VERSAILLES — Like the mist that steals across the heart of the Bluegrass before dawn, a feeling comes upon Kentucky horse farms in April. Is that sound your heart or hoofbeats?
The blood quickens, a horse flies past. It’s both.
The song of speed has begun.
In the days leading up to the 138th Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May, every Thoroughbred farm is humming along — including WinStar Farm, where top Derby contender Gemologist trained as a 2-year-old.
In April, the Thoroughbred industry “is firing on all cylinders,” said Chris Baker, WinStar general manager. “It’s nothing but promises and expectations. It’s hard not to be hopeful this time of year.”
The feeling is infectious, particularly while watching the next crop of 2-year-olds flex their muscles on the farm’s training track.
Horse owners, in town for the Keeneland races, which ended Friday, especially like to stop by and look at what might get them to the winner’s circle this fall or, if they are dreaming really big, next spring, preferably in time for a Run for the Roses. “Everyone has a promising 2-year-old,” said Richard Budge, farm trainer. “They’re always very promising until they race. That’s what makes it fun — the challenge and the dream.”
Unlike many horse farms, WinStar, owned by Excel Communications founder Kenny Troutt, breaks all its 2-year-olds to saddle in Kentucky, rather than shipping them to Florida.
“It’s about having ownership and having control of as many steps of the process, from gestation all the way through their training,” Baker said. “There are so many variables in the horse business. This lets us take ownership of all the process.”
“Breaking” a horse might bring to mind cowboys and bucking broncos, but the modern Thoroughbred version is much more civilized and less dangerous. Would-be racehorses have been acclimated to human contact since birth, so by fall of their yearling year they are used to being led by a halter.
But it’s still a big step for a prey animal to accept a saddle.
“It’s unnatural to put something on their back,” Baker said. “The way we do it, there’s not a lot of ‘rodeoing’ to it. Really, for us, it’s ‘starting.’ We don’t want to break their spirit; we want to channel it.”
After the young horses learn to be ridden, they have to learn how to train and race, and to break from the starting gate. To encourage that, WinStar built a 7½-furlong, all-weather synthetic-surface training track, with a three-quarters of a mile uphill gallop to build muscle without overtaxing fragile bones.
WinStar also put in a pond for horses to swim in, an Aquatred underwater horse treadmill, a grass gallop and other amenities to attract clients looking for a place to send a horse mending from injury or resting up after a big race.
Now the farm’s training center/equine spa attracts a mix of older horses, like Mission Impazible, looking for a little R&R, and young ones learning the ropes.
As the horses take to the track in the morning, Budge gives directions to exercise riders: Give this one a good gallop, that pair a swifter “breeze” to sharpen them up for upcoming races.
Normally, horses go out six days a week, galloping uphill twice a week and then taking it easier for the next day or two.
Sometimes, particularly fractious horses don’t take well to training at an actual racetrack, where morning workouts can be like merging onto a busy freeway. In the peace and quiet at WinStar, there’s time for a long solo ride to settle the nerves and get a horse’s mind on running, rather than running away.
The equine body undergoes a phenomenal transformation: At rest, a horse’s huge heart beats 28 to 40 times a minute. At a fast gallop, it literally races: 250 beats a minute, pumping 53 to 80 gallons of blood each minute. The result is the amazing burst of speed that can leave trainers and owners breathless.
Once the 2-year-olds start to show what they’re made of, WinStar’s president/CEO and racing manager, Elliott Walden, a former top-level trainer himself, will decide which ones will go to which trainer and what races they are aiming for. The Derby, which is for 3-yearolds, isn’t everything: Some horses need a bit more time to mature, and there are plenty of other big races out there.
As the sun burns off the morning mist, the birdsong is broken by the sound of hooves. Budge watches each horse go by, looking for something extra.
“Horses talk, and they will tell you. It’s up to the trainer to listen,” Budge said. The 2-year-olds, who are coming into their own, get special scrutiny. The farm is always looking for the next Super Saver, the WinStar homebred that won the 2010 Kentucky Derby and now stands at stud there for $20,000.
“We’re looking for the action of the horse, of course, the soundness, the spirit, the way they’re feeling, their aggression,” Budge said, his eyes on the youngsters galloping past, some more collected than others. “You get very excited when you see a standout. They have a different aura, a different action. They do things so much easier.”
WinStar’s current hope, Gemologist, solidified his place on the Derby scene with a stubborn win at the Wood Memorial in early April, but he had been on the farm’s radar for a long time.
“He was a nice one,” Budge said. “He was one of the top five last year” at the farm. “He was very big — he weighed 1,300 pounds — but for such a big horse, he’s such a pleasure to be around. He’s very professional.”
Just to make it this far is an accomplishment. In 2009, 31,750 Thoroughbred foals were born; by 2011, less than a third of those horses ran in a 2-year-old race. To make it to the Kentucky Derby, the pinnacle of the sport that only 20 3-year-olds will reach, a horse must be precocious enough to show early promise and speed. The Derby winner doesn’t always win a major “prep” race but only one, Apollo in 1882, won the Derby without racing at all as a 2-year-old.
Two years ago, when Gemologist was a yearling frolicking in green pastures, WinStar won the Derby with Super Saver. The farm wants another winning photo to hang on the barn wall as a reminder of what can be. Budge plans to be there to cheer on the new standard bearer.
“It’s a very exciting time, especially with Gemologist. We’ve been spoiled,” Budge said. “The whole buildup to the Derby, it’s such a crescendo. I like to go and support all my horses. They’re all kind of your children.”
As with any proud parent, part of the joy is seeing the 2-year-olds change from gangly “toddlers” to athletes, a joy that renews every spring.
“It’s hope, a new crop of 2-year-olds that show promise,” Budge said. “Owners get very excited about the possibility and the dream. That’s why we’re in this business — to win the Derby — and it’s so difficult to achieve.”