Hillwood’s Ellen Charles Continuing Family’s Success Story; Shimmering Aspen, Top of Mind Pointed to Preakness Weekend Stakes

Shimmering Aspen, Top of Mind Pointed to Preakness Weekend Stakes
BALTIMORE – Ellen Charles grew up around horses and watched in wonder as her mother Adelaide Close Riggs – described in a 1999 obituary as “one of the grand dames of Maryland racing” – had success with such thoroughbreds as St. Francis, McCarthy Moore, Westerlands, Wild Zone and Woods of Windsor, the latter a homebred winner of the 1993 Federico Tesio Stakes.
A granddaughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal fortune, Charles one day hoped to enjoy the same kind of thrills with her own horses. Though it took some time, her mother’s good fortune has become her own.
Racing as Hillwood Stable, Charles will be represented in two of the major stakes at historic Pimlico Race Course over Preakness weekend – Shimmering Aspen in Friday’s $250,000 Black-Eyed Susan (G2) or $150,000 Adena Springs Miss Preakness (G3) and Top of Mind in Saturday’s $250,000 Longines Dixie (G2).
Ellen Charles and trainer Rodney Jenkins on Shimmering Aspen: click here.
Charles, approaching her 80th birthday, hopes to have a third, Dare to Be, in the $100,000 The Very One for fillies 3 and up Saturday, the field filled by horses based on their turf earnings in 2016-17. All three come from the barn of her long-time trainer, Rodney Jenkins.
“It’s thrilling and I think it shows achievement. When I started off racing horses my horses would probably run once a year and hurt themselves and that would be it,” Charles said. “One day Rodney said, ‘I think we should think about getting more horses because you’re not having a lot of excitement or time with them,’ so we went and bought a horse or two and we built a stable. It takes a long time to do that.
“Sometimes you get lucky and it happens fast but I think in this game it punishes you for having success, then you have a drought for a while until it comes back. You never can get too sure of yourself in horse racing,” she added. “We have gradually collected a bunch of really nice horses. Not all of them are the kind of horses that are running Friday and Saturday but they win in their spots and it’s fun. It’s fun to go to the races and know you’ve got something that has a chance.
“It’s been gratifying and certainly exciting. I love it. It’s such a part of my life, I can’t remember when I wasn’t involved in them the way I am, not the way it was when I enjoyed vicariously my mother’s success.”
Though she has only been racing horses of her own since 2004, Charles’ roots in Maryland racing run deep. Her mother – who rode horses until the age of 77 – was one of the great supporters of the state’s thoroughbred breeding and racing industry since first getting her owners’ license in 1929. She passed away Dec. 31, 1998 at the age of 90.
Charles’ father, Merrall Mac Neille, held many jobs in the racing industry upon joining the state’s racing association in 1948 as a turf official. He worked as a horse identifier, paddock judge, entry judge, placing judge and patrol judge before becoming a steward at Maryland’s thoroughbred tracks in 1956, retiring in 1978. He was 98 at the time of his death in November 2007.
As a girl, Charles grew up on the family farm in Howard County near Glenwood and Cooksville, Md. with her sister, Melissa Cantacuzene, also a horse owner who lives in Virginia and races in Arkansas and Louisiana.
“We were way out in the country. It’s not anymore. It’s all developed now,” Charles said. “We had horses on the farm. I had a pony, I had horses. I have to admit that I did ride, but I wasn’t the bravest. I love horses, but I like them a whole lot better on the ground than I did on their back.”
Charles served for 25 years as president of the board of Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C. before stepping down in 2014. It was Charles who helped realize her grandmother’s dream to turn her former estate into a public museum, known for its large decorative arts collection. A well-respected businesswoman, socialite and philanthropist, Post died at age 86 in 1973.
“I grew up in the game. Then you’re married and you have children, and I bred dogs for a while; I still do,” Charles said. “Then some years ago I thought I really would love to have a nice horse. So, I started on the journey trying to get a nice horse and it’s been exciting. I’ve had a lot of thrills and a lot of happiness. Of course, all of that comes with a lot of disappointments but I think that’s what keeps us coming back. You’re either on top of the hill or on the bottom scrambling to try and get back again. The highs are so amazing that they manage to get you through the lows.”
To date Hillwood’s best horse has been Bandbox, a winner of five of 15 starts from 2010-14 including the 2014 General George (G3) at Laurel Park – Charles’ lone graded stakes victory. Bandbox finished with career purse earnings of nearly $400,000.
“Bandbox I loved, and I still love. He’s at stud now. We bought him as a yearling and he just was a really wonderful horse,” Charles said. “Unfortunately like so many good ones he kept having injuries that got in the way of his career, but he was a very talented horse. He won the General George and would have gone on and done more winning if we just could have kept him together. His second crop is on the ground now and if they run to their looks I think I’m going to have a lot of fun.”
Also in 2014 Charles won the Maryland Million Nursery and Marylander with a West Virginia-bred colt named Golden Years, whose career was cut short by injury after running third in the 2015 Miracle Wood. Aside from the weekend’s stakes horses, Charles also has 6-year-old gelding Phlash Phelps, a multiple stakes winner including back-to-back editions of the Maryland Million Turf.
“We kind of built everything right from nothing. She had one horse when she came with me. From that one horse it snowballed into what we’ve got now,” Laurel-based Jenkins said. “She must own 60 horses. I have probably close to 20 in training. She must have 10 or 15 broodmares, 10 or 15 yearlings and a bunch of foals. She’s got enough.
“She takes the bad times just like she does the good ones, and ain’t many of them do,” he added. “It’s about as easy as it gets. It’s unbelievable. If anybody gets an owner like that they should praise God.”
In addition to owning horses, Charles – a mother of three grown sons, none of which “share the same addiction I do” – is proud to serve on the board of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
“I was quite honored to be elected,” she said. “I believe that when you’re involved in a sport you need to give back, too. That’s what I plan to do.”
Charles is excited about her chances this weekend. Top of Mind, making his second start of the year, has finished first or second in four of five starts – three of them wins – since being moved to the turf by Jenkins last summer. He was second by a half-length in the Commonwealth Turf Cup (G2) at odds of nearly 30-1 in September at Laurel.
“He’s a very, very nice horse. He surprised us. He’s the one that everybody teases us about. He was entered in a $30,000 claiming race, which he won, and we ran him back in a graded stake with Phlash Phelps and he was second. We won’t put him in another claiming race,” she said. “He’s a lovely horse. He’s doing really well. I think he was maybe just a horse that needed a little age to come into his own. He’s looking great and training well. It’s going to be tough, the toughest bunch of horses he’s ever run against.”
Charles is particularly taken with Shimmering Aspen, a still-developing 3-year-old filly that has won her last three starts by 16 ¼ combined lengths and will be making her stakes debut.
“It’s wonderful. I’ve had some nice colts but I’ve never had a filly like this, and I love my fillies. So this is very, very exciting,” she said. “My mother ever since I can remember had racehorses so I was used to going to the races. She had some very nice ones and it’s really exciting that I’ve been lucky enough to have some nice ones, too.
“She’s a lovely filly. She’s calm and just goes about her business and is just lovely to watch. She’s a treat to have plus I love the grays and she’s gray on top of all the talent, so I can’t ask for anything more than that. She’ll give it her best and she’s doing well, so I have my fingers crossed,” she added. “In this game you just feel blessed when you get a good one because no matter what you do or who you breed to, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”