10/28/2010 2:57PM

Vessels farm finds strength to carry on


The key was continuity.

In the hours after Scoop Vessels died in a plane crash in Oregon on Aug. 11, Vessels Stallion Farm manager Kevin Dickson mourned with Scoop Vessels’s widow, Bonnie. It was more than just an employee-to-family-member situation. Kevin Dickson is Bonnie Vessels’s brother-in-law.

“That night, she looked at me and said, ‘He would want this to go on,’ ” Dickson recalled this week. “I made my vow that I would do the best I can.”

The day-to-day business at Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall, Calif., has continued with heavy hearts and amid an outpouring of sympathy. At a memorial at the farm on Aug. 16, the family ordered 1,000 chairs, then requested 500 more. When Dickson rose to speak, he saw every chair filled.

“There were probably about 500 people standing,” he said. “There must have been 2,000 people there, give or take. I was with the family before the memorial. I heard that traffic was backed up two miles into Bonsall. I wish I could have seen that.”

More than two months later, Vessels Stallion Farm is preparing for its first breeding season without the leadership of Scoop Vessels. In his place, Bonnie, Scoop’s son Kash, Dickson, and other farm staff have bonded together to run the operation.

“We’re doing it all together,” Bonnie said. “Everyone has their different strengths and we had an incredible teacher. It’s interesting to see how everyone is finding their own personal spot as a team.

“The majority of the crew we’ve had for 20 years. It’s a solid relationship. We’ve been doing it long enough there is no big huge change other than filling the void of Scoop not being here. It’s more of a team effort to think things through and it’s working really well.”

Kash Vessels, 31, has had a more active role at the farm in recent years, and even more so in recent months, Bonnie Vessels said.

“He’s very much involved in the day-to-day,” she said.

Kash is his father’s son in other ways, too. This week, he spent time in Baja, Calif., practicing for the Baja 1000 off-road auto race. Scoop Vessels gave up off-road auto-racing for horse racing in the 1980s. He was once featured on “Wide World of Sports” driving in the Baja 1000.

The youngest son, Colt, 17, attends high school in Indiana, with an eye on veterinary studies. Another son, Bryan, 33, works on the farm.

Speaking of herself, Bonnie says her role continues to be as a liaison to the racing community and to the farm staff.

“It’s pretty much the same as always,” she said. “I do the background work and give everyone heads up with information. Keep the communicating line open with the people we were dealing with before. Be part of the day-to-day stuff. I sat alongside Scoop long enough that was I privy to the stuff that was going on. I did all the matings and with that we’ve got friends that will help on that advice.”

Scoop Vessels, 58 at the time of his death, was a third-generation horseman who had reached the top of both Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred racing, as a past president of the American Quarter Horse Association and a member of Thoroughbred racing’s Jockey Club.

His family founded Los Alamitos Race Course. With a background in Quarter Horse racing, Scoop Vessels stood sires of two breeds, including the all-time leading Quarter Horse stallion, First Down Dash, and the Thoroughbred In Excess, who has led the state’s stallions in progeny earnings in the past, and is currently fourth on that list. There is no farm quite like that in the United States.

“He embraced both breeds in the same fashion,” Bonnie Vessels said. “He did so well. The bottom line is he built this farm for the horse, and the primary focus was for the mares and babies, and to turn the stallions out in grass paddocks and let them be stallions. When he was able to build this place and let the Thoroughbred folks come in, he was very proud to be able to do that. It worked out really well for us.”

Currently, the farm has four Quarter Horse stallions, led by First Down Dash, 26, and four Thoroughbred stallions – Jackpot, In Excess, Momentum, and Square Eddie. During the summer, Square Eddie was put back in training. It is unclear whether he will race in 2011 or go back to stud.

For Saturday’s California Cup program at Hollywood Park, there are four progeny of Momentum and one by In Excess starting in the 10 races. In addition, the farm, as breeder, is represented by Slammer Time in the $75,000 California Cup Juvenile.

Bonnie Vessels said the farm could add another stallion for the 2011 breeding season.

“The horses have always just shown up at different times over the years, like when In Excess arrived,” she said. “I would hope that would still occur.”

Dickson said the outreach of support from racing circles continues.

“He did set us up well with a multitude of resources,” Dickson said of Scoop Vessels. “The predominant comment from people has been, ‘What can I do for you?’

“For me everything has changed. I didn’t realize how close I was to him. There are times when I’m working on something and I think, What would Scoop do? It’s had a major impact. The guy was bigger than life.”

There are no answers regarding the plane crash, Bonnie Vessels said. Scoop Vessels was flying the plane, with a friend as a passenger, bound for a fishing trip in Montana when the accident occurred.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still conducting its investigation, she said.

“That’s something that is still unknown at this point,” she said. “It’s something we’re waiting for.”

Recently, there has been success at the track. At Los Alamitos, 75 miles north of Bonsall, the family won the $153,700 Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Racing Association Derby on Oct. 3 with Whole Lot of Karma, which Vessels co-owns. There weren’t too many dry eyes in the winner’s circle that evening.

In the future, there will be challenges, Bonnie Vessels admits. But the team will be ready, she said.

“We’ve got lots of friends in the industry offering a lot of assistance,” she said. “We can’t be the first generation to drop the ball.”