of activity as a collection of Marsh family members tend to the daily feeding and grooming needs of their horses — and Harry Marsh concentrates on Babe Ruthie, who is running at Harrington tonight. 

Like all the horses here — and all harness racers — Babe Ruthie is a standardbred. Smaller than a thoroughbred, but a bit heartier, most standardbred horses are direct descendants of a single horse, Hambletonian, one of the fastest trotting horses of the 1800s. 

In a sport that thrives on tradition, the Marshes have one of the longest histories of any Delaware family. They’ve been tending to horses and other livestock in coastal Delaware since Paul Marsh, a well-traveled English gentleman, settled here in the late 1670s. 

“Our family cemetery is the second-oldest private one in Delaware,” Marilyn Marsh says as she shows me around the barn. Developers have long since absorbed all that remained of the Marsh family estate (the cemetery lies between the 10th and 11th tees at Kings Creek Country Club). In 2000 they moved their horse farm out here, far enough to escape the reach of builders seemingly intent on swallowing whole any open acre of land. At least they hope it’s far enough. The biggest threat to coastal Delaware’s horse culture is not the decline of race tracks — with online betting, harness racing is making more money than ever — but the boom in real estate values.

“I’ve had two offers from developers,” says Owens-Whitehouse, whose 25-acre Safe Haven Farms is smack in the middle of the busy Milton-Georgetown corridor. “I could sure make a lot more money than I do now if I sold it.“Maybe I’m an idiot!”

She smiles, because she knows she’s not. Let those webs of stick-built homes flourish elsewhere, she says. “This place is for horses.” 

It’s a sentiment echoed by Janice Ferneyhough, who owns Pinewood Stables, a 13-acre horse farm near Milton. The stables’ entrance off Neptune Road is a picturesque, shaded, white fence-lined driveway that winds past grazing horses. On the bare dirt of a fenced-in jumping course, an 8-year-old riding student is putting her pony through its paces.

“I wanted to get away from the crowds,” Ferneyhough tells me, explaining why she bought this place, more than two decades ago, where she now has about a dozen horses, including several on which she offers riding lessons. 

At the time, Pinewood Stables was in the middle of nowhere. But then the advent of Waze and Google Maps reinvented quiet Neptune Road as a shortcut between Gravel Hill Road and Route 113. The cars came. And now, just a few hundred feet to the east of the stables, a housing development has already sprung up. 

Still, on this day I imagine the setting is everything Ferneyhough ever hoped for. Aside from the clump-clump-clump of that little girl’s horse, the only sounds are those of a light breeze rustling the leaves, some late-season cicadas, and the occasional fluttering sigh of a contented equine. 

Petite and slim, I cannot imagine Ferneyhough weighs as much as a single leg of Cypriot, a handsome, 2-year-old German-born Holsteiner. For years Cypriot was Ferneyhough’s show horse, but as of late he’s been a bit hobbled by leg weakness. Ferneyhough is about to take him for his daily half-hour rehabilitation ride. I pat Cypriot on the white star just above his eyes, marveling at this gentle creature with a head the size of an ice chest. 

“If you think of a horse as a big pizza,” she says — and I somehow manage to do just that — “one slice is riding, and the rest is everything else.”

As we’re chatting, it occurs to me that I’ve never heard someone refer to their horse as their pet. “Yeah, it’s different,” she notes. “You can have a great relationship with a dog. But a horse carries you around. In some ways, you’re both trusting each other with your lives.”

Because Harrington is a half-mile course, Babe Ruthie’s race will take her two times around the track. For most of the first half, she is sitting in third position, but the four horses remain closely clumped together. From where I’m standing along the rail at the halfway point — which will in one more circuit become the finish line — there seems to be no sense of urgency. 

There’s certainly little electricity from the crowd, which numbers perhaps 30 people, many of whom are more interested in their smartphones than what’s going on down below. Harrington seems to have a complicated relationship to horses, which have been racing at the site since 1924. When I walked through the adjacent casino trying to find my way to the grandstand, two staffers I approached seemed only vaguely aware that the track existed. I finally found a remote stairway to the second-story grandstand, down a virtually unmarked hallway. The escalator was not working. 

Even the action on the track seems unexpectedly casual — perhaps because the harness drivers lean back in their seat, rather than forward, as thoroughbred jockeys do. But though they seem to be relaxing in little wiry La-Z-Boys, nothing could be further from the truth: A 120-pound person trying to rein in a thousand-pound horse is going to be using every muscle in his body. 

In harness racing, the horses are either trotters — moving their diagonally opposite front and rear legs at the same time — or pacers, moving both legs on the same side of their bodies simultaneously. Horses are trained in their particular gait from birth. Pacers race against pacers and trotters race against trotters, but they both have one thing in common: When they get real excited, they all like to break into a good old-fashioned gallop. 

For the driver, that’s bad news. In the race before Babe Ruthie’s, one horse kept going into a gallop — they call that “breaking” — and the driver had to pull him off the track repeatedly until he settled down. Needless to say, he didn’t win. 

Now the Delaware Standardbred Breeders’ Fund competitors are in their final lap. On the far side of the track, the pack is beginning to spread out. Babe Ruthie does not seem to be gaining. That $10 wager stub is beginning to burn a hole in my pocket. 

Rhonda Owens-Whitehouse is showing me around her Safe Haven Farms, home to about a dozen horses. Clearly, she has a soft spot for older ones: More than half the animals she points out to me are more than 20 years old, each of them with the tell-tale swayback that comes with equine age. 

Still, they seem content in their corrals, the autumn sun giving their chestnut hair a youthful shimmer. As Owens-Whitehouse introduces me to each animal — PunkyMonkeyBaby; her father, SuperPunk; and others — I’m reminded of how much I love horse names. 

Horses don’t always race under their original given names; occasionally a new owner will bestow a nom de la piste (that is, “track name”). That initial name, though, is heavy with personal history. Babe Ruthie, for example, is the daughter of a sire named He’s Spooky and a mother named Bosston Ruth. Well, who’s the most famous Ruth ever to come out of Boston? Former Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth, of course. Hence the feminized version of the Bambino’s name. 

We head back into the paddocks of Safe Haven Farms, where I catch a friendly smile from a young woman who is pitchforking clumps of horse dung-clotted hay from a stall and dumping it into a wheelbarrow. The thought of smiling through such a task is as foreign to me as whistling through a root canal, so I stop to chat with her. 

With chestnut hair that matches many of the horses outside, Rhonda Schneider has been riding and working at Safe Haven Farms ever since she took a summer job here 10 years ago. She learned how to take horses’ temperatures, give them shots and run IVs — which may have played a considerable role in landing her in the nursing program at Delaware State University.

“Several years ago we started doing foaling here,” she says. “It’s a labor and delivery unit for horses. We have the mothers in here and we watch them 24/7.

“My work with horses will make me a better nurse, I think. It’s taught me to be observant, and quicker to pick up changes in human patients. Here, we have animal patients who can’t talk to us, so we need to know everything by observation: signs of sickness, the way they hold their face, the look in their eyes, their general appearance.

“We have a saying in nursing: Get ahead of it, not behind it. That’s true for horse patients, and it’s true for human patients.”

I am standing next to an animal that is — except for an elephant or two — the largest living creature I’ve ever been this close to. Big Man is a gypsy horse, also known as a drum horse, so-called because his ancestors’ job over in Great Britain and Ireland was to carry the drums of the queen of England’s military regiment. 

Big Man’s registered name is Magic Gypsy Warrior. His father was Galway Warrior, a legendary drum horse that, like Big Man, stood more than 17 hands high — that’s about 5½ feet at the shoulders. 

“Queen Elizabeth used to call Galway Warrior ‘My Beauty,’” says Keith Fleming, who, along with wife, Linda, grazes Big Man and two other drum horses on a 10½-acre spread. Fleming’s mother owned the late, lamented Norma’s Restaurant in nearby Milton. 

The Flemings’ collie, a feisty little fellow named Buddy, is circling their three enormous horses, barking with fierce delight, coaxing them into a tight formation so I can get a good look at them. 

“They are a sight to behold, aren’t they?” Fleming marvels. A former horseshoer by trade, he’s now disabled with a bad back from all those years of bending over, holding horses by their legs and hammering on shoes. 

“I still do all their feet,” he says. “And even with my very bad back, they are gentle enough to just stand there while I work on them.”

“Take a look at this,” chimes in his wife. She’s raised Big Man’s front left hoof to show me just how big it is. “Like a dinner plate, right?” she asks. I’m thinking it’s more like the top of a round end table. 

“It’s quite something to ride one of these horses,” adds Fleming. “It gives you some idea of what it must have been like to be a knight, riding into battle. You could have carried a lance, a hatchet and an axe all across the top of his back.”

I’ve lost $10. Babe Ruthie failed to rally in the final stretch, and in fact finished last, in fourth place. It was a competitive race, however; the margin between the winner, Just Pump It, and Babe Ruthie was a mere 2.1 seconds.

Still, when I catch up with Harry Marsh a few days later, he’s not very happy with her.

“She did run three seconds faster than her best time,” he says, “but she was weak at the end. We had a vet come in — he’s my second cousin — to see if he could find any physical reason for that, and she did have a gland that was a little filled up. But we didn’t really find a major reason. It might just take a little time.”

Time, however, is not a luxury in the harness racing business: After three years, horses have to retire from most competition. Besides, Marsh — whose horse Darth Raider set the world record as the fastest gelding ever in 1996 — is also currently training eight other horses and preparing three babies to get started.

He loves his horses, he says, but hastens to add he can’t lose sight of the fact that he is, in the end, in business.

“One thing I’ve learned,” he observes with a tone of authority: “It costs just as much to feed the one that comes in last as it does to feed the one that comes in first.”