Robert Courtney Sr. in his Crestfield Farm office

Robert Courtney Sr. in his Crestfield Farm office

Anne M. Eberhardt

Legendary Horseman Robert Courtney Sr. Dead at 96

Robert Courtney bred and/or raised dozens of stakes winners in a 70-year career.

Robert Courtney Sr., who for decades bred stakes winners and dispensed wisdom off his Crestfield Farm near Lexington, died Nov. 14 at age 96. Active until the end, Courtney’s last stakes winner as a breeder was Irish Jasper, who won the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (G2) in 2016.

Any list of his black-type winners would pale, however, to the legacy Courtney left behind as a friend, advisor, and mentor to generations of horsemen who came up after him. His name in the Thoroughbred business is synonymous with intelligence, integrity, and a sense of humor that made him a favorite among all who knew him.

"The only thing you leave behind is your reputation," Courtney said a dozen years ago. "The most you can ask for is people remembering you and saying, 'He was alright.' "

Courtney was more than just alright. He bred a million dollars worth of yearlings out of the mare Hasty Queen, for whom he paid $11,000. Among her runners were three-time grade 1 winner Fit to Fight, multiple graded stakes winner Hasty Flyer; and stakes winners Hasty Tam, Hasty Cutie, Playful Queen, and Michael Navonod.

Courtney also was involved in either raising, selling, or planning the matings of a multitude of stakes winners including Meadow Star, Polish Patriot, Action This Day, Caller One, Dollar Bill, and Prince of Birds.

His most enduring accomplishment in the industry, besides mentoring, was the role he played in the formation of Fasig-Tipton's Kentucky sales operation. He got 10 people to kick in $100,000 apiece in the early 1970s to start the horse sale.

"Think about how many churches and banks there are in town," Courtney noted. "A second sales company seemed like a good idea."

"He was a compassionate and kind man," said his son, Robert Courtney Jr. "That probably came about because he was one of the men who walked through the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. He was a great father, friend, and horseman. If you were a friend, you were a friend for life."

"He's been like a father to me," said Alex Rankin of Upson Downs Farm near Goshen, Ky. "He was a unique character in the horse business, never showed a bit of jealousy, and focused on always doing the right thing for his clients and his family. He loved what he did and how he did it. And if he left money on the table—well, that's the way he was. You can find his imprint in a lot of places—he was involved in Arrogate 's second dam (Grechelle)—and he will always be remembered."

Bill Landes, who manages Hermitage Farm near Goshen, tried to sum up Courtney's life in a few sentences and then threw in the towel. "Forget all the stuff I just told you," he said. "Bob Courtney was an absolute gentleman, and he knew how to wear a hat and when to doff it. He always pulled that off, and that's a lost art."

Robert Estill Courtney Sr., the son of prominent banker W. H. Courtney, grew up in Lexington. On the day when school ended each year, he went to live on the farm of his father's friend W. R. Estill. Courtney quickly took to the country life, and realized the banking business wasn't for him. He did horse tattooing for a bit, then worked as a feed man on the racetrack. In 1941 he bought his first broodmare, Sweet Face, for $50 (he kept that catalog page in his office the rest of his life), beginning a 75-year run in the Thoroughbred business in which he dispensed wisdom and laughs.

Courtney told a reporter 12 years ago, "A colt named Tinseltown just won a stakes up in New York. I sold him for $90,000 on a $10,000 stud fee. That's where you make your money, son. That's how you make a living."

Courtney once bought back a filly for $12,000 he'd offered at sale because she had a hoof problem. He put her in training, and Bluffing Girl earned more than $250,000. "Hal Price Headley used to say, 'Don't worry about what you can see; worry about what you can't see.' And that's the heart, and you damn well better believe that," Courtney said.

Courtney is survived by his sons Robert Jr. and Tom, and was married for 60 years to his beloved Evelyn, who pre-deceased him. Visitation will take place Nov. 17 at Milward Funeral Home on Broadway in Lexington from 4-7 p.m. ET, with a service there Nov. 18 at 11 a.m. and burial at Lexington Cemetery.

That cemetery, on West Main Street in Lexington, was the subject of another of Courtney's one-liners. "My problem," he used to say when he reached his 80s, "is I have more friends out on West Main Street than on East Main Street."