Elizabeth Mead “Betty” Merck, a much-admired steeplechase owner who was both gracious and outspoken, died Friday, April 3, at The Fields, her home in Bedminster, N.J. She had celebrated her 95th birthday in January with a party at her home.
In addition to racing The Fields Stable with son George F. “Laddie” Merck, she was a director of the Far Hills Racing Association and a past master of the Essex Fox Hounds in central New Jersey. She also was deeply involved in land-conservation efforts in the region. She had the distinction of having ridden horses in ten different decades and fox-hunted until she was in her 90s.
She had a long association with Mimi and the late Tom Voss, who trained her horses. The Fields was the National Steeplechase Association’s leading owner in 2009, when it won Far Hills’ two leading races, the $250,000 Grand National (Gr. 1) with Your Sum Man and the Foxbrook Champion Hurdle with Left Unsaid, who took down the year’s novice championship. Among all-time NSA owners, The Fields ranks 18th.
The relationship between Betty Merck and the Voss family dated from 1995. Mrs. Merck said, only half in jest, that her family wanted to get her involved as a steeplechase owner so she would spend less time fox-hunting. The Fields’ first racehorse, Brigade of Guards, won seven races and $216,269 between 1996 and 1999.
He was bred by Paul Mellon, and Mimi Voss went looking for relatives to purchase. She found his full sister, Distant Drumroll, at Laurel Park with trainer Billy Turner and purchased her in partnership with Mrs. Merck.
Distant Drumroll only won a maiden hurdle, but her value as a broodmare was inestimable. Her best—and the best raced by The Fields—was Guelph, named for a family hometown in Canada. Guelph was the 2005 novice and filly-mare champion, and she repeated as the female champion in 2008. Distant Drumroll also produced Wanganui, who carried The Fields’ silks to victory in the 2011 Gladstone Stakes and reigned as the year’s three-year-old champion.
The Fields also raced Approaching Squall, a favorite of Mrs. Merck who was the novice champion in 1998.
Tom Voss once described Betty Merck as the perfect owner, and in so many ways she was. As Voss noted, she wanted her horses to run when they were ready and not when she wanted them to run. She also showed up when her horses ran. She watched the 2014 Radnor races from a chair on the viewing stand and occupied a place in front of the television monitor at the Far Hills meet in October. She also regularly attended NSA meetings.
“We all learned so much from how she lived her life,” said Guy J. Torsilieri, co-chairman of the Far Hills Racing Association and president of the National Steeplechase Association. “She lived life to the fullest and had an amazing life.”
She was preceded in death by her husband, George W. Merck, a vice president of Merck & Co. who served as the executive director of the U.S. Equestrian Team from 1965 to 1974. He died in 1984 at the age of 65.
Funeral services for Mrs. Merck are pending.