Sun Briar Court, Extreme Equine Luxury
By Eliza McGraw
Growing Kentucky bluegrass in upstate New York seemed impossible in 1916, but Willis Sharpe Kilmer never shied from the impossible. Sun Briar Court, his Binghamton Thoroughbred farm, became a showplace and a symbol of what a racehorse owner could accomplish with money and imagination.
Kilmer became a millionaire from selling a patent medicine called Swamp Root, which included alcohol, sassafras and valerian root, and which is still available today. His colt Sun Briar was the champion 2-year-old of 1917 and the Kentucky Derby favorite for 1918. Ringbones kept Sun Briar out of the Derby but made a place for his understudy, the great gelding Exterminator, who won at 30-1 and become one of the greatest racehorses of all time. Both horses were housed at Kilmer’s stables, but Sun Briar, Kilmer’s favorite and a stud, reigned.
The farm name signified not only Sun Briar’s importance, but also the kind of palatial establishment Kilmer desired. Reporters could not stay away. The bluegrass alone–not the exact same chelated varietal that Kentucky made famous, but a hardier cousin–provided amazement. “When a Kentucky breeder comes to visit the Kilmer acres in summer time, he just marvels,” wrote W.C. Vreeland in 1919. In 1920, Al Copland added, “Sun Briar Court. . .contains a stud farm which is the last word in completeness.”
The farm was on a site that stretched along the Susquehanna River and had previously been a driving club. It had a mile and a quarter outdoor track and acres of pastureland featuring the famous bluegrass. Copland called the farm’s standout features “positive novelties.” One was “an electric fodder sifting machine which treats the oats in a scientific manner, and through the working of a cup carrying process distributes them into the proper receptacles.” Another was an indoor exercising ring for broodmares, which contained a human-powered hot walking machine. “The motive power is a work horse, ridden by a man who dominates the pace. . .Prevention against obstreperousness on the part of any of the matrons is had through the workings of pulleys attached to the horse headgear, which aid in preventing any skittishness,” wrote Copland.
“The completion of this massive, architecturally imposing, absolutely fireproof training stable equips Mr. Kilmer’s thoroughbred stock farm with superior and abundantly spacious indoor training quarters. The new building, which is built of fireproof tile on a concrete foundation and cost more than $100,000, covers more than one and one-half acres of ground space. . .The new building makes of Sun Briar Court more than ever a show place of compelling attractions not only to Binghamton people but to horsemen and tourists from all parts of the world,” wrote the Daily Racing Form’s reporter in 1918. The “positive novelties” this writer noticed included the 1/4-mile covered oval riding ring one-fourth of a mile extending around the inside walls of a building. This gave Kilmer’s horses a way to exercise in the winter, which their Kentucky counterparts could do outdoors. The observation room for this ring—now standard in many basic riding schools–was considered innovative as well.
Broodmare stalls also were luxurious, heated by steam from an underground plant. They had electric lights and “new devices for sanitation and ventilation and day lighting. The stalls are large enough to provide plenty of exercise for the colts and fillies, and several improved safety devices have been installed to reduce the chance of injury of foals to the minimum,” the Form reporter wrote. Also, fireproof stalls for horses in training were “the last word in comfort and safety for the horse aristocrats. They are perfectly lighted and ventilated and the provisions for health and cleanliness are probably not duplicated in any other breeding establishment.”
Kilmer improved the farm annually and had what the Form reporter called “a breeding farm that challenged comparison with any other famous home of thoroughbreds, either in the blue grass region of Kentucky or in England.” For the notoriously competitive and ambitious Kilmer, this was the crux of the matter; he was no longer second to Kentucky or even England. Instead, he had brought the best of those places to upstate New York. Other Thoroughbred breeding operations boasted some of luxurious appointments Kilmer had, but they did not typically have all of them, and they certainly did not have them in upstate New York.
The most crucial factors in Sun Briar Court’s success, however, seemed not to be financial not mechanized feeding machines or transplanted bluegrass. Instead, these were almost heartwarmingly homespun. As the Daily Racing Form reporter wrote, “The first impression one gets there is a feeling of courtesy and hospitality that is extended to the visitor, the immaculate order in which the stables and surroundings are kept, and the fine quality and excellent condition of the horses.”