10/31/2013 8:16AM

Andrew Beyer: Ken Ramsey is a self-made force in racing


ARCADIA, Cal. – Owner Ken Ramsey will be a prominent presence at the Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday, with seven starters in turf races, six of them offspring of his stallion Kitten’s Joy. This will be no surprise to racing fans because Ramsey has seemed ubiquitous all year.

He and his wife Sarah (known as “Kitten”) were the leading owners at the recent Keeneland meeting, and almost every day Ken Ramsey was leading a horse – whether a cheap claimer or a high-class stakes horse – into the winner’s circle. They set a record this summer for wins by an owner at Saratoga. They were the leading owner at Gulfstream Park. The 77-year-old Ramsey frequently gives enthusiastic interviews after his victories, so he’s highly visible and clearly a man who enjoys the spotlight.

But Ramsey isn’t the typical owner who simply bought his way into prominence; he deserves much of the credit for his success. He is responsible for a phenomenon that defies most of the precepts of the horse breeding business: the success of Kitten’s Joy. The stallion’s progeny are as ubiquitous as Ramsey himself, and even fans oblivious to pedigrees can hardly fail to notice what Breeders’ Cup entrants such as Bobby’s Kitten, Big Blue Kitten, Granny Mc’s Kitten, Kitten’s Dumplings and Kitten Kaboodle have in common.

Ramsey is a lifelong Kentuckian who always enjoyed racing – he briefly held a trainer’s license in his youth – but he was always busy with work. He said he “made over a million dollars in five different businesses,” most recently a cellular telephone network. After selling the latter enterprise in 1994 for more than $30 million, he said, “I could have sat under a palm tree, but I wanted to buy a horse farm.”

He acquired an historic farm near Lexington, plunged into a study of the Thoroughbred business and was obsessed by it.

“I worked on horses all day and dreamed about them at night,” he said.

He employs several top trainers – the current roster includes Chad Brown and Michael Maker – but he takes an active involvement in decisions about his horses. Brown said, “Outsiders see how passionate he is and they might think he’s barking orders all day. But he’s only involved when he needs to be. If we have ten decisions to make he’ll put his stamp on eight of them and the others we’ll work it out.”

After a decade, the Ramseys reached the zenith of the business. They were honored with the Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding owners of the 2004, largely because Kitten’s Joy had been the country’s champion turf runner and Roses in May the second-best dirt runner. Ramsey sold Roses in May to Japan for stud duties and kept Kitten’s Joy, planning to manage his career as a stallion. People who understand the breeding industry had reason to think he was making a naïve and expensive mistake.

Kitten’s Joy was an outstanding racehorse, to be sure; in 12 starts on grass, he scored nine wins and finished second in the other three. He was at his best in races at 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 miles. But Ramsey learned quickly: “Nobody wanted to breed to a mile-and-a-half turf horse.”
Such credentials are anathema in the U.S. Thoroughbred business; the list of U.S. grass champions is filled with ones who were abject failures at stud. Breeders and buyers want pedigrees that will give them precocious, quick young horses to run on dirt. Understanding that most breeders wouldn’t mate their mares to Kitten’s Joy, Ramsey knew he would have to supply most of the mares – a daunting prospect. He may be a wealthy man by the standards of the real world, but the breeding industry is dominated by Arab sheikhs and international tycoons who can spend millions for a single regally bred female. Ramsey wasn’t in this league.

So he decided to build a large breeding operation on the cheap. He studied the form of fillies in claiming races and tried to identify ones who – though they may have been mediocre runners – had ancestors who would mesh with the pedigree of Kitten’s Joy. “I claimed everything I could lay my hands on,” he said, and proceeded to build up a band of more than 100 mares.

His plan seemed fanciful – until the progeny of Kitten’s Joys started winning everywhere. This year, the stallion’s offspring have won 22 stakes and earned in the vicinity of $10 million. On the memorable day of Aug. 17, Ramsey won the Arlington Million with Real Solution (a son of Kitten’s Joy and out of a mare he had been claimed for $25,000); the $500,000 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington with Admiral Kitten; and, within the same hour, the $600,000 Sword Dancer Handicap at Saratoga with Big Blue Kitten.

Such success seems a mystery, even to pedigree experts. Why has Kitten’s Joy sired so many good runners? Chad Brown, who has trained a number of them, made this observation: “To be a top racehorse you have to be physically gifted, but it also takes an incredible mental constitution. You have to be focused to train every day. One after another, the Kitten’s Joys carry that trait. They’re tough-minded horses. They never get sour. They can’t wait to train and they drag their riders to get to the track.”

Whatever the explanation, once-skeptical people in the breeding industry can no longer be dismissive of Kitten’s Joy. Even with his stud fee likely to rise to $100,000 next year, breeders will be mating high-class mares to him, which will almost insure the stallion of even greater success. The demand will be further proof that Ramsey was right about Kitten’s Joy and the conventional wisdom was wrong.

SaratogaBob More than 1 year ago
Love the Ramseys. Good luck in racing's biggest weekend. I know I will have a few bobb riding on their homebreds.
Diane Hain More than 1 year ago
We may get some stamina bred back into the Thoroughbred yet - despite ourselves.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Gotta love the great sporting nature of The Ramseys. They are not afraid and ship their runners everywhere.
Amy Hurley More than 1 year ago
There's no denying the incredible impact Kitten's Joy has had on turf racing in this country, and to do it with mares with unfashionable pedigrees is even more impressive. So, given that Kitten's Joy was a long-distance turf specialist, I'd like to know if any mares have been sent from Europe to be bred to him, since they value the stayers more than we do. If so, how have Kitten's Joy's progeny fared in Europe? I know Mr. Ramsey has run a few across the pond with limited success, but have there been any foaled there who have had success similar to the Kitten's Joys in the U.S.?
Hail No More than 1 year ago
I wholeheartedly applaud Mr Ramsey, a Living Legend.
Mark Waggoner More than 1 year ago
Actually, I think that Mr. Beyer may be behind the times on this one. Ramsey fired Dale Romans about 3 years ago and Dale hasn't trained for him since.
Amy Hurley More than 1 year ago
You are correct.
nick More than 1 year ago
He also fired Ronnie Werner, who had done a wonderful, wonderful job with Badge of Silver, who may have been the Best horse Mr. Ramsey ever had if he could have stayed sound. He won the Risen Star by 10 lengths, and was circling the field in the Louisiana Derby as the 6-5 favorite when he flipped his palate, I believe. Was training superbly coming up.to.the Kentucky Derby when he got seriously injured,
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
People want to criticize s man, who is killing it, with one stallion. Unbelievable. Kind if old school to me. Maybe he has the next Bull Lea, and people are just, jealous. Its not like Kittens Joy had a racing career like Wisemans ferry. Star in the track, star in the shed, what's wrong with that.
Mike More than 1 year ago
Funny - no one mentions the shenanagans he & Bobby Frankel did in the B.C. at Lone Star.
Bob Rose More than 1 year ago
Matt D. More than 1 year ago
Mike-look me up at horseracingrevelationsthroughstatsandpedigree.com I'd like to compare stories.
Ron Solberg More than 1 year ago
kittens joy? another northern dancer
Mike B More than 1 year ago
Nice back story on his success--really building a racing/breeding brand... Almost an echo of the Calumet baking powder business acumen/success parlayed into racing/breeding, except as the article notes, not a tycoon (an 8 figure, not a 9 or 10 figure player) here but more student of racing and pedigrees. A great stayer line is actually what the US needs/needed and now has with these Kittens. The bursting 4.5 -6 F sprint horses are a dime a dozen. Rarer are those with enough in the tank to go past a mile and close hard. I think they also have longer, more prosperous careers on the whole than sprinters.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Pretty sure old Bull Hancock famously said, "bred them all to Bull Lea" and that worked out pretty well for Calumet. Wholeheartedly agree that "stayers" are the way to go. The Kittens could be running rings around the others for years to come. Nice!