(Editor’s Note: This week’s SheHero comes at you from a slightly different direction. While in Middleburg, Va., this past weekend, Maggie Kimmitt stopped by for a cup of tea with Michael and Jo Motion. A casual question about an oil painting opened a treasure trove of stories about “a kinder time” and the extraordinary life of a woman who blazed the trail for future generations of women in Thoroughbred racing.)
I’ve known Mrs. Jo Motion long enough and well enough to realize that any suggestion of formally interviewing her about her life would meet with a laundry list of objections. She would undoubtedly defer, suggesting that there exists a vast number of more worthy individuals.
On that point, I’ve never agreed.
Last Friday afternoon, I was sitting in the living room of the new home in Middleburg that Jo and her husband, Michael, moved into late last summer. Their granddaughter, Mary, and I went over to say hello and visit for a bit. As Jo gave me the tour of the house, I noticed a striking oil painting of a young woman with a lovely bay mare that instantly caught my eye.
“Is this you?” I asked.
And that one simple question morphed into a remarkable fireside chat over tea and Scottish shortbread. (Thank God for iPhones with voice memo capabilities…..)
On April 7, 1951, 19-year-old Josephine Wells led Nickel Coin, the mare in the oil painting, into the paddock at Aintree for the 105th running of the famed Grand National steeplechase. Jo worked “riding out” for the 9-year-old mare’s trainer, Irishman Jack O’Donoghue. Sent off at odds of 40-1 under John Bullock in a field of 36 entrants, Nickel Coin, one of just three horses to complete the course, won in front of a crowd of 250,000 racegoers. Sixty-nine years later, she remains the last mare to have won the Grand National.
“The painting was given to me by the owner,” Jo began. “Jeffrey Royle; he was basically a farmer near where we were in Surrey, in England. They bred the mare, actually, then they sold her and bought her back for the son to ride in point-to-points. He rode her a little bit. But she was a very clever jumper. She’d been show jumping at one time in her life before she went racing. And I took her out hunting a week after she won the Grand National.”
Jo Wells with Nickel Coin in 1951 (Courtesy of Claire Nichols)
“I was riding out for Jack O’Donoghue in the summers and things, so I started working for him when I left school. For nothing, really…I mean a pittance. But it was what I wanted to do. And that’s why I came to this country originally because my family were complaining that I ‘had straw in my hair.’ So I went to Canada and was working for Canada Life Assurance; mind you, I’d been very careful never to learn to type in my life. I wasn’t going to get stuck doing that.”
Jo’s only American contact was through “an uncle who was very high up at Barclay’s Bank.” He was acquainted with an American owner who had steeplechase horses with Frank and Clara Adams in Southern Pines, NC. At that time, Frank Adams was the leading trainer of jumpers and his son, Frank David “Dooley” Adams, was carving out his own Hall of Fame career as a steeplechase jockey.
“Dooley was probably one of the most stylish jump jockeys this country has ever had. He was a very good horseman before he was ever a jockey and was champion rider for years. They offered me a job, so I was only in Toronto for six months. I actually flew for the first time in my life from Toronto to New York in an old DC3. Then I took the overnight train down to Southern Pines where they wintered. In those days there was no racing in New York in the winter months. I was with them for three years.”
Jo followed the circuit with the Adams barn with winters in the Carolinas, spring in Virginia, and summers at Belmont and Saratoga.
“I used to come to Middleburg on the way up north from Southern Pines. On the way up, Mom and Pop Adams would go up with the main string, and I would bring a string here to Middleburg and be at what is now Hickory Tree Farm. It was Burrland Farm, owned by Mrs. Sears in those days. I used to bring about 15 horses, which I’d get on every day. Dooley would come and ride works with me. There was a little half-mile track there. We’d get to Belmont around Easter.”
Jo Wells was one of only four females working on the New York backstretch in those days. Women didn’t work in the barns at all, and most men felt they had no business on the back of a horse.
“They didn’t think women could gallop a horse. I think they thought it was all brute strength and ignorance, you know? And we well know it isn’t.”
During her three-year tenure with Frank and Clara Adams, Jo spent summers in Saratoga during what she refers to as “gentle, kinder times. And that extended into racing.”
“I’ll tell you who was so nice to us girls,” she went on. “And I really enjoyed him – Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. Of course I never called him Sunny Jim, it was Mr. Fitzsimmons. His barn at Saratoga was right on the corner at Oklahoma. He sat in his chair there, and I very clearly remember hanging over the rail with him watching Nashua work. He was the picture of what I thought a horse should look like. And Jaipur – I saw him too. But Nashua was the big thing then, such a good-looking horse.”
Awestruck, I had scarcely recovered from that revelation before Jo went on to share another jaw-dropping tidbit.
“I gave (legendary steeplechase jockey) Joe Aitcheson a leg-up on the first ride he ever had. He got out of the Navy and came to work for the Adams’ – all he wanted to do was ride jump races. I can see the mare now but I can’t remember her name – she was owned by Mrs. Simon T. Patterson of Pittsburgh. She had several jumpers with the Adams’. And this mare had a mind of her own. In those days the turf track was on the inside, and at the bottom they had beacons, not rails. So during the race – and remember, this was his very first race – Joe went on one side of the beacons and the horse went on the other.”
In 1956, Jo returned to England and married Michael Motion, whom she had known since childhood. Michael was a prominent international bloodstock agent for Newmarket-based Tattersalls, founded in 1766. The couple settled in Bury St. Edmunds and ran a small stud and dairy farm called Herringswell Manor. It was there that they raised their four children – Claire, Pippa, Graham and Andrew.
Michael and Jo Motion at Saratoga in the 1950s (Courtesy of Claire Nichols)
With Michael in great demand and travelling frequently, it was often Jo who held down the very hectic fort.
“My parents had known each other as children,” Claire Motion Nichols said. “They rode ponies and foxhunted together.”
Pippa Motion remembers weekly market days when Jo would tend to the business of running the farm. “Mum would take us to school in the VW van we had, and in the back would be calves and piglets that she was taking to the market in Bury St. Edmunds.”
She laughed that other students’ parents didn’t want their kids getting a ride with the Motions on those days when some of the on-board passengers happened to be livestock.
When Tattersalls appointed Michael its American representative in 1980, he, Jo and their sons relocated to upstate New York. Hoping to capitalize on the NY Breeders’ program, they built a barn in Millbrook. The boys were enrolled at Kent School in Kent, CT. But the harsh winters proved a factor after a few years, and in 1984 Michael opted for a full-time position at Tattersalls’ American base in Lexington, KY, where they spent the next two years.
It was an offer from Audley Farm in Berryville, VA that eventually brought the couple to Virginia in 1986. Jo had always been fond of Middleburg, and after Michael’s stint at Audley, they settled in nearby Rectortown. The empty nest syndrome was never a problem. Claire lived with her husband and three children in Middleburg while teaching at The Hill School. Pippa, who had spent years in France as the social secretary to Lucy Boutin and her husband, trainer Francois Boutin, started a gourmet food business in Northern Virginia. After traveling the world and learning all facets of the Thoroughbred industry, both Graham and Andrew followed their parents in the racing industry – Graham into training and Andrew into bloodstock.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Jo wisely spotted a need for a local tack consignment shop and started Middleburg Tack Exchange (all credit to Andrew for naming the business) 28 years ago. At a point when most are contemplating retirement, Jo re-broke and kicked on again.
“As kids we stopped at this little consignment shop in England called Sandon Saddlery,” Claire said. “I still remember getting all of our riding clothes there. I think that was her inspiration.”
The shop has built a solid and widely respected reputation on foxhunting appointments and saddlery of the highest quality.
“She always says ‘I’m a tack shop, not a junk shop,’” Andrew smiled.
Claire helps run the business on the weekends, with Jo – a titanium-clad Energizer Bunny – ever present and still putting in full-time hours. Hers is rightfully called The Greatest Generation for so many reasons.
Asked to pay tribute to his mother in a few paragraphs, Graham hit the nail squarely on the head.
“Mum was a pioneer. She was driving a motorcycle to work at a racing stable in the UK at a time when women, motorcycles and racehorses probably didn’t usually come up in the same sentence. She was one of the first women on the backstretch in the US when steeplechasing was a daily occurrence. Times have changed, and now I couldn’t imagine running my operation without some incredibly talented and dedicated ladies. Thanks Mum.”
Maggie Kimmitt – Herringswell Stables