Wins of the Father

Champion pedigree Kentucky bluegrass and a boldly competitive nature put the gallop in thoroughbred racing
lifestyle, outdoors
Written By Lesley Conn
Photography By Lori Dynan

The dashboard GPS in Ken Ramsey’s Lexus doesn’t know what to make of his driving. The mapping system emits a constant beep, beep, beep, and the blue triangle on the screen flashes frantically to warn that he has deviated from established roadways.

Ramsey, a multimillionaire entrepreneur, has never been one to follow a conventional path, so he shows no concern as he eases his sedan past cattle gates into rutted pastures as straggling stalks of summer hay thwack against his car. He is driving in the heart of his 1,200-acre thoroughbred farm in Nicholasville, Kentucky, just outside of Lexington, explaining how a passion for thoroughbred racing and breeding catapulted him and his wife, Sarah, to the height of the sport.

As the Lexus rolls to a stop, nearly two dozen yearling colts circle the car. In their curiosity, they jostle against doors and smear the windows as they lick and nudge the glass. They all share a distinct similarity: a white blaze on a dark chestnut face, wide, muscular chests and long tapered legs. That’s when the realization registers: These playful colts are all offspring of Kitten’s Joy, the Ramseys’ international racer and prized stud. Kitten’s Joy retired with winnings of more than US$2 million. As a sire, his earnings are over US$10.5 million, largely because by the end of 2014, Kitten’s Joy had sired more than 22 offspring with Grade 1 stakes wins—the top tier of racing—more than any other stallion in the world.

The yearlings are among the 75 best prospects sired by Kitten’s Joy last year. Ramsey culled the most promising to send to his trainers across the United States, where they will be coached to pound the turf toward victory as their father and his father before him did.

“There’s a lot of good horseflesh here,” Ramsey says. “There are future Grade 1 stakes winners. And one of these could be the one to win The Derby—the elusive Derby. My number one goal is to win there.”

Ramsey is referring to the Kentucky Derby, the granddaddy of U.S. horse racing headquartered at Churchill Downs in neighboring Louisville. The Ramseys have started five horses in the Derby—two alone in 2014. Their 2-year-old, International Star, is a leading contender for the 141st running of the Derby on May 2, 2015.

“We have two or three possibilities for this year’s Derby, but if that doesn’t work with these colts, we have even better prospects in the pipeline for 2016,” he says.

The success of Kitten’s Joy and his offspring has helped propel the Ramseys to the top of thoroughbred racing and breeding. They are multiple winners of the Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Eclipse Awards—and in 2014 and 2013 won both Outstanding Owner and Outstanding Breeder. That’s an achievement on par with winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director two years in a row. Both years, the Ramseys were the highest-grossing owners in the United States with more than US$10 million in winnings each year.

The 2015 racing schedule, from the Breeders’ Cup to the Dubai Golden Shaheen to Royal Ascot in England, will have kittens—Eye Candy Kitten, Big Blue Kitten, One Lucky Kitten, Gentleman’s Kitten—all racing to build the legacy of Ramsey Farm and Kitten’s Joy.

Ramsey has good standing to explain the attraction and the passion that continues to make horse racing an enduring and fast-growing enterprise internationally.

“There’s so many fascinating aspects to it,” he says. “There’s the gambling; I love it. I’m a good handicapper. I’ve won a lot of money betting on horses, which is risky because it makes me confident. Another aspect we enjoy is acquiring horses. We’ve taken them from foalings to weanlings to 2-year-olds, and we’ve won brood mares in claims races that were a good match for breeding. And there’s the opportunity to know movers and shakers and captains of industry. I’ve met the queen of England and Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai. There is no way in the world a small boy from Artemus, Kentucky, population of 500, would ever rub shoulders with the queen had it not been for breeding and racing thoroughbreds.”

Sport of Kings

Horse racing earned the nickname “Sport of Kings” because of the wealth and title of those who bred and developed the bloodlines. Thoroughbreds, much like Arabians, are a breed carefully developed to strengthen natural traits of speed, endurance and spirit. English noblemen introduced three horses—the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian—to their breeding stock beginning in the 1700s. Those stallions are considered the foundation sires for all the thoroughbreds that have followed.

Royal families continue to dominate the sport, though now they come from a more widely shared world stage.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, is an avid horseman. His Godolphin Stables has long been considered one of the top two leading farms in the world.

Sheikh Mohammed is working to establish Dubai as an international draw for tourism and sporting excellence.

“I’ve met the queen of England and Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai. There is no way in the world a small boy from Artemus, Kentucky, population of 500, would ever rub shoulders with the queen had it not been for breeding and racing thoroughbreds.”

A new royal challenger is emerging in the ruling family of Qatar.

Al Shaqab Stable, run by Sheikh Joaan al-Thani, brother of the emir of Qatar, and his cousin, Sheikh Fahad al-Thani, in the last two years have spent tens of millions to acquire top thoroughbreds, including a record-breaking US$8.86 million purchase in 2013 of a filly from Kentucky Derby winner Galileo.

That’s not to say the British royal family has abandoned its passion for racing. Queen Elizabeth II owns a string of top thoroughbreds, and at Royal Ascot last year became the first monarch in the race’s 207-year history to have her horse, Estimate, win.

And while the U.S. doesn’t have royalty, some of the newest crown princes of capitalism have embraced the sport. Kevin Plank, founder and CEO of Under Armour, the sportswear company, is seven years into a 20-year goal of rebuilding Maryland’s Sagamore Farm to its glory days of racing. Celebrity chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay owns a string of winning thoroughbreds, including America, Her Smile, More Than Real and Super Espresso.

The sport of kings has always been accessible to the regular fan, too. Tracks around the world bring in crowds by the thousands, drawn partly by the pageantry and tradition, the partnership of man and horse in competition, and the adrenaline rush as a winner is announced and bets are won and lost.

Not so long ago, thoroughbred racing was as popular as baseball, says Eric Mitchell, editorial director of The Blood-Horse magazine. Seabiscuit and War Admiral were the banner thoroughbreds of the era. The undersized, stiff-kneed Seabiscuit was such an underdog mass favorite that in 1938, he snared more news coverage than Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler.

Two changes are beginning to return thoroughbred racing to a wider audience.

Fractional ownership, which became more prevalent beginning in the 1980s, allows an investor to buy into a horse for as little as 5 percent and with no responsibility for managing or training the horse.

“It’s allowed people who were just fans to be greater participants,” Mitchell says. “It’s helped give racing a wider base.”

Mitchell believes one reason the sport endures is because of the bond between man and horse.

“There is something very fundamentally attractive about horses that I think makes people want to follow them or be a part of. There is a spiritual connection, partly because working horses helped develop mankind. People don’t realize that connection exists until they get around the horses,” he says. “Then they feel it.”

The second influence, says Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, is the racing standards the national group enacted shortly after organizing in 1961. The association did so to identify the best horses and have them evenly matched in races. As the racetracks paid heed, they used the Grade 1 races to entice the public. Tracks from Santa Anita in California to Belmont Park in New York are seeing 45,000 fans on a weekday, or for a Triple Crown race, crowds of 150,000.

As the fan base has widened, the purses have grown, fueling more interest. The 2014 Breeders’ Cup races doled out US$25 million in purses. The Dubai World Cup races awarded more than US$29 million.

Organizers of the annual Dubai World Cup, which offers a US$10 million purse for one race, are intent on making sure the best thoroughbreds run. Last spring, they encouraged Ramsey to bring one of his stallions. A Ramsey thoroughbred named Roses in May won the World Cup in 2005.

“They love you in Dubai,” a text message to Ramsey read. “Everything you do is newsworthy. You are like Elton John and Jennifer Lopez.”

Race to Breed, Breed to Race

Whether royal patron or small investor, when owners are ready to buy, one place comes to mind: Keeneland, the historic racetrack and sales center in Lexington, Kentucky.

Lexington bills itself as the thoroughbred capital of the world, but the city’s success extends beyond the fortuitous geography of rolling hills that build horse muscle and the limestone-rich water that fortifies bone.

More than 450 horse farms are spread over the region, and more foals are born here each year than anywhere else in the world, which has helped Lexington produce the most winning racehorses on the planet.

Lexington also leads the world for the money spent each year on horse sales, mostly due to Keeneland. Its annual 12-day September yearling sale, the largest in the world, last year generated more than US$279 million.

For an owner, bringing a yearling to sale is a two-year process that begins with mating, then foaling and weaning a colt. As the sale nears, the horses must be trained how to walk on a lead and how to stand at auction.

Amy Gregory, Keeneland’s director of communications, says Keeneland has long been a home for locally based farms, even for those from Ireland and England. Increasingly though, buyers are coming from Russia, Korea, India, South Africa and other distant countries.

Horses are grouped in “books,” and those with the best pedigrees and conformation start the auction in Book 1. Groomers start their day at dawn in rows of low-slung cement block buildings around the sales center, walking, brushing and tending the horses. Trainers and managers come later, talking with buyers or their farm managers who want more time watching how well the horse moves.

As each horse’s auction number nears, their handlers lead them to an outdoor ring, where they will circle until a large door slides back to reveal the sales ring.

At Keeneland, horse trading is done the old-fashioned way: Internet bidding isn’t an option, and buying by phone is a rare exception. Here, bidding is all about eye contact. Buyers offer a subtle nod or a touch of a hat, which signals a “watcher,” one of several men standing with their backs to the stage, eyes constantly roaming their assigned seating area for the next bid. A buyer’s signal elicits a watcher’s yelp or a “hi-yup,” that punctuates the steady cadence of the auctioneer’s price increases. Under the stage lights, the gleaming, often-nervous yearlings prance and sometimes bellow, ears twitching and eyes darting. A cleanup man, quick with a broom, is a frequent visitor on stage.

More established buyers often have farm managers, trainers, veterinarians and bloodstock advisers—experts in horse pedigrees—consulting on purchases. Over the years, as prices have climbed and veterinary medicine has become more sophisticated, buyers began asking for X-rays of horses’ legs and necks to check for fractures or bone chips and endoscopy to assess heart and lungs. Rather than subject a horse to repeated tests, prospective owners and advisers can review recent tests housed at Keeneland’s medical records archives before a purchase.

In a cafeteria across the hall from the sales ring, other buyers and sellers huddle over sales books, laptops and cell phones. The paneled walls are filled with equine and hunting artwork. TV monitors suspended from the wood-beamed ceiling feed the auction live from across the hall.

John Seo, trainer and director of the Seoul Racecourse Trainers Association, is sitting with Hugh Lee, CEO and veterinarian for Seowon Equine Clinic. Korea’s racing industry is rapidly growing, Seo says, but government regulations on the industry only allow buyers to acquire unraced horses sold at auction. For colts, there’s an additional spending limit of US$30,000.

“A lot of racing greats had physical flaws; they turned in at the knees or their conformation wasn’t perfectly balanced,” Metzger says. “Others might show better, but the truly great ones have a will to win. They find a way to win. That’s what makes it so exciting. Great horses come in all shapes and sizes.”

The advantage of buying at Keeneland is the bonanza of choices available, Seo says. He’s been buying at Keeneland since 2005, initially sticking to US$15,000 for colts. Most have performed very well, Seo says, and one, Hwanggeum Tap, has five Class 1 wins, the highest rank in Korean racing. The success of the Keeneland thoroughbreds has Seo back for more; and this time, he’s willing to go to the maximum US$30,000 for a single horse.

The beauty—and the mystery—of trying to pick a winning thoroughbred is that it doesn’t always come down to money.

Ramsey says he has almost never spent more than US$34,000 buying a horse; pedigree and conformation matter, but he also looks for good horses with bad trainers.

One of the appealing things about racing, Metzger says, is that purchase price doesn’t always predict the winner.

“A lot of racing greats had physical flaws; they turned in at the knees or their conformation wasn’t perfectly balanced,” he says. “Others might show better, but the truly great ones have a will to win. They find a way to win. That’s what makes it so exciting. Great horses come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s a four million dollar horse out of Keeneland; sometimes it’s an eight thousand dollar horse called California Chrome (the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year).”

A Breed Apart

Once their racing career ends, the champions can look forward to a pampered retirement.

Consider the morning routine of Kitten’s Joy. As a raw spring wind whips over Ramsey Farm, Kitten’s Joy steps from his private barn, accompanied by his personal groom. Flavio Bueno murmurs softly to the thoroughbred as the two walk a few hundred feet to the horse’s spa.

For 20 minutes, Kitten’s Joy will walk a treadmill submerged in a heated whirlpool. The warmth relaxes his muscles and the water eases pressure on his joints as he maintains cardiovascular fitness on the treadmill.

Next comes the vibration pad, which sends steady, small trembles up the horse’s legs. NASA developed the pads to help tone muscles and maintain bone density for astronauts on long space missions. As the pad shakes, a curved heat lamp is angled over the thoroughbred’s back, lest the wet horse get a chill.

During the North American breeding season, from mid-February to May, Kitten’s Joy will breed up to four times a day. Each session that produces a live foal costs US$100,000.

“Whatever it takes to make him happy,” Ramsey says of the morning routine. “Without Kitten’s Joy, we wouldn’t be here.”

Air Horse One

Image By H.E. Sutton Forwarding Company, LLC

Equine air travel touts first-class accommodations

The H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Co. appropriated a suitable nickname for its operations: Air Horse One.

The Lexington, Kentucky-based company has been flying thoroughbreds and show horses to races, events and auctions since 1969. A Boeing 727 is specifically dedicated for horse flights and can transport as many as 21 horses per flight, says Mike Payne, the company’s operations manager.

That capacity comes if horses are flown three abreast in single stalls, but for equine superstars such as California Chrome or the now-retired Zenyatta, upgrades to at least a stall and a half are available.

Early November, when the Breeder’s Cup is run, is the busiest time, when typically 120 horses a week will fly to and from events.

Some equine transport services load horses onto self-contained stalls that are then hoisted into the cargo section of the plane. Sutton uses a long, high-walled ramp to walk horses on and off the plane and, once the horse is aboard, builds padded, modular stalls around each hooved passenger. Once the horses are enclosed, there is little risk a frightened horse could kick or otherwise damage the fuselage, Payne says. First-time flyers are most apt to become skittish, but grooms that travel with the horses are experienced in calming them. Only in extreme situations does a horse need to be tranquilized.

Hay and water count as the in-flight meal, and horse anatomy always prevents the need for an airsickness bag. Horses do not have the ability to regurgitate.

In 20-plus years of transporting horses, none traveled so well as Cigar, a two-time horse of the year who captivated crowds with a 16-race winning streak.

“For him,” Payne says, “they booked the whole plane. He was like a rock star.”

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