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This is the time of year that I have always loved the most. Sure, I love seeing the world start to turn green again (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) after a long winter. This was a particularly cold and snowy winter. That’s not what I’m referring to, however. What really gets my juices going is that this is the time of year that the new baby thoroughbreds start arriving. It’s also the time of year when those lucky, very few who own superiorly-talented, 3-year-old thoroughbreds can almost see themselves holding the Kentucky Derby trophy. It is a season of hope. As the first Saturday in May gets closer and closer, dreams get bigger and bigger.
I’ve been there. No, we certainly never owned a Kentucky Derby winner, but we have owned and bred thoroughbreds. I know the anticipation of every new baby. With every glance, you wonder, “Are you the one?” Numbers are certainly not in your favor – you realize this – as there are approximately 30,000 new thoroughbred foals born in the United States every year. The likelihood that one in your pasture will be the next Derby winner is even lessened in that excellent candidates are also born all around the world. With transportation today (something I also know a little about), a thoroughbred foaled anywhere can be entered in the Kentucky Derby as long as they are a bona-fide three-year-old. It doesn’t stop you from dreaming, though. The next “big” horse has to come from somewhere. Why not yours? Sure, the lions’ share of the eventual Derby winners come from older-line, established farms and families, but not all. If there’s one thing I learned in the horse business, it’s that there are no guarantees; well, other than that you will spend quite a lot of money and that it will bring you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
Let me tell you a little about our foray into the world of thoroughbreds.
Of course, I was one of those horse-crazy little girls who never outgrew that “stage.” There are members of my family who will swear that I was vaccinated with the horse-racing bug when I was born in Kentucky. That may be true. Some of my earliest memories involve horses. When I was just a little baby, my parents put me into a basket on the back of a big, black horse. They’ve always said I couldn’t possibly remember that, but I do. I also remember trying to come up with names for contests run by a tobacco company in the 1950s to “name the thoroughbred and win it”. My dad dutifully wrote down the names I liked and sent them in. The first Derby winner that I have a memory of was Swaps. I was very, very little (almost 2), but my parents always watched the Derby. It seems surreal to me that I have any memory of that other than my parents being astounded that a “California horse” could beat the best from the Bluegrass. Years later, I actually got to “meet” Nashua, the horse that everyone expected to win. The next year was a big one for Florida (where I grew up)! Needles from Ocala won. Our first broodmare was actually purchased from one of Needles’ owners. I’m getting ahead of myself!
All my childhood, I asked for horses for Christmas and birthdays. My dad wouldn’t relent because he said that the upkeep would be too expensive. I never understood, but bided my time and took riding lessons every week. Later in life, I owned an off-the-track thoroughbred many years after his racing career. That didn’t end well (he was badly injured in a freak pasture accident and had to be euthanized.) Perhaps I should have taken that as an omen, but I never stopped loving horses – especially the thoroughbred.
Our breeding and racing business started innocently enough. We had been to Kentucky on a vacation. During that time, we had visited Claiborne farm and I actually got to meet, rub, and generally fawn all over Secretariat. I’m going to have a post coming up solely about the great, big, red horse.
Not long after that, Jim had a coworker who owned thoroughbreds out west. He “said” he’d done okay breeding and racing them and that it was a lot of fun. In hindsight, it is almost funny to remember that he had a mare he wanted to sell. We lived in Georgia at the time. Georgia did not then, and still does not, have pari-mutuel racing. There are, however, some very beautiful horse farms there, and there was racing right over the border in Alabama.
We met a wonderful man who had a horse farm (thoroughbreds and appendix quarter horses). He had been around racing (both flat and steeplechase) for many years. We had determined that, if we were to own a mare, we would like to keep her with him. We trusted him to give us good care and, mostly, great advice. Mark Yother was the consummate gentleman and horseman. I’ve talked about Mark, at length, in a post I published this time last year.
Mark went with us to take a look at the mare that Jim’s coworker had for sale. We had already enlisted the services of a local equine veterinarian who told us that the mare was “clean,” and that she should be able to get in-foal (pregnant). He never mentioned anything out of the norm as far as the mare was concerned. Mark took a good look at her, walked her around a little, and came back to our truck. He told us she was dead lame. No wonder the fella wanted to sell her. She probably could have been able to carry a foal, but why buy a lame horse when there were horses to be purchased that had better bloodlines, already in-foal, and perfectly sound.
That was the first, but certainly not the last, bit of great advice we got. In retrospect, it’s a wonder we continued on with the idea of getting into the thoroughbred business. We were thoroughly bitten by the bug. We immediately ordered catalogs for upcoming sales in Lexington. We really didn’t think our pocketbook would purchase a mare from those catalogs, but we wanted to start educating ourselves on the bloodlines we liked and learn how the sales work. In the late 1980s, many top farms were dispersing their breeding stock. We saw some of the most famous mares of the day go through the sales ring. It was at the breeding stock sales in Lexington that we saw the great Lady’s Secret (Secretariat’s gorgeous, amazing, gray daughter) and Sacahuista. We also determined that Kentucky was not going to be the place where we would be able to purchase an in-foal mare that fit the pedigree profile we had determined we were looking for in a price range that we could afford.
Up Next: Going to the Ocala Sales