01/10/2014 5:43PM

Q & A with Mandy Pope

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Barbara Livingston
Mandy Pope, pictured with Groupie Doll's trainer Buff Bradley, bought the champion racemare at the Keeneland November sale for $3.1 million. Few buyers have kept a higher profile in the auction market in the last two years than Mandy Pope, who also owns Horse of the Year Havre de Grace.

Over the past two years, few buyers have made a bigger splash in the auction market than Mandy Pope of Whisper Hill Farm.

The Citra, Fla., resident purchased the most expensive broodmare in North America in both 2012 and 2013 and has shown a flair for buying fan favorites who make their way through the auction ring.

In 2012, Pope grabbed headlines as the high bidder for 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, buying her for $10 million at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky select fall mixed sale, a record price for a broodmare prospect sold at public auction. A day later, Pope bought 2011 Kentucky Oaks winner Plum Pretty for $4.2 million at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale. Pope sent Havre de Grace to Tapit for her first mating and Plum Pretty to Distorted Humor.

Last year, Pope again closed the deal on the most expensive broodmare of the season, going to $5.2 million at the Fasig-Tipton fall select mixed sale to land Betterbetterbetter, a Group 3-placed Galileo mare in foal to War Front. She then bought champion Groupie Doll for $3.1 million at the Keeneland November sale, four days after the mare won her second consecutive edition of the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

Pope boards her mares at Wayne and Cathy Sweezey’s Timber Town Stable in Lexington, Ky.

The shift toward high-profile offerings has been a fairly new development for Pope, whose first seven-figure purchase at auction came at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale, where she spent $1 million for an Unbridled’s Song filly eventually named Silvery Starlet.

“I particularly wanted an Unbridled’s Song filly at the time, and I kept getting outbid on them,” Pope said. “I was very excited when we got her, and as I did with all of these [purchases], my hands were shaking, and I’m not sure if you can read my signature on the papers. It’s very thrilling and scary all at the same time.”

But Pope, 59, is no newcomer to the Thoroughbred business. A native of North Carolina with a background in show jumping, Pope began working with broodmares at the late George Steinbrenner’s Kinsman Stud in Ocala, Fla., in 1980 and managed broodmares and stallions at Heather Hill Farm before forming Whisper Hill Farm with her father, the late John Pope. Before moving closer toward being a breed-to-race operation in recent years, Whisper Hill was primarily a commercial one.

Pope co-owns a family-grown business with her brother, Art: North Carolina-based Variety Wholesalers, which operates discount retail stores in the South.

Today, Pope owns more than 100 horses, from youngsters, horses of racing age, and broodmares, to a group of 15 to 20 retirees.

Among the best runners bred by Whisper Hill Farm are Grade 1 winner and millionaire Tizway and Sam P., who competed in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Her racing stable is currently led by Mylute, co-owned by GoldMark Farm, who ran fifth in the 2013 Derby and finished third in the Preakness.

After such a busy year of buying and breeding big-name mares, how would you describe your 2013?

“Very scary [laughs]. Just realizing the enormity of it all and realizing the responsibility that we have; just taking care of these great mares, and then all the responsibility of trying to pick the perfect stallions for them so they become stakes-producing mares.”

You’ve purchased several horses who came with big fan followings, securing them often after dramatic bidding wars. How have you managed to handle that aspect of buying and owning those mares?

“I kind of like staying in the background. I don’t really like being in front, so a lot of [the publicity] with the big mares has gone toward Timber Town – people know that’s where they are, so people get in touch with Wayne and Cathy out there and want to go see them and ask them about them. They kind of handle most of that.

“With Groupie Doll and all of her fans, I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails and notes about her, and there again, [trainer and former co-owner] Buff Bradley is the one that knows her and the fans, so he’s also getting the letters and the e-mails, and he’s helping me with that.”

Has there been a particular piece of fan interaction that really stuck with you?

“More than just any one particular thing, just generally with all three of the mares [Havre de Grace, Plum Pretty, and Groupie Doll], I have people that I don’t know come up at the sales and at the racetrack thanking me for getting them and knowing that they will have a good home and that they are staying in this country. That meant a lot.”

What are the plans for Groupie Doll?

“She’s doing great. She’s in training at GoldMark Farm, and she’s scheduled to have a little breeze on [Jan. 4]. If all goes well, she’ll ship down to Buff at Gulfstream, and then we are looking at either the [Grade 3] Hurricane Bertie at Gulfstream [on Feb. 9] or, within a few days of that, there is a Grade 2 at Santa Anita [the Santa Monica Stakes on Jan. 25], so we are hoping to run her one more time. Everything’s got to go well, and Buff’s got to say she’s up to the task of putting on a good performance, and then she is going to be bred to Tapit.”

How would you describe your process when you’re selecting broodmares at the sales grounds?

“In the select sales, like the first couple days of Keeneland November or Fasig November, I try to get through and look at most of the mares, particularly at Fasig because it’s a doable process with a limited number of horses. When you look at all of them, you just try to find the horses that really wow you and then see if their pedigree matches up with that. Then, I like to spend time around them, just sitting off to the side and watching them to see how their demeanor is and their personality.

“When we get to the bigger sales, where I can’t get to all of them, then it becomes a selection process of going through pedigree information first and then trying to find the ‘wow’ factor. Most of them, you walk up to one and you know fairly quickly if this is a mare you’re interested in or not. A lot of it is how they present themselves and how they stand, whether or not they’re paying attention to what’s going on, if their ears are back and they’re unhappy to be here or their ears are up and they’re happy to do whatever you ask them to do.”

What goes through your mind in the moments during and after making a big purchase at an auction?

“Obviously, it’s a lot of excitement when you’re in the process – and being competitive, if there’s something that I really like, I have a hard time trying to keep my hand down sometimes when I should. I limit myself. I don’t have a generous amount of money to spend and just start picking them off and buying them as they come up.

“It’s more of a process of getting it down to two or three horses that I really want, and then I’m only going to have that chance to buy them because they’re pretty much on everyone else’s list, too. It’s not like we can say, ‘Well, we missed out on that one, we’ll just find another one,’ because usually there isn’t another one that I really want. If I don’t get that one, then I won’t get anything.”

Do you consider yourself a competitive person?

“Yes. That’s part of what keeps us all going in this game, being competitive in the sales ring and being competitive on the racetrack.”

When you decided you were going to go after Havre de Grace, what were the reactions from the people you told?

“Actually, I told very few people. I personally told probably two people, and they said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Wouldn’t you rather take that money and buy three or four mares instead of all for one?’ But I just absolutely fell in love with her and had the feeling that I was in the presence of her grace and that something wonderful was going to happen with her as long as I took proper care and tried to breed her to the right stallions. It’s going to be very interesting to see how she does with her first foal.”

What is your favorite thing about the Thoroughbred sport?

“The greatest thrill and the reason for all of this is to actually put your hands on the horse, to be in the presence of the horse. It’s the horse. That’s what it’s about. The parties are great and fun, but just the excitement of being a part of such a wonderful creature.

“The other thing is the newborn babies, watching them be born. My goal this year is to be there when Plum Pretty and Havre de Grace actually foal. I used to foal all my mares in Florida years ago, but now they’re all in Kentucky, so I’m going to have to go up there and move in, I guess, with the Sweezeys for a bit.”

What is your least favorite thing about the Thoroughbred industry?

“Probably the fact that horses are as fragile as they are. Having horses break down and have to be put down is absolutely horrific, whether it’s on the track, or I’ve had it happen out in the field, where they step in a hole or slide and break a shoulder. When you have to put them down because they’re 30 years old, that’s one thing, but when something happens to a young, healthy horse, it’s horrible. You always want to blame yourself and say, ‘I shouldn’t have turned [the horse] out that day; the ground was too wet,’ or, ‘I’m never going to race a horse again,’ and you go through that, and it takes a little time to get over it.

“Everyone says this business is a big roller coaster and it’s constantly in motion. Thank goodness, otherwise you can get stuck in the down cycle and want no more to do with it, but it does come back up again.”

What is Mylute up to?

“Mylute is doing very well. He is galloping out at GoldMark. He has grown. He has gotten a little bigger, both in height and body. He filled out well. He’s still just as kind as he ever was, and we’re expecting a big year from him.”

What are you looking forward to most in 2014?

“Getting healthy foals on the ground that have all their legs going in the right direction and are mentally okay. If I can get these foals on the ground, that would be just phenomenal.

“On the racing side, we have Mylute going back to the races, and we have a bunch of yearlings that I bought last year that we’re breaking and looking forward to getting to the track this summer or fall. It should be very exciting on all fronts. We just need a whole lot of luck.”