Horse racing, breeding, foaling, breaking, steeplechasing, hunters and jumpers, – the Houghton’s have done it all. After winning the second race with Houghton Shuffle on this year’s Penn Mile Day at Penn National, trainer Bernie Houghton drove home to his farm located adjacent to Sylmar Farm in the lush farmland of Lancaster County, PA. One of the leading trainers at Penn National, Bernie Houghton and his family bred, broke, and trained several of Pennsylvania’s outstanding and most successful race horses. Banjo Picker, Princess of Sylmar, and Whistle Pig all grew up on the rolling hills of Sylmar Farm.


Bernie’s parents, Ronnie and Betsy Houghton, started Sylmar Farm in Rising Sun, Maryland in 1970, but relocated to its current location in Christiana, PA in 1976. Sylmar is the name of the road their original farm in Maryland was located on. Near the Pennsylvania, Maryland border line, Syl from Pennsylvania, and Mar from Maryland combine to spell Sylmar. Ronnie Houghton passed away in 2018, and his wife, Betsy, and their children and grandchildren continue in his footsteps to provide quality care and training at their picturesque and immaculate four hundred fifty acre farm.


Banjo Picker
Kim Pratt Photo

Bernie, the 1985 National Steeplechase Association champion jockey, trains horses at Penn National and Sylmar Farm. Sylmar is conveniently located close to race tracks in the Mid Atlantic area including Delaware Park, Laurel, Aqueduct, Parx, and Penn National. They are also just a short drive to New Bolton Center. Sylmar lies among the rolling hills of southern Lancaster County, and the facility consists of a foaling barn, grassy paddocks and fields with large turn-out sheds, four sparkling white training barns, a perfectly groomed 5/8ths mile training track, turf gallops, indoor riding areas, lush green pastures, and a three horse starting gate. “We take lots of time training our horses at the starting gate, and they have an advantage when they get to the track. Sometime, we bring our starting gate into the courtyards of our barns so the horses see the gate all the time, and walk in and out of it. They have plenty of practice at the gate where it’s quiet, and we take our time with them,” explained Betsy Houghton.


Consistently among the top breeders in Pennsylvania, Betsy Houghton reminisced about some favorites. “Probably the most accomplished and well known filly we foaled and broke here was Princess of Sylmar. She raced the first two times at Penn National, and she had some trouble in the first race, but won her second race by 19 lengths. She was bred and owned by our client, King of Prussia Stables, and trained by Todd Pletcher. She went on to win the 2010 Kentucky Oaks, the Coaching Club American Oaks, and the Alabama Stakes, and won over 2 million dollars. She sold as a broodmare prospect for 3.1 million to Japanese buyers, and she was exported to Japan.” The Princess of Sylmar Stakes held at Presque Isle Downs for registered PA-Breds is named in her honor.


Parx Race Track holds the yearly Whistle Pig Stakes for 2 year old Pennsylvania-Breds in honor of another Sylmar Farm graduate, Whistle Pig. “Whistle Pig was another horse we bred. We received breeder’s awards for the 5 years he raced, and he won almost a million dollars. I think the Pennsylvania breeders program is the best in the country. You can’t beat it. We have all Pennsylvania-Breds,” explained Houghton.


“Another favorite horse that we bred was Banjo Picker. He raced for a long time, and we also received breeder’s awards for the 7 years that he raced,” said Betsy Houghton. “Parx had a stakes race named in his honor too, but it was dropped this year.”


An idyllic and perfect setting for raising, breaking, and training thoroughbred race horses, Sylmar Farm is a family business involving several generations.”The whole family pitches in.  My son Bernie trains at Penn National and Sylmar Farm, and my youngest son Michael does all the farming. He lives 2 miles from the farm, and he grows all our hay and straw. My daughter Robin does the office work, and daughter Wendy is an equine vet tech in Florida. My grand children all help too,” said Betsy.


 Sylmar and the Houghton’s provide top-notch care in a pristine and spotless environment. “My husband was a pony clubber, and back then, you were taught everything should be done to perfection with nothing out of place. We try to stay true to his values and ideals at Sylmar,” stated Betsy Houghton.

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