01/14/2010 12:00AM

Even in dark times, silver linings

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Diamond A Farm owner Gerald Ford probably said it best. He'd been talking about how difficult the last 18 months have been.

"In this game, when you're winning you know it's going to end, and when you're losing, you think it never will end," said Ford, who in the last year has lost two of his best broodmares, Kelli's Ransom, dam of Grade 1 winner Devil May Care and Grade 2 winner Regal Ransom, and her dam, Musical Minister. "It's been kind of a tough year."

That sentiment gets knowing nods from almost everyone in the Thoroughbred breeding business these days. Bloodstock sales are in their own recession, and credit for breeders has all but dried up. That makes the everyday bad luck breeders face, the daily risks of their profession, seem that much gloomier these days.

Showing horses in below-freezing temperatures at the Keeneland January sale or bringing horses home again that didn't make their reserves, some sellers were struggling to find the silver lining.

"Some days are good, some aren't," consigning agent Craig Bandoroff said wearily on Monday afternoon after scratching Eden's Causeway from the Keeneland sale. Considered one of the session's promising lots, the 7-year-old Giant's Causeway mare had aborted her Tiznow foal around midnight the night before she was to sell. She had to be scratched.

Did Bandoroff have any good luck to report to offset that disappointment? "Can't help you with that today," he said. "But we'll all live to fight another day."

News this week wasn't all bad. Ford was on hand to pick up a free Range Rover from the Castleton Lyons stud farm because he bred a Grade 1 winner - the 2009 Frizette winner Devil May Care - from one of its stallions. One day after scratching Eden's Causeway, Bandoroff came back to the sale pavilion Tuesday with a happier task, to bid on stakes winner Bon Jovi Girl. Bandoroff bought her for $950,000 for a client who wished to remain anonymous, and he faces the heartening prospect of boarding the mare for the client when Bon Jovi Girl retires from racing.

Breeders and sellers are tough, adaptive species.

Peter Kirwan, owner of 63-acre Glenmalure Farm in Lexington, is one of the smaller breeding and boarding businesses you'd expect to be endangered by the downturn. He's lost clients due to the economy, he said, and the 25 to 30 mares he'll breed this year are about 15 fewer than in 2009. But he's faring pretty well. On Monday, he bought a mare he liked for a good price, and his operation's small size has helped him weather the recession.

"I like it," Kirwan said of the Thoroughbred game. "I guess I'm a glutton for punishment! I'm keeping my bills paid and keeping the for sale sign down. I do a lot of work myself and have one employee, and that cuts down on a lot of expenses. When you have employees, your expenses shoot up: workers' comp, labor, taxes, everything. My boys weren't doing anything last summer, so we ran the farm ourselves. I have that luxury, and that's how you survive. I'm healthy. So I feel lucky."

Broussard Hundley was feeling lucky, too, despite having had a difficult year himself. His father, Saxony Farm founder Bruce Hundley, died in October. At the January auction, Broussard had the sad task, in a down market, of selling off bloodstock his father developed over 30 years. Still, he's feeling optimistic.

He recently got engaged to Rosie Napier of Bluewater Sales, and the couple bought their first two mares together at the January sale. One was $65,000 Run Withthe Spirit, a 7-year-old Lemon Drop Kid mare in foal to Tiz Wonderful, and the other, a more sentimental purchase, was his father's homebred Holy Bull mare Sacred Sue. He bought the graded stakes-producer (in foal to Johannesburg) for $14,000.

At 42, Hundley - a breeder and former racehorse trainer - also has thrown himself into a new business project: revitalizing Saxony Farm. Hundley is re-fencing the property, adding paddocks and round pens, and refurbishing barns. The "new" Saxony will offer boarding, sales preparation, and breaking and training services, and Hundley expects its first consignment to sell this year.

"We're going to build on our strengths, and we're going to bring the fun back to the horse business for our clients," he said. "We want people to come and enjoy their horses, touch them, see them at the racetrack in the morning, enjoy the whole experience of owning horses.

"I think right now there are tremendous opportunities for people who want to get in the Thoroughbred industry and really enjoy it. We do have some problems, but I don't know an industry that doesn't. This is a feeling game, and I think sometimes we get too focused on the money. It's a business, but it's supposed to be fun."