02/17/2011 3:24PM

Q&A: Antony Beck

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Photos by Z/Keeneland

Antony Beck, president of his family’s Gainesway Farm north of Lexington, Ky., sees himself as a steward of some of the Bluegrass country’s most historic and productive land. But the 125-year-old farm isn’t a fusty old museum relic. Inside its unpretentious, old-fashioned office and its graceful barns, Gainesway hums with the purposeful activity of a modern Thoroughbred business. That’s something Beck, 48, takes seriously: keeping the operation commercially successful, especially during the bloodstock business’s recent downturn.

Beck also has some concerns about Thoroughbred racing’s future in America, particularly its medication policies and aging fan base. And he is in a good position to influence how the industry addresses those issues. A member of The Jockey Club, he also sits on the boards of Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. He is a director of the NTRA’s Horse PAC legislative arm.

Beck’s father, the South African coal magnate and winemaker Graham Beck, purchased Gainesway from John Gaines in 1989. The family has purchased additional land, bringing Gainesway’s total acreage to about 1,500 and reuniting much of the property that James Ben Ali Haggin originally owned more than a century ago. Graham Beck died last July, and his son says he adheres to the same basic philosophy his father did: Honor the land and the horses.

In the last decade, the younger Beck has focused on upgrading the operation’s bloodstock and expanding into weanling-to-yearling pinhooking, leading to good results in the auction ring and at the races. Orientate, a Gainesway-bred son of the farm’s longtime stallion Mt. Livermore, was voted champion sprinter in 2002. Tapit was leading freshman and juvenile sire in 2008. The following year, Birdstone’s first crop included the champion 3-year-old, Summer Bird, and the Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird. Gainesway also co-owned 2010 Travers winner Afleet Express, a son of another young stallion at the farm, Afleet Alex.

At auction, Gainesway’s recent headliners include 2008’s $3.1 million Keeneland September sale-topper Chimayo and Saratoga sale-toppers Kinsella at $2.2 million (2007) and Fairbanks, $1.85 million (2004).

Daily Racing Form bloodstock business correspondent Glenye Cain Oakford interviewed Beck at Gainesway on Jan. 31.

In your view, how bad is the crisis in Thoroughbred racing today? I think it is pretty bad. I think the biggest problem is the demographics. The fans and the players aren’t getting any younger, and we’re not getting any young people coming into racing, and I think that’s the single biggest problem that we face. Some industries and sports have addressed marketing themselves successfully to the population and the fan at large with a central marketing theme, like the NFL or the NBA. But racing is so fractionalized that there are way too many chiefs in the industry. We are a completely disunited industry, especially from a marketing and wagering perspective, and various other things.

Such as medication rules? Yes. Obviously, medication has significantly harmed the breed, and obviously, there’s a debate as to whether the best Thoroughbred stallions in the world are in fact located in the U.S. I’m concerned that in the long run overseas buyers may stop shopping here in Lexington because of that and because of the use of drugs in this country. Certainly, at the Keeneland September sale, which obviously is the main sale in the country, the amount of overseas participation has shrunk over the last few years. The main issue is they’ve already got really good bloodlines that are effective in Europe and in Japan, certainly. But I think the medication issue must weigh on them, as well.

How do medication issues affect you as a stallion buyer? Selecting stallions is a challenge at the best of times, but I always try to get a horse that retired sound. I think soundness is going to play an ever more important role in the industry, particularly as there are fewer racehorses that are lasting. They’re having fewer races per year than they used to. I think sound stallions, sound bloodstock, will be at a premium pretty soon. And I hope people will race their horses longer. It’s the best way to develop a fan base: to let them enjoy watching a great horse win a lot of races and to come back the next year and hopefully do the same.

Who should be the central marketing force for the Thoroughbred sport? Pass.

How do you think Breeders’ Cup is doing in promoting the sport? The Breeders’ Cup is one of the few bright stars of our sport. It’s produced, year on year, wagering increases. It had an extremely good television presence this year. Obviously, that enormous fan element surrounding Zenyatta contributed to that. She has done so much for racing, it’s sort of sad to see her retire and sad to see her get beat. She was just amazing and did so much. But the Breeders’ Cup is a wonderful thing because, basically, three times what breeders pay in – in terms of the $400 foal nomination or the stallion-season money – three times that is paid out in purses. So, from a financial perspective, it’s been a big winner. It creates a venue for all of the top racing people from around the world to get together and watch champions win or lose and champions be crowned. At the same time, Breeders’ Cup needs to get involved, and it has been getting involved, in electronic media and things like Facebook and Twitter to get more fan awareness virally. They’re doing that with a lowish budget, but the numbers are improving. For example, the Breeders’ Cup app for iPhone was the best-received app for any sport. So there are good things they’re doing, and they do have to think outside the box and outside of traditional broadcast. They certainly have the will. It’s a question of the budget.

Given the downturn in the stallion business, how much of a hit has that been to the Breeders’ Cup? They’ve taken a big hit on that, but what they’ve done from this year onwards is include stallion income from all over the world: Europe, Japan, and the Southern Hemisphere. So a large percentage of the decrease will actually be made up from these foreign stallions, and I expect that income may in fact increase. The added benefit, from the fans’ perspective, is that you will have the best horses in the world compete in those races because they’ll all be eligible to compete. It makes Breeders’ Cup the true, true world championship event.

Breeders’ Cup is continually looking for ways to innovate and improve what it does. We’re looking at various things, including the possibility of having one host site going forward. . . . We all work very hard as a team to come up with what is best for Breeders’ Cup, which is generally what is best for the industry.

Are you an outright proponent of having the Breeders’ Cup at one venue? I wouldn’t say I’m outright in favor of it. There’s still a lot of benefit to having some form of a rotation. We’re looking at every single possibility out there.

Gainesway seemed to go through a fallow period a while back. But it’s had a lot of success in recent years, both at the yearling sales and at the farm with young stallions like Tapit, who was 2008’s leading freshman and juvenile sire. What’s been going on behind the scenes that has led to that success? About a dozen years ago, the farm was floundering, to be quite frank with you. We built up a new management team, and it’s a wonderful group of very dedicated, top-notch horsemen. We have a wonderful person who looks after the yearlings and does a great job. It starts with the people. Once we had a good group in place, I felt more willing to invest in bloodstock, knowing that. We bought a few nice horses and been very lucky with some stallions, most notably Afleet Alex, Birdstone, and Tapit. They’ve been very good. I’m hopeful now that Corinthian will produce some high-class, speedy horses. I’d be almost surprised if he didn’t. He’s got an unbelievable pedigree with a real stallion-producing female family. And he was just a great, fast miler.

We’ve been upgrading our broodmares, so then I wanted to upgrade the stallions because I wanted to have better horses for the mares. Now the stallions have gotten really good, and I want to buy even more broodmares. I’ve been very lucky developing some good stakes winners on the track and had a lot of fun racing. Ultimately, I think that’s what everyone in this business enjoys most.

You said the farm was floundering. What were the weaknesses? And what were you looking for to reverse the trend? The stallion roster was aging. The best young stallion on the farm was relocated to another farm in what you’d call a hostile buyout, if that would be the right phrase, and he tragically died shortly thereafter. He was a great stallion: Unbridled. Interestingly, he’s the broodmare sire of Tapit and is the grandsire of Birdstone. . . .

So we set about acquiring a brand-new roster. I was trying to get the best I could – quite simply, really fast horses with good pedigrees. It was expensive to be doing that. We had to invest. But I was very prepared to do it at that time. The gaps in the market are few and far between, but trying to acquire a good horse when he’s had a couple of bad races is a good time to be buying.

Tapit was, as far as I remember, the winter favorite for the Derby. He’d won two amazing races, including a graded stake. He then got this terrible lung infection, and his first race as a 3-year-old was the Florida Derby. He still had this lung infection and managed to just win the Wood Memorial and was third favorite for the Kentucky Derby, where he ran a terrible race on a desperately bad track. So it was lucky to acquire him. He has the most amazing pedigree and a stallion-producing female family. There are phenomenally strong sires in his family, and I love the fact that his sire is Pulpit, who is out of a wonderful Grade 1-winning Mr. Prospector mare. Tapit made me look very smart, but actually I was more lucky than anything else.

Birdstone was an incredibly talented racehorse. He ran nine times: five wins, and off the board in his other starts. When he was game, he was really very, very talented. Marylou Whitney, who owns him, was desirous of his coming here. I can’t claim to be that intelligent, because it was her decision!

We do the best we can with any stallion, of course.

It’s a pretty difficult business these days, especially for young stallions: First of all, I hope horses come down in price so that stallion managers can breed them to fewer mares. We’re at a slight disadvantage because, as a rule, we don’t shuttle stallions. Maybe I’m slightly old-fashioned – I probably am old-fashioned – but I feel like it can stress some horses really badly. So we don’t look for that Southern Hemisphere income. But it’s a challenging side of the sport, and, believe me, it’s enormously competitive.

You mentioned earlier that there’s a debate internationally as to whether the best bloodlines are available anymore in the U.S. How can the industry here turn that around? I think the origins lie in the loose medication policies, and the main way we can dig ourselves out of that is by enacting far stronger medication rules than currently exist. Uniformity would be the gold standard. Certainly, in the last two years there have been several moves in the right direction, but I would like to see a lot more.

I would also add that, in the last 20 years, United States breeders haven’t really supported European-raced horses. That’s an important aspect of it, as well. I think it behooves a stallion farm to bring in some good European-raced horses to improve the breed. There are less drugs in Europe. They don’t allow it. I’d like to see drug use here greatly diminished, if not completely eliminated.

Many breeders still feel stud fees can come down further. Is that likely or feasible from your point of view? It’s market-driven, and it’s driven by demand primarily. Stud fees have more than halved, if you look at the top stallions, from where they were four years ago. Some farms have started extremely innovative approaches just to get mares to their young stallions. I’ve never seen that before. At the bottom end of the market, buyers can pretty much say what terms they want. However, the proven stallions’ books are all full. Possibly stud fees could come down a bit more, but I don’t know.

What lessons do you think the bloodstock business should take out of this downturn? The foal crop is still enormous. I would so much like to see retired racehorses, instead of becoming broodmares, joining the sport-horse world or, hopefully, be able to be retired at one of the retirement facilities rather than enter the breeding herd. As I said earlier, the market has become more and more quality-driven. There’s been a flight to quality. Fewer mares will benefit the industry. I don’t see demand for the sport just shriveling up and stopping – there will be people wanting to race horses, successful people who are naturally competitive and who love the beauty of the horses.