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Updated on 09/17/2011 7:10PM
Free House gone, but Vessels marches on
Few breeding farms could shrug off the loss of a marquee stallion the way Vessels Stallion Farm did earlier this year with the death of .
Vessels Stallion Farm took a hit this summer when its young stallion Free House, a two-time California horse of the year, fractured his skull in an accident and died. A 10-year-old Smokester horse, Free House had only four crops on the ground, and already one of his first foals, a 2001 filly named House of Fortune, had become California's champion 2-year-old filly in 2003. Given that promising outlook, Free House's death was a hard loss. But Vessels Stallion Farm, in Bonsall, Calif., is unusually resilient, thanks to its solid roster of both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse stallions, and to the Vessels family's philosophical view of the game.
"We are so deeply diversified that Free House's death didn't hurt our core business, but it does put a hole there to lose a horse like that, and I think it leaves a hole in California," said Frank "Scoop" Vessels III, 54, who owns the farm with his wife, Bonnie. "Our partners in him had taken a little bit of a leap of faith with him, and it was working. But this is the horse business, and things happen."
There are few families with as deep a history in horse racing as the Vessels family. And there are few breeding farms as diversified as their Vessels Stallion Farm. Those two factors - continuous family involvement and a broad range of equine business interests - combine to make the Vessels operation a formidable presence in California breeding.
In the 60 years and four generations that the Vessels have been involved in racehorses, they've seen a lot. And most of what has happened to them has been pretty good. The Vessels Stallion Farm currently stands California's second-leading Thoroughbred sire, In Excess, who also ranks among the top 35 stallions nationwide and is the perennial leader in California. In Excess's top runner at the moment is 2-year-old Texcess, whose 3 wins in 4 starts this year include the $1 million Delta Jackpot Stakes.
But Vessels Stallion Farm also stands Quarter Horse racing's all-time leading sire by earnings, First Down Dash, whose progeny earnings passed $50 million when Ocean Runaway won the $1.5 million Los Alamitos Million and Cash for Kas took the $500,000 Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos earlier this month.
Having two breeding programs - Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse - at a single operation was a conscious decision, Scoop Vessels said. The Vessels family had made its name in Quarter Horses back in the 1930's, after Vessels's grandfather moved from Kentucky to California, had some success in the oil business, and decided to buy a few horses. One of them turned out to be Clabber, the American Quarter Horse Association's first racing champion. Vessels Sr. went on to breed many more Quarter Horse champions and also built Los Alamitos Race Course. He also was an advocate of adding more Thoroughbred blood to the Quarter Horse breed, an idea he put into practice by importing the Mexican Thoroughbred Beduino to breed to Quarter Horse mares.
Fifty years after his grandfather started the Vessels racing stable, Scoop Vessels said the family now applies the same basic breeding philosophy for both Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds.
"We've been very lucky both in the Quarter Horses and the Thoroughbreds with finding horses that are athletes," he said. "In the Thoroughbred business, we've taken stone-cold athletes over fashionable pedigrees, and, through bloodstock research, we've been able to successfully mate those athletes and make good stallions out of them."
The farm currently stands nine stallions. The five Thoroughbreds are In Excess; Momentum, a Grade 1-winning son of Nureyev; Jackpot, a Grade 2 winner by Seeking the Gold; Apollo, a stakes winner by Falstaff; and Devon Lane, a winner by Storm Cat.
Apollo and Devon Lane cover both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, and the rest of the Quarter Horse roster consists of First Down Dash; his sons Dash to Chivato and Fishers Dash; and former champion 2-year-old Quarter Horse Splash Bac.
The farm's rise as a top California Thoroughbred farm is due not only to its stallions roster, but also to its partners in those horses.
"With In Excess and Free House both, our partners in the horses were a substantial help," Vessels said, referring to Mike Pegram with In Excess and John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery in Free House. "They're the ones who really supported the horses by putting their good mares under them. That really got both those stallions off the ground."
A similar partnership is underway with Momentum, whose owner, J. Paul Reddam, has remained involved in the horse's stud career.
"Any stallion needs as much help as he can get to start his stud career," Vessels said. "It's a competitive market. Partners like ours are a godsend. They have some of the top broodmares in the country, and they're not afraid to breed them to these stallions to help the horses step up and have a good start."
And a good start can translate into either long-term success, as a hot young sire attracts better and better mares, or into a big sale to another market.
"If you can make a stallion in a regional market and get a Kentucky farm to look at that horse, that can have a lot of upside," said Rich Decker, Vessels Stallion Farm's manager.
That almost happened with In Excess, Vessels said, but when breeders stepped up to buy shares in the horse, Vessels Stallion Farm was able to keep the stallion in California despite bids from Kentucky.
"We were able to put together a 40-share syndicate, and it had been a while since there had been a syndicate of that size in California," Vessels said. "People just jumped into this horse and helped keep him here. It's pretty gratifying when you realize people in the state would do that."
In the next few years, the Vessels operation expects to diversify even further, by extending its reach into Kentucky as sellers. Vessels bought several mares at the Keeneland November sale, and two of those, Sexy Devil and Swift Trick, will send Kentucky-sired foals to Kentucky's sales.
"We're always trying to upgrade the broodmares, both with the Quarter Horses and the Thoroughbreds," Decker said. "We kept those two in Kentucky to be bred to commercial stallions. They'll come back here to foal Cal-breds, and then we'll take those foals back to get into that Kentucky market to sell. The market there is so strong, it's hard for regional markets to compete, so as a breeder you have to look at it. And there's nothing wrong with having a Kentucky-sired Cal-bred. Trainers in California shop in Kentucky, and they like to buy Cal-breds, because the owners' awards here are so strong, there's a lot of money to be made."
Even without Free House, the farm is keeping its sights high and its vision broad, even beyond the horse business. The 2,800-acre Vessels Stallion Farm also does business in avocados, flowers, and strawberries.
Whether for its stallions or its yearlings, the Vessels family intends to continue its tradition of success in the horse business. Fourth-generation horseman Kash Vessels, 25, is a recent graduate of the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program, a program his great-grandfather Frank Vessels helped found. After working at Del Mar's racing office, he plans to pitch in to add to the Vessels legacy.
And they're not content to be just a regional success.
"We're looking at the national market," Scoop Vessels said. "If we keep our eyes set on that and keep a high perspective, California will fall in line. We're looking for stallions that are athletic with deep families, and they will attract mares.
"With Momentum and Jackpot, we have a lot of faith in them," he added. "We've got 12 stalls over in that stallion barn, and we're not in a rush to fill them. We're willing to bide our time and wait for quality."