04/27/2013 5:55PM

Phillips shepherds Darby Dan's legacy into 21st century

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Barbara D. Livingston
John Phillips (below), the grandson of Darby Dan Farm founder John Galbreath, runs the picturesque 618-acre farm in Lexington, Ky.

John Phillips remembers the moment clearly. He was attending a conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., listening to the late auction executive John Finney discuss the usual evolution of major Thoroughbred breeding farms.

Phillips had good reason to listen intently. The grandson of Darby Dan founder John Galbreath, Phillips had recently moved from a law practice in Ohio to Lexington, Ky., where his uncle, Dan Galbreath, then operated the famous breeding and racing concern. Phillips was taking on a dream job as a third-generation manager at one of the Thoroughbred sport’s most successful entities. But Finney offered a stark picture.

John Phillips, the grandson of Darby Dan Farm founder John Galbreath, runs the picturesque 618-acre farm in Lexington, Ky.

“He made a side point, but it was a significant point for me,” Phillips said of Finney’s speech. “He said, ‘The usual evolution of a farm is that it comes out of a private tradition that was the result of somebody’s passion, that person passes away, the farm tries to make a transition into the commercial world, and it fails and disappears.’ I thought, ‘This is a possible future for Darby Dan – or a lack of future.’ It struck me profoundly.”

Between John Galbreath’s and Phillips’s times, the Thoroughbred sport had become an industry, with stallions breeding upward of 100 mares a year in two hemispheres and a shifting emphasis from stamina toward speed, from the racetrack to the yearling sale ring.

Galbreath undoubtedly would be pleased that his grandson, now 60, has helped Darby Dan’s homebreeding powerhouse make the delicate transition to a successful commercial breeding farm. Today, the 618-acre Lexington nursery stands nine stallions – including Grade 1 winners and first-year stallions Shackleford, Dialed In, and Jersey Town – and offers boarding, sales agency, and quarantine services. The farm also breeds for the market, offering its colts annually at yearling auctions.

Galbreath might have been perplexed by Thoroughbred breeding’s current commercial slant, but he’d still recognize many of the pedigrees among some 25 mares Darby Dan owns alone or in partnership. Through them, Phillips has carefully maintained and cultivated one of Darby Dan’s most prized assets: its deep families, many of which Galbreath introduced between the farm’s founding in 1935 and his death in 1988.

“Honestly, I couldn’t participate in the industry without these families,” Phillips said, “because I wouldn’t have the wherewithal to acquire them independently now. In that regard, I totally acknowledge that the successes we’ve had were set up generations ago. I would not be good enough or lucky enough, probably, to do that on my own. We all have to maintain a lot of humility because as soon as we think it’s us, we’ll get brutally corrected by the horse. And it is all about the horse.”

Winter Memories is just one example of how old Darby Dan families, thoughtfully sustained, have continued to pay dividends. Raced by Phillips and his sisters, Dianne Albrecht and Debbie Bower, the dual Grade 1 winner harks back to one of their grandfather’s best mares, Golden Trail. Galbreath got her in 1962 (along with Flower Bowl, the future dam of Darby Dan’s influential stallion Graustark) after the death of her previous owner, Isabel Dodge Sloane.

Golden Trail was aptly named: The Darby Dan family she launched stretches from Darby Creek Road to Dynaformer to Offlee Wild to U S Ranger. Mated to Graustark, she produced stakes winner Java Moon; bred to Darby Dan’s 1974 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner, Little Current, Java Moon produced All My Memories. That mare visited Silver Hawk, a son of one of Galbreath’s most prized runners and sires, Roberto, and produced the outstanding racemare Memories of Silver. She won six turf stakes for Phillips and his mother, Joan, before retiring and producing Winter Memories.

Fifty years after she produced her first Darby Dan foal, Golden Trail still has a profound influence. Winter Memories won last year’s Grade 1 Diana Stakes and the 2011 Garden City Stakes and was the runner-up to More Than Real in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf for the Phillips Racing Partnership.

“People don’t always realize the studying you do to duplicate families like Darby Dan’s families from the ’50s and the ’60s,” said Darby Dan stallion manager Ryan Watson. “A lot of the broodmares, you can trace them back, generation after generation, to the beginning of Darby Dan Farm. John’s breeding program is designed specifically to keep the families alive.”

But Phillips demurs when anyone credits him with turning Darby Dan from private juggernaut to commercial concern. Instead, he points to the farm’s employees, including Watson, general manager Robert Hammond, stallion director Ryan Norton, sales director Tommy Eastham, and broodmare manager Adolfo Martinez, among others.

“One should never use the ‘I word’ around Darby Dan,” Phillips said. “I’m a real believer in the team concept. It needs to have a focal point, for sure, but I’m adamant that we need to have some consensus and team-building. My grandfather was kind of like that: [he would say] ‘I want to hear the arguments. Don’t be defensive, and tell me what you think.’

“I don’t perceive myself to be a horseman in the classic sense, but I do have enough common sense to surround myself with good people and then let them do their work, and I have a sense of the business of horses.”

Phillips arrived at Darby Dan in 1986, at a time of great change. Galbreath was 89, just two years away from death, and his son, Dan – for whom the farm was named – was soon to be consumed by family-business affairs away from the farm. Meanwhile, the game itself was rapidly shifting from private homebreeding to commercial breeding, and the kind of sires Darby Dan had stood – those with stamina and turf prominent in their pedigrees and performances – were going out of fashion as commercial breeders and their customers looked for fast-maturing sprinter types.

“We were changing from stallions that were classically oriented and closely held to stallions that were broadly held and who had to relate to the commercial market as much as they had to relate to the racetrack,” said Phillips, Darby Dan’s owner since 1997, two years after Dan Galbreath’s death. “Horses who had very useful, if not excellent, progeny may not have been commercial successes. And, conversely, there were horses who had tremendous commercial success who were merely useful stallions.

“On top of that landscape, there was a real change to American speed. While the Derby was still the race everyone wanted to win, the distance races seemed to lose their appeal in the ’90s.”

Darby Dan, by contrast, was famous for John Galbreath’s investment in classic horses. He had imported the undefeated Ribot and multiple champion Sea-Bird from Europe and stood 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps and 1959 Belmont winner Sword Dancer, both of whom had average winning distances of more than a mile.

Those sires had been hugely successful for Darby Dan in Galbreath’s day. Ribot got His Majesty and the speedy Graustark, and Swaps sired Darby Dan’s first Kentucky Derby winner, 1963 victor Chateaugay. Then came 1967 Derby winner Proud Clarion, 1972 Epsom Derby winner Roberto, 1974 Preakness winner Little Current, and 1985 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Proud Truth.

In a nod to the changing fashion of the 1980s and ’90s, Darby Dan brought in what Phillips called “an unusual acquisition for us,” Meadowlake, from Florida in 1991. “But Darby Dan was probably more stubborn or less flexible than some farms because we really never got into standing just the pure sprinters,” Phillips said. “The sole exception might have been Star de Naskra, late in his career, but that was a different scenario.”

Today, Darby Dan’s stallion roster features young performers brimming with potential. Its highlights this year are three Grade 1 winners just entering stud: 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford ($20,000 stud fee), 2011 Florida Derby hero Dialed In ($7,500), and 2010 Cigar Mile victor Jersey Town ($10,000). Another young stallion, graded stakes winner American Lion ($5,000), has his first crop of foals this year, while 2008 Wood Memorial winner Tale of Ekati ($15,000) is a first-crop yearling sire in 2013.

Among its more established sires, Darby Dan has Canadian turf champion Perfect Soul ($7,500), the sire of Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Perfect Shirl; seven-time graded stakes winner Magna Graduate ($5,000), whose runners include Grade 3 winner Blueeyesintherein and recent Keeneland maiden winner Bellarmine; and Run Away and Hide ($5,000), the sire of Southwest Stakes third-place runner Heaven’s Runway and last year’s Grade 2-placed Are You Kidding Me.

The farm also stands the German Group 2 winner Ambassador, the only son of Acatenango at stud in North America, for a private fee.

“The challenge has been to acquire stallions in a disciplined fashion,” Phillips said. “There’s a lot of competition among the stallion farms, and if you get too carried away, you can find yourself upside down on a stallion very quickly now. We’ve missed a lot of opportunities, no doubt. If we’d have stretched on this horse or that horse, we might be in a whole different league. We didn’t, but we’re still here.

“The stallion roster today shows that we’re truly a commercial operation now. There’s not one horse down there that we can say is a Darby Dan-owned horse. They’re owned either by individuals or by syndicates or limited partnerships. And we’re trying to be responsive both to the market and the breed-to-race guys.”

But there are still traces of longtime Darby Dan philosophies in the 2013 roster, Phillips points out. “Shackleford may be the best example because he’s a classic winner,” he said. “The fact that we have a Preakness winner standing in Little Current’s stall, and Little Current won the Preakness, I think that’s a very cool thing. Shackleford represents an updated version of Darby Dan. He had plenty of speed, but he could carry it, and that’s an exceptional quality. He also had heart, and that to me is even more exceptional.”

Phillips said Darby Dan has tried to be creative in marketing stallions, dating back at least to Graustark.

“Everybody wanted a Graustark filly instead of a colt,” Phillips said. “If you looked at him statistically, he produced 50 percent fillies and 50 percent colts, so we priced his stud fee at $75,000 but guaranteed you a filly. If you didn’t get a filly, you paid $25,000. The mean point was $50,000, probably what he should have stood for. But everybody was willing to pay the $75,000 for a filly, and, you know, $25,000 for a colt was still good enough. I knew we’d [average] at that $50,000 stud fee in the end.”

Today, Darby Dan offers a range of breeding incentives, including the Profit Protection plan developed by Davant Latham. Under that plan, a breeder gets the first $5,000 of the sale price for an in-foal mare, weanling, or yearling. Darby Dan and the breeder split the remaining proceeds 50-50 until the stud fee is recouped, and the breeder retains any additional money. The farm also has adopted Spendthrift Farm’s Share the Upside incentive for new sire Jersey Town.

Phillips calls such incentives “risk-shifting mechanisms that allow the risk to be spread more and not all be placed on the breeders’ shoulders,” and he sees them as a natural evolution in light of the large books that today’s stallions can breed. Roberto never covered more than 65 mares in a season, and His Majesty never bred more than 40, Phillips points out, so John Galbreath likely would have been shocked by the 100-plus books that today’s most fashionable stallions have. Phillips, too, isn’t entirely comfortable with that particular innovation.

“But stallion masters are forced to play that game because it’s become a tradition to rank stallions by cumulative earnings,” he said.

Phillips also points to another key ingredient in the farm’s success over many years: the land.

“We’re really blessed here with good land,” he said. “Mating and care of a horse are critically important. You can mess up a lot of horses doing those things wrong. But good land is good land, and it just seems that certain land consistently produces great horses.”

Darby Dan’s productive soil has been contributing to great racehorses since well before John Galbreath owned it. When Galbreath bought it, the land was a central part of Col. E.R. Bradley’s Idle Hour Stock Farm, which had yielded Kentucky Derby winners Behave Yourself (1921), Bubbling Over (1926), Burgoo King (1932), and Brokers Tip (1933).

Two years later, Galbreath – already the owner of Darby Dan in Ohio – hung out the Darby Dan sign in Kentucky and continued a winning tradition that has lasted two more generations, so far.

“The first thing I would say to my grandfather is, ‘Thanks,’ ” Phillips said. “For this house to be built, it needed to have a foundation. It’s been a good ride.”