After flying out of Salt Lake and into Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, about ninety miles from Lexington, I got a hold of Colton(my veterinarian friend who was going to show us around) about spending the day with him. We decided he would pick me and my daughter Alyx(who is married to my son-in-law, who is also a farrier) up at our hotel at 6:30 the next morning. After picking us up, we headed to his first stop, Calumet Farm. I’ll be honest, before going to Kentucky, I did not know a lot about thoroughbred horse racing and its history. Growing up out West, a kid of hippies who lived in the city wanting to be a cowboy, learning about blue blood, high society thoroughbred racehorses isn’t high on the list of things to know.
Calumet Farm was started in 1924 by William Wright, owner of Calumet Baking Powder. From 1940-1960 the farm was at the top of thoroughbred racing and breeding. Pulling up to the farm, I was immediately fascinated. In the west, I am used to most farms and ranches being fenced in barbwire. In the Lexington area, the horse farms are surrounded mainly by dark wood fencing. Calumet is different. Instead, the farm is surrounded by beautiful white fencing that goes on forever, with rolling green pastures with horses grazing in them. It’s like entering a scene in a movie. The barns are reminiscent of the golden era of thoroughbred racing. Beautiful white with red trim and iconic Churchill Downs spires on top.
We spent a few hours there while Colton worked on the horses he had scheduled for veterinarian work. They let us hang around after and watch them work some horses on the track they were getting ready to run.
A couple of days later we came back because there were a few things I wanted to see that I didn’t get a chance to see the first time. One of them was the horse cemetery on the farm. We drove past it on the way in, and it caught my eye. Actually, the whole farm caught my eye, but this struck a cord. I had to see and experience it! As we walked through the old bushes that had overgrown the walkway, I couldn’t help but be overcome with reverence looking at the names on the old headstones, Citation, Alydar, Whirlaway, Tim Tam. All great racehorses.
We also got to go to Lanes End Farm and tour the facility. Lanes End is a breeding facility hosting a group of breeding stallions. It’s an immaculate place that you can tell is a well-managed farm. The barns were constructed with wood beams and woodwork that I’m sure if I sold my house, the proceeds would pay for a couple of stalls in one of their three giant barns. It’s the kind of place you get the feeling that as soon as a horse leaves a manure pile, someone is watching on a camera and sends someone to clean it. That might be far-fetched, but it wouldn’t surprise me if true.
Ok, this next part of the story explains why I have always said that when I die, I want to return as a thoroughbred stallion even before my visit to Kentucky for the first time. I knew just enough about the thoroughbred horse breeding business to convince me.
Horse farms like Lanes End are specific to just breeding. They don’t foal out or train horses in this facility. For the 2023 season, they have 21 stallions on the farm. There may be a few that are owned by the farm, but others own most. Not everyone who owns thoroughbreds has the facility or staff to have a prized stallion. So they send them to a stallion station to handle all the logistics of owning them. The farm will manage the advertising, boarding, booking of mares, and the actual breeding. Think of it like a male brothel for horses. You go, they will line up the stallions, and you pick which one you think your mare will produce best with.
After a mare is booked to a stallion, they will schedule her to come to the farm when she is in heat. When she arrives, they will check to ensure she is in heat with what they call a teaser stallion( I don’t want to be that stallion). The mare will be in a stall, and the teaser stallion will be led up to the stall. If the mare is in heat and ready, showing signs, they will bring in the stallion she was booked for and have him breed her. It’s a rule in The Jockey Club(the governing body of thoroughbred breeding) that all mares will be live-covered. Then she gets in a trailer, and off she goes back to her farm. In other breeds, breeders are allowed to collect semon from studs and ship it off to farms all over the country to be artificially inseminated. In the height of the breeding season in Kentucky, the studs will breed mares in the morning and evening every day all spring.
(Side note) If you’re a curious person like me. You wonder if they ever let the teaser stallion breed a mare or two for the frustrating work he puts into the operation. I was told he has a few little girlfriends for just that. The farm has a friend that brings a couple of mares over a year for the teaser stallion to cover. We never did see him, but the handlers say he throws a decent colt!
A funny thing happened to me while we were at Lanes End. One of the stud handlers showed us around all the studs while they were turned out in their paddocks. We walked up to one, and the handler said, in a proud tone, “This is Flightline.” But to me, he was just a bay horse grazing out in a field. I said, “Flightline, I have no idea who that is?” He and my Veterinarian friend who lives in Kentucky looked at me like I had just insulted them both. It turns out one of the stallions on the farm, the horse called Flightline, was the horse of the year in 2022. He was undefeated in six starts. He won the Breeders Cup Classic on November 5, 2022, at the Keeneland race track in Kentucky by 8 1/4 lengths. His overall winnings in his career were $4,514,800. His stud fee for his first year is $200,000 and he doesn’t even have a colt on the ground. Yet people will pay that much to see if he will be a good producer. I guess he’s a big deal, and I probably should have known that.
I’ve learned over the years that the most expensive word in the English language is “Potential” How many “Potential” high draft pics in the NBA never amount too much? Same thing in the NFL. Athletes will get guaranteed contracts for large sums of money without ever playing a minute of professional sports. The horse business is the same way. I have never understood it. I’ve watched horse sales where certainly the best conformation and nicest looking horse is the top seller as it should be. But it’s never done a thing to prove his worth. So someone is still buying “Potential.”
On my way home from Kentucky, I was thinking that after a few days, I would be back in the high deserts of the American West photographing wild horses, and what a contrast that would be from the Blue Bloods of Lexington. A million-dollar racehorse would never be seen with a wind knot in his mane. Not a chance of a bite mark on his hide. It is two opposite ends of the spectrum of the horse world. And I love all of it! I talk about it at times in my social media posts about how I don’t belong in fancy show barns or fancy events, and I don’t. I would much rather spend my time in the wild landscapes of the West watching horses be horses. But I also have to appreciate what horses can do in conjunction with man. They are incredible animals who changed our way of life and continue to do so. And at the end of the day, as long as I’m around horses, I’m where I belong.