Will Farish is driving across his Kentucky horse farm, mashing the accelerator of his dark green Range Rover, nudging the speedometer just over 50. It seems very fast on the rolling, 12-foot-wide roads Farish has laid out on his picture-perfect 3,000-acre spread.
All the way, Farish is dialing up numbers on his cellular phone, first to the farm’s office in town, next to the landscape architect working on the new stallion complex, then to his wife, Sarah, who’s waiting for Will in Florida at one of the couple’s four other homes.
Lane’s End Farm, just outside Versailles (that’s ver-SALES in Kentucky) looks more like a small national park. The grass is cut to a uniform length, the dark-stained fence rows look as if they were laid out by the Army Corps of Engineers. Most of the buildings--there are 10 horse barns and four houses on the farm--have a shared architecture, a takeoff from the brick columns of Farish’s farmhouse, an early 19th-Century home that looks like something Thomas Jefferson might have built as a weekend getaway.
For at least 30 years, Farish says, he’s had one dream: to build, own and run a major thoroughbred farm. And although he has sometimes wandered from that ambition, he has always returned to that single-minded pursuit. It’s a personality not unlike that of his mentor, one-time employer and now close friend: George Bush.
Most Presidents this century have had their one or two intimates, people to hang out with and not worry about some of their loose talk showing up in the newspapers. John F. Kennedy said it was important to have someone to relax with, and he joked that he was stuck with the friends he had when he came to the White House because he certainly wasn’t going to make any new friends while he was there.
Bush might be making new friends during his presidency, but it’s a safe bet that none of them will supplant Farish. Will Farish is that kind of friend to George Bush.
But unless you mention Bush’s name, it might take several hours--even days--before his name comes up in conversation.
When Bush won the presidency, he vacationed at Farish’s Florida home. Soon afterward, he flew down for a weekend at the horse farm. Every New Year’s for 20 years, the two men have gone quail hunting on Farish’s Lazy F Ranch near Beeville, Tex.
After Bush was elected, there was speculation that Farish would be named ambassador to England. Those stories became so rampant that Farish got a call from then-Ambassador Charles Price, who urged him to take the job. Farish says the post was never offered, and if it had been, he couldn’t have taken it. Couldn’t afford to, he says. Way too much work for him on the Kentucky farm.
It’s been said that Bush sees in Farish the kind of successful business career he might have had if he had not chosen politics. Farish has been in the investment business--he owns the W.S. Farish & Co. investment firm in Houston, the company that once managed Bush’s blind trust--and he’s had dealings in oil and gas exploration, mining, cattle ranching and local television stations.
It’s also been said that for Bush there might be a bit of envy for Farish’s comfortable, very private existence. But Farish scoffs at the idea. “I think that’s not even close,” Farish says. “He’s always had his eye on one thing, he’s been terribly determined.”
The same, of course, could be said about Farish.
Ask a Kentucky horseman, and he’ll probably tell you it’s a whole lot easier to become President of the United States than it is to set up your own racing and breeding operation in central Kentucky. Perhaps because Farish never lived in Kentucky before the 1970s, he didn’t know that what he was planning just couldn’t be done. After all, one just cannot aspire to be a leading horseman; one has to be bred to be a horseman.
Farish did have some bloodlines. An only child, William Stamps Farish III was 4 years old when his father, Army Lt. William Stamps Farish Jr., died at 31 in a training flight near Waxahachie, Tex. Farish just barely remembers his father or his grandfather, William Stamps Farish, who had died of a sudden heart attack six months earlier.
Farish’s grandfather graduated from law school in Mississippi in 1900. After just three months of legal practice, he moved to Beaumont, Tex., and within a year had started his own oil business.
It was no get-rich-quick deal.
The business faltered, but Farish’s grandfather persisted, picking up drilling jobs for various Texas oil partnerships. In 1917, he became a founder of the Humble Oil and Refining Co., part of what is now Exxon, and five years later became its president.
In 1933, he became president of Standard Oil of New Jersey. Farish’s other grandfather was Robert E. Wood, who was the chief executive officer of the Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Farish’s paternal grandfather dabbled in thoroughbreds, but at the outset of World War II he decided to expand his stable, to seriously get into racing.
But it didn’t happen. After the elder Farish’s sudden death, his wife and daughter continued racing, and their biggest success came in the 1970s with the champion gelding Forego, which set records as an all-time money winner.
Will Farish was educated at the University of Virginia, where he studied history and political science, and where he discovered two of his important talents: politics and polo.
He also jokes that he read the Daily Racing Form more than his history and political science texts and admits that he spent a lot of time handicapping thoroughbred races across the country. Farish was elected president of his senior class, but he says he spent so much time on the polo field that he didn’t get around to graduating.
Less than a year after he left Charlottesville, Farish was playing in a polo match in Pennsylvania when he happened to meet Sarah Sharp. Sarah’s father, Bayard Sharp, a du Pont heir, raised thoroughbreds at the family’s farm just across the Delaware border.
It was love at first sight, Sarah says of their blind date, and they were married less than a year later. Sarah was 19, Will was 23. The couple moved to Houston and within seven years they had four children--three daughters and a son.
When the marriage was barely a year old, Farish decided he wanted to dabble in politics, and approached a family friend about helping in his campaign for the U.S. Senate. Barbara Bush describes how Farish traveled around Texas in 1964 as the key aide in that first, unsuccessful try for the Senate.
“We knew Will’s mother, and we knew Will as a young man,” she says. “When George ran for the Senate in 1964, Will came to George and said, ‘You know, I’d like to give a year'--he had just gotten out of college and was just married--'and I’d like to be your aide.’
“George came home and said, ‘What do you think about that?’ I said, ‘Oh gosh, George, we don’t need another son. We’ve got plenty of those. We need somebody who’ll work.’ Of course, George doesn’t take my advice at all, thank heavens.
“The very first day he came on board, Will was up at 5 in the morning and had coffee waiting for us. I remember it was in Austin, Tex., and he had underlined all the big stories in the newspaper he thought would be of interest to George. And he worked just that hard for the whole year. It was the most extraordinary gift. That impressed me a lot.”
It was that campaign, Bush says, that cemented his friendship with Farish. “I remember him being totally reliable,” the President says. “He’d be the first guy I’d see in the morning and the last guy I’d see at night.”
Spending 12 and 14 hours a day with someone, either you get to be friends or you get out, says Mrs. Bush. During that campaign, Bush confided in Farish that although the short-term goal was the U.S. Senate, his ultimate aim was the White House.
“I remember thinking back then that this guy had a special charisma. I could see how people related to him,” Farish recalls of that unsuccessful campaign. “But I knew he had this as his goal, and that he wasn’t going to stop until he achieved it.”
Now, the Bushes and the Farishes talk about each other in family terms. Perhaps Bush’s closest friend was the late C. Fred Chambers, a wealthy oilman and, like Farish, a one-time business partner. If Chambers was like a young father to Bush, then Farish is like an older son. Farish is 50, 15 years younger than the President.
“When you live together like that with an aide you become almost like family,” the First Lady says. “They see you at the crack of dawn, and they see you at the end of the day. Our friendship with Will and Sarah is very deep. I know that I could ask them anything, and I’m not talking material things. We know their children and we love them like family.”
Laura Farish, one of his four children, works in the White House as one of Bush’s scheduling aides. She says the President is like anyone’s close family friend except that he just happens to be the President. And he just happens to be Laura Farish’s godfather.
Says Laura, “He and Dad have known each other so long . . . that when Dad hears a good joke, he can call up the President and tell it to him, and I know the President appreciates hearing it,” she says.
Many presidential friends have seemed to be in the mold of Bebe Rebozo, the close friend of Richard Nixon. Rebozo would spend hours with Nixon talking about nothing but professional football. It was pure recreation for Nixon, without any mention of politics, government or foreign policy.
Bush spends that kind of time with Farish, too. The men watch movies, hunt game and play tennis.
But they get serious as well, Bush says. “We talk about issues. He’s very up on things, but it’s a comfortable thing, not probing beyond what I want to say.”
Farish says he’ll always be one of Bush’s biggest boosters, and he’s ready at a moment’s notice to make the resume argument in favor of Bush’s being the best-prepared man ever to become President. It’s also clear that Bush regularly asks Farish’s advice on the budget, domestic policy and politics.
“I guess I don’t have to say this, but he would never ask me for anything,” Bush says. “Never seek a favor. He has a sense of ethics that is just so finely honed.”
“George thinks so highly of him,” Barbara Bush says. “There’s just a very comfortable feeling about Will Farish. He’s cozy. He comes in with his bathrobe, he and Sarah, and we have coffee in the morning. They’re cozy people, quiet. They’re restful for the President.”
After purchasing his first thoroughbred horse 26 years ago, Farish has now positioned himself to become one of the biggest--if not the biggest--horseman in an industry that isn’t known for its hospitality to new entrants.
What Farish wanted to do was radical by Kentucky standards. He wasn’t interested in buying out an existing farm. He wanted to start from scratch, to assemble a major farm exactly to his specifications. Says his wife, Sarah, “He would not have been happy to have just a farm in Kentucky. That would not have interested him.”
Champions do interest him, like Summer Squall, in which Farish is a partner. The horse was a co-favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. Farish won the 1972 Preakness with Bee Bee Bee, and Farish-bred Bet Twice won the 1987 Belmont Stakes.
Alex Campbell, a prominent Lexington businessman and fellow thoroughbred owner, says Farish “has become an absolute asset to the community. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming in and doing what he’s done in this industry.”
Lane’s End Farm is what horse people call a “full-service operation,” with a complex for the stallions, a separate set of barns for brood mares, still another for weanlings and yearlings, yet another for mares waiting to be mated with the stallions. The farm’s office, where about a dozen of the farm’s 100 employees work, occupies the third floor of a Versailles bank building that has a view of the nearby farm.
Almost all of the normal words used on a farm have somehow lost their meaning. A “horse barn,” for instance, looks more like some kind of drive-through dormitory. The “breeding shed” isn’t a shed at all. It’s more like a pavilion.
“This is where it all happens,” Farish says, walking toward the new breeding shed he is building. He’s expecting a lot of action here.
His farm has landed Alysheba, thoroughbred racing’s all-time leading money winner, to go along with three other young stallions that could make Farish’s young farm the premier racing-and-breeding operation within the next few years.
In 10 years, Farish has bred more than 80 stakes winners. “That’s more than some big names in this industry breed in their lifetimes,” says Farish’s business manager, R. Bates Newton.
Somehow, standing in the breeding shed, it’s difficult to imagine another of Farish’s friends there. But the queen of England was, Farish says, when she came to the United States last spring to inspect prospective stallions for her mares, and she mixed right in with the horse crowd. “She’s a fantastic horsewoman. She knows the sport, and she knows horses completely. We had meetings with leading trainers and veterinarians, and she talks their language.”
Farish says that his friendship with Queen Elizabeth II is all about horses. From the moment her Royal Air Force jetliner touched down at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport until she left three days later, the talk was horses, horses, horses. It was the queen’s third visit to Farish’s farm, and she’s expected back this year. Each time, he says, there’s a rough agenda of meetings with leading horsemen, breeders, veterinarians.
“She’s an expert, and she can ask very penetrating questions,” he says, not stopping for a moment to notice how improbable it sounds for the queen of England to fly eight hours for the chance to cross-examine a few Kentucky horse doctors.
The queen owns about two dozen mares, and each trip to Kentucky gives her a chance to set up those mares with the leading stallions. There’s never any stud fee charged the queen, and the Lexington Herald-Leader estimated last year that the royal purse saved about $800,000 from not paying the fees.
Leading thoroughbred stallions arguably have one of the best of all lives. A private room, their own two-acre paddock for exercise, servants everywhere and a steady supply of high-class girlfriends. What Farish is doing is making his stallions even more comfortable, having just built the multimillion dollar complex to showcase his animals and attract investors to the farm.
The new complex forms a quadrangle open widthwise on one end, with a view of the expansive, rolling farmland as far as one can see. In one spot on the farm, there’s a line of trees, shrubs and tall grass that stand in sharp contrast to the order of the rest of the farm. This part of the land, an old abandoned railroad line that used to divide two farms, has been left in its wild state.
Farish finds a break in the underbrush and plows ahead in the Rover, riding along what used to be a main rail line between Lexington and Frankfort.
“You can see almost any kind of varmint out there,” Farish says. “There are deer, rabbits--all kinds of things. Those Canadian geese out on that pond there stop here every fall.
“This is where the President came to run the last time he was here. It’s a perfect jogging path.”
Ironically, it was when Farish was in Florida, when the President was vacationing at Farish’s home just after the 1988 election, that Farish received a much-awaited call about his horse empire.
The call was from Clarence Scharbauer, the wealthy Texan who owns Alysheba. It’s not an exaggeration to say Scharbauer owns almost half of Midland, Tex.: the bank, hotel, radio station and a few oil wells are all his.
Scharbauer was calling to tell Farish he had decided to let the stallion stay at Lane’s End, a decision that could take Farish right to the top of the horse business.
As Scharbauer recalls, Sarah answered the phone and “let out a real holler” when he told her the news. Then, she put the President on the line.
“Well I’d known the Bushes because they lived for eight years in Midland,” says Scharbauer, “and, well, we just were good friends. Anyway, the President said he and Will had just gotten through watching the video of the Breeders’ Cup races and he saw the banners in the crowd saying, ‘Alysheba for President.’
“And,” Scharbauer recalls, “Bush said, “I wished I’d had him on the ticket.’ ”
Always the straight man, Bush waited for the punch line to come back.
But Scharbauer said he restrained himself.
The pause was pregnant, to say the least.
Bush got the joke, Scharbauer said.