A visit to Greentree

Drive south on Nelson Avenue, with the track on your left; you’ll come to the corner of Gridley Avenue. If you turn left, you’ll be on the Saratoga backstretch, with Clare Court barns and the half-mile training track on your right.

If you keep going down Nelson, you’ll shortly see an expansive farm, with a racetrack just visible beyond paddocks. Behind big iron gates, it’s a little like the Emerald City…or maybe it’s more like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. We all know it’s there, and we know what it’s there for, but it seems like nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out. We can drive past and look, but like the children outside of Wonka’s, we can’t go in to discover the tantalizingly mysterious delights inside.

Greentree was a massive Thoroughbred operation for the Whitney family, beginning in the early part of the 20th century and comprising multiple properties in Lexington, Saratoga, Long Island, New Jersey, and South Carolina. Founded by Payne Whitney, after his death his wife Helen Hay Whitney continued the operation, and daughter Joan Whitney Payson took over after the death of her mother.

In 1999, Robert and Janice McNair of Stonerside Stable (and the Houston Texans football team) purchased the farm, and six years later put it on the market; it was a featured “Home of the Week” in Forbes:

Stonerside’s slate-roofed main house dates back to 1870. Its 8,000 square feet
of space includes seven bedrooms, seven full baths and eight fireplaces. The
screened porch has a view of the private one-mile training track and Vermont’s
Green Mountains.

The property also includes an Adirondack-themed guest lodge
with beamed cathedral ceilings, two carriage house apartments, and additional
guest and staff quarters. It features a pool, nine-hole golf course, stick and
ball field, clay tennis courts, three ponds and an apple orchard.

The estate which adjoins both Yaddo and Saratoga Race Course, is being sold with the stipulation that it not be developed, and remain a horse facility.

That last stipulation didn’t prove to be much of a hindrance in the sale of the property; as reported in Thoroughbred Times, Darley Stable leased the property for two years before purchasing it in 2007 for “nearly $17.5-million.”

The aura of seclusion and mystery is, it appears, cultivated by the current owners. The Times Union reported in June that several dozen trees at the front of the property, now known as Greentree Training Center, were removed “to deter feeding deer and make way for a more private hedgerow.” New foliage was expected to be planted by July 4th:

For now, motorists and pedestrians get a view of what is typically a private
property. “We’ll give them a view for about a month then close it back up
again,” [property caretaker Jim] Till said.

Given the atmosphere of impenetrability surrounding the place, I accepted with alacrity the invitation offered by trainer Tom Albertrani at last week’s Belmont Child Care Association benefit, to tour of the Greentree grounds and his stable there last weekend.

I met Albertrani at his barn shortly before the end of training hours. As we drove around the perimeter of the backstretch, towards its southernmost point, horses were still heading towards and coming off the track, being walked, getting baths. Aiming for a small gate in an unobtrusive chain link fence, we suddenly left behind the bustle of the backstretch and were on a tranquil, pastoral farm, verdant paddocks to our right, virtual silence reigning. Albertrani noted that the horses living at Greentree got a lot of rest, living on a farm, undisturbed by the commotion intrinsic to residing at a working racetrack.

We drove past the barns and up to the one-mile training track with its newly installed Polytrack surface. Having worked with synthetics while conditioning in England, Albertrani extolled their virtues for horses in training, remarking on the consistency of their surface in bad weather and the ability to keep horses to a training schedule—echoing several of the trainers at the synthetic forum last month. He added that horses go so easily over Polytrack that they will sometimes need several additional workouts to be fit enough to race on dirt, and that he thought that a good dirt track could be as safe as a synthetic surface.

Tom Albertrani grew up in Brooklyn and started working at the racetrack with his uncle, trainer Jack Abatemarco. After finishing high school, he worked as an exercise rider and jockey, then in the barns of Bill Mott, P.G. Johnson, Jack Van Berg, and LeRoy Jolley, among others, before moving to Dubai in 1995 to work for Godolphin (NTRA bio). Albertrani split time between Dubai and England, where he experienced the variety in racing surfaces virtually unknown in the United States. Noting the short meets in England, he talked about the challenges of training in such an atmosphere, acknowledging that unlike here, trainers get only one chance to see how a horse adapts to a certain course; the lessons learned can only be applied the following year, when the meet returns, as opposed to in the United States, when horses race over the same course several times in a relatively short period of time. He spoke at greater length in a Blood-Horse Talkin’ Horses interview in 2006:

With my experience in the UK, there are many race courses that are all
different, such as going up hill, down hill, clockwise, and counter clockwise.
Conformation and build would contribute to how a horse performs on those types
of tracks, plus how athletic they are as well. Most good horses can adapt to all

In 2005 Albertrani opened a public stable, continuing to train Darley horses while accepting outside clients. In less than a year, he was squarely in the public eye with Bernardini, who won three Grade I races in 2006 and finished second to Invasor in that year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic en route to being named champion three-year-old.

2006 was a pretty good year for the Albertrani barn, as one of Bernardini’s stablemates was Songster, winner of the Grade II Woody Stephens and Grade III Hirsch Jacobs; he was second in the Amsterdam at Saratoga that year (not wanting to appear ungracious, I did not share with my host that I exercised my “long price in a short field” theory and cashed a win ticket on Court Folly at 10 – 1 that day). Retired in 2007, Songster returned to training and to Albertrani this year following “fertility issues”:

“It’s definitely neat,” said Albertrani, who trained Songster to a pair of graded stakes wins among seven starts in 2006. “He came back, and he acts exactly the same way as when he left. That’s a good sign. I guess he’s focused on running and on his business.” (Thoroughbred Times)

Songster is currently stabled at Greentree and working regularly; Albertrani expects his return at the Belmont meet this fall.

Two other notable residents of the eight Albertrani horses at Greentree are three-year-olds Smoke’n Coal and Raw Silk. Smoke’n Coal won his first two starts at Belmont last fall and has hit the board once in three subsequence starts, finishing third, while Raw Silk, a lovely filly, most recently finished third in the Lake George at Saratoga on August 15th. She’s finished in the top three in six of eight starts, including a win in the Grade II Sands Point Stakes at Belmont.

Smoke’n Coal

Raw Silk

At the southernmost end of the farm lie the houses and tennis courts and other amenities listed in the Forbes article; we didn’t go down there, but as I drove past later that day, one of the main gates was, surprisingly, wide open, even as a sign on it indicated that it should be kept closed. The grounds were, as usual, quiet; it was twilight, when most horse farms are settling down for the night. I imagined the Godolphin horses basking in their serenity, their backs literally and figuratively to the horses assembled in mass housing just behind them.

All the horses at Saratoga have it pretty good, but the prestige and privilege of the Whitneys’ Greentree Stable, and its name, live on at the Greentree Training Center. As I left on Sunday morning, I felt a little like Charlie—no golden ticket, but lucky to catch a glimpse of the workings behind the big gates.

7 thoughts on “A visit to Greentree

  1. Great article !! Allow me to add my two cents (about all the betting money that I have left…) Years ago LeRoy Jolley would “gather” up us kids who were standing at the Saratoga main track rail and walk us through the Whitney/Greentree gates. It was magical. We often saw Robyn Smith ( Fred Astaire’s wife)exercising the horses.Two of the current driveways once went directly to Yaddo. Alanson Trask (Spencer Trask’s father) built the main house on Stonerside’s property. He named it “Oweeken” (sp)

  2. We are lucky that somebody like Sheikh Mohammed purchased Greentree and refurnished it’s track. Seeing all those Darley winners at Saratoga it looks like the purchase is paying out already.

  3. A big thanks for the article and sharing your experience of touring the place. Thankfully it is being used today as I never understood why it wasn’t used like gangbusters just a few years ago when stalls at Spa were not to be found at all.Dare we ask who occupies (if anyone) the manor house on the estate today?Minor aside the listing agent, Roohan Realty, had their commission lawsuit tossed on this property.

  4. Thanks for the additions, everyone; love hearing about your experience with Jolley!We were so focused on the horses and the training elements of the place that I never even thought to ask about the humans–total oversight. Imagine me smacking my forehead.And thanks for the local update on the lawsuit…Winston…you have racetrack rails in your backyard? Cool…

  5. To GlimmerglassFunny aside on the Roohan lawsuit – hard to think that the case was actually looked at…BTW, many people spell it “Ruin Realty.”

  6. I too would’ve been drinking up the property and never would’ve thought about asking about the manor house at the moment. Still it must be a nice gig to be the caretaker. Even in the dead of winter Saratoga can have its charm.I dug up the Times Union article anouncing the suit which I said was tossed. It actually was withdrawn:Times Union – May 2008; I don’t think any such high profile suit helps any agency’s reputation especially if the claim is so poorly rationalized.I’m envious of the other poster going to this place back in the ‘hay day’ with Jolley, Whitney-ownership, and all those big name horses around.

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