UNIONVILLE, Pa.--Louis “Paddy” Neilson III, arguably the finest timber race rider ever to sit on a horse, died Thursday, Sept. 5 at the age of 77.
His tremendous riding ability inspired a generation of riders to take up the sport, but Paddy was so much more than just a great rider.
He’s been an owner. He’s been a trainer. He’s been a rider. He’s been race director, course chair, meet booster.
His influence on the sport extended to organizing point-to-points and a recognized hunt meet and inspiring, right up to his death, another generation of youngsters watching his ability and grace over fences as MFH and whipper-in of Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Foxhounds.
Beyond that, Paddy was always there with a kind and/or encouraging word for any situation.
"PADDY SAW me through a child with addiction and a divorce," said Ellie Glaccum, secretary of Cheshire Hunt. "When I had a total disc replacement last March, he called me every other day, and he's always end the call with `Atta girl, Ellie, atta girl.' He was a total inspiration. He was a wonderful man."
Paddy Neilson didn’t always win, but he was always a winner," said Jay Meister. "He was the Michael Jordan of our timber racing game. Paddy made our sport bigger and better while inspiring countless kids. We all wanted to grow up to be like him.
"As a little kid, I was carted around to all the Point-to-Points and Maryland races, but I was never all that interested unless my father was riding in a race. One day all of that changed at the Brandywine Point-to-Point when I was 8 or 9 years old. I was paying just enough attention to realize that there was a problem and that Mrs. Scott’s horse needed a rider - minutes passed and then in to the paddock comes this guy; Muck boots, jeans, a sport coat, caliente and borrowed tack. The horse was quickly tacked as others had been waiting a while - the rider was thrown on to the horse and off to the start they went. I was going to watch this guy - and I did. Needless to say, ‘The Guy’ won the race. And, not only that, he made it look easy! He was clearly better than the others and for me a hero was born. That hero, my hero, was Paddy Neilson.
"Years later, I was fortunate to get named on a couple of horses for Bruce and Nancy Miller at Cheshire. Paddy had been retired for several years by this time and when the entries came out, there was his name on one of the horses in one of my races. My excitement level for that race went through the roof. I was going to get to ride against my hero. To me I was getting the chance of a life time and I was going to get the opportunity to see if I was as good as Paddy Neilson. I wasn’t. Paddy was still ‘The Guy’ and a clear winner that day.
"Luckily for all of us, Paddy came out of retirement several years after that day and rode for another decade. Those of us that grew up idolizing him had the great fortune to get to compete against him and call him our friend. He may have been older, but he hadn’t lost a step. He was always a winner.
"He is already immensely missed," said Meister. "He was everything to timber racing. He was bigger than life to all of us. It's hard to say how many people are involved with racing today who wouldn't have been without Paddy.
"Paddy got me involved with the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup when i was 20, and I've been involved with it now for 38 years. Most recently he helped get the Fair Hill Point-to-Point off the ground. The first committee was paddy, Don Cochran and me.
"He was better than anyone else riding, but he was a great person, too," said Meister. "He meant a lot to a lot of people."
"I HAD THE honor to learn from and ride for Paddy," said Jake Chalfant. "We had some fun wins together, and it felt great to share a sliver of this man's outsized life. When my riding career was cut short, he visited me in the hospital. He gave me strength when I was down and made me feel like I still had value when I didn't even know who I was anymore. Paddy rallied the community behind me and put together a joint fox hunt one of the largest meetings ever assembled in my support. Every time I crossed paths with Paddy I got a huge smile and a "How are ya boy?" and then on departure a "Well done". Paddy you always left me buzzing."
"Paddy was a lovely man," said Michael Dickinson. "I was a steeplechase jockey in England. I rode for 11 years and had 1,600 rides with 378 winners.
"I thought I was all right until I hunted with Cheshire," said Dickinson. "I watched Paddy cantering across a field. He looked for a stride, and then he and his horse just flew it. If he'd been in a race, he would have gained two lengths. I said to myself, `Michael, you can't even ride.'"
BORN IN Glen Cove, N.Y., in 1942, Paddy was the son of the late Louis Neilson Jr. and Katherine Pell Neilson.
His grandfather Louis Neilson helped establish Long Island’s Rockaway Hunt Club in the 1870s with William Voss, another link to the modern jump racing game as great-grandfather of Hall of Fame trainer Tom Voss.
“Neilson and Voss … matched their peers at (New York’s Meadow Brook Hunt Club nearby) in sporting challenges,” wrote Peter Winants in his “Steeplechasing: A Complete History.” “Cockfighting, pigeon shooting, prizefighting, hunting. And, of course, steeplechasing.”
A graduate of Gilman School, Princeton University and the Wharton Business School, Paddy was a man of many talents and interests.
Known best for his prowess in the horse world, he began riding at age six, rode his first race at 14 and won Maryland’s Grand National at 15.
And, that was just the beginning.
Paddy was a corporate bond broker for Alex.Brown & Sons in Philadelphia for years while foxhunting, galloping race horses and riding races on the side.
He retired from racing for nine years, but was drawn back in for one ride, and stayed in after the stock market crash in 1987.
He left his desk to devote himself to training horses full time at his Rockaway Farm in Chatham with his wifeof 31 years, Toinette.
He was renowned for winning races in four decades, including riding the daunting Maryland Hunt Cup race 21 times and winning it three times in three decades.
For 10 years he was the leading amateur steeplechase jockey in North America.
A passionate foxhunter, Paddy hunted with Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds since childhood and devotedly served as full-time honorary Whipper-in for the last 13 years, jumping his last fence in the line of duty just a couple of weeks before his death.
Members of the Hunt community could always count on Paddy’s big smile, great sense of humor, deep knowledge, incredible riding skill and encouragement.
He could always wow the Field by trotting up to a formidable four-foot-plus four-railer and popping over with enormous style and grace.
He served as Master of Foxhounds, alongside his daughter Sanna, and chaired Cheshire’s most successful Point-to-Point Races earlier this year.
Paddy was proud to have chaired the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Races for 17 years, and later the Plumsted Races for 11.
Over the course of those 11 years, the Plumsted Races benefited the nearby Chatham Acres senior citizens home, giving a huge boost to its program.
Additionally, Paddy was a founding board member of the American Steeplechase Injured Jockeys’ Fund and on the original committee that began the Winterthur Point-to-Point.
Not only a horseman, Paddy was very civic minded.
During the Viet Nam era, he was a member of the First City Troop in Philadelphia, a division of the National Guard.
HE HAS BEEN actively involved locally with London Grove Township as chairman of the Open Space Committee and the Parks and Recreation Committee.
There was no one better with whom to have a lively political chat.
He was a huge fan of Philadelphia’s sports teams and all sports in general, most particularly the ones his children and grandchildren played.
Paddy also had a great love for North Atlantic salmon fishing with old friends.
He loved the band Coldplay, was a Civil War buff, a big reader of non-fiction and collector of knowledge.
He had many lifelong friends, as well as friends of all ages, befriending strangers and learning their stories where ever he went.
No one will forget his enormous smile and contagious laugh, especially when laughing at himself.
Always on display was Paddy’s pride in and great love for his wife Toinette and his daughters Kathy, Sanna, Liza, Daphne and Emily and grandchildren Skylar, Parker, Nina, Natalie, Max, Pell, Perry, Izzie, Burr, Nell and Beasie.
A few of Paddy's chidren and grandchildren have inherited his love of racing and his talent for it.
Sanna is MFH of Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Foxhunds, won the Maryland Hunt Cup twice and is a successful trainer.
Kathy, also a successfu trainer, is currently among the top NSA trainers in both Money Won and Races Won.
Grandchildren Skylar and Parker are among the group of outstanding young steeplechase riders, with Skylar riding at her mother Kathy's farm and Parker riding exercise for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.
“We’ve got a great group of kids coming up through the ranks” of pony racing and young-adult divisions, Neilson said, noting with pride that granddaughter Skylar won her first race in open company at Cheshire. “These things run in cycles, and right now there’s a big bunch of kids that ride really well that are steeped in the game. I think we might see someone other than an Irishman on the (leaderboard) for a change.”
His daughters Liza and Daphne live out of Pennsylvania, and Emily is Director of Ahletics at Upland School.
He is also survived by his brother Cook Neilson and sisters Madeline Rockwell and Carol Neilson.
A Celebration of Paddy’s Life will be held Friday, Oct. 4 at 2 PM on the kennel lawn of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds at 1549 West Doe Run Road Coatesville, PA. 19320.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made in Paddy’s memory to:
Fair Hill Foundation (P.O. Box 1324 Elkton, MD 21922)
The Cheshire Land Preservation Fund (P.O. Box 983 Unionville, PA 19375)
Atlantic Salmon Federation (P.O. Box 807 Calais, ME 04619-0807)."