Louis “Paddy” Neilson III, a distinguished timber jockey and trainer who throughout his life was a highly respected and well-liked member of the American steeplechase community, died Thursday, Sept. 5, in Chester County, Pa., after a bout with cancer.
He was a horseman throughout his life and created a family of accomplished horsemen. Daughters Sanna and Kathy both have had accomplished careers as trainers. Grandchildren Skylar McKenna and Parker Hendriks now are taking on roles in jump racing.
Paddy Neilson was not exactly born into the saddle, but he was put atop a horse at age six and never was long out of the saddle after that. He made an auspicious start in 1958 when he swept the Grand National card with Coke Hi in the Grand National and Zenbar’s Son in the Western Run Plate. He was one day short of his 16th birthday.
He was an accomplished lacrosse player as well as a rider, and he went to Princeton University with the thought of playing the hard-hitting sport there. But then he realized that lacrosse games often occurred on Saturdays during the spring. Those are racing days, and so ended his lacrosse aspirations.
After Princeton, he earned his master’s of business administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and it offered him the opportunity to ride out in the mornings in Chester County and then commute into West Philadelphia for classes.
Similarly, he became a bond trader for Alex. Brown and Sons, a position that allowed him to ride in the mornings, get cleaned up, and then travel into Philadelphia for work. By that time, his accomplishments in racing were growing year by year.
“He was a complete jockey,” said Charles C. Fenwick Jr., who was a friend and rode against him on occasion. “He was a superb rider. He was stylish but not overly stylish. He was very consistent.”
One attribute he possessed was that he could get on anyone’s horses and bring out the best in them. “He rode for Ridgely White. He rode for Jonathan Sheppard. He rode for many different trainers,” Fenwick said. “There was never a better jockey to ride over timber, and especially over big timber.”
Paddy Neilson certainly knew about big timber, and none is bigger than the Maryland Hunt Cup. He rode the four-mile timber classic 21 times, a record, and won three times over more than two decades. He won for the first time in 1968 with Haffaday for Sheppard, who just then was beginning his Hall of Fame career. He won in 1974 with Burnmac, and in 1989 with Uncle Merlin, whom he also trained.
It was about that time that he left the securities business and went full-time into training. His final starter was in 2015.
While his victories are inscribed in the sport’s history, it was Paddy Neilson the caring and thoughtful person who will be remembered by a wide circle of friends, many from the racing world.
George Mahoney, owner of Rosbrian Farm with wife Mandy and a National Steeplechase Association director, spoke to Neilson on a nearly daily basis. “My memories of being with Paddy are so many,” he said. “Our families were together on vacation in Wyoming, and four of five years ago he trained two of our horses who won at a point-to-point.
“He loved fox-hunting, and he, Jay Griswold, and I hunted together in Ireland, in Maryland, and Pennsylvania at Cheshire,” Mahoney said. “He was a wonderful person to be around. He had no agendas. He would let you know what he was thinking in a gentle way. He was humble.”
In addition to riding and training, Neilson was involved with the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup as race chairman for several years. Last year, he was elected as a master of foxhounds for Cheshire, which he served many years as a whipper-in.
“He was a wonderful, complete person,” Fenwick said. “He loved timber racing, he loved fox hunting, and he loved life.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.