Harness racing family turns to golf with opening of GreatHorseBy Wayne Mills
It’s not often that classic artists are mentioned in reference to a golf course, but GreatHorse in the Pioneer Valley town of Hampden, Massachusetts, is the exception.
The name, GreatHorse, is an allusion to the iconic Leonardo da Vinci statue, “Gran Cavallo,” a work that was not completed until five centuries after his death. According to owner Guy Antonacci, “The name evokes a spirit of innovation and excellence in design and also speaks to our family’s long and storied history in the harness racing industry.”
The Antonacci family has been in the harness racing business since 1965 and has one of the most respected breeding farms in the sport. Headquartered in Somers, Connecticut, the stable has won the Hambletonian Stakes five times, which is the harness racing equivalent to the Kentucky Derby.
But golf was not one of their business interests until they became involved in GreatHorse in 2012. “Our only experience with any type of golf was running our family entertainment center, which has a very challenging mini-golf course,” Antonacci joked.
The Antonaccis became interested in GreatHorse when the former Hampden Country Club went to foreclosure auction five years ago. “The property always had tons of potential; it just needed a lot of help,” Antonacci said. “The view was what really sealed the decision for us.”
With the clubhouse set high on a ridge overlooking the valley and the golf course below, the Antonaccis felt they could touch it up and leave it at that. “The original plan for the property was to fix some drainage, redo the bunkers, expand the driving range tee and update the clubhouse and banquet facility,” Antonacci said.
Massachusetts native Brian Silva was hired as the course architect to design a master plan for the new bunkering. By the time he started working on the bunkers in April 2012, the owners decided to expand the scope of the renovation.
“We shut the course down for good on July 1, 2012 and started tearing everything up,” Antonacci said. “We built these beautiful bunkers and then said, ‘We should now re-grass the greens,’ so we started doing that for a few weeks. And then, because some of the greens were 40 years old, we knew they would eventually have to be redone, so we started to rebuild all the greens, and then had the tees leveled. Things kept expanding until finally we said, ‘Let’s just redo the entire property.’”
The completed golf course plays 7,522 yards from the tips. There are some monster holes from those back tees. The downhill par-4 first hole plays 485 yards, while the uphill 18th hole, also a par 4, is 487 yards. Throw in the 615-yard par-5 eighth hole and the par-3 third hole that can play up to 280 yards, and you’d better have Bubba Watson’s length to get it around GreatHorse with a reasonable score. It’s no picnic from the member tees, either, which play 6,874 yards. There are white tees that measure a more reasonable 6,380.
“It is definitely a difficult test of golf, and the longer you play it the tougher it gets,” head professional Billy Downes said. “Although the sand is intimidating from the tee, the architect has left you plenty of fairway to hit. With the greens stimping at 13, combined with firm green contours, it makes the course a real challenge.”
Downes, who knew the Antonaccis from his days at Elmcrest Country Club in East Longmeadow, is a holdover from the old Hampden Country Club. One of the best golfers to ever come out of New England, he presides over an extensive teaching facility that includes a two-acre short game area, and a large grass driving range with target greens and two indoor golf simulators. Coming soon are two indoor/outdoor hitting bays equipped with computerized swing and putting analyzers. Silva, who has been in the golf business since the early 1980s, said, “There is no better [facility] in New England.”
The renovations didn’t just include the golf course. After investing considerable money into the existing clubhouse, they tore it down. The replacement is GreatHorse’s most iconic feature, which is a massive 25,000-square-foot wood beam and stone edifice that includes a restaurant, bar, and outdoor patio all overlooking the course and the valley below. The clubhouse has a gym, spa, two indoor golf simulators, and men’s and women’s locker rooms that include saunas, steam rooms and private lounge areas.
“It’s not just about great golf, it’s also about creating a special place where family and friends can come together to enjoy life and create lasting memories,” Antonacci said. “We want members to think of GreatHorse as an extension of their homes. It is a place where members can relax with friends, bring the kids for a day out, or even wear jeans to dinner without worrying about formal rules or pretentious attitudes.”