Updated on 09/17/2011 12:10PM

For Clark, a long-distance love affair

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Tom Clark is not your typical California farm owner. He lives in North Salem, N.Y., but still thinks of himself as a hands-on owner and makes regular cross-country trips to oversee the farm. In fact, the farm - located in Paso Robles, on the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco - is a major part of Clark's daily life, even though he lives so far from it.

It may be an unusual arrangement, but it seems to be working. Since Clark bought Rancho San Miguel four years ago, he has devoted himself to building a top-class commercial venture there that could offer everything from stallion services to lay-up facilities.

Clark has recruited a solid lineup of stallions as the operation's core business. Rancho San Miguel didn't have a stallion barn when Clark acquired the property, but he has since built one and put the farm on the map with such horses as Roar, sire of Grade 2 winner Roar Emotion. Most recently, Clark struck a deal with the major Kentucky nursery Taylor Made to bring Storm Creek, a top 10 California sire, to Rancho San Miguel, where Storm Creek will stand the 2004 season for $7,500. Storm Creek is the sire of Grade 1 winner Stormy Pick. Rancho San Miguel also stands Corslew, sire of such stakes winners as Lethal Grande; Majesterian, whose progeny includes Love All the Way, a stakes winner with more than $400,000 in earnings; and Game Plan, whose stakes winners are led by $110,000 earner Planoncometbebopin.

Storm Creek's acquisition, in particular, signaled Clark's intention to build a powerhouse roster for the California market. So did Clark's more recent purchase of former Coolmore runner Marino Marini, who is expected to run for Clark for the first time opening day at Santa Anita in the Malibu Stakes. Marino Marini is a 3-year-old son of Storm Cat and Grade 1 winner Halo America (by Waquoit), for whom Coolmore agent Demi O'Byrne paid $1.8 million at the 2001 Keeneland September sale. Marino Marini started his career in England and Ireland, where he won the Marble Hill Stakes and finished second in Group 1 company in Ireland's Phoenix Stakes last year.

"We're always looking for stallion prospects," said Clark, a 49-year-old retired investment banker. "We were lucky that Coolmore only keeps two or three horses a year, and Marino Marini happened to be fourth in line! He's out of Halo America, and I think he has a chance to be successful on the dirt in the States. He showed a tremendous amount of speed in his early races, and California breeders love speed. He's royally bred and has great conformation, and we think he'll make the transfer from turf to dirt. Looking at Marino Marini, there was a lot of upside there for us and very little downside."

So how did a New York investment banker become the owner of a 250-acre California Thoroughbred farm? It's not as strange a connection as it seems, Clark said. He lived in California for seven years in the 1980's and bought his first racehorse there.

"Rancho San Miguel is where I had all my babies broken and sent my lay-ups," Clark said. "I had a great experience with that farm. I had great confidence in the management team. I loved going there, and I thought it had a lot of potential as a commercial operation. And even though I live in New York, I'm not an absentee landowner. I'm involved in this farm every day."

From an economic standpoint, California also has some good things going for it, Clark said.

"California racing gets good exposure to a wealthier clientele," he said. "If you look at the purse structure and the amount available for breeders' awards, for mare owners and stallions, there is money available. The thing is to upgrade the quality of the horses."

Clark grew up on a farm and is the third generation in his family to enter the Thoroughbred business. His father, Tom Clark Sr., owned horses, and his grandfather, Francis "Buck" Clark, trained in Maryland.

"I could read the Daily Racing Form when I was 5," Clark said. "Racing has always been my passion. We never had a horse worth more than about $5,000. We raced at Charles Town, Delaware Park, places like that, and it was just always my real passion in life."

Clark's career in investment banking has allowed him to return to the game at a level unprecedented in his family. Now he hopes to bring Rancho San Miguel to a new point of prominence in California's breeding industry, with the help of the farm's longtime general manager, Clay Murdock, and new hire Dr. Jake Lynch, a former practitioner with Kentucky's Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital who now runs the farm's breeding program.

"When I bought Rancho San Miguel, it was a training center, not a breeding farm," Clark said. "It had a three-quarter-mile training track that was the best I've ever seen for breaking babies. My idea was to expand on that operation and become a full-service facility. We built a nine-stall stallion barn and added tremendous capacity to handle mares and babies. We also added housing for all the employees, which is critical in California because, with California's growing real-estate costs, providing housing allows us to attract and keep good people."

But the main focus, Clark said, is attracting good stallions and mares to California. He said an important part of that goal is to build partnerships with Kentucky farms, like Taylor Made, that can help funnel quality bloodstock into the state.

Most of Rancho San Miguel's expansion is tied to its breeding program, but Rancho San Miguel also has two training tracks - one with a turf course inside it and another with an all-weather surface - a round pen and rehabilitation facilities for lay-ups, and dry and underwater treadmills for additional exercise options.

"We have about 50 horses in training there at any given time," Clark said. "We have a great facility for it and keep our barns full."

Clark said Rancho San Miguel's training center clients include such horsemen as Jeff Bonde, Doug O'Neill, Steve Specht, and Eric Kruljac.

But Clark acknowledges that operating a farm in California can be challenging. "The big expense is workmens' compensation, above and beyond everything else," he said. "That's why the breeding business is often more attractive than breaking babies, because it's less labor-intensive and not as dangerous to workers. But we are fortunate to have water available through underground springs. Irrigation and electricity are significantly more expensive in California than in Kentucky, for example, but we're lucky that we don't have to worry as much about that.

"The other big challenge in California is that everything is so spread out. That makes transportation costs high, and it makes it harder to attract mares to come from one end of the state to the other. One of the things I liked about Rancho San Miguel is that it's about 200 miles from both San Francisco and L.A., so we can tap into both markets."

But Clark said the opportunities outweigh the challenges for Rancho San Miguel, and he is optimistic about California's market's potential.

"The opportunity we see in California right now is to take advantage of the California Thoroughbred Breeding Association awards and to bring higher quality horses to the state," Clark said. "There are lots of stallions here but not as many high-quality mares. So we're also investing in mares to support the stallions."

Clark has about 25 mares himself. He plans to try selling their foals in the California market, he said, "to help build the market," despite having had only moderate success with his two yearlings at Del Mar's sale this year. While he doesn't rule out sending some stock to Kentucky auctions, he is resolute about selling in California, too.

"I'm going to give it another try," Clark said. "We're committed to the California market. We cannot give up on it, because we're making too big a bet on it."