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Small-scale breeders in classic spot
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Deborah Kopatz, a former steakhouse manager, operates a bail-bonding business in Ohio. Brent Harris was going to be a baseball coach before taking over his grandfather's farm with his wife, Beth, a teacher. Callan Strouss is a manager at Lane's End Farm, and his wife, Darcia, is a hunter-jumper rider.
These individuals lead very different lives, but they do have something in common: small Thoroughbred breeding programs of a dozen or fewer mares. And on Saturday, they will all have starters in the Preakness Stakes.
Kopatz bred King of the Roxy, an $8,000 yearling who has gone on to win more than $466,000. The Harrises bred Mint Slewlep from a four-horse broodmare band. The Strousses bred C P West, who gave them their best-ever auction price when he sold for $425,000 as a yearling.
In the breeding business, big numbers often dominate. Farms with large broodmare populations and stallions with 100-mare books find it easier to make it to the top. But the turf is famous as the great leveler, and the Preakness Stakes should give smaller breeders some hope that a lot of hard work and a little luck can get you a good horse.
"I'll be honest with you, in this business you get lucky sometimes," said Kopatz, breeder of King of the Roxy. "I can tell you, yes, I have the mare, we bred her to Littleexpectations, and we raised the foal properly. But what it all boils down to is: God is the one who made him a good racehorse."
Kopatz, 54, and her husband, Richard, a mechanical designer, own 11-acre Fox Chapel Farm in North Canton, Ohio. Their Thoroughbred breeding program is less a business than a charity, Kopatz quips, because many of their 12 mares are in the 18- to 21-year-old range. King of the Roxy's dam, Marrakesh, is 18 and cost Kopatz $17,500.
"That's the most I've ever paid for a mare," said Kopatz, who says, so far, she hasn't gotten any private offers for Marrakesh.
When King of the Roxy was foaled, it was Kopatz's husband who thought the Littleexpectations colt was something special. He was crushed when his favorite brought just $8,000 at the 2005 Keeneland September yearling sale as the third lot through the ring on the two-week sale's last day.
"No one was there, and anyone who hadn't gone home didn't want to spend their wad that early in the session," Kopatz said.
Buyer Richard Matlow later sold King of the Roxy privately to his current owner, Team Valor Stables.
Kopatz, who operates Action Bail Bonding service out of her home office, isn't quitting her day job. But she has already gotten a financial boost from King of the Roxy's success. Team Valor privately purchased the colt's half-sister, by Bright Launch, from Kopatz last year, money Kopatz plowed back into more broodmare purchases. Marrakesh's current foal, a Bright Launch colt, also could become a more valuable asset if King of the Roxy runs well in the Preakness.
One day before King of the Roxy brought his disappointing $8,000 price at that September sale, breeders Brent and Beth Harris were celebrating a personal best at the same auction with Mint Slewlep. A Slew City Slew colt, he brought a final bid of $43,000 at the two-week sale's next-to-last session, and that was the highest price the Harrises had ever gotten. Brent, 48, and his two brothers - Mike, 50, and Kevin, 44 - run the Bettersworth Westwind Farm near Bowling Green, Ky. Their grandfather J. R. Bettersworth, who founded the nursery, was the breeder of 1976 champion sprinter My Juliet. The family owns just four mares, and Brent Harris says the fact that one of those produced a Preakness starter could be divine intervention as much as anything.
"It's kind of funny," he said. "I'm a Christian man, and I believe in prayer. A few years ago I decided I would start praying about every decision I try to make. So I always prayed before I went to a sale. That mare came through the ring at Keeneland, and for no reason at all I bought her. Before I knew it, I'd bid $15,000 and bought her."
When it came time to breed Mint Slewlep's daam, Cry Me a River, Harris studied the pedigree's past performances.
"The mare's half-sister had a stakes winner by Slew City Slew, so I thought I'd try that, and I could afford it," he said.
Mint Slewlep was Cry Me a River's first foal. She's now in foal to Friends Lake, and Harris says so far he hasn't had any private offers.
"I really like her," he said. "She could get too valuable for me to keep, but I'm happy to keep her."
Callan and Darcia Strouss, who own five broodmares and 60-acre Caldara Farm in central Kentucky, have already realized significant financial gains from C P West. The Strousses had teamed up with Mike Thornton and Callan's cousin David Strouss to pay $115,000 for the Dynaformer mare Queen's Legend in 2001. Mated to Came Home, she produced C P West, who brought $425,000 at auction in 2005.
"I breed most of my mares to Lane's End stallions," said Strouss, 51, who manages Lane's End's Oak Tree division and looks to breed his mares in the $40,000 to $50,000 fee range. "There are so many stallions there and there's such a variety that it's easy to find something that will work with my mares. I always loved Came Home as a racehorse. Those Dynaformer mares can be kind of big, and he struck me as a refined horse that fit the mare. I bred the mare to him two years in a row."
Before C P West won a maiden race, the partnership sold Queen's Legend privately to Larry Byer. The mare's value went up when C P West placed in a pair of graded stakes, but Strouss has no regrets.
"I've got her Dixie Union filly," he said, "and our partnership plans to race her. She's named She's From Queens."
Incidentally, the Strousses aren't the only ones who will be pulling for C P West because they own a half-sister to him. The first foal Queen's Legend produced for them broke her hip, and Callan gave her to the University of Kentucky's Department of Animal and Food Science. Named Dara, the Diesis filly is now a broodmare whose foals are bred and sold by UK students, usually at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky winter mixed or October yearling sale. If C P West performs well on Saturday, the mare's King Cugat colt could become a lesson in profit.
"It's very exciting," said Dr. Laurie Lawrence, 54, an equine nutritionist and UK professor. "Our mares are donations, and we're always trying to increase the quality of the mares we have. Many times we get mares with really nice pedigrees, but we don't get them until they're old, and it's difficult sometimes to get many foals out of them. So when we got a mare like this that was donated as a yearling, it was a great thing for us."
C P West's future races could affect where and how Dara's King Cugat foal ultimately sells.
"We have talked to Fasig-Tipton about that if we have a nice enough foal, maybe we could go in their November select sale," Lawrence said. "We'll just see how it goes and how the baby does."