Paddy Neilson’s favorite picture of his daughter Katherine was snapped when she was 2 years old. Kathy is struggling to hold up a large pair of binoculars. “The binoculars are as big as she is,” says Paddy.
The toddler and her parents were at a steeplechase, and she was captivated, intent on watching the horses gallop through the course and soar over the timbers. Jump racing has been her focus ever since.
It was a natural evolution. Louis “Paddy” Neilson is a legendary jockey and trainer, hailing from a family that’s been competing in the saddle since 1875. He started riding at 6 and won his first major race at 15. He has taken home the Maryland Hunt Cup three times. Neilson, his daughters and his grandchildren are all familiar faces at Radnor Hunt, Willowdale and Winterthur. “We never told the kids they had to ride,” Neilson says. “But most of them do seem to gravitate toward it.”
Now in their 40s, the sisters have the wisdom and experience gained from a lifetime of racing. Sanna Neilson is an accomplished trainer, who trained all three finalists for top steeplechase horse of the year in the 2001 Eclipse Awards. She was 22 when she became the first woman jockey to take the Virginia Gold Cup, a grueling four-mile, 23-fence timber classic.
Kathy is a steeplechase trainer and owner of KSN Racing in Unionville. A former jockey, she is the winner of the 2016 Delaware Valley Association’s Leading Trainer Award. Kathy’s children—Skylar, Nina and Max McKenna—and Sanna’s kids—Parker and Natalie Hendriks—share the family love of horses.
On a hot afternoon at Rockaway Farm in rural Chester County, Pa., Neilson strides past stalls where horses neigh softly. A big bay hunter more than 17 hands tall stamps his foot. “He is telling me he is hungry,” he says.
Sited in the rolling countryside near West Grove, the farm is named for the Rockaway Hunt, co-founded by Neilson’s grandfather in the 1870s on Long Island, N.Y. He formally retired from racing in 1977 after 20 years. For 10 of those, he was the leading amateur jockey in North America.
By 1991, he was decidedly out of retirement, in the saddle for his 17th run in the Maryland Hunt Cup. He was 49. Sanna was 22 and riding for the first time in the race, the first time a parent and child competed against one another.
Sanna rode Tom Bob to victory that day. Her father finished second.
That was a heady moment, but it isn’t the highpoint of her career to date. Sanna’s proudest accomplishment was as a trainer in 2007, when her brother, Stewart
Strawbridge, won the Maryland Hunt Cup aboard The Bruce. “It’s never just me,” she says. “Racing is about the horse, the rider, the trainer all working together.”
In such a pounding sport, serious injury is always a danger. Sanna began shifting her energies to training after she broke her pelvis in a fall. Kathy has broken both wrists and a knee. Their father suffered a serious injury in 1967. He broke his jaw and lost eight teeth when his mount, Sir George, took a short step, threw back his head, and smashed him in the cheek.
He narrowly escaped a similar injury in 1995 at Winterthur, when Neilson made a move to catch the leading horse at the last fence. His mount reared back at the base of the fence, but Neilson deftly guided him away from the landing and went on to win the race. In a feature on steeplechase racing on 60 Minutes, journalist Charlie Rose interviewed the Neilsons.
Charlie Rose: You’re approaching a five-foot fence. What’s in your head?
Paddy Neilson: Well, number one, you hope you’ve been livin’ right.
Rose: Can you tell us what it’s like to feel the exhilaration?
Paddy Neilson: There’s just some magic about the power of that animal underneath of you. And then, when you ask him for everything he’s got the last quarter mile of something like that and there it is, it’s a marvelous feeling that only comes from doing it, really. It is great.
Kathy Neilson: I knew as soon as I started galloping racehorses that it was the direction that I was gonna go in.
Sanna Neilson: It’s the adrenaline rush. We’d definitely be self-proclaimed adrenaline junkies, I’d say.
It’s also the tradition. Each year, the Neilsons look forward to three glorious weekends in May, when Radnor Hunt, Willowdale and Winterthur take place. Each year, the they load up the horses and ponies and head to the meeting.
“The races go on, rain or shine,” Neilson says. “And rain or shine, we’ll be there.”