03/04/2004 12:00AM

From oak trees to an industry

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RAMONA, Calif. - When he was a young man growing up in California, Donald Cohn had an unusual dream. It wasn't about Hollywood or world travel or athletic stardom. It was about the land and horses.

It took Cohn 40 years to fulfill his dream of developing a horse farm in California, but the wait was worth it. The result, Ballena Vista Farm in Ramona, has turned out to be a bigger, better reality than Cohn and his wife, Karen, could have imagined when they bought their first 92-acre parcel in 1982. In the two decades since, the Cohns have created a 220-acre showplace that stands three stallions, including Beau Genius, and offers everything from breeding to training services.

"We started off looking for a five-acre place so my wife and I could have some place to hang out on the weekends," said Cohn, 72, who also has a residence in La Jolla. "And here we are. Don't ask me how we got to all this, because sometimes I'm not even sure myself."

Donald Cohn got some early racetrack experience when, as a high school student, he worked with a Southern California racetrack veterinarian.

"Way back, I wanted to go to vet school," Cohn said. "But I got sidetracked."

Part of what sidetracked Cohn was real estate, which eventually led him to develop an online real estate data service. In 1995, Cohn sold his company, which gave him the time and money to expand his farm dream. Curiously, the dream never involved much racing. The allure of the farm was always greater than the racetrack. Cohn said he and his wife have just one horse in training, preferring to focus on commercial breeding and training and lay-up services.

"When we started, our business plan called for this to be a lay-up facility more than a breeding farm," Cohn said. "But from the time we started it until the time it was complete, the business changed. We still do a significant amount of lay-ups and rehabs, but it's not as dominant as we expected it to be. Now the breeding is more important. The demand for lay-ups has waned, and there are more facilities closer to tracks, so trainers seem to keep more horses there."

In response, the Cohns have shifted their emphasis toward commercial breeding, standing stallions, and boarding mares. The farm's equine population ranges between 175 and 200 horses, and the client list includes such owners as Stan Fulton, Harold Tillema, John Haagsmas Sr. and his son John Jr., Emerald Q Partners, Dave and Mary Ann Sawyer, and the partnership of John Hoffman, Martha Ratzer, and James O'Brien.

"I think we're developing a reputation as a quality farm," Cohn said, "but that only happens over time. It's a business where you have to be patient."

The Cohns started Ballena Vista in an unconventional way, buying the land before their horses. They spent their first eight years clearing and developing the parcel.

"It had been a farm in the same family, the Sawday family, since before the turn of the century," Cohn said of the original 92-acre parcel. "They were an old pioneer family in San Diego County. The farm had been sitting fallow for over 30 years, and there was really nothing on it but the oak trees."

Over eight years, the Cohns built a hilltop house that overlooks the Ramona Valley, as well as adobe and tile barns that hark back to architecture from 1800's California. They also cleared land for spacious irrigated pastures whose bright green grass illuminates the surrounding landscape. They added a pair of underwater treadmills for their lay-ups, an addition that has proven so popular they have opened the treadmills for use by other equine athletes, including Olympic dressage horses. The farm has a quarter-mile dirt training track with a two-stall starting gate.

The barns and equipment weren't the only developments. The Cohns built a team of about 30 employees, headed by farm manager Manuel Ochoa, who has been with the Cohns for more than 10 years.

"He's hands-on," Cohn said of Ochoa, whose father was a backstretch worker at Agua Caliente. "He knows every horse on the farm."

And the Cohns aren't done developing the farm. They recently purchased an automatic horse-exerciser from England and are installing it in a building to allow horses to work even during inclement weather. Plans are afoot to convert another adobe-and-tile barn into a new breeding shed and to add additional paddock space for the farm's stallions.

"I think you have to keep going," said Cohn. "It's no fun just standing still."

Breaking yearlings and caring forlay-ups are a substantial part of Ballena Vista's business, but the stallions may provide the biggest growth potential. Ballena Vista started its stallion roster with Fighting Fit, who has since been pensioned and now is living out his retirement at the farm. That leaves three active stallions for 2004. In addition to Beau Genius, the farm's flagship stallion (and the most expensive with a $7,500 fee this year), the farm also stands Surachai for $3,500 and Stage Colony for $1,000. Surachai and Stage Colony are both new to Ballena Vista.

Cohn said he is in the market for more stallions.

"I think we would probably look next to bring in successful racehorses as stallion prospects," he said. "You need that marquee stallion, don't you?"

The marquee stallion now is Beau Genius, who was purchased from Vinery in Kentucky and has stood at Ballena Vista for three seasons. Beau Genius, a son of Bold Ruckus and Royal Colleen (Viceregal), is the sire of such runners as Grade 2 winners Beau's Town and Gentleman Beau and stakes winners Boy Genius, Smashing Beau, and Takin it Deep, among others.

"We felt that his bloodlines mixed well with California mares, and he was a very correct horse," Cohn said. "He had a wonderful record of producing solid winners. It's hard to find one that doesn't have kinks in him."

Beau Genius covers between 50 and 60 mares a season, Cohn said.

The Cohns nearly lost their dream farm last October when wildfires, driven by Santa Ana winds, devastated about 750,000 acres in Southern California. From the farm office, Ballena Vista staff could see flames licking along a ridge about a mile and a half away.

"We had three very long days and nights out here," Cohn said. "We were very lucky that we didn't have any damage."

During the fires, the surrounding valley lost all its power, which rendered Ballena Vista's vast water system inoperable. "We were very fortunate that we were able to buy the last and only large generator in town and bring it out here," Cohn said. "That kept things going here. Without the power, we can't pump the wells, and without the wells, you don't have any facility to fight the fire."

The Cohns raced back to the farm when the threat became clear, and they led the attempt to save the property, reeling hoses out and relocating the farm's horses into paddocks near the Old Julian Highway, which borders the front of the property.

"We prepared to take the stallions out if we had to, but what could we do with a couple hundred horses?" he said.

"We'd had fires in the area, but nothing of this magnitude. I could see flames going up hundreds of feet in the air. I thought that was it, the farm was gone. Fortunately, the wind didn't shift in this direction. It stayed southeast of us, and the tanker planes started hitting around here, and they got it pretty much under control."

Even without the threat of wildfire, maintaining a commercial Thoroughbred operation in Southern California has plenty of challenges.

"Our utility costs are so high, extracting water is costly, and the revenue from keeping horses is not on the level it is in Kentucky," Cohn said. "The industry here is very difficult.

"We need more quality mares in California. You need the mares to bring the stallions. That's the key. And we're facing down this enormous workmen's compensation. You hear that a lot at the track, but it affects us here, too. For horse handlers working on a stock farm, that has a rate of approximately 25 percent. That's a killer."

But Cohn wouldn't dream of leaving Ballena Vista.

"Oh, I'm not for sale," he said, laughing. "This keeps me sane.

"When you go to Kentucky, you see all these green, rolling hills, you think, 'My goodness, how do they irrigate all this?' Of course, the answer you get there is, 'We don't irrigate. We don't have to. Nature keeps it green.' I come back here and think of all the irrigation, the wells you have to put in, the water management - it's very hard here, as compared to Kentucky. But if you live in San Diego County, you don't want your farm in Kentucky. This is home."