Profile: RJW Farms
By Audrey Pavia
Published in America's Cutter in 1997
The drive down Potrero Road through Hidden Valley in Southern California is a beautiful one, with tall trees swaying in the breeze and impeccable estate ranches lining either side of the gently curving two-lane road. Several miles into this idyllic scene, a sign for RJW Farms greets the traveler and beckons him to enter a world of Hollywood celebrity and champion cutting horses.
RJW Farms is the brainchild and dream come true of actor Robert Wagner, star of motion pictures and television for the past 50 years. Along with his actress wife Jill St. John, and ranch managers Bill and Terri Hickey, Wagner has created a burgeoning cutting horse breeding operation that boasts a lot more than just a celebrity owner.
Realizing A Dream
The concept for RJW Farms began when Wagner was a child growing up in West Los Angeles, an area that was once a rural community inhabited by film industry notables and successful businessmen. Wagner grew up on horseback, riding his father's horses, and saddling mounts for celebrities at a local stable. "I was raised in a stock saddle," Wagner says. "I've always been a western rider, ever since I was a kid."
Wagner dreamed of having his own ranch from a young age, and owned horses intermittently throughout his life. Despite all his career successes, he never had a spread he could call his own until Bill and Terri Hickey helped him build it. "When I met R.J. [the moniker Wagner prefers], he owned the property, but the ranch itself was unfinished," says Bill Hickey, who runs the day to day operations of RJW Farms with wife Terri, a long-time employee of Wagner. "I'd been working in the video business [as an executive], and wasn't having any fun there, so I decided to change my life. When R.J. mentioned that he wanted to get the place finished, I got involved."
Formerly the property of actor Richard Widmark (and still bordered by the actor's estate), the 80 acres of RJW Farms was slowly transformed into an operation perfect for raising and training cutting horses. "On the day that the general contractor handed me the keys to the place, I went over to R.J. and said 'Here's the keys to your ranch.' He looked up and me and said 'I've waited all my life for this. This is a dream come true.'"
Wagner's past involvement with performance horses had included some time in the Arabian world, and even a stint with racing Thoroughbreds, a venture prompted by friend Fred Astaire. But the dream of a working horse ranch, with competition horses that earned their keep, did not unfold until RJW Farms officially opened its doors in the early 1990s--and until the purchase of the mare Madonna Oak.
The acquisition of budding prospect Madonna Oak was Hickey's suggestion, and met with Wagner's approval under one condition. "R.J. specifically said that we weren't going to get into cutting horses unless they could pay their way," says Hickey. "I was pretty sure Madonna could do that, so we bought her. Once she got out there, she more than paid her way. Her trainer, Tim Smith, did a great job of managing her. He showed her where the money was right, and didn't use her up."
To say that Madonna Oak is the cornerstone of RJW Farms would be an understatement. The mare, purchased as a four-year-old, was shown by Smith shortly after she came to RJW Farms, and ended up winning the $3,000 NCHA Novice World Championship in 1994, and coming in fourth in the $5,000. Even though she was pulled from competition in the fall of that year after an eye injury, she managed to earn a whopping $22,009 in the $3,000 and $20,300 in the $5,000.
The damage to her eye sidelined the mare, who was left with only 180-degree vision after suffering a detached retina. "We probably could have continued to show her, but we decided to breed her instead," says Hickey. Embryo transplants were used to produce two Madonna Oak foals in 1996, one by Little Peppy and the other by Smart Little Lena. According to Hickey, both foals are looking to be good cutting prospects.
RJW Farms success in the cutting arena did not end with Madonna Oak's retirement to broodmare status. The farm has several horses competing now, including a Paint stallion named Tuxskeeto, who made the 1996 PCCHA Semi-Finals List and is currently being shown by Bobby Ingersoll; and Reserve World Paint Horse Cutting Champion Queen Fritz Olena. Tuxskeeto has been bred to a few mares this year, and may officially stand at stud at RJW Farms in the near future.
But the real excitement here for Wagner and the Hickeys lies with the babies. In addition to Madonna Oak's two offspring, there are a number of youngsters romping through RJW Farms' pastures that have Wagner and the Hickeys eagerly looking forward to the future. Three more yearlings, with Little Peppy, Smart Little Lena and Poco Bueno bloodlines, are waiting their turn at training for the cutting pen.
"Our main philosophy in our breeding program is 'breed to the best,'" says Hickey. "When Madonna won the World Championship, that's when we wanted to breed her. Right now, we feel that we have a very good broodmare band, with the blood of some great horses, and that's important to us." Madonna Oak is currently in foal to winning cutter Color Me Smart, and there are more foals in her future. "We want to get as many babies out of her as we can," says Hickey.
Not Just A Hobby
Unlike many celebrity horse operations, RJW Farms is not just a hobby to Wagner. "Cutting horses are a business to me," he says. "When we started the place, I wanted it to pay its way."
Which is not to say that Wagner's emotions aren't also invested in the ranch. "Having this place feels so good to me," he says. "I'm proud of the horses we have, proud of the foals we've produced. Each one has special meaning to me. It's so magical to see them grazing in the pasture with their mothers. It gives me a great sense of pride."
Wagner admits that even though the operation is a business, when a horse is sold, he often feels a bit melancholy watching it being loaded up and taken away. "When I let them go, I get tears in my eyes," he says.
It is obvious that Wagner has a profound love of horses, a quality admired by his farm managers. "R.J. really, really loves the horses," says Bill Hickey. "And he doesn't love an athletic horse any more than he loves one that just has a good personality. He just loves horses, period."
Wagner's commitment to horses can is also evidenced by the periodic training clinics held at RJW Farms, open to horse owners who wish to learn the techniques of horsemen the likes of Peter Campbell and Ray Hunt. "R.J. admires the attitudes and philosophies of trainers like these, and so holds clinics on the RJW Farms property," says Terri Hickey. Plans are also underway for future cutting clinics at the farm, where Wagner's herd of 80 mostly Angus cattle will come in handy.
Hickey says that one of the greatest strengths of the farm is having an owner and hands-on manager like Wagner. "Having someone like R.J. owning and running the ranch is one of our greatest assets," he says. "He looks at it as a business, but his first concern is the welfare of the animals."
Hickey explains that there have been many offers made to purchase the farm's prize mare Madonna Oak, but Wagner refuses to sell her. "Because of her injury, R.J. would not sell her, even though he could buy a lot of good mares with the money we've been offered for her," he says. "He is concerned that someone might put her in a precarious position. He genuinely cares about her well-being."
Because of Wagner's busy schedule (he is currently working on a television pilot and recently finished a feature film), he is only able to visit the farm a couple of times a month, according to Hickey. "He is on the phone with us a lot when he's gone," says Hickey. "He is very concerned with the goings on at the farm, and stays very involved despite his schedule." When Wagner does come to the farm, he often works cattle and rides a few of his favorite horses, one of whom is Madonna Oak. "He's an excellent rider and a great horseman," says Hickey. "He loves to ride when he comes out. If we need to move cattle, we try to wait for him to come before we do it because we know how much he enjoys it."
Wagner manages to combine his affection for the horses on his farm with a sense of business, the result of which is a strong ethic and great loyalty from those who work with him and share in his philosophies. "My goal is to raise horses with good dispositions who are willing, and have good sense about them," Wagner says. "I basically want to produce a solid line of cutting Quarter Horses here. And I would really love to raise a champion."