10/10/2014 9:35AM

Fair Winds Farm a force in Ohio

John Engelhardt
Lori and Kim Williams of Fair Winds Farm in Ohio have stood some of the state's most prominent sires during the farm's 35-year history.

The Loyalty Stakes on Sept. 13 at Belterra Park was a banner race for Kim and Lori Williams’s Fair Winds Farm, whose sire Mercer Mill filled the exacta with Mound and homebred runner-up Dayton Demo.

Mercer Mill also sired the seventh- and eighth-place finishers, and a runner by former Fair Winds stallion Habayeb finished fourth, meaning that the Waynesfield, Ohio, farm was represented by more than half the field in the stakes race for 2-year-old accredited Ohio-breds.

It was the latest milepost in the 35-year history of Fair Winds Farm, much of it spent as one the state’s top farms. Fair Winds has been home to cornerstone Ohio stallions such as Honey Jay and Mercer Mill and was the birthplace of Ohio-bred millionaire Catlaunch. The farm also has sought to capitalize on the improved prospects for the state’s racing and breeding industry following the approval of casino gambling by acquiring high-profile stallion prospects Kettle Corn and Stately Victor.

According to Kim Williams, a realtor by profession, it all came together by accident.

“When we bought our first part of our farm, I was actually playing polo,” Williams said. “I was fiddling around buying and breaking horses and selling them as polo horses. I was on a trip to Gainesway Farm [in Lexington, Ky.], they had a little tour they used to do, and I met this guy who’s been boarding here now for 35 years named Ron Fields that owns a feed-and-supply store. A few days later, he called me and asked if I’d board his mares for him. That’s how we got into the boarding business, and it just kind of evolved from there.”

Followers of Ohio racing might know Fields better by his nom de course, Scioto Farm, which roughly two decades later became the owner and breeder of Catlaunch, who ranks second in state history in earnings.

The Williamses soon found themselves in the stallion business. Kim’s cousin, George Smith, was gearing down operations at Woodburn Stud in Centerville, Ohio, which housed the aging sire Honey Jay.

A three-time stakes-winner in the early 1970s as a homebred for Robert and Verna Lehmann, Honey Jay was named the state’s Stallion of the Year by the Ohio Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association for six consecutive years from 1988-93. He spent the rest of his life at Fair Winds Farm and is buried on the property.

“I called Mrs. Lehmann one day and asked if I could lease Honey Jay from them,” Kim Williams said. “They weren’t using him, and she leased him to me for a dollar a year, subject to her inspecting him. We only bred him to the mares we had at the farm, which at that point we had 10 or 12 mares.”

Williams’s roots in polo came in handy once again when it was time to search for Honey Jay’s successor.

“When we got ready to retire Honey Jay, I started looking for another stallion, and one of the guys that I played polo with ran Overbrook Farm,” he said. “I was trying to buy a horse from Johnny Jones [at Walmac Farm] named Hickman Creek, and I got a call from [Overbrook farm manager] Jim Cannon one day, and I ended up getting Mercer Mill.”

Mercer Mill made his stallion debut at Fair Winds during the 1999 breeding season, following a career in which he won 2 of 20 starts and earned $72,286. Though his race record was modest, the son of Forty Niner is out of 1990 Kentucky Oaks winner Seaside Attraction, making him a half-brother to champion Golden Attraction and Grade 1-winning sire Cape Town.

Now 20, Mercer Mill has been named Ohio’s Stallion of the Year nine times and led the state in progeny earnings for seven consecutive years from 2004-10.

The success with Mercer Mill also cultivated a healthy working relationship between the Williamses and Overbrook Farm, which led to the farm standing Overbrook homebreds Noble Cat and Gold Market. The Williamses also have stood The Cliff’s Edge and Habayeb in recent years.

With Mercer Mill getting along in age, it became time once again to look for new residents for the Fair Winds stud barn. However, the process was different this time around, with horse owners and bloodstock agents coming to the Williamses.

Their first new stallion was Kettle Corn, a Grade 2-winning son of Candy Ride who won or placed in 10 graded stakes races.

“It’s been a big process,” Williams said. “We’ve looked at a lot of stallions all over the place. We got an opportunity to buy this horse, and I said, ‘We need to jump on this one because this is a good fit for us,’ and we got lucky and bought him.”

As that deal was in the works, Williams was contacted by Thomas Conway, co-owner of Grade 1 winner Stately Victor, about relocating the stallion to Fair Winds. “I ultimately told him no because I was getting another stallion, and I just didn’t think it would be fair to the new stallion, and we still had The Cliff’s Edge at that point,” Williams said. “Then, Mr. [Robert] LaPenta [owner of The Cliff’s Edge] decided he was just going to take him back home and retire him, so I called Mr. Conway back and said, ‘I’ll take that stallion, but you’ve got to make me a promise.’ I thought Cliff would be here forever, and I was a huge fan. I was pretty much devastated when they took him, so I told Mr. Conway that and said, ‘I’ve got to have a commitment from you. I don’t want to lose this horse like I did The Cliff’s Edge,’ and he made a commitment to keep him here for four years.”

The turnaround of the Ohio Thoroughbred program, based largely on the approval of casino gambling in 2011, alleviated a lean time for the Williamses, who had to cut hours for an already-small farm staff, among other belt-tightening measures. However, the staff still provided a personal touch that has become the farm’s calling card.

“They have to be hands-on,” said John Engelhardt, a consultant at Belterra Park who has worked in the Ohio Thoroughbred industry for three decades. “It really gives them a chance to be around these horses and observe them, and I think that’s a big part of why horses that grow up on their farm grow up and be as successful as they have been. They’re handled a lot, but they’re allowed to be horses.”

While times haven’t been easy in Ohio over the past decade, Williams found a way to turn the dire situation into an opportunity.

“When the market got really bad, I thought, ‘Jiminy Christmas, there’s not going to be enough racehorses around here, so it might get pretty easy,’ ” he said. “So, instead of trying to sell [racehorses], because nobody would buy them, I started putting these little racing partnerships together.”

The FWF Racing partnership currently includes three 2-year-olds, including Dayton Demo and Flip Daddy, who won the $50,000 Hoover Stakes at Belterra in his career debut July 13. Kim and Lori Williams also campaign a couple of horses on their own.

Kim Williams said he took inspiration from the Team Valor model of racing partnerships and works heavily in direct-mail and online marketing instead of print advertising. So far, the model has worked.

“When we launched that thing, we sold the whole 10-share partnership out in six days,” he said. “I was shocked. I didn’t hang big numbers on the horses. I put reasonable prices on them, and I told everybody, ‘You’ll probably lose all your money, but you might have some fun.’”

At a time when Ohio’s Thoroughbred industry is poised for growth, Williams understood that the human side of the equation is just as important as the equine side. Williams said he has taken particular interest in encouraging investors who are new to the sport to join the partnerships, recalling times when partners have brought several family members to watch their horses run.

“If you go down in their winner’s-circle pictures, you’ll see a dozen or two dozen people in there sometimes,” Engelhardt said. “Some of them are first-time owners, so it’s good that people like the Williamses are bringing people in the game. That’s important.”