Spotlight on Bedford's Sunnyfield Farm
by Roger Savitt
Think of Bedford and you might think of Sunnyfield Farm. Among all the local stables, perhaps none is as recognizable as this inviting home to rolling pastures, yellow stables and grazing horses. With some 230 acres along Route 172, Sunnyfield is as prominent as it is picturesque -- one of the first places you see when you enter town from Interstate 684.
This living postcard may make you nostalgic for Bedford's past and pleased that some part of it continues to thrive. But not long ago, Sunnyfield nearly went the way of the ten-cent cup of coffee and roads without traffic jams. In the 1970s, it was purchased by a developer for houses and office buildings. However, before the first shovel-full of dirt could be moved, the developer went bankrupt.
Sunnyfield was put on the auction block. The farm would have gone to another developer were it not that he forgot to bring a cashier's check for the down payment, as required by the auction. So the property went to the next bidder, a group of four families from Darien, Conn., who wanted the land for a group of horseback riders -- their children.
“In time, three of the families sold their shares to the fourth, so that today the sole proprietors of Sunnyfield Farm are Jerry and Joanne Nielsen, whose Nielsen Company owns and manages commercial real estate in Connecticut and Rhode Island. They delight in telling about their farm with an enthusiasm that perhaps grows the longer they stay there. "We love our time here and we enjoy the beauty of this area," says Mr. Nielsen. Sunnyfield now comprises two equestrian enterprises: one for teaching and the other for horse breeding. The teaching portion is leased by the Nielsens to Lendon Gray, a rider in the 1980 and 1988 Olympic Games, who uses the farm for her Gleneden Dressage training center.
“I feel blessed to be here," she says. "This is a gorgeous property, wonderfully maintained. The facilities are very, very good. We have two new stables, a large outdoor ring, an indoor ring, and plenty of areas for schooling. The pastures are to die for." The Gleneden center keeps nearly 50 horses on the premises. Most belong to students from around the tri-state area.
Mrs. Nielsen is the one Sunnyfield not set aside for dressage goes to breeding thoroughbred racehorses, and the Nielsens manage it. About a dozen mares are stabled there and, depending on the time of year, some yearlings too. There are also what Mrs. Nielsen calls her "pensioners" -- four horses over 30 now retired from breeding and horse showing. Mrs. Nielsen is the one who decides what mares should be bred to stallions in Kentucky, Florida, Maryland and New York. "These days, that has meant spending a lot of time tracking bloodlines and doing other research on the computer," she says.
“Horse breeding is a tough business. When you are at the mercy of genetics, horse-borne illnesses and the uncertainties confronting any business, this difficulty is not hard to understand. Even so, the Nielsens have seen their share of success.
“We’ve been lucky," she says, "we've always had viable racehorses some much better than others." Some Sunnyfield-bred horses have made it to racetracks as far away as China and Japan, as well as to major races in the US.
How do you know which yearlings will be winners and which will not? The short answer is, you don't. "As with any athlete, there are many variables like strength and size. And horses need to have heart. a desire to win," says Mrs. Nielsen.
Concerning breeding, she adds, "Typically, a racing career lasts only a few years, but breeding can go on for a long time. One of our horses had her last foal when she was 30."
Since 1973, New York State has actively promoted thoroughbred horse breeding with financial incentives drawn from purses at the state's racetracks. This effort successfully reversed a slide in New York's breeding industry. Today, Sunnyfield is one of about 400 thoroughbred breeding farms statewide. The Nielsens also own a farm in Ocala, Fla., where most of their Bedford horses spend the winter.
Like many present-day horse farms, Sunnyfield once had many more cows than horses. Most of it was a dairy farm in the early 1900s known simply as Williamson's place. Then, in the 1950s, Williamson's and parts of a couple of other adjoining farms were purchased by Josephine Hartford McIntosh, heir to the A&P fortune. She gave Sunnyfield its name, taking it from an A&P store brand.
By 1960, she teamed up with Michael Page, a widely respected horseman who took a hand in running the farm and representing it on the road. In 1961, he won the National Three Day Event on a horse Mrs. McIntosh owned. Like Lendon Gray, he also rode for the US Equestrian Team, participating in the Olympics throughout the 1960s. He captured a silver medal in 1964 and then a sliver and bronze in 1968.
Mr. Page, who now lives in North Salem, continued his association with Mrs. McIntosh until her death in 1975. At that time, he helped disband the farm, sending her horses to North Carolina. Looking back at those uncertain days, Mr. Page recalls, "Sunnyfield was the preeminent stable in Bedford. I'm very gratified to see that it came back."
With as many as 70 horses total, today's Sunnyfield buzzes with activity. But it does have its quiet sections. One is a barn reserved for equine medical care and another is for mares in foal. The older horses enjoy a quiet pasture out back. And the Nielsens themselves live in a converted carriage house that sits well away from the stables on a high bluff with a stunning view.
"Across this valley we can see down to Bedford Hills," says Mr. Nielsen. The view could just as easily be some elegant corner of Vermont. Even the steady rush of traffic on 172 seems but a minor disturbance alongside the striking vista of barns and pastures carpeting the valley floor. The opposite side of the valley is dotted with woods and fields and an expansive home here and there.
Although BRLA trails cross only a couple of corners of Sunnyfield, the Nielsens are vocal supporters of the organization's mission. "We had trails in Darien," says Mr. Nielsen, "but they disappeared long ago. In Bedford, the riding trails are really an integral part of what we are as a town."
And so is Sunnyfield a vibrant element of Bedford, yesterday and today.