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Q&A: George Isaacs of Bridlewood Farm
Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla., had undergone a long period of transition in the time between the death of venerable owner Arthur Appleton in January 2008 to the farm’s purchase by Liberty Media Co. chairman John Malone and his wife, Leslie, in August 2013.
The steady hand through it all has been general manager George Isaacs, who has held the position at Bridlewood Farm since 1996. Under his management, the farm has bred more than 100 stakes winners and helped develop runners for clients – including dual classic winner Smarty Jones – while also standing stallions including Skip Trial, Stormy Atlantic, Halo’s Image, and Put It Back.
Today, Isaacs is working to rebuild the Bridlewood Farm brand for the Malones after the Appleton broodmare band was largely dispersed. The operation hasn’t been afraid to make a statement at auction, with high-profile purchases including Serena’s Harmony, a Tapit filly who was secured at the 2014 Keeneland November breeding stock sale for $3 million, a North American weanling record.
Bridlewood Farm also stands a seven-horse stallion roster that includes champion sprinter Big Drama, whose first foals are 3-year-olds of 2016, and Grade 3 winner Chitu, who debuts at stud this year.
A Kentucky native, Isaacs worked under Stanley Petter at Hurricane Hall Stud and Joe Taylor at Gainesway, where he was eventually promoted to assistant stallion manager and yearling manager. He moved to Florida in 1989 to become stallion manager at Bridlewood before moving to Allen Paulson’s Brookside South Farm to serve as general manager three years later. Isaacs returned to Bridlewood after four years away to become the farm’s general manager.
Isaacs spoke about the current state of Florida’s breeding industry, working for the farm’s new ownership, and signing the ticket on a big purchase.
How would you assess the current state of the Florida breeding program?
It’s evolving at the moment, probably somewhat dynamic. You have a very committed core group of smaller breeders, and even some of our bigger operations here in Ocala that are still very committed to the Florida breeding industry. Over the last several years, the foal crop numbers reflect that more mares are being bred again in Florida. When the market corrected in 2008, obviously the mare population contracted greatly, but that’s starting to improve again. I would say that things are on the rise, slowly but steadily.
What do you see as the most important issue facing Florida breeders in 2016?
The most tenuous subject of the day is decoupling and how that affects racing and ultimately breeding here in Florida. Quite honestly, I’m not sure anybody totally understands what the implications of that may or may not be. I would say it’s fair to say if decoupling itself occurred and there weren’t any subsidies put forth by the state, it would have a very disadvantageous effect on not only the Florida racing industry, but the Florida breeding industry.
Having been a part of the state’s Thoroughbred industry for more than 25 years, how does today’s industry climate in Florida compare to when you first arrived?
I think life is all about evolution. What I’ve seen probably the most since I’ve moved here is you’ve had several of these big, iconic Florida racing and breeding operations close, and I think that’s just the cycle of life. You have the ownership pass away and their children weren’t committed to the perpetuity of the operation, so that’s somewhat cyclical.
It’s refreshing that some of the operations do carry on, particularly with Bridlewood. I pinch myself every day that I’ve been with the farm this long and worked with great owners like the Appletons and then was able to move the farm forward with the Malones and have a new lease on life. We all have a spring in our step around here because we have such a vibrant operation again.
How have things changed at Bridlewood Farm since the Malones bought the operation in 2013?
It would be an understatement to say they are tremendous people. They’re all about quality, and they are great stewards of land. I think there’s a reason Mr. Malone is the No. 1 landowner in the United States – he loves land, and he loves preserving land, and he loves everything that land stands for.
Typically, he purchases properties that have a very significant history and a path of sustainability. I think that’s what intrigued him the most about Bridlewood. He came here to see the farm, we met, I was able to show him that Bridlewood was able to be a sustainable commercial operation that can carry its own weight but has this great history of racing, raising, and breeding horses, and everything that you want to enjoy as a large farm owner. He embraced that, and his orders to me were, “Let’s do what you did, focus on quality, and I’ll give you the resources you need to make it bigger and better.”
Can you describe the Malones’s philosophy toward approaching the racing and breeding industries?
I spent a lot of time trying to determine what made them tick, and the more I talked to them, the more I could tell that they’re more breeders at heart than racers, or necessarily want the limelight of being in the winner’s circle.
They enjoy everything about the farm. They enjoy the interaction with the animals. They enjoy the idea of creating something special. Their hearts really line up with what I would call breeders. They don’t take the viewpoint that they’ve got to do this all today, so our philosophy is we want to focus on having a very high-quality broodmare band. We want to breed to the upper-end stallions on the market. We also will probably invest in the higher-end stallions in Kentucky, and we just want to build a significant program that centers around breeding our own high-quality horses.
We’ll try to find a nice balance between selling some and racing some, always with the eye on the ball that we’re going to try to add the fillies back to the broodmare band, cull aggressively, and over time develop a very significant broodmare band.
How is Serena’s Harmony progressing?
Serena’s Harmony is doing very well. She was a perfect specimen as a weanling, she’s stayed that. She’s grown, and now she’s doing extremely well as a 2-year-old. She’s doing very well physically, and she’s training very forward. She won’t even be a full 2-year-old until the end of March, so we’re going to let her show us what she wants to do and take us there. She’s certainly precocious enough that she should start as a 2-year-old, but I like to develop horses slowly so they’ll be around longer, so we don’t have to see her at Saratoga to make us happy.
We’re just training her on the farm for now, we haven’t decided who the trainer at the track will be just yet.
Can you talk about what was going through your head as the bidding hit $3 million for Serena’s Harmony and the ticket was headed to your seat?
I can tell you, when you sign a ticket like that, it’s certainly emotionally charged. It’s a little bit daunting in the sense that it’s a lot of money, but the filly is absolutely a blue hen-type family that you can buy into once in a blue moon. She cost what she did. It wasn’t artificial. There was plenty of live action on her.
I told Mr. Malone before we went into the ring that I thought she’d cost $2.5 million or so. I didn’t necessarily expect it to go to $3 million. We had already determined that she would be expensive, but Mr. Malone is a brilliant businessman, to say the least, and he understands the cost of acquisition for assets can sometimes be expensive, but that’s part of getting established and building your business, so we determined a significant budget on acquisitions. I’m not over-budgeted, but I reach for what I want to reach for and stood on the sidelines for what I don’t want.
Is there an additional feeling of responsibility on your part in raising such an expensive horse? Additional pressure/concern?
My philosophy with raising horses is raising them rough and tumble and treating them like a horse instead of treating them like fine china. If you hothouse a horse and treat them like fine china, that’s how they’re going to end up. They’re going to end up being soft and they’re not going to hold together. You’re not doing yourself a service by trying to treat expensive horses like they’re not a horse.
With Serena’s Harmony, she came from Kentucky from the sale, she arrived in the morning and I took her temperature that morning, I took her temperature that afternoon, and then I kicked her out that afternoon with six other weanling fillies and she was out that night. She never turned a hair, and we never looked back. She’s been raised in a big 25-acre field with those six other fillies since she’s been here.
Big Drama did well with his 2-year-old runners last year. How big of a relief is it for a stallion to get out of the blocks well in his first year, and what do you hope to see from his runners going forward?
When the ownership of Big Drama called me to consider taking the horse for last year’s breeding season, I had followed his career, I had watched him start out here in Ocala, and as somebody that’s well aware of what’s going on in the marketplace, I had speculated that it would be a close race between him, First Dude, and Gone Astray. Those were the logical leading first-year sires in Florida, and Big Drama had a very good showing.
Big Drama was a Breeders’ Cup winner, he’s a big, good-looking horse, he throws himself, his yearlings sold well, his 2-year-olds sold well, and several of those went on to win impressively. He’s throwing a nice, high-quality animal that’s got plenty of speed. He’s a big horse that stands over some ground. While he was a sprinter, I personally think the pedigree says that he will get a classic-distance horse. Look at his sister [Sheer Drama]. His sister’s a heck of a good two-turn horse that’s a multiple Grade 1 winner, so I think it’s in the cards that he could get a classic-distance horse.
If you could change one thing about the Thoroughbred industry, what would it be?
If I could wish one thing for the horse industry, it would be that the industry would have a commissioner that would help resolve a lot of the issues of our racing and breeding products.
When you compare us to Europe and other jurisdictions that are operating on zero drug tolerance and in a much purer form, I think that would be the start of what the commissioner could work on – having a complete, fair drug policy, and making sure it’s enforced implicitly. That would go a long way on starting to improve our image as we’re viewed by the rest of the world.