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Ruler On Ice's breeders make a winning team
LEXINGTON, Ky. − If anyone knows about going a distance on the track, it’s Rob Whiteley and Pam Robinson. Both are athletes themselves: In her first career, Robinson directed a graduate-level sports medicine program, and Whiteley, who lettered in seven collegiate sports, was still competing successfully in distance races in his 60’s. So even though Whiteley’s Liberation Farm in Califon, N. J., is a long way geographically from the Brandywine Farm Robinson and her husband, Jim, own in Paris, Ky., the two operations are close neighbors when it comes to the philosophy of breeding and raising Thoroughbred athletes. Liberation Farm and Brandywine Farm quietly have been churning out stakes winners all decade, and the volume went way up Saturday, when Ruler On Ice won the Belmont Stakes at 24-1.
It’s fair to say that Ruler On Ice wouldn’t be here today without Whiteley. Now 67, Whiteley has a history with the colt’s bloodlines going back to 1989, when Whiteley bought Ruler On Ice’s paternal great-granddam for his then-boss, the financier Carl Icahn. As manager for Icahn’s Foxfield operation, Whiteley was looking for some good broodmares at Fasig-Tipton’s January sale, and his eye fell on a Grade 1-placed Quack mare named Sociable Duck. He bought the mare for $70,000, much to the amusement of his peers.
“Being the new guy on the block, I remember taking some flak from people for buying a Quack mare,” Whiteley said. “People were making quacking sounds in my direction when I bought her. So it’s nice to be in place to get the last quack.”
Sociable Duck’s foals included Silvery Swan, now the dam of Grade 1 winners Roman Ruler and El Corredor as well as one-time Kentucky Derby hopeful Maimonides, all horses Whiteley bred in partnership. Roman Ruler is Ruler On Ice’s sire.
“It’s very satisfying for a working boy like me to be able to persevere in this tough business of breeding horses long enough to have bred the Belmont winner, the winner’s daddy, and the daddy’s mother,” Whiteley said. “It’s satisfying to see that generational thread develop and be around long enough to see it happen.”
In almost 20 years at Foxfield, Whiteley-planned matings resulted in such horses as two-time champion Silverbulletday and the 2007 Broodmare of the Year, Better Than Honour, who is the dam of 2006 Belmont winner Jazil and 2007 Belmont winner Rags to Riches. Icahn dispersed his bloodstock in 2004, but Whiteley, who also boards mares at Trackside Farm and Montessori Farm in Kentucky, quickly found common ground with the Robinsons.
“Rob has the ability to mate these mares and understands matching up mares and stallions conformationally, and he lays the groundwork in that respect,” Pam Robinson said. “Then, with my previous background as director of the graduate program in sports medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of a human physiology research lab, we do a great job of raising them and putting down a very good physical foundation, in terms of fitness and nutrition. Whether you’re a human athlete or a four-legged athlete, the principles are the same.”
Neither Whiteley nor the Robinsons, both 62, came into the game steeped in Kentucky hardboot traditions. Whiteley became a racing fan as a student at Stanford after visiting Golden Gate Fields. He enjoyed the horses’ and jockeys’ athleticism, then took up handicapping and carried his fascination east when he became a professor of graduate studies at Rutgers in New Jersey, where he privately published a handicapping book and even taught a class on picking winners. He bought his farm in Califon with hopes of starting a commercial breeding program.
“I found it wasn’t commercially viable in New Jersey,” Whiteley said, though he still keeps his farm operational “in case of emergencies” like layups, he said. Eventually, Whiteley joined Fasig-Tipton as president of the company’s appraisal services, and it was from there that Icahn hired him.
The Robinsons, meanwhile, had a sizeable Thoroughbred breeding program in North Carolina, where Pam was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jim, an engineer, worked for GTE. Both were lifelong horsemen and bought their first Thoroughbred broodmare shortly after their marriage in 1971. While working full-time, they grew their horse operation to 100 mares and five stallions.
“We’re both pretty active, and when we decide to do something, we go for it,” Robinson said. “It’s a passion for us.”
In 1999, the Robinsons moved to the Bluegrass State and opened Brandywine Farm, now covering 600 acres. The same year, Whiteley paid $70,000 for Champagne Glow, the 11-year-old Saratoga Six mare who eventually would make all three of them Belmont-winning breeders.
“When he went out on his own, he was buying some of the same mares we were bidding on, and so we decided to buy some mares together,” Pam Robinson said of Whiteley. “Pretty soon one or two mares became five or six, and now we own about 100 mares.”
“Pam is amazingly knowledgeable about veterinary care and care and maintenance of foals and yearlings, and Jim is extraordinarily multi-talented about all the nitty-gritty it takes to maintain the farm,” Whiteley said. “They make a wonderful team, and their work ethic is nonstop.”
Champagne Glow produced Ruler On Ice at Brandywine on April 2, 2008, and Ruler On Ice had an uneventful upbringing. But he did keep busy.
“I firmly believe that it’s important to start horses out young, with some type of conditioning,” Robinson said. “I tested elite athletes for the U.S. Olympic Committee, in terms of their physiological status, and how many elite human athletes didn’t start when they were young? Very few. You start laying the foundation early.”
Robinson said Ruler on Ice was always precocious.
“I wouldn’t say he had attention-deficit disorder, but he was an active child who always wanted something to do,” she said. The Robinsons gave him a “jolly ball,” a large, air-filled rubber ball with a handle. Designed to keep horses from getting bored in their stalls, the jolly ball was a hit with Ruler On Ice, who picked it up and tossed it against the walls or rolled it around his stall.
The colt’s sales-prep routine provided a lot of fitness work, including a one-mile hand-walk to an automatic horse-walker, where he would walk up to 45 minutes. He also alternated days between exercise in a round pen and on an underwater treadmill.
Ruler On Ice sold to Lori and George Hall for $100,000 at the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale at a time when Thoroughbred prices, like the general economy, were tanking.
“He was a standout yearling, but in that environment, it was nothing to cry about,” Whiteley said.
Whiteley and the Robinsons sold Champagne Glow’s most recent foal, a weanling A. P. Warrior filly, to Susan Casner for $130,000 at the 2010 Keeneland November sale. In both cases, Whiteley said, the partners were fortunate to sell their horses into good racing programs that can maximize any innate talent.
“It took me a while to figure out how to mate Champagne Glow correctly, so I blame myself that some of her earlier foals did not go on as successfully as these last few,” Whiteley said. “But I’m very happy that I haven’t been getting in her way lately.”
Champagne Glow produced her first stakes performer in 2004 at 16, and she has only gotten better since. She foaled Champagne d’Oro, winner of last year’s Acorn and Test Stakes, at 19 and Ruler On Ice at 20. That produce record gives Whiteley and the Robinsons some good ammunition against one of their pet peeves: the Thoroughbred market’s prejudice against mares who are 10 and up.
“If Ruler On Ice doesn’t put the final nail into the longstanding and silly myth and stigma that older mares can’t produce top racehorses, nothing ever will,” Whiteley said. “If an older mare produces a quality-looking foal, it is a quality foal. The genetics don’t change.”
“An older mare is going to tell you when she’s done,” Robinson said. “I think a lot of it has to do with taking really good care of your mares year after year. There’s no reason why, if you have a normal foal, that an older mare’s foal won’t be just as good and, in this case, maybe even better.”
Whiteley and the Robinsons hope Champagne Glow doesn’t have plans to retire just yet, because at 23, she could be in foal again.
“We actually bred Champagne Glow back to Roman Ruler the day before the Belmont,” Whiteley said, “so fingers crossed that she’s carrying a full sibling.”