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Q&A: Ben Walden
In 1986, Ben Walden Jr. was a young man in a hurry. At age 28, he had just opened the doors at Vinery. Within a decade, it would become one of Kentucky’s busiest stallion stations with a 30-horse roster. With horses such as Black Tie Affair, Cryptoclearance, Lost Code, and Red Ransom, Walden pushed traditional limits by breeding to 100-mare books. That strategy brought in more income and put a bumper crop of horses by Vinery stallions on the racetrack. This worked especially well for the farm’s first-crop stallions, a number of whom won leading freshman sire titles with the earnings from their numerous runners.
Twenty-four years later, at 52, Walden is still an energetic businessman and horse breeder with a new farm, the historic Pauls Mill property in Woodford County. But this time, he has scaled back his operation and is enjoying a less stressful lifestyle. Walden plans to maintain his broodmare band at about 20, less than half of what it was in the Vinery days. Pauls Mill’s stallion barn, converted from a former pig barn, has only four stallions, and Walden says he intends to keep it that way.
In June, Pauls Mill welcomed champion and classic winner Summer Bird to its roster, which also includes Bellamy Road, sire of recent Adirondack Stakes winner Position Limit; Artie Schiller, the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner and a freshman sire; and U S Ranger, an Irish champion who stood his first season in 2010.
Walden, the brother of WinStar executive and former trainer Elliott Walden, grew up on his father’s Dearborn Farm near Midway, Ky. After attending Kentucky’s Centre College, he spent time as a patrol judge at Oaklawn Park, Ak-Sar-Ben, and Rockingham Park. He launched Vinery’s stallion operation with Bionic Light in 1986. George Hofmeister joined as a partner, and Walden sold the Vinery operation to Hofmeister in 1998. That left Walden out of the farm business to, he said at the time, “catch my breath.” But in 2000, Walden and his wife, Elaine, bought about 200 acres of the famous Castleton Farm land, which he named Gracefield, for a 15-mare band and re-entered the commercial breeding business. One of his successes from that time was Corinthian, whom he bred in partnership with Hargus Sexton. When show-horse breeders Robert and Lisa Lourie of Spy Coast Farms purchased Gracefield in 2008, Walden found a new farm, Dr. and Mrs. Herman Playforth’s former foxhunting haven, Valhalla. Walden restored the 260-acre property’s original name, Pauls Mill, and devoted himself to developing a Thoroughbred nursery while preserving the farm’s sense of history.
By that point, Walden had stepped back into the stallion business, this time as part of a partnership with Pat Madden, Brad Kelley, and David Hanley. The group bought Hurricane Hall in 2006 and stood horses there until the partnership split, with Hanley going on his own and Kelley purchasing the Hurricane Hall property. Walden and Madden bought the others out of the stallion business, which moved to Pauls Mill.
Today, Walden works at his father’s old desk, which he moved to his second-floor office in the farm’s former mill.
Daily Racing Form bloodstock business correspondent Glenye Cain Oakford interviewed Walden at the farm earlier this month.
It had appeared for a while as if you were almost out of the stallion business. Why did you get back in?
Pat Madden, myself, David Hanley, and Brad Kelley, the four of us owned Hurricane Hall together and were going to stand stallions over there. You had four really bright – me excluded – guys that were all successful. But partnerships are hard. We’re all friendly. Brad decided to buy the real estate from the company for his mares; he didn’t want to deal with the stallions. I was building this farm, and it became apparent the partnership was going to dissolve. I called my brother and asked if he’d have any interest in talking to us about standing Artie Schiller and Bellamy Road, maybe moving them over to WinStar. And I called one or two other major farms. We were really high on the horses. I thought they were two young stallions anybody would love to have in their barn.
But I was sitting out here one day, and I’d had a drink, and I walked out and looked across that creek bottom. There was nothing there – no fences, nothing, and barely a road, just a gravel road. I thought, “I could see four paddocks there. No more, but I could see four.” By that time, Pat and I had bought out David Hanley, who is one of the most gifted horsemen I’d ever met. But he’d had it with the whole thing and wanted to move on and do his deal at Whitechurch. I hadn’t planned to sell Gracefield, but this showhorse lady wanted it; it was so close to the Horse Park, with the [World Equestrian] Games coming there. So I called Pat and said, “I think we ought to stand them out here. I can make it work.”
What sort of mix are you looking for, and what types of horses do those four stallions need to be?
It would be grandiose for me to answer that, like there’s a formula or blend for filling those four stalls. The fact is, stallions are so hard to get. The common denominator we’re looking for to fill all four stalls is quality and value, to be honest.
You have said that Dr. K. K. Jayaraman and his wife, Dr. Devi Jayaraman, kept 15 shares in Summer Bird and you bought 35. Just days after he arrived at your farm, those shares appeared to be selling fast. Why do you think that happened at a time when the stallion market is so difficult?
Yes, he’s a great horse, but a big part of the reason it was a fair deal. Eighty thousand a share. We’re not going to talk about a fee yet, but people know generally where he’s going to fall. That’s a ratio of anywhere from 3 1/2 to four seasons per share. Going back six or seven years ago, the ratios were eight to 10 seasons a share. This is getting back to where people can survive and make it work.
Back then, the market for stallion prospects was so fierce that some of the big stud farms were buying into 2-year-olds to get their breeding rights down the road. How much easier is it now to find and acquire a good stallion prospect with which you can make a living? Is it possible now to get a bargain on a good stallion?
Yes, I found one. People tend to work backwards on valuing a stallion. Really, the most salient starting point to value a stallion with is fee. You work from the fee up; you don’t work from the value back to the fee. During the heyday, when the business was blown up, people were putting these values on horses and then trying to make the fee work. They should be asking, “What fee could I stand this horse for? What is his place in the marketplace?”
I didn’t think I had a chance to get Summer Bird. And I told Dr. Jayaraman, “Doc, five or six years ago, this would have been a $7 million or $8 million to $10 million horse. I’m probably not going to get the horse. You’ve probably got more money out there for him, but I feel probably somewhere between $15,000 and $25,000 is where his stud fee needs to be. He would have been $30,000 to $50,000 six years ago.” And he said, “I agree.”
See, he’s been buying stud fees for 20 years. He’s been on the other side. He used to buy them from me at Vinery, and we developed a relationship.
Those boom years you mention were also characterized by expanded books of mares for those stallions. That big-book trend was something you pioneered at Vinery, and it helped turn some horses into leading freshman sires. But we’ve seen some blow-back from breeders who don’t like those big books. How do you feel about big books and dual-hemisphere shuttling today?
I don’t have any desire to shuttle, and, in fact, we’re not going to shuttle Summer Bird. Dr. Jayaraman didn’t want to, and I don’t want to. And I don’t have any desire to breed 150 mares to him. We were on the leading edge of that, and it was never for philosophical reasons, to make a horse. To be very frank, we were a young farm that had its fair share of debt, and we were trying to pay our bills. We would buy those horses – like Twilight Agenda, Marquetry, Black Tie Affair, Lost Code, and Cryptoclearance – at a time when the market was suppressed then like it’s starting to get now, so we could buy those horses right. We were breeding a lot of mares to those horses, and it was great cash flow. We were getting ourselves capitalized and putting ourselves in a position to grow and buy the next one. That was the whole basis for that approach.
We learned very quickly, as the traffic in our breeding shed escalated, we started getting blow-back then from the breeders. They would get incensed when they couldn’t make that call to book a mare and get in right when they wanted. Back then, you didn’t book five days out. Horses that were breeding 65 mares or 70 mares at the most, you could call on Monday and need to breed on Tuesday afternoon, it was never an issue. As we started breeding more, we got problems, too. We were stressed out.
Other than stress on you, was there a larger downside?
I think it stresses the horses. At that time, in terms of infrastructure and personnel, we were set up for smaller books. So pretty quickly we started to burst at the seams administratively. It has effects, but you do adapt to that over time. It didn’t take us long to realize we needed more people, and stuff like that. Now people are set up for those numbers, and they’ve been trained from Day 1 for those numbers.
Elaine and I really wanted to emphasize quality of life. I’m 52, and it seems like yesterday I was 28 at Vinery. We really want to try to have 35 nice mares and four nice stallions. I wanted to syndicate these horses, not just to gain support for capitalizing the horses. I really think we’ve gotten away from the syndicate, and a lot of smaller breeders have lost the opportunity to earn their way into an equity position and have something at the end of the day if they’ve made a good decision on a horse to breed to. That’s where I’ve taken a lot of pride. First of all, having a four-horse business plan, it’s a lot easier to syndicate one horse a year than it is in a bigger operation. There’s only so many people out there right now, quite honestly, that really want shares. There aren’t that many people who are feeling their oats about buying shares. But if you buy a horse right and let people, in turn, buy into them right, that’s a lot of the fun: getting people back into some shares.
One irony in the breeding economy now is that breeders have complained over the last decade that there were fewer syndicated stallions, but now that you, for one, are offering syndications, it’s financially more difficult for many breeders to invest in them.
The banks won’t give them the money. That’s why one of the things I did was talk to Dr. Jayaraman into working with me to offer some terms to some of the breeders. Some of these breeders that don’t have a bunch of cash laying around and their banks are tightening up, I basically said, “We can give the terms.” That’s helped us move some shares, too.
It’s satisfying for me − having started out as a small breeder, having built Vinery catering to the smaller breeder − to kind of come full circle, only on a much smaller scale, and getting some shares back into some breeders’ hands.
At Vinery, I was a great example of the Peter Principle. We had 700 horses in our system – mares, foals, yearlings. We were selling a couple hundred yearlings; we were the biggest Keeneland September consignor by numbers, not by gross. We had 30 some-odd stallions when George Hofmeister bought the farm. I had reached the point where I was maxed out. You learn, if you’re blessed enough to learn from your mistakes. So this has been great.