James Binger, operated Tartan Farms.

James Binger, operated Tartan Farms.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Former Tartan Farm Owner James Binger Dies

James Binger, the former owner of famed Tartan Farms in Florida, died Wednesday in Minnesota. The native of St. Paul was 88.

Binger was married to Virginia McKnight, the daughter of W.L. McKnight, who in the early 1960s purchased 320 acres in Florida that would become Tartan Farms. More acreage was later added. McKnight was chairman and majority stockholder of 3M. He hired John Nerud to be general manager of the farm.

The Bingers began managing the farm in late 1974. They took ownership of the farm before McKnight died in 1978. Binger was the former president and chairman of Honeywell and also owned five Broadway theatres -- the St. James, Al Hirschfeld, Virginia, Eugene O'Neill and Walter Kerr--under the name Jujamcyn Theatres. It is the third largest company on Broadway.

McKnight's first horse, a gift from employees, was Aspidistra, who would become the dam of Dr. Fager.

Bryan Howlett, who rose from groom to general manager during a three-decade association with Tartan that began in 1971, said it was "an honor" to work for Binger.

"Working for Mr. Binger provided me an education that I couldn't have gotten anywhere else, the kind you can't pay for," Howlett said. "I had opportunities I never dreamed of. He was a captain of industry with 3M and Honeywell, and when you were with him in the paddock at Saratoga you understood that, judging from the kind of people who would come over and talk to him. Yet he always had a kind word for the groom and made everyone around him feel comfortable."

Howlett recalled the difficult decision Binger made over whether to disperse Tartan's breeding stock. "He told me, 'My mind says yes but my heart says no.' He didn't want to get out of the game, and I don't really know what the reasons were. I know it was hard for him, and I still think of that comment."

The first parcel of Tartan Farms was sold to Harry T. Mangurian in 1992, according to Howlett, who said a final 400-acre section was sold to a South Florida developer several years ago.

The Bingers raced in the Tartan colors, sending out the farm's first classic winner, Codex, who took the 1980 Preakness (gr. I). He was the first classic winner trained by D. Wayne Lukas.

"He was a wonderful owner, "Lukas said. "In fact, I have two horses for him. He came to me before Saratoga last year and said, 'I'd like to get back together with you and have a couple more racehorses.' I told him anytime he was ready to let me know. So, this year, he came to me and said, 'Can you get me a colt and a filly at the Keeneland fall sale and we'll have some fun.' I bought him a Gulch filly and a Carson City colt. He was my first classic owner, with Codex, and we've kept in contact over the years, normally renewing our friendship at Saratoga. I recently spoke to him and he told me he was going down to see his horses in Ocala, and he was just over the moon. He was delighted with them when he saw them.

"Of course, with Jim Binger came John Nerud, and John was wonderful. He's supported me all these years, and Mr. Binger supported John, letting him do whatever he wanted to do."

The Bingers (and Nerud) dispersed their stock in a dispersal sale at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky in 1987, selling yearlings in September and mares and foals in November. The yearlings brought $5.6 million, and the mares and weanlings sold for $25 million and included a Fappiano colt who would later be named Unbridled and win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I).

More than 100 stakes winners have been bred in the Tartan name and more than 80 were owned by Tartan.

Binger served from 1974-'96 on the board of the McKnight Foundation. Established by his in-laws in 1953, his wife ran the foundation from 1974-'87. It is the largest philanthropic foundation based in Minnesota.

Virginia Binger died in December 2002 at age 86. They had three children: James (Mac), Cynthia, and Judith. The Bingers lived in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Ardmore, Penn., before returning to the Twin Cities, settling in Wayzata.

Jujamcyn derives its name from the names of the Bingers' children, Judith, James, and Cynthia. The Bingers launched the enterprise in the 1970s, when McKnight gave them two theatres he had acquired two decades earlier.

Judith Binger Billings died in 1989. He is survived by his son and daughter, as well as four children and four grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday at St. Martin's-by-the-Lake Episcopal Church in Minnetonka Beach, with a reception at 3:30 p.m. at the Minneapolis Club.