10/23/2003 11:00PM

Spendthrift may see another heyday

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - In late 2000, when Kentucky horseman Bruce Kline went shopping for a farm, he never dreamed he'd end up buying one of the showplaces of the Thoroughbred industry.

But now that he and his partners have bought Spendthrift Farm, their goal is to return it to prominence with a stallion roster that eventually will include Grade 1 winners Cuvee, one of the favorites in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Whywhywhy, son of popular Spendthrift stallion Mr. Greeley.

That's a big step forward for Spendthrift - which had only a handful of horses under its former owner, Ted Taylor - and for Kline.

"The Cuvee deal let people know we're serious," Kline said. "We're getting calls now, instead of having to make them."

In 2000, Kline was manager of Dixiana Farm in Lexington, which he co-owned with Marylou Wibel. When Wibel decided to sell the nursery, it put Kline in the market for some property. Just a few miles from Dixiana, Spendthrift was owned by Taylor, an Alabama attorney who was anxious to sell. He had reduced the price for the 380-acre farm to $4.75 million.

The two men - and the deal - came together one night at Malone's, a Lexington steak house that is popular with horsemen. "Ted Taylor happened to walk in while I was there having dinner," Kline recalled. "After a couple of bottles of wine, I was feeling pretty bold, and I turned to the people I was with and said, 'We're going to buy a farm tonight.' "

Kline wrote an offer on a napkin and sent it across the restaurant to Taylor, who responded by crossing out the figure and writing a new one. The negotiations continued like this as the dinner courses came and went, until finally the men had struck a deal.

Kline rapidly put together a partnership to make the purchase. That group now includes Frank, Denise, and Alexandra Nastasi, owners of Pinebourne Farm in New York; Richard, Ingrid, and Cass Anderson of Anderson Hill Farm in Vermont; prominent steeplechasing owner Gillian Johnston; and Marvin Herb of Chicago, a Coca-Cola bottling executive.

Suddenly, Kline was the master of one of Kentucky's storied properties, the breeding operation that Leslie Combs II had made legendary with such stallions as Nashua and Raise a Native. The great Seattle Slew got his start there, as did Affirmed, extending Spendthrift's reputation as a premier stallion station into the early 1980's. The farm went public in 1983 under the leadership of Combs's son Brownell, but it fell into bankruptcy in 1988.

Kline, 52, has been in the Thoroughbred game for three decades. He grew up in Pennsylvania riding foxhunters and show horses, then headed to the racetrack at age 16 to work for the late trainer John Tammaro. From there he went to manage a farm in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, then arrived at Dixiana, where he stayed for 13 years.

Kline has made headlines once before. That was in 1999, when Dixiana, on Kline's watch, sold then-yearling Dubai to Dubai for a client and set a September yearling sale record of $3.9 million.

Since taking possession of Spendthrift in January 2001, Kline has made several moves that suggest he's serious about putting Spendthrift back at the top of the commercial breeding game. He started by bringing virtually all the stock from Dixiana.

"We already had the nucleus of the business from Dixiana," Kline said. "We brought every stallion and all the employees. I felt like Moses, moving all those horses, cattle, and equipment. We even brought the cats."

Since arriving, Kline said, "We've expanded in every direction. We've increased the stallion roster, taken in more breeding clients, and increased the number of yearlings we've sold in the past couple of years."

In addition to acquiring half-interests in Cuvee and Whywhywhy, Spendthrift has nearly doubled its acreage. Last December, the farm purchased almost 350 acres from the adjacent Plum Lane Farm, another famous local nursery, which Henry White ran for the Lebus family. That brings Spendthrift's land to more than 700 acres.

"This will be a great place to raise babies," Kline said. "The bulk of our mares and foals will reside here when it's completely renovated. We currently have about 100 mares, and we'll be able to easily double our numbers."

But the heart of Spendthrift remains the stallion barn, just as it was when Combs opened shop in the late 1930's. There are now 10 Spendthrift stallions. Mr. Greeley, who will stand in 2004 for $50,000, leads the list in stud fee and prominence. The others are Chief Seattle ($10,000), Pikepass ($7,500), Prized ($5,000), Sefapiano ($5,000), Wild Wonder ($5,000), Down the Aisle ($3,500), Peruvian ($2,000), Fly Till Dawn ($1,500), and Little Missouri ($1,000).

That list will grow by two when Cuvee and Whywhywhy arrive, and Kline said there's room for four more after that.

Buying into well-bred, promising colts early is one way to avoid expensive bidding wars for their breeding rights once they've become established runners. The investment in 2-year-old Cuvee seems to be paying off already. "Every farm that wants to go into the breeding business today needs to shop early," Kline said.

In the future, some of the new stallions might be homebreds, if Spendthrift's long-term plan is successful.

"We're purchasing a fair number of fillies to race," Kline said. "We're also increasing the quality of our own mares, and once those get into production, that will be significant."

Those mares of the future include promising 2-year-old fillies Audrey Hep (Crafty Prospector) and Stellar Jayne (Wild Rush), who have both won two of their first three starts. Those fillies are among about a dozen Spendthrift horses in training with an array of trainers.

"We want to be 80 to 90 percent commercial, but we also want to retain some horses for the purposes of partnering out or putting back into our breeding program," Kline said.

"That reflects the desire of the investors," said Jack Smith, a bloodstock agent and one of a team of Spendthrift advisers that also includes insurance agent Nick Strong and veterinarian Chuck Kidder. "They want to see a return on their investment, but they also want to be represented by a horse on Saturday at the racetrack."

In the Breeders' Cup on Saturday, Cuvee was to carry the hopes not only of owner Ronald Winchell, but also of Spendthrift. The farm's future will depend in part on how well Cuvee and the rest of the farm's stallions can perform through their progeny. If Kline's gamble pays off, Spendthrift could be well on its way back.

"Not a week goes by that we don't get a call from someone who remembers this place from its heyday," Kline said. "We get cash in the mail from people wanting to buy Spendthrift caps, people from all over the world. They all want to see this place shine again."