NICHOLASVILLE — Ken Ramsey unleashed his signature laugh when he talked of running a "democratic dictatorship," but there was only a grain of jest in that statement. While the 77-year-old Artemus native considers the opinions of others, more often than not he heeds his gut.
In spring 2003, Ramsey listened to a pitch for one of Ramsey's colts, which brought a final bid of $95,000 but failed to meet his reserve at the Ocala (Fla.) Breeders' April 2-year-olds in training sale.
"The guy called me probably about 10 to 15 minutes after he went through the ring ... and said, 'Would you mind telling me what (the reserve) was' and I said, '$99,000,'" Ramsey recalled. "He said, 'I'll give you the $95,000; that was my last bid, and I said, 'No, it takes $100,000,' and he hung up."
Ramsey wasn't going to back off from what he thought — no, knew — was right.
And don't ask him to think too much about what might have been had a deal been reached.
That colt was Kitten's Joy, who has become the franchise stallion for Nicholasville-based Ramsey Farm.
Instead of looking back, the man with the widest smile and some of the biggest ambitions in Thoroughbred racing spends all of his time making sure Kitten's Joy and his homegrown operation reign above all others.
For all the honors Ken and Sarah Ramsey's racing and breeding operation has earned during the past two decades, the two have never held their current position — the nation's leading owners in earnings, stakes wins and graded stakes victories — while also standing the leader on the general sire list — their homebred stallion Kitten's Joy.
Operations such as Claiborne, Phipps Stables and Juddmonte have long enjoyed top-level racing success with homebreds. However, in recent times, no single stallion has so thoroughly powered a farm the way Kitten's Joy has the Ramseys'.
Of the 43 stakes winners the 12-year-old chestnut has produced — including 22 this season — 41 have been bred by the Ramseys, a statistic that only begins to illustrate how much has been vested in the champion turf male of 2004. The upcoming Breeders' Cup World Championships at California's Santa Anita Park on Friday and Saturday will serve as a microcosm of Kitten Joy's reach, as six of the Ramseys' seven expected starters — including Grade I winners Big Blue Kitten, Real Solution and Kitten's Dumplings — are his offspring.
For all the polished hardware displayed throughout the house and offices on Ramsey Farm, nothing matches the beam of pride exuding from Ken Ramsey. Using the same determination that fostered his self-made path to success, Ramsey wasn't going to let failure be an option for his stallion.
"I've been hanging over the cliff with my fingernails many times. I've had to borrow from Peter to pay Paul, got down on my knees at the bank and said, 'Let me pay the interest on this month and I'll catch up next,'" Ramsey said. "I had enough assets out here on the farm, but ... it would have been a devastating blow if he (Kitten's Joy) didn't hit.
"We've done everything possible to make him the stallion he is. And early on it looked like he was definitely not going to make it."
Ramsey said he "doesn't have a dime's worth of insurance" on the stallion for whom he said he received — and rejected — an offer this year of $20 million for a 49 percent share.
Insurance companies "want $40,000 for every million. I'd rather take that money and buy another broodmare prospect," Ramsey said.
From Kitten Joy's "Kitten Spa," featuring an underwater treadmill on which he walks for 15 minutes a day five days a week, to the two paddocks at the horse's disposal, to the scrutiny of mares in his book, it's hard to find a segment of the Ramsey operation not devoted to protecting the interest of a stallion with a history of trumping odds.
Creating the franchise
"I don't take no for an answer. I get a no and I work on it until I get a maybe, and once I get a maybe I know I've got them going."
— Ken Ramsey
The first horse that Sarah Ramsey, Ken's bride of 55 years, owned was a bay mare she named Kitten's First. A broken hip ended the mare's racing career two starts in and, after she lost three foals in her first six matings, veterinarians were about to declare her broodmare career over as well.
"Her birth canal was restricted so ... I came up with the idea of her having a Caesarean section, but they pooh-poohed that, said there was too much chance for infection," Ken Ramsey said. "I said, 'They do women that way, why can't they do horses that way?' So we bred her to El Prado, and there you go."
That C-section resulted in the birth of Kitten's Joy in 2001. (Kitten's First had two more that followed before she foundered and was euthanized in 2006.)
Despite some conformation flaws that caused him to be entered in the Ocala sale to begin with, Kitten's Joy ended up bringing his connections to their first peak when he earned the Eclipse Award for champion turf male in 2004, the same season the Ramseys won their first Eclipse Award for outstanding owner.
Commercial acceptance after Kitten's Joy's retirement in 2005 was a different matter. Precocity and dirt form have long been the desired traits sought by North American breeders, so trying to lure the market toward an unproven turf sire resulted in Kitten's Joy getting only about 14 non-Ramsey mares from the 127 he bred his initial season.
A fearless gambler at the windows, Ken Ramsey went deep into the pool of risk with his stallion. He continued to buy mares that fit the profile of being good crosses with Kitten's Joy, keeping the stallion heavily booked in those crucial first few years.
"You're talking we had 150, 200 mares at one time and ... some of those mares have been bred to him five times," said Ramsey Farm manager Mark Partridge. "If (the offspring) were all duds, those mares would have been finished. It would have been disastrous, I don't know if you can recover from that.
"I think he's just one of those exceptional stallions that doesn't come around very often."
That the Ramseys ended up being the primary supporter of Kitten's Joy meant they had control over how a majority of those foals were raised. And being at the helm of the decision-making process is a spot in which Ken Ramsey thrives as few others do.
Letting horses be horses
"Raised tough and run tough. Our horses aren't intimidated at all."
— Ken Ramsey
The stamp that Kitten's Joy puts on his offspring is obvious by the number of blaze-splashed faces jaunting about the 1,400-acre Ramsey Farm. They are easy to spot, particularly because it isn't necessary to venture into one of the cream-and-red barns to get a good look.
Keeping things natural is as essential an ingredient for Ramsey runners as the feeding and training they receive. To that end, the couple's horses spend practically every hour outdoors grazing, rough-housing and building up fortitude the old-fashioned way.
The Ramseys offer consignments at public auction, but prepping babies for sales takes a back seat to letting them develop the way nature dictates. Ken Ramsey has done his part by installing a system of nine springs throughout the farm that pump a constant flow of fresh water to the horses.
"They're never put up at night except for when they're babies and we bring them in to feed them," Ramsey said of his horses. "They don't drink anything except that spring water coming out at 57 degrees out of the limestone. They don't drink city water.
"We give these horses the right kind of nutrition and we use that when we're buying horses at the sale. I don't want to buy a yearling that has been hot-housed, that has been kept up all summer long."
Kitten's Joy enjoys the best of both nature and technological advances. Along with his daily jaunts on the underwater treadmill, he spends time beneath a heat lamp while on an equine vibration plate designed to increase bone density and circulation.
"He is treated like the king that he is," Ramsey said.
Many of Kitten's Joy's offspring resemble their old man physically, and the best of his runners share his hickory-tough attitude.
A case of strangles, an upper-respiratory disease, afflicted nearly every Ramsey Farm-born foal in Kitten's Joy's first crop. But from that initial crop came Grade II winner Dean's Kitten, who came within a nose of defeating eventual champion Cape Blanco in the 2011 Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.
That 2011 season also saw Stephanie's Kitten win the Grade I Darley Alcibiades and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf en route to the Ramseys earning Eclipse Award No. 2 for top owner.
With 16 current graded stakes winners from five crops of racing age, the commercial bandwagon has filled up as well. Of the 184 mares Kitten's Joy covered in 2013, 93 were non-Ramsey mares.
"The whole family is tough as nails," said Partridge, the farm manager. "When they're on the track and they're racing to the line and looking the other horse in the eye, it's that will to win. Most of these Kitten's Joys just have that."
So too does the man who put his faith in the stallion that has proven him right.
"I try and surround myself with real smart people that make me look smart."
— Ken Ramsey
It was 4:30 p.m. one recent day when Jeff Ramsey noticed that his father was finally sitting down to eat breakfast. At least, Jeff thought, he was carving out a minute or two for a meal.
"He works like a dog. He's up at 5 in the morning, he goes to bed at 4 a.m. He rarely eats," Jeff Ramsey, one of four children of Ken and Sarah, said of his dad. "He's on top of every single person all day long making sure they're doing their best. That's the secret to the 'luck.'
"They think he's throwing his money around, but what he's throwing around is his smarts and his experience."
Ken Ramsey rarely stops moving, be it his hands gesturing to make a point or — as many observers would say — his mouth. It is an outward manifestation of the drive that allowed him to graduate from the University of Kentucky on the GI Bill; make millions in the cellular phone business, radio and stock market; and take on his most important role as caretaker for his lifelong love.
In February 2007, Sarah Ramsey suffered a stroke that left her in a wheelchair. Dysphasia has affected her speech, but her mind retains a razor's edge. Her input is sought in Ramsey Farm decisions, and the joy from what figures to be another Eclipse Award-winning march is enough to still even her ebullient husband.
"You know the scales of justice? She keeps me on the good side," Ken Ramsey said of his wife. "She is smarter than I am."
A wry smile certainly broke out over Sarah Ramsey's face when her husband declared he hopes someone makes him a cake in honor of his 78th birthday, which will Sunday, the day after the Breeders' Cup.
Depending on how their runners perform this weekend, Ken Ramsey said he could raise Kitten's Joy's stud fee from the $50,000 he commanded this year to at least $100,000 in 2014. In lieu of birthday presents, Ramsey wants more evidence that his horses and his stallion can rule the world championships.
"We've been blessed immensely," he said. "I want one candle for every win we have in the Breeders' Cup because those are like five wins or 10 wins someplace else.
"So how many candles will I have on my cake?"
Ken and Sarah Ramsey
Born: Both are natives of Artemus, in far southeastern Kentucky.
Residence: Ramsey Farm, just northwest of Nicholasville
Family: Children Kelly, Jeffrey, Jill and Scott; six grandchildren
History: A graduate of the University of Kentucky on the GI Bill, Ken Ramsey was a trucking industry executive before turning to real estate in the 1970s and then to cellular telephone network franchising. He sold the cellular business, valued at $39 million, in 1994 and bought historic Almahurst Farm, renaming it Ramsey Farm.
2013 Breeders' Cup entrants: Big Blue Kitten (Turf), Real Solution (Turf), Kitten's Dumplings (Filly & Mare Turf), Kitten Kaboodle (Juvenile Fillies Turf), Granny Mc's Kitten (Juvenile Fillies Turf), Bobby's Kitten (Juvenile Turf), We Miss Artie (Juvenile).
Kitten's Joy: By the numbers
1: Ranking on North American general sire list
16: Graded stakes wins by offspring
43: Stakes wins by offspring
$27.3 million: Earnings by offspring
$50,000: Stud fee in 2013
Six figures: Expected stud fee for 2014