Ahh success: Stoneway Farm has milestone on the line in Groupie Doll Stakes

Ahh Chocolate, seen here winning the Grade II Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26, 2015, can give owners Stoneway Farm its record-setting 20th win of the year in Saturday’s Grade III Groupie Doll Stakes at Ellis Park.
Ahh Chocolate, seen here winning the Grade II Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26, 2015, can give owners Stoneway Farm its record-setting 20th win of the year in Saturday’s Grade III Groupie Doll Stakes at Ellis Park. Churchill Downs

Stoneway Farm had every right to hope that 2016 could yield unprecedented success.

In the 18 years since owner Jim Stone purchased the LaGrange-based farm, Stoneway has quietly become a modest-sized operation capable of producing horses that deliver at racing’s loftier levels. They have bred Grade I winners and watched their own runners carry their silks to graded stakes triumphs. And as success trickled in, Stone, with his partner and racing manager, Terri Burch, refocused the farm’s strategy for long-term rather than fleeting results.

So it is no coincidence that last season was a standout for Stoneway Farm in victories and year-end earnings. It is also fitting that an operation that focuses on developing top-quality fillies is on the cusp of a milestone thanks to two of its better girls.

On July 30, multiple graded winner Stonetastic cantered to a 6  3/4 -length win in the Regret Stakes at Monmouth Park, sending the Stoneway Farm colors to the winner’s circle for the 19th time this year, equaling the farm’s best single-season mark. On Saturday, Stoneway Farm homebred Ahh Chocolate aims for record-breaking win No. 20 in the Grade III, $100,000 Groupie Doll Stakes at Ellis Park.

Stoneway Farm has hit the 19-win mark four timessince 2000, including last season when its runners bankrolled an all-time best $1,119,263. Having already won the Grade III Allaire DuPont Distaff Stakes at Pimlico on May 20, Ahh Chocolate has helped her owners track well ahead of their own top pace this season and sparked excitement that the 4-1 morning-line favorite in the Groupie Doll will take the farm to a new level.

“This is our fourth time being at 19 wins and, of course, we’ve hit it a lot earlier than we did last year when we reached 19 and didn’t have much racing left,” said Burch, who has been with Stoneway since 1998 and also serves as the program coordinator for the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program. “I’ve told our trainers we have to break over and get to 20. They know that and they’re working really hard to get us over the hump and have our best year ever. We’re really excited about that.”

The quality over quantity mantra is a familiar refrain for smaller operations trying to hold their own against the super farms of the Thoroughbred industry. To that end, Stoneway initially focused on breeding to sell its better stock, with future Grade I winner Irish Smoke among the homebreds they let go into the marketplace.

While they still actively consign horses, the market crash of 2008 prompted Stone and Burch to alter their mindset and use their 260-plus acre facility to develop a broodmare band from the ground up. They started keeping and racing primarily fillies and enjoyed their first graded glory when their mare Proper Gamble won both the Grade III Cicada Stakes and Grade II Stonerside Beaumont Stakes in 2002.

“Originally we were breed-to-sell and we sold our good stuff and whatever we got stuck with we ran back,” Burch said. “We don’t do that too much anymore. We are still very motivated to sell but … if we have really good horses and we’re not getting in the market what we think is right, we don’t have any problem bringing them back because we have a great farm manager and our crew is just phenomenal.

“There is so much more risk with colts than the fillies with the residual value. So we are offering four colts this year and a filly in the marketplace. But if we’re not going to get a good price, we are more than willing to even keep the colts and race them. We’re just more judicious all the way around.”

Stoneway’s success has also provided a trickle-down effect for Burch’s students at the University of Louisville. Because of her connections, Burch can physically take those in her program on the backside and show them what the day-to-day details of the racing profession look like, she can get them in front of horsemen who can demonstrate lessons and potentially be future employers and — in the best of cases — she can really hook them if they happen to turn out on a day when one of Stoneway’s own visits the winner’s circle.

The power of such lessons is tangible. Current student Liam Benson saddled his first stakes winner last summer with Expected Ruler; and one of Burch’s graduates, William VanMeter, has been training on his own since 2014 and will saddle Pangburn in the 1-mile Groupie Doll against his former mentor.

“It’s a win-win for the program because it’s a lot of contact for our students,” Burch said of her multiple duties. “It’s been really good for the program because I’ve got a lot of contacts in the industry and I can help introduce them to it. A lot of them haven’t been to the backside and don’t know what it’s like. I use it to recruit as well because if we win a race at Churchill, I take them to the winner’s circle to have their photo made so I think it’s really been a beneficial kind of thing.”

In keeping with its hands-on philosophy, Stoneway has approximately 30 horses in training and has gravitated toward using trainers like Neil Howard, conditioner of Ahh Chocolate, and Kelly Breen, who trains Stonetastic, that maintain modest-sized stables. They are especially proactive with placing their horses in spots where they can be competitive and apply a similar philosophy to their compact band of 14 broodmares, which they regularly evaluate and cull.

“For a small farm that hasn’t kept too many mares around, I’ve been very pleased with what Stoneway has done over the years and with our breeding and everything,” Burch said. “Ahh Chocolate will probably run next year and then she’ll retire home, and Stonetastic will retire to the broodmare band next year. We hope to continue to move forward and continuously upgrade our stock. I think that’s what our goals are for the future.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl


Grade III Groupie Doll Stakes at Ellis Park

Post time: 4:40 p.m.