Broad green meadows dotted with grazing thoroughbreds may sound like something you’d find in Kentucky, but there are places in Saratoga County that fit the description, too.
One is McMahon Thoroughbreds, the farm where Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide was born in 2000. It’s five minutes from downtown Saratoga Springs, but the farm moves to entirely different rhythms.
Foaling season is winding down, but there are still 300 horses on the property, from stakes-winning stallions to some of the 120 newborns foaled this spring.
The public will be able to see the farm and its horses up close Sunday, when the McMahons host the 18th annual Sundae on the Farm, a county-sponsored event that promotes and tries to educate people about Saratoga County agriculture.
Activities will run from noon to 4 p.m., and the event is expected to draw as many as 4,000 people.
“This is what it’s about, raising beautiful, strong animals,” said Anne McMahon, who owns the breeding farm at 180 Fitch Road with her husband, Joseph. “We want people to see the good side of agriculture.”
The McMahons moved to the farm that had been the summer home of Virginia socialite Liz Whitney Tippet in 1971. Anne had ridden horses as a hobby, while Joe had held track backstretch jobs working with horses since he was a teenager.
The couple owned race horses at first, but that’s a high-risk business, and eventually they found their niche maintaining a small cadre of stallions and breeding the next generation of racers. Today, many of their stallions are past stakes winners.
The horse population fluctuates. Mares are brought in from other farms to give birth in the spring and are usually bred to one of the stallions before they depart for their home farms. The McMahons handle the stressful and exhausting business of waiting for and then managing horse births, which tend to happen at night, for their clients.
“Breeding became our bread and butter,” Anne McMahon said. “We both wanted to work on the farm, not have outside jobs, and raise a family.”
They had some success. In 2003, a gelding bred there three years earlier, Funny Cide, won the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness, creating a nationwide buzz about the possibility of a Triple Crown winner. Saratoga Springs resident Jack Knowlton was the face of the partnership that owned Funny Cide and a remarkably good ambassador for the sport.
“Things did change for us,” McMahon said. “People realized a small partnership could succeed in what people thought of as the sport of kings.”
More racehorse owners came to McMahons to breed their mares after that, and today there’s a second farm a few miles away run by son John and his wife Kate, where the births actually take place. There are 400 acres between the two operations. The business has 17 employees and buys its feed and other supplies locally.
“Horse farms and farms in general are really important to a rural economy,” said John McMahon, who is 41 and has three children on the farm. “Nobody can spend money like a farmer.”
The McMahons also hosted Sundae on the Farm in 2001, the year after Funny Cide was born, but before he achieved his fame. John McMahon said they are hosting Sundae on the Farm again because it’s important to let people see how a farm is operated.
“So much of what we do on the farm, with the thoroughbreds, is gambling,” he said, “but it’s also the green fields and making the local economy work.”
All five of Joe and Ann McMahon’s children are involved in the horse industry. Daughter Tara Letzring is the office manager, and daughter Jane Ubillo also works in the office. Son Mike McMahon and daughter Kate Galvin both live in Kentucky, have horse farms and are involved in the breeding and racing industry.
Past Sundae on the Farm events have usually been hosted at dairy farms, but horse farms are a growing part of the county’s agricultural landscape. Old Saratoga Thoroughbreds, where John and Kate McMahon live, is a former dairy farm converted for horses.
A healthy agricultural industry helps preserve open space.
“It’s a working landscape, land that’s being actively used for agriculture,” said Jennifer Stevens, a community educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension and one of the event organizers.
About 150 volunteers, most of them involved in local farming, will be on hand to help people park, drive shuttle trams and explain aspects of the farm operation, said county planner Jaime O’Neill, another of the organizers.
Activities will include a children’s petting zoo, food vendors, pie and ice cream, chef demonstrations and a farmers market.
People can learn more about the host farm at www.mcmahonthoroughbreds.com.