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The Edward P. Evans dispersal: Five years later
The measure of a life’s work can be impossible to quantify with a simple price tag, but if it can be done, $62,364,000 is a pretty good number to have.
By any indication, the four-decade pursuit of the ideal Thoroughbred by the late Edward P. Evans has been validated in the years following his death in December 2010.
Five years ago, Evans’ Spring Hill Farm program rung up a record-shattering dispersal that grossed more than $62 million over the course of three Keeneland auctions, and its impact continues to be felt through the pedigrees Evans developed and the charitable interests his horses helped fund.
The 221-horse draft surpassed the previous mark set by the dispersal of Nelson Bunker Hunt at the 1998 Keeneland January horses of all ages sale by more than $15 million.
Evans, twice named the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association’s National Breeder of the Year, structured his equine operation on attention to detail, and that did not waver as he battled acute myeloid leukemia into his final days.
His will stipulated that the horses on his Casanova, Va., farm were to be sold without reserve at the next Keeneland September yearling sale and November breeding stock sale following his death, putting them on the 2011 auction calendar. A lone straggler also sold at the 2012 Keeneland January sale.
The horses were consigned as agent by longtime associate Lane’s End, and the proceeds benefitted the Edward P. Evans Foundation, which primarily funds medical research toward myelodysplastic syndrome.
Young horses sold under the Evans banner became graded stakes winners Valid, Code West, Noble Moon, and Grade 1 placed Miss Besilu, to name a few. The dams of Horse of the Year Saint Liam and Grade 1 winner Quality Road were on offer, along with the eventual dams of Breeders’ Cup winner Hootenanny and Grade 2 winners Gun Runner and Blofeld.
The Thoroughbred industry paid tribute to Evans by opening its checkbooks in unprecedented fashion, but it was a time of mixed emotions for Chris Baker, Spring Hill Farm’s final manager after 11 years and now the chief operating officer of Three Chimneys Farm. Piecing apart the Evans band meant another step further from the fading era of institutional owner/breeders that dominated the sport in its fondly remembered past.
“It was neat and historic to have that record, but it didn’t make me feel like spiking the ball in the end zone necessarily, because it was the end of something that was so unique that I won’t see again, maybe nobody else will see again,” he said. “The game has changed. There are still people that are old school, dedicated breeders like he was, but there aren’t many, and there aren’t many that size.”
If not for Evans’ noted attention to detail, and Baker’s dedication to follow it through, the dispersal might not have happened at all.
In the months following Evans’ death, Baker clashed with the lawyers and accountants of the estate’s executors to keep the horses at Spring Hill Farm and raise them as they normally would leading up to their time at auction. The process of maximizing a horse’s value, whether it meant uninterrupted time to grow up or sending a mare to Kentucky to be bred, was a process that required constant education to justify with the number-crunchers.
Without Evans making his wishes clear, Baker was certain the horses would have been moved and sold prematurely to liquidate the assets.
“They had no understanding of what went into it – that you had to spend the money to prepare them and keep the staff,” he said. “First I had to fight to keep the lights on, then I had to fight to keep the staff. Fortunately, I had allies in Bill Farish [of Lane’s End] and a couple other people that understood.”
Lane’s End was about to debut Evans’ recently-retired star Quality Road at stud when the owner died. Having handled dispersals in the past, the Farish family had experience with the minutiae of the process.
“We had a longstanding relationship with [Evans] and sold his yearlings for a long time,” Farish said. “He looked to us for advice on things like farm managers and help on the farm. We had a very good working relationship with him over a long period of time.
“You hate to ever see somebody like that disband, but obviously when he died, there was no choice,” Farish continued. “He had no heirs, so it was always going to be a dispersal.”
Once Baker had clearance to prepare the horses, his next challenge was keeping a 35-person staff motivated whose days of steady employment had an expiration date.
Baker once again credited the Farish family for helping him navigate the human resources quagmire, advising him through the severance packages needed to keep the staff’s service through the end of the November sale. If too many employees decided to look elsewhere, the farm likely would have been shut down and the horses sent to board in Kentucky until the sales at a staggering expense.
“There were a couple people that wanted to buy the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel, but it was stipulated in [Evans’] will,” Baker said. “You’d have had to demonstrate it would bring more money in a private sale than it would at public auction. Legally, you’d have never gotten it done in time.”
Meanwhile, Keeneland’s incomparable marketing machine went into motion, creating a package for potential buyers that included a leather-bound catalog of the dispersal and a DVD highlighting Evans’ successes and breeding philosophies.
“We produced a catalog earlier in the year so people could get a flavor of what was going to be there and we distributed it extensively, internationally and domestically, to make sure everybody that was anybody knew they needed to keep their powder dry for September and November,” said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales.
A van ride from Casanova, Va., to Lexington, Ky., encompasses about 485 miles. Baker said he still had the legal pad mapping out each trailer’s load on those trips, and marvels at the accumulated quality of horseflesh that was escorted from the property.
“Loading them and watching those vans leave the farm, that kind of was the ‘goodbye’ moment for me,” Baker said. “That was when it really sunk in. They’re selling without reserve, they’re not coming back. It hit me in that level more than actually watching them go through the sale. I guess it’s like your kid going off to college. When they left home, that’s the part that struck me.”
Though Lane’s End was the consignor of record, Baker was still the point man for the Spring Hill Farm horses when they hit the sale grounds, fielding questions about the horses, the farm, and the future. All the while, he was also casting out his line for a new job.
First came the Keeneland September sale, where 50 yearlings sold for a combined $6,527,000. Leading the way was Linchpin, a full brother to Quality Road, by Elusive Quality, who sold to Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm for $650,000.
The dispersal helped propel Lane’s End to the top of the leaderboard among Keeneland September consignors by gross, snapping a seven-year run by industry juggernaut Taylor Made Sales Agency.
“Dispersals are easier to sell in a sense because all the work’s on the front end,” Farish said. “Once they get to the sale and start going through the ring, there’s no reserves, so you don’t have all the back-and-forth with the client about where to put the reserve.
“It’s fascinating to see, we all torture ourselves over reserves and trying to get it right, but when people get a sense that there is no reserve, and they can bid freely, they end up bringing more than under normal circumstances,” he continued. “It’s really a lot of fun just to sit back and watch them sell.”
The dispersal reached history-making levels at the Keeneland November sale, where it co-headlined the catalog with the dispersal of the late Saud bin Khaled’s Palides Investments N.V. Inc., a group that included champion Royal Delta.
Spring Hill Farm horses accounted for 10 of the auction’s 20 highest prices, including the most expensive weanling and two of the top three broodmares. The second phase of the dispersal moved 170 horses for a staggering $55,820,000, which alone would have handily eclipsed the entire $46,912,800 Hunt dispersal.
Christmas Kid, a Grade 1-winning Lemon Drop Kid mare, led the Evans broodmares, and the entire dispersal, selling in foal to Bernardini to Aisling Duignian for $4.2 million. The mare was exported to Ireland to join the Coolmore breeding program, and has since produced Irish stakes winner Black Sea and English Group 2-placed Father Christmas.
The first session of the November sale alone grossed $40,684,500 from the Evans dispersal. As the day’s trade wrapped up, eleven months of paperwork, philosophical differences, sales prep, job-hunting, and public relations all hit Baker like a hammer on a gavel.
“I just got to the point where I had to sit down,” he said. “It was mentally, physically, emotionally kind of exhausting at that point, but that’s the way it was.”
One of the most active shoppers of the dispersal throughout both sales was healthcare executive Ben Leon, whose then-burgeoning Besilu Stables landed seven horses for a combined $11,750,000.
Among them was the November sale’s top weanling, the $2.6-million Miss Besilu, a half-sister to Saint Liam, by Medaglia d’Oro.
Leon met Baker through their mutual association with trainer Todd Pletcher, who conditioned horses for both clients. The Florida-based businessman took an immediate interest in the Spring Hill horses when news broke of the dispersal, and repeatedly took trips to Virginia to inspect the stock. Leon became so invested in the program, even before bidding on a single horse, Baker said he nearly took a job with Besilu Stables.
That next step after Spring Hill Farm’s closure loomed heavily over Baker as he pieced apart the operation he called home for over a decade, and it was clear to look at him.
At the close of one session during the September sale, Baker stood alone in a row of seats and gazed at the auction ring with a far-off and weary look in his eye. He politely answered questions about the dispersal’s progress, but when asked about what came next once the last Spring Hill Farm horse hammered, he shook his head and replied solemnly, “I don’t know.”
Baker did not remain a free agent for long. He became WinStar Farm’s general manager in October 2011, and took his current position with Three Chimneys in 2013.
“The reflected glory that I got from being there was a big part of me getting the job I got at WinStar,” Baker said. “It set me up hopefully for my whole career, what we were able to accomplish there. I think a lot of it is being in the right place in the right time. Probably the biggest thing I did was not screw it up.”
Leon’s ties to the Evans breeding program came into play once Baker found employment in Kentucky. Leon boarded his new acquisitions with WinStar Farm, keeping their watch under Baker uninterrupted.
Not long after Baker moved to Three Chimneys, Leon struck up a friendship with the farm’s chairman, Golcalo Torrealba, at the 2014 Kentucky Derby that eventually turned into a business partnership, and the Spring Hill horses were once again under Baker’s care.
Whatever force of fate was assigned to ensure that Baker remained the steward of that fraction of the Evans program clearly meant business.
There are no guarantees of success at auction, but a success story can come out of any page in the sale catalog. This is true of the market at large, and it was true with the Spring Hill Farm dispersal.
Yearling topper Linchpin raced just twice, finishing out of the money both times before quietly being sold as a racing/stallion prospect for $12,000 at the 2014 Keeneland November sale. He now stands at stud in Washington.
The second-most expensive yearling, Valid, is the dispersal’s only seven-figure-earning graduate on the racetrack to date.
A $500,000 purchase by Sheikh Mohammed Al-Maktoum, the son of Medaglia d’Oro got off to a lackluster start, and was entered in the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga fall mixed and horses of racing age sale at age three. Carolyn Vogel’s Crossed Sabres Farm bought Valid for $115,000 and had him gelded, sparking a drastic turnaround with trainer Marcus Vitali.
Under his new colors, Valid became a useful handicap division runner on the East Coast, taking the Grade 2 Monmouth Cup Stakes and a trio of Grade 3 races. He has notched 12 wins in 27 starts with earnings of $1,101,647.
The horse that stuck with Baker the most, both emotionally and literally, was Miss Besilu.
The filly was put into training with Bill Mott and became a multiple Grade 1-placed runner, winning two of 12 starts for $187,829. Three Chimneys bought into Miss Besilu in the middle of her 3-year-old campaign, and she now resides at the operation’s Midway, Ky. property with her first foal, a weanling Tapit colt.
“Miss Besilu was a clear one that she was special, and always has been special for me from day one,” Baker said. “We’ve got her here and have her first foal out of her, which is pretty neat to keep her here full-circle.”
The weanling class also produced the most expensive 2-year-old of the 2013 North American juvenile sale season in Pacific, a Smart Strike colt who sold at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. March sale of 2-year-olds in training for $1.8 million.
Elliot Walden’s Maverick Racing bought Pacific as a weanling for $100,000, then re-sold him as a yearling for $115,000 before he ultimately ended up with Stonestreet Stables. Unfortunately, Pacific never lived up to the sticker-shock price on the racetrack, going unplaced in two starts.
The debate over the most successful on-track alum to go through the ring has several candidates, but only one is a Grade 1 winner - 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf victor Hootenanny, a Quality Road colt who sold in-utero with his dam More Hennessy for $360,000.
More Hennessy was bought by Barronstown Stud, who foaled Hootenanny in Kentucky. Hootenanny was a pinhooking bust, selling as a weanling for $120,000, then as a yearling for $75,000. However, he caught the eye of the Coolmore partnership early in his juvenile season and was bought privately by the international outfit.
Hootenanny was sent to Europe, where he won the Windsor Castle Stakes in England and finished second in the Group 1 Prix Morny in France. He then returned to his native soil to score in the Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita, and was an Eclipse Award finalist for champion 2-year-old male. Wesley Ward has trained Hootenanny for every start.
A year after Hootenanny’s Breeders’ Cup win, More Hennessy sold in foal to Galileo for $1.5 million at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall select mixed sale.
No less than three fillies and mares offered in the dispersal were part of the historic first book for Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2016.
The broodmare making the biggest splash in 2016 is Quiet Giant, the dam of classic-placed Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile contender Gun Runner.
The Giant’s Causeway mare was the second-most expensive Spring Hill broodmare, going to Besilu Stables for $3 million. Earlier this year, a Tapit filly out of Quiet Giant was the top female of the Keeneland September sale, going to Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm for $1.4 million.
Quiet Now, the dam of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf contender Lull, also came out of the Spring Hill band, going to Claiborne Farm for $1.85 million.
“It’s amazing how you see these pedigrees come back year after year,” Russell said. “The quality of the horses that [Evans] developed and the families that he developed, he would be a good case study for anybody getting into the horse business where you can be a successful commercial breeder and homebred owner.
“He was diligent in how he culled his mares, he was diligent when he sold some of his yearlings to pay for his racing, and he had a very good business mind and business plan behind everything,” Russell continued. “The market reflected that, the respect people had for him.”
The Evans dispersal’s impact on the Thoroughbred breed is undeniable, but its effect on the good of mankind has largely taken a backseat.
Dr. Michael Lewis, president of the Edward P. Evans Foundation, said the organization received about $60 million from the dispersal after all other parties were paid for their services. Evans established the foundation in 1984 to support his philanthropic interests, and later focused its aim on research and treatment for various diseases, with a focus on myelodysplastic syndrome.
“As he became ill with MDS, and later as he succumbed to leukemia, Mr. Evans became very frustrated with the way that these diseases were diagnosed and treated,” Lewis said. “He felt that our hospitals should be able to do much better. Because of this, he designated the foundation as the major beneficiary of his estate and was inspired to redirect the foundation to focus on medical research, so that others might not have to suffer as he had. The dispersal was a very substantial portion of his estate, and has become a significant portion of our endowment.”
Lewis said the dispersal has helped fund the foundation’s initial research into therapy for prostate cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, myelodysplastic syndromes and leukemia. Most notably, the money helped seed the development of the MDS Clinical Research Consortium, an organization of physicians collaborating to find a cure for MDS, and initiated a study into how some of the most promising MDS drugs work.
The foundation continues to benefit from Evans’ Thoroughbred holdings as a partial owner of Quality Road, with 50 percent of his stud fees benefitting the foundation. Quality Road stood at Lane’s End for an advertised fee of $35,000 in 2016.
The Spring Hill Farm dispersal was historic for its record-breaking performance, but its true legacy lies in how life carried on after the last fall of the hammer. The enduring spread of Evans’ influence long after his death is perhaps the greatest possible measure of his life’s work.
“I feel very fortunate to be part of it, and obviously very bittersweet in that it had to end, but it was a big endorsement of all the hard work Mr. Evans had put in over 40 years,” Baker said. “He took great pride in being able to do it on his own terms. Doing it that way certainly meant a lot to him and to me. It’s something that makes the accomplishment a little bit sweeter when you’re doing it your own way at your own place.”
Edward P. Evans & Todd Pletcher - Excellent Team!
E. E. Was impressive