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The Stuart News

Greg Melikov-March 12, 1999


Special to The News

INDIANTOWN -- Payson Park, for most fans, is a footnote below the
past performances in the Daily Racing Form, track programs and other thoroughbred information.

But once you see the training center on a luxuriant, landscaped 750 acres, with a huge cattle ranch and orange groves for neighbors, you realize why 500 horses are stabled here every winter season. And why there’s no room at the inn for 200 others.

“We’re laid back,” says Mike Rivers, a 47-year-old former trainer who seven years ago became manager of the complex, which includes a pair of one-mile tracks, widely spaced, white-and-blue barns. “We haven’t had an empty stall since I’ve been here. You take your time out here.”

Out here seems like the sticks, but isn’t far from airports nor Interstate 75 -- and Gulfstream Park is 90 miles south as the horse vans travel.

The season runs from Oct. 1 to May 1. “We have more than a 90
percent return rate,” Rivers says.

One prime reason: the one-mile dirt track.

“The way the track was built is the key to Payson Park,” says owner Virginia Kraft Payson, who has a home on the property. “It’s a wonderful track.”

The track, constructed in the mid-1950s, has a three-foot clay base with a 7- to 8-inch cushion of round sand and loam.

Compare that to two other South Florida main tracks: Gulfstream’s
13-inch base with a cushion 3 1/8-3 1/4 inches and Calder’s 12-inch base with a 4-inch cushion.

Deep, Payson is. Safe, Payson is.

“The horses don’t come down hard on it -- they sort of glide,” Rivers says, using the palm of one hand to demonstrate.

Nary a horse has broken down since Rivers took command, he says
proudly. “That’s why it’s so safe. We have no problems.

“A horse may get loose in the barn area, but we call security to close the front gate. The horse usually runs around to another horse and stops.”

The turf course is mainly used for galloping two days a week.

Both tracks are open from daylight to 11 a.m., Rivers says.
“They’re (trainers) on their own schedule.”
The trainers include Bill Mott, who had a home built in nearby Palm City. His horses occupy 75 of the 500 stalls.

“Cigar spent two winters here,” Rivers points out, “and nobody bugged him. Jerry Bailey came out to work him and you knew they would be great.”

The going rate for seven months for each stall: $1,600.

Other trainers who live close to Payson, either owning a home or
renting, include H. James Bond and Christophe Clement. Their
thoroughbreds occupy 44 stalls each while Mark Hennig has 30 stalls. Elliott Walden and Roger Attfield also have horses stabled here.

The are two dormitories with 60 rooms near the barn area where
trainers’ personnel looking after their horses stay. And a cafe.

Virginia Payson and her late husband Charles, who passed away in
’85, purchased the complex in August 1980 when it was known as the St. Lucie Training Center.

“It was in great ruin,” she recalls. “We used every piece of heavy
equipment in South Florida to redo the place, including the track, barns and drainage system.” Payson Park, however, managed to reopen in time for the 1980-’81 season that October.

Payson is a celebrity in her own right. “I was the outdoors adventuress for Sports Illustrated.” She wrote 26 years for the publication. She authored five books on such subjects as boating, training dogs and tennis. She was the first woman to participate in Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. She won trophies for big game hunting. She was a scuba diver inducted into the Underwater Hall of Fame at Grand Bahama Island.

Most importantly, she breeds and races thoroughbreds. Her horses
have captured more than two dozen stakes -- in America and overseas. Her favorite: St. Jovite, who won the ’92 Irish Derby en route to European Horse of the Year. His name is printed on the top of 16 steps leading to the tower overlooking the dirt track. Right below: Cigar. Further down: Easy Goer, Paradise Creek, Fly So Free.

St. Jovite, a 10-year-old son of Pleasant Colony, is one of nearly a dozen stallions, including Carr De Naskra, Jambalaya Jazz, Missionary Ridge and Pyramid Peak, at the 300-acre Payson Stud farm just outside Lexington. The stud fees range from $3,500 to $12,500. St. Jovite’s fee: $10,000.

Payson owns eight horses, including a St. Jovite 3-year-old colt Pronto Pronto who is being brought along slowly. “He looks most promising.”

Rivers, who assisted trainer Dick Lundy before going on his own for six years in Kentucky, met Payson socially in the Blue Grass State, where he was hired.

Now he lives here year-round just up the road from where he was
born: West Palm Beach. He graduated from Forest Hill High and went to the University of Florida.

“When the horses start departing later this month and next month, we start getting ready to open in October,” says Rivers, who directs a permanent staff of 30 to 35 handling maintenance and security.

“It four to six weeks to get the dirt track ready,” he explains. “The dead grass is pulled out by hand.”

Next season will be particularly important since the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Gulfstream in early November.

Payson says horses stabled at her complex will have an edge.

“It’s so tranquil and peaceful here. Green grass all around. Horses are happy here.

“And a happy horse is a winning horse.”

© 1999 The Stuart News