06/01/2010 11:00PM

Old-school breeding for Ice Box

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - One thing Kurt Butenhoff is not worried about is whether Ice Box can get the Belmont Stakes distance.

The man who bred the fast-closing Kentucky Derby runner-up and likely Belmont favorite has good reason to like the colt's chances over 1 1/2 miles: Butenhoff bred Ice Box with stamina in mind.

"I think a lot of stamina has gotten lost in American breeding stock, and both stamina and soundness are the two things I've got in mind when I'm breeding racehorses," Butenhoff said.

Butenhoff, 49, only started breeding Thoroughbreds a decade ago. But ask him about his breeding philosophy, and he sounds like he's channeling the masters of homebreeding empires 50 years earlier. His tenets are much the same as theirs: Breed to get a racehorse, and take time to develop the families you believe in. Butenhoff has tried things the other way, breeding larger numbers with more emphasis on auction-ring success, but he soon scaled back to just six broodmares. Keeping his eye on those old-fashioned fundamentals, he says, helped him turn up his first classic-placed runner, Ice Box.

"We've sweated every detail, and we're really focused on trying to make racehorses," he said.

Butenhoff's careful development of Ice Box's family is, he acknowledges, "almost like a throwback to what horse racing started as, where people owned horses as families, and one guy said to the other guy, 'I bet my horse can run faster than yours.' You have a real connection. Obviously, the Thoroughbred business has changed to where you have so much commercial breeding."

Butenhoff, an investment manager, grew up in suburban New Jersey and never gave Thoroughbred breeding a thought until he and his wife Kim bought a 300-acre farm in Hillsdale, N.Y., in 2000. They named it Denlea Park after a small baseball diamond that existed there -- and, against the odds, thrived -- during the Great Depression. The farm had a 16-stall barn and equestrian facilities, and there was a farm manager in place, and that got Butenhoff thinking.

"We had riding horses there," he said. "But I thought, since we had the staff, we ought to think about doing something else with the facilities, too. The person who was managing the farm for me at the time said, 'What about the New York-bred Thoroughbred racing program?' And I said, 'What are you talking about?' "

The more he learned, the more Butenhoff thought the idea of breeding racehorses made sense.

"So we went out and bought some mares, and that was the beginning," he said. "It really was as unscientific as that."

One of the first horses the Butenhoffs bought, through the claim box, was Ice Box's dam, Spice Island. Claimed for $40,000, the daughter of Belmont winner Tabasco Cat went on to score in the Grade 2 Long Island Handicap for the Butenhoffs in 2002. The distance was 1 1/2 miles.

Butenhoff bought more mares. In 2003, he and Jamie LaMonica opened Empire Stud in Hudson, N.Y., taking advantage of growing interest in New York-breds after the state approved legislation to allow slot machines at New York tracks. Seven years later, Butenhoff and LaMonica remain on good terms, but Butenhoff is no longer co-owner of Empire Stud.

"I've got kids, and I felt I couldn't allocate time to my own business ventures in a responsible fashion, and to Empire Stud, and to my family," Butenhoff said, "It was just a function of time."

Butenhoff also cut his broodmare band from about 20 to six.

"I scaled down the mare band primarily because I wanted to focus my attention and energies on families and mares that we either had a direct connection with or that, for whatever reason, we had a lot of conviction in," he said. "Every aspect of the Thoroughbred business is challenging, and it tests your resolve on a daily basis. So it's critical that you have a high conviction level, because if you don't, you'll get shook out. The downs will take you out. Having a lot of conviction about your horses helps you weather turbulent waters."

Butenhoff has been in those waters. Described by the Wall Street Journal in 2008 as "one of Bear Stearns's heavy hitters in private-client services," Butenhoff had built a lucrative career on Wall Street and specialized in equity derivatives. But that put Butenhoff on the leading edge of the global economic storm when Bear Stearns, facing collapse, sold to JPMorgan Chase in March 2008. The price was $2 a share, down from Bear Stearns's 2007 stock value of $170 a share.

Today, Butenhoff is managing partner at Ward Capital LLC.

"The global economy has been upside-down for the last three years, and it's dramatically impacted the Thoroughbred business," he said. "You need to have a lot of conviction to stick it out. Everyone's going through reevaluation of business models, methodology, style of horse-trading. There's been a real change since three years ago.

"We were fortunate enough to sell off a large percent of our broodmare band prior to the downturn, and, frankly, that was more lucky than smart. It was due to the view that I wanted to try to create some cornerstone families for us to focus on and be committed to."

Butenhoff's commitment to Ice Box's family is substantial. He still has the colt's dam, Spice Island, as well as his second dam, Crown of Sheba. Both mares have colts this year, Spice Island's by Eddington and Crown of Sheba's by First Samurai. Both are boarded at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., where, Butenhoff emphasizes, "they raise racehorses."

"We were looking for matings that made sense and also meant that, if we got colts that were worthy of it, they potentially could go on and be stallions and add stamina and durability that's not always easy to find in American stock," he said.

Spice Island is a daughter of Tabasco Cat. Crown of Sheba was sired by Alysheba.

"Tabasco Cat obviously got a distance, having won the Belmont," Butenhoff said. "Alysheba and his sire Alydar were both distance horses. And Spice won a Grade 2 race going 1 1/2 miles."

Butenhoff drew on a favored cross when he bred Ice Box, mating Pulpit with Spice Island, and thereby combining the A.P. Indy sire line with a Storm Cat-line mare. He hoped the stamina and durability of Spice Island's family would match well with Pulpit's speed.

"At the time, Pulpit wasn't considered to be a sire of sires, but I thought his family was spectacular," Butenhoff said.

In September 2008, just days before Wall Street's plunge sent Thoroughbred prices into a tailspin, Ice Box went to auction at the Keeneland September yearling sale. Ice Box's sale was part of Denlea Park's program to keep its fillies and sell its colts, and so the Pulpit colt went to Whitehorse Stables owner Robert LaPenta for the price of $125,000.

Spice Island has rewarded Butenhoff's faith in the family with Ice Box, but so far she has only produced one filly with whom he can continue her line. That's the 2-year-old Vindication filly Nothing to Declare, who will head to trainer Christophe Clement in the next 30 days.

His personal devotion to Denlea Park's family of mares provides what Butenhoff calls "a real connection" to his horses that he believes prevents his breeding program from being a mere equine production line.

Ice Box has so far justified Butenhoff's philosophy, and it would be fitting if Ice Box could now win the Belmont for a breeder devoted to returning stamina to American racehorses.

"I think he'll perform well," Butenhoff said. "It's just whether he'll get enough pace up front to get the opportunity to win. . . . This is the family. This is the family I've focused on, the family I had a lot of confidence in, and this is the family I felt strongly about. You look in the pedigree books and you see these great families, where someone has managed the breeding, managed the racing, and got a family because of that. I'd love to take a shot at that."