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Three Chimneys enters new era
LEXINGTON, Ky. - A little more than 23 years ago, Robert Clay stood outside the stallion barn at his Three Chimneys Farm, awaiting the arrival of the undefeated Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, who came to the Midway, Ky., farm after starting his stud career at Spendthrift. Clay hopes he will be waiting for another undefeated Triple Crown winner in the fairly near future, now that Three Chimneys has secured the right to stand Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown at stud in a deal that is believed to put the stallion prospect's value at about $50 million.
Big Brown, a son of Boundary owned by International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Stables, is favored to win the Belmont Stakes on June 7. If he does, it would make him just the second horse in American racing history to become a Triple Crown winner with a perfect record. It would also shower glitter - and priceless publicity - on Three Chimneys as the farm enters a new era under the father-son management team of Robert Clay, 61, and Case Clay, 34, who succeeded Dan Rosenberg as the farm's president last year.
The farm's starry young stallion roster today also includes 2004 Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones. If these young horses hit, they can ensure Three Chimneys a smooth transition into the next generation of ownership. That notion appeals to the elder Clay, who built Three Chimneys from an undeveloped cattle farm into a renowned stallion operation.
In 1985, when Seattle Slew rolled up the driveway, he was the farm's third stallion. Slew o' Gold had launched the farm's stallion barn the year before, and a Three Chimneys syndicate had bought half of Chief's Crown not long before Mickey Taylor and Jim Hill asked Clay if he would like to stand Slew. Clay inked the deal for Seattle Slew almost a decade after the horse won the 1977 Triple Crown, by which point the stallion already had sired Landaluce, 1982's champion juvenile filly, and Swale, the 1984 Derby winner and 3-year-old champion. And Slew already was a proven commodity in the auction ring: In 1984, his $3.75 million daughter Alchaasibiyeh set a then world-record filly price, and his son Amjaad brought $6.5 million at the same auction, Keeneland's July sale.
In contrast, Three Chimneys and IEAH struck the Big Brown deal the morning of the Preakness Stakes. And when the colt eventually steps into his stall at Three Chimneys, it will be as a first-year stallion. He will not be in Seattle Slew's old stall, in case you were wondering; Smarty Jones, whom Three Chimneys added to the roster for the 2005 breeding season, is staying put in that place of honor, said Case Clay.
The younger Clay was just 12 when Slew came to his parents' farm, and he had no particular interest in the horse business, according to his father. He moved to Chicago, trained with The Second City improvisational comedy team, and did a lot of stand-up comedy. But it wasn't all funny business. He also worked at Arlington, Ernst & Young, and the Hyatt Corp., developing an interest in marketing and advertising.
"I wasn't comfortable with the idea of having something handed to me," Case Clay said of Three Chimneys.
A yearlong series of Saturday morning conversations with his dad gradually helped Clay change his mind.
"We talked about business, and he gave a lot of examples from the horse business," Case Clay recalled. "The more I thought about it, the more I thought this would be a lot of fun. Then I shifted my thinking from not wanting something handed to me over to the fact that a lot of family businesses have gone into the second generation and become failures. That's an exciting challenge to me, trying to carry on what dad started, and hopefully he lives a long time and we can have a long period together where I can learn as much as I can."
The younger Clay left Chicago for a stint on the Irish National Stud's course, then a six-month stay in Australia with prominent breeder John Messara, owner of Arrowfield Stud. He came back to Three Chimneys full time in 2006.
Case Clay stepped into big shoes when former president Dan Rosenberg, the Three Chimneys manager since 1978, formed his own consulting business. But he remains on the farm's board and is a valuable source of advice, Clay said.
"The last couple of years he was here, when something difficult came up, we'd say, 'That's a Dan question,' " he said. "I talked to him twice today with two Dan questions. He's like an uncle to me, because I've known him since I was a young kid. What Dan is offering, hopefully for the next 10-plus years, is a bridge, how to deal with difficult situations I've never dealt with before. Good, practical, day-to-day advice."
"I don't think I could have stepped down from Three Chimneys if I hadn't been confident that Case was right there to walk into the shoes," said Rosenberg, 54.
"The first thing I thought was, 'Look at that, Case did that,' " he said of the Big Brown stud deal. "I was so proud and happy for him, because to a large degree, Case drove this and made it happen. I think for anybody who would have any doubts about the future of Three Chimneys now that Dan's gone, boy, those doubts better be dispelled."
Robert Clay felt confident enough in his son's abilities that he left him in charge of settling the Big Brown deal while the elder Clay was vacationing in Peru. He gave him three words of advice: "Close the deal." By Preakness morning, Three Chimneys had an undisclosed minority interest in Big Brown, who, happily for Three Chimneys, went on to romp in the second leg of the Triple Crown.
Big Brown becomes the 11th stallion at Three Chimneys, where the roster currently is tilted toward youth. Including Big Brown, six of their stallions are 10 or younger. The farm's oldest sires are the 23-year-olds Dynaformer, who stands for $150,000, and Rahy, who stands for $60,000.
"That's something we realized a while ago: Our stars were aging," said Rosenberg. "We needed to get some new talent in there, and under Robert's direction, we set goals of getting a top horse every couple of years, getting the top horse every couple of years."
"We have a lot of young rookies in the barn, and the hope is that they can carry the torch," Case Clay said. "Hopefully, you have a Michael Jordan in the barn, but you also need your point guards who might get eight points a game. You want to have stallions at price points for all breeders. So, for example, having Good Reward at $15,000 is an important horse for us, because two-thirds of the breeders are breeding at under $50,000."
Keeping the roster competitive in the commercial breeding world will be key to Three Chimneys' survival into the next generation, Robert Clay believes.
"It's a little like keeping your NBA franchise winning the world championship every year," he said. "You don't have the same roster, so your team's not as strong. There are a lot of rosters that ultimately dissipate, and when that happens, a farm can stop being competitive. That's the real challenge."
Both Clays hope Big Brown will be a strong positive force in the farm's future.
"Rough Shod is in the pedigree three times, twice that you can see and once it goes back through the tail-female line," Clay said. "Rough Shod is responsible for a huge number of stallions. We think there's stallion-making potential in his genetic pool."
Among the Rough Shod family of sires are such names as Nureyev, Sadler's Wells, Topsider, and Stormy Atlantic - names that inspire a great deal of confidence when Clay thinks long-term.
And neither Big Brown's feet nor recent revelations about IEAH founder Michael Iavarone's background has Robert Clay unduly worried. The colt's well-documented hoof cracks appear on the mend and have not, so far, hurt his Triple Crown campaign. Iavarone's background troubles came to light this week, including a $7,500 fine and 10-day suspension in 1999 by the National Association of Securities Dealers for making unauthorized trades at the A. R. Baron & Co. brokerage firm and a $554,156 judgment that Keeneland won against Iavarone when he failed to pay for horses.
"He's been forthright and easy to do business with," Clay said. "Our dealings with him have been nothing but straightforward."
For Clay, it's all about the horse, and this one might just be the next Seattle Slew to take Three Chimneys into the future.
"Every now and then one of these comes along that is so superior to his generation that he is just much, much the best," Clay said. "This appears to be that horse."