Howe He Did It: Steeplechase Legend Trained Champions Over Jumps And On The Flat - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Howe He Did It: Steeplechase Legend Trained Champions Over Jumps And On The Flat

Howe exhibits the balance and grace of a hunt seat equitation rider schooling champion steeplechaser Soothsayer.

Peter Howe passed away on Thursday, September 15. In his memory, we are republishing this piece by Betsy Burke Parker from the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation, originally published in July, 2020. Read Howe's obituary HERE.

A racehorse riddle: What's the X-factor when it comes to producing a champion? Nature or nurture?

Peter Howe knows from experience that it's a blend of science and art, but he says all of it is required to attain premium performance. He recognized the duality over a 40-plus year career training multiple champions out of Marion du Pont Scott's Montpelier – they were born to it, and he sees it now in daughter Jill Byrne – raised from day one with the skillset to have her hand on the helm of Virginia's Colonial Downs.

In the best horses, Howe says, as with daughter Jill, he learned early to recognize that uncanny ability to leave long and land running. Literally with horses, figuratively with people.

“Tingle Creek would do that,” says the 81-year-old trainer, still elegant and upright at 6 feet and still living near his beloved Red Horse Farm in Barboursville, Virginia. The soft-spoken Howe has been retired from racing nearly 20 years, but he keeps up with it through friends, through Jill and through televised racing on TVG.

“You'd have to be a very good horse to get away with standing off like that,” Howe says. He had years in the show ring and jumped thousands of show fences to develop this precision sense of timing.

“Tingle Creek, Soothsayer, Neji. Horses like that could do it. It takes a good athlete with a lot of courage.

“Other trainers would sometimes try and send out a 'rabbit' as an entry to try and hook up with Tingle Creek to pressure him into making a mistake. That never worked.”

As for his daughter, Howe says she's done a masterful job recreating the long-shuttered Colonial Downs, opened for the first time last year (2019) after it last hosted racing in 2013.

“It took courage there, too,” he says. “She's always been her own person, I saw that when she was just a kid working in the barn. She's really showed what she's made of helping bring that place back.”

Meet Peter Howe

Peter Howe had a storybook childhood, growing up on a cattle and crop farm in Connecticut – as he puts it, “when Connecticut had farms.” He spent many years in Latin and Central America when his father, Walter Howe, was ambassador to Chile.

Harvard-educated Walter Howe was farmer first, Peter Howe says, politician second. He was a member of Connecticut's General Assembly 1934 to 1942 and speaker of the state House 1939 to 1940.

Walter Howe was director of the U.S. Foreign Operations Mission to Columbia, and a sharp critic of the Castro regime in Cuba. He served in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War.

“But the day my father's sister and mother died, something broke in him,” Howe recalls his father's abrupt desire to flee Connecticut for Virginia. “He said to me, '(New England) is not the place for farming,' so we moved.”

Really, it was more of a homecoming for Howe and his three brothers – most of the Howe clan was from Virginia, many relatives still living in Orange County, others in the Shenandoah Valley.

Walter Howe purchased 1,200 acres of fertile cropland near the village of Barboursville, just a few miles southwest of the Montpelier estate that eventually became Peter Howe's life.

They became the first commercial Charolais producers in Virginia, running nearly 400 cow-calf pairs on part of the farm. Peter Howe says he took a course in Michigan to learn how to artificially inseminate with frozen semen collected in the midwest and shipped to the farm. “I think we were the first to do that, and it gave us access to much better breeding stock,” Howe recalls being on the cutting edge of what was then new science.

Peter Howe was named Virginia's Outstanding Young Farmer because of his revolutionary work in cattle breeding. He studied at Hotchkiss and Middlebury College.

He also loved horses and excelled in the show ring: Howe showed at the Medal-Maclay level.

“I think that's where my sense of timing came from,” he says. “You learn to see a distance.”

Howe began training for neighbors Helen and Wallace Whitaker, through them landing the gig training for Marion du Pont Scott. He was able to train outside horses at Montpelier, keeping the historic barns full with Montpelier homebreds and a few clients, the fields filled with mares and foals. Scott sometimes had a stallion – English Grand National winner Battleship was one that stood service at the estate.

Howe says he rode a few races, but after a hard fall at Glenwood Park, decided race riding wasn't for him and concentrated on his training career. In the off season, he hunted with the local Keswick and Farmington packs.

Howe was based out of Montpelier most of the year, but he trained from Scott's private barn on the Belmont Park backside and at Saratoga as well. He took horses to the Springdale training center Scott established in Camden, South Carolina often, using it as his winter training grounds and to launch his spring and summer 'chase campaigns.

Some of Howe's top horses were champion hurdler Soothsayer, champion distaffer Proud Delta and Whitaker homebred Tingle Creek. He trained multiple graded stakes winners Piling and Alias Smith for the Pillar Stud of William du Pont III.

He trained almost 1,500 starters that won nearly $3 million from 1966 to 1993. He retired from training and from the saddle in 1994.

“It was my own fault,” Howe admits. “I was hacking around a 3-year-old on a Saturday afternoon. No one else was around.

“We came to a creek – his first. He went to cross it and the far bank was that slick, red mud. He went up and came back on me.

“Fell right over on me. Broke my ribs, lost my small intestine. It was touch and go” for a few days.

“I'm not Catholic, but they sent the priest in to say Last Rites.

“Though you know, my kids showed me a little bit of religion in the summers when we'd be working on the farm. Everybody talks about this hot weather – but I don't mind the hot weather,” Howe says. “We'd be getting up hay, and sweating like crazy. They'd look at me and smirk and point their thumbs down to the ground, towards hell, I guess. I'm not sure if that's where they meant I should go, or if that's where they thought I'd like the weather.”

Howe often gets calls from old friends in the industry. He goes to the races sometimes, but mostly stays in touch via daughter Jill.

“I'm proud of her, proud of all of them,” Howe says. Byrne works at Colonial; her sister manages a hardware store in the Shenandoah Valley, and their brother owns a landscaping business close to the family farm.

Three of Peter Howe's (and America's) best

Soothsayer

Howe calls four-generation Scott homebred, and 1972 Eclipse champion 'chaser Soothsayer one of one of the greatest steeplechasers, ever. Third in his first bumper start, the athletic dark bay was second first out over hurdles – a 3-year-old 'chase at Belmont Park, and won by 12 in a laugher at Fair Hill that September.

It was a sign of things to come.

He won at Belmont next start then was second to another standout juvenile that year, Inkslinger, in the Stoddard Handicap and at the Colonial Cup in November.

“He was a helluva nice horse,” Howe recalls. “Classy. You could put him anywhere. On the front end, come from behind. He'd do it. Great jumper, not brilliant like Tingle Creek, but strong and fast.”

Soothsayer was sent to England after his 1972 championship kept the handicap weights high. Soothsayer's first English start was the Mackeson Gold Cup at the November, 1974 Cheltenham fall meet.

Soothsayer finished second in the Mackeson, third in the King George VI at Kempton Park in January, and second in a tail-wringing, uphill battle to the wire behind winner Ten Up in the Cheltenham.

But there was a dirty little secret about Soothsayer, something that didn't surprise Howe when he heard about it back home, and something he'd had to deal with himself on the American circuit. It eventually got Soothsayer sent back to the U.S.

“Soothsayer was hell in the paddock,” Howe recalls the gelding was prone to washing out as he pranced and danced the instant he realized he was going to the races; he even needed a handler to ride on the van with him when shipping to soothe him as he trembled and fretted. “He was a nervous wreck. Good when you got on and got to work, but, my god, he was embarrassing in the paddock.

“Those English trainers don't like a horse like that.”

Plus, Howe figures, English trainer Fred Winter “didn't really know how to deal with Mrs. Scott.” He recalls the fiery relationship between Winter and small, outspoken American. “He expected her to act like the Queen.

“She did not act like the Queen.

“Mrs. Scott had her own opinions and made them known.”

Soothsayer returned home to Virginia after the Cheltenham Festival, second in the 1975 Turf Writers that summer at Saratoga, winning the Laing at Montpelier that fall and third in his final start, the Colonial Cup.

He won 11 of 26 lifetime starts and nearly $200,000.

Tingle Creek

He was fancy enough to be a show-horse, but Tingle Creek was a big, tough gelding with the look of eagles, trainer Peter Howe recalls.

He was born on owner Helen Whitaker's Somerset, Virginia farm – equidistant from Howe's Red Horse Farm in Barboursville and her buddy Marion du Pont Scott's Montpelier estate in tiny Montpelier Station. Tingle Creek's sire was Paul Mellon's Goose Creek, a handsome grey that was sent to England but not before he sired a handful of useful runners including Mellon's stakes-winner Aldie, Tingle Creek, and even Mellon's Christmas Goose that won the 100-mile Homestead endurance ride with Mellon up.

Tingle Creek didn't ever win a championship, but Peter Howe maintains that he was perhaps the best horse he ever trained, and one of the world's top 'chasers.

This he recognized from the start.

Helen Whitaker owned Tingle Creek's dam, Martingle, who had produced multiple hurdle stakes winner General Tingle in 1959. So a lot was expected when her 1966 foal was born, a gangly chestnut colt with a wide white blaze and tall white socks on both left legs.

He was a spectacular jumper, Howe recalls, thinking the young Tingle Creek was pretty nice as they broke him and started jogging and cantering on the Montpelier training track and on the grass on the infield. But it wasn't until he schooled over the natural hedges at Montpelier that Howe realized he might be sitting on a unicorn.

“I'll never forget that morning,” Howe says. “I was on Tingle Creek. Noel Twyman was with me. He was on a young horse (both 3-year-olds) too. We had schooling jumps set where they park the cars now on the infield.

“First time down to that jump – they weren't small – Tingle Creek left a stride out. We pulled up, and I said to Noel – “I've got a horse here'.” It was something Tingle Creek did all the time – so long was his stride, so sure was his eye and so powerful were his quarters, he could easily leave outside the wings and land in a graceful gallop strides ahead of his rivals.

Twyman got the call aboard Tingle Creek in his first start, a 3-year-old hurdle at Belmont Park. They finished a promising second – to Katherine Clark's Augustus Bay, trained by Howe's best friend, Sidney Watters. Tingle Creek failed to produce in four more tries at 3, so Howe put him away for the winter and brought out a freshened 4-year-old in 1970.

Skip Brittle was a 7-pound bug when 15 went postward in the Tom Roby hurdle handicap over the lush Delaware Park that June 30. There was a breathless recap in the NSHA yearbook, calling it the biggest upset of 1970. Turf writer Joe Kelly told the story.

“Sports pages around the east devoted headlines to Tingle Creek and the mutuel payoff of $284, $73 and $20.80,” Kelly wrote of the 141-1 shot's 4-length score after being left flatfooted at the start. The chestnut “accomplished his victory with a flair, before a slightly disbelieving crowd of 6,331. Only $111 was wagered on Tingle Creek.

“The resounding upset was engineered by the 20-year-old blond rider, Clay Brittle III (Skip) from The Plains, Virginia. The George Mason college student could not understand why the crowd so ignored Tingle Creek.”

Brittle handled the reins two weeks later to win the Indian River back at Delaware, and again in September setting a new course record in Belmont's Broad Hollow hurdle handicap – 4:37 for the 2 ½ miles.

The bold jumping won him a lot of races, though it did get Tingle Creek in trouble one time in his 21 U.S. starts. The Aug. 20, 1970 chart from Saratoga reports that Tingle Creek “jumped well while making the pace and approached the last with a good lead” in the Saratoga Steeplechase Handicap. He landed badly after jumping the last from a real stretch and fell, that year's eventual champion Top Bid scooping up the win. Half-brother General Tingle had set the Saratoga course record for the 2 1/16th miles in the 1965 race.

Tingle Creek came back to win the Noel Laing memorial at Montpelier as a 5-year-old and reemerged in England in 1973. He was third first out at Newbury, won a major 'chase at Sandown and was second in the two-mile championship at the 1974 Cheltenham Festival. He shipped to Ireland to win the Drogheda at Punchestown a month later, and returned to England to become one of Britain's best 2-milers and a Sandown specialist; he won 11 races for Newmarket-based trainer Harry Thompson Jones. Scott left the horse with Jones when he retired, and Tingle Creek died in England at an advanced age.

A grade 1 steeplechase at Sandown was named in honor of Tingle Creek in 1979.

Proud Delta

She was fast and powerful, but Howe remembers 1976 distaff champion Proud Delta as “mean as a snake.”

His first meeting with the near-black mare was scary.

“She was being sold in a dispersal,” Howe recalls. “She was stabled at Aqueduct, and I went to look at her (to buy.)

“The groom warned me, and sure enough, when I went in, she pinned her ears and lunged at me and was going to run out of the stall.

“I stood my ground.

“We ended up getting along great.

“I remember sitting out in the cold on the chairs set in the parking lot where they'd have the Fasig Tipton sales. Mrs. Scott was sitting beside me, and she stuck her elbow in my ribs when that big mare came into the sales ring. 'Buy her,' she whispered to me.”

It turned out to be an excellent decision – Proud Delta went on to win the grade 1 Top Flight and Beldame and 12 of 31 starts for $387,761 in earnings. She was sold in the November breeding stock sale for $575,000 and went on to produce top winners Proud Debonair, Proud Irish and Lyphards Delta.

Who wins the fantasy stake?

We had to ask it.

In an imaginary race, who wins? Scott-bred Neji, Scott-bred and Howe-trained Soothsayer, or the Howe-trained Tingle Creek?

“Tingle Creek wins, hands down,” Howe says. “Because of his jumping ablity. Tingle Creek ran most time off the front end. He was big and, my god, was he tough to gallop.

“I'm pretty proud to say he never took off with me, but he'd run off with a lot of riders. I kept him in a big, loose-ring snaffle, and would just (finesse) him to stay with me.”

Helen Whitaker's homebred won the top handicaps in America before going to England in 1973. He won 11 races in England and Ireland.

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