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Sarah Patton... One Of A Kind

by Bob Funkhouser

I’ve been putting this off. It’s like the term paper you just hated to start, except this is far worse. I’ve thought about it. I’ve sat here and stared at this blank screen. The words are there; they just don’t want to come out. Can I do this one justice?

Over the years I’ve been honored to write about many great people from the horse industry and several of those pieces have been tributes to deceased members of our extended equine family. For the most part this has been easy for my keyboard to produce all the accolades and awards and kind words from others. This time, the confidence to share the life of Sarah Board Patton with our readers has been shaky. She was such a special person to many and the best part about that was each of us who called her a friend thought WE were one of the most important people in her life. And we were!

"What can I say about Sarah?" asked Tim Starck. "Sarah was the sun, the moon and the stars. She would always give you her honest opinion whether you liked it or not, however, always with love. She was a friend like no other! She was everyone’s caretaker, confidant and friend unless you were a possum or a woodpecker, and then you better run or fly as fast as you possibly can.

"Sarah and Dave united everyone in the horse business. She was the most loyal and ethical person I have ever loved."

Born Nov. 21, 1950 in Radford, Va., Sarah was adopted by Erby and Lucille Board. He was a pharmacist, she a teacher, something that rubbed off on Sarah as she was so great with riders. The family had a farm with some cattle on it and eventually they bought young Sarah a pony and well, you know how the rest of it goes.

When she was old enough she took lessons from Patty Kent and worked part-time for Kent to help pay for her horse activities. Sarah also showed under Patty before going away to school and realizing after a few years that it wasn’t for her.

In 1971 she went to work for Jack Nevitt at North Ridge Farm in Wayzata, Minn. Sarah was a meticulous caretaker and a good horsewoman. She was right on par with the best caretakers. Legs, bandages, attention to every detail, she never got tired of it.

A few years later she met a young trainer who was working for Paul Priebe at the time. This trainer was originally from West Virginia and he had shown on the same circuit as Sarah, but the two never met. Sarah and Dave Patton began dating in 1974 and it was a match made in heaven.

During that time at North Ridge Farm, Sarah was taking care of a high going, wild-eyed gaited mare named Belle Elegant. In 1975, Sarah greeted Jack Nevitt and Belle Elegant in the winner’s circle of Freedom Hall where they had just won the Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship. The horse they had to beat for the title was the 1973 and ’74 World’s Grand Champion Surefire, who was ridden by Bill Wise. Sarah was the caretaker for Belle Elegant and a younger, starry-eyed kid named Bob Funkhouser was taking care of Surefire. Little did we know this rivalry would turn into such a great friendship.

Just a couple months after Belle wore the roses of a Five-Gaited World’s Grand Champion, Dave moved to Wisconsin to work for Stony Hill. It was too hard to be apart and Sarah left Minnesota and moved to Stony Hill. They flew to Radford, Va., and got married Oct. 3, 1975 and remained husband and wife for 34 years.

"I felt pretty honored that she would leave Belle [Elegant] to marry me," said Dave.

They were at Stony Hill until 1980 when they moved to Gibsonia, Penn., to work for the Duff family’s Tamarack Farm. A couple years later they returned to Wisconsin, this time to Hartland, where they worked at the Treiber family’s Oakwood Farm. It was there where they had many great champions such as Stonewall’s Crimson And Clover, Night Fever, Santana Santana Dana, Serengetti, Victory’s Promise, Callaway’s Checkmate, Chocolate Soldier and Reedann’s Old Spice to name a few.

"Sarah was like my second mom," said Paul Treiber whose parents owned Oakwood. "My parents would go to Florida and Dave and Sarah would take care of me. Sarah and I formed a special relationship. In fact, she used to tease me and call me ‘Little Prince.’ Sarah was one of the most trustworthy, thoughtful friends I’ve ever had. She would remember my birthday, my anniversary, everything.

"One of the things I really loved about her was how she dealt with people. She was very blunt; there was no front with her. You didn’t ask her opinion unless you really wanted it. If you were looking for someone to tell you, ‘good ride’ when it really wasn’t, she wasn’t the person to ask. She would tell you like it was but in a good way."

After nine years at Oakwood they moved to Mukwonago, Wis., where they built and opened their own Northern Venture. Dave and Sarah continued to train champions for the amateur and juvenile division as well as start a few young horses. They remained at the helm of Northern Venture until November of 2000 when they had to shut it down due to health reasons. Dave and Sarah moved to Richfield, Wis., and called that home until the time of her death this past fall.

Sarah made a lot of friends through the travels she and Dave shared throughout their careers. She left a trail of admirers who loved her for her honesty and caring personality. I can truly say she was one of the few people I could talk to about anything and not have to worry about being politically correct or sparing her feelings. You could be honest with her and she was darn well going to be honest with you. I respected her opinion as much as anyone’s in the business because I knew it came from the heart and it came with the big picture in mind.

As Dave said, "She cut to the chase. Sometimes she said it tastefully and sometimes not. She had more common sense than anyone I’ve ever been around. Sarah could figure out the most efficient way to do things and that’s how she wanted them done.

"Sarah had a sweatshirt or a t-shirt for every occasion and one of my favorites was one that said, ‘I’m Not Bossy, I Just Know What You Should Be Doing.’"

Nancy Leigh Fisher was another person who called Sarah her friend and luckily she got to spend a lot of time with her.

"She was a great friend to everyone," explained Fisher. "She was someone I got to see once a week. I always looked forward to seeing her and knowing that she never would pull a punch. If I asked her opinion, she gave it honestly, a trait that I admired and appreciated.

"She would give the shirt off her back for someone. There were many small kindnesses constantly for those of us who were around her. She sent funny emails every day. My email is pretty bland now that she isn’t here to send me things. If you needed someone and she heard about it, she would do her best to find that person for you. I know that I speak for those of us around here who cherished her. She has left a big hole in our hearts. I still can’t believe she is no longer here among us."

Outside of horses and horse people, Sarah didn’t enjoy much except yoga. She enjoyed working on horse show boards and volunteering for different projects. She also had great appreciation for others who served. Sarah was the first one to write a thank you or congratulatory note. She was always thinking of others.

"Sarah Patton was one of the most selfless people I’ve ever known," said Sally Grieme. "We became friends over 30 years ago. Many of us in the horse business maintain friendships with each other because we’re together so often during the year. But, when someone leaves the industry it’s very easy to neglect that relationship; out of sight, out of mind.

"Sarah wasn’t that type person. If she was your friend, she made it her business to maintain the relationship. I took a sabbatical from the horse business in the mid ‘80s to have some extensive knee surgery. During that time I was in constant contact with Sarah despite the lack of cell phone and computer technology. Long story short, both of my knees had to be operated on at the same time, which would render me pretty incapacitated. I wasn’t married yet and lived by myself so I had hired a housekeeper to come in and help me out. I had told Sarah about the upcoming surgery. She had asked me details and when I was wheeled back to my hospital room, she was waiting. Sarah had sent the housekeeper home and made arrangements to stay with me for two weeks. I can’t begin to say how much that still means to me today. She was always the consummate caretaker in every capacity."

As far as Sarah being up front, Grieme had a story about that as well.

"Shortly after Perry and I were married, Sarah and Dave came to our home for dinner," said Grieme. "Sarah made brief small talk with Perry and then said, ‘I know she’s Grieme now, but she’ll always be McCue to me, so I hope it doesn’t piss you off, but I’m still going to call her McCue!’"

That’s the Sarah we all knew and love. You don’t replace people like Sarah Patton in your lives. For all of us that held a special place in her heart there will be emptiness. There will be emptiness when I walk along the upper level of the coliseum at Midwest Charity and I don’t see that familiar wave and hear that voice. There will be emptiness when I look over my right shoulder while in the box seat at Louisville and Sarah is not behind me. We no longer get to sneak out in the hallway and talk about our favorites and our disbeliefs of the week.

With the emptiness there will also be memories. Her distinctive voice, her cigarette breaks, her wit, her kindness, her brashness, her smile, the list goes on and on. And with those memories all I can do is hope to be as good a friend as she was to those that are still here.

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