Kentucky Derby

The Pamplemousse puts spotlight on local farm

There is no grandiose sign declaring its presence, only a small, modest marker one must actively seek out in order to see while heading down Bryan Station Road.

To the casual observer, it can be easy to overlook Fred and Nancy Mitchell's Clarkland Farm among the flashy, sprawling Thoroughbred operations that take up residence in the Bluegrass.

However, among those who make their living in racing, there is little doubt the nearly 400-acre farm is among the standouts of the industry.

It may be quietly tucked away at 2700 Bryan Station Road but, in recent weeks, Clarkland Farm has received doses of spotlight tossed its way thanks to a charismatic gray colt taking aim at one of racing's greatest prizes.

The Mitchells are the breeders of multiple graded stakes winner The Pample-mousse who, along with Pioneerof the Nile, is among the favorites for Saturday's Grade I Santa Anita Derby.

Although they have raised such notable horses as two-time champion sprinter Housebuster, The Pample-mousse embodies the Mitchells' reputation for spotting and developing quality.

At the 2003 Keeneland November sale — the same auction that saw Cash Run sell for a then-record $7.1 million — a pretty gray mare named Comfort Zone caught Fred Mitchell's eye in the back walking ring, prompting him to purchase her for $47,000.

Three years later, Comfort Zone would foal a well-built Kafwain colt the Mitchells later would sell for $80,000 at the 2007 Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale — a colt who is now one of the leading contenders on the Kentucky Derby trail.

"For me, I just feel really proud for the horse, for the mare and for the people that are associated with him," Nancy Mitchell said of The Pamplemousse. "Of course, he may not make it to the Kentucky Derby. It's still a long way off, but it's very exciting and a little bit nervous."

Founded in the 1700s as part of a land grant, Clarkland Farm has been in Nancy Mitchell's family for centuries. Appropriately, it is that familial bond that is one of the main sources of Clarkland's success.

Married for 31 years, Fred and Nancy Mitchell operate the farm along with Nancy's daughter, Marty Buckner, and have just two other full-time employees.

Known for their astute hands-on horsemanship, the Mitchells have kept Clarkland Farm modest-sized by design with a current roster of about 60 horses, including 35 broodmares.

As a result, the Mitchells and Buckner know every quirk of each velvet-nosed foal, yearling and mare in their care.

"I have two or three friends that are retiring and selling their farms and they said, 'We have one or two mares. Will you please take them?' and I said, 'I'm not taking anymore,'" Fred Mitchell said. "We want to enjoy what we're doing and be there when every foal is turned out in the morning. All three of us see them every morning, every night, every foal, every mare."

Even before The Pample-mousse won the Grade III San Rafael and Sham Stakes this year, he was part of one of Clarkland Farm's finest moments.

During the 2007 Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale, the Mitchells had just three horses in their consignment but managed to top the auction when their Malibu Moon colt sold to Jay Em Ess Stable for $450,000.

"They do a very good job of raising horses because they raise them the old-school way," trainer Larry Jones said. "They always have the best interest of the horse ahead of the best financial interest. If there is something wrong, they take care of it. It's not like, 'This horse hasn't run and we need to make money.'"

Added Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales, "They are a great family organization, the three of them, and they raise a good sound horse year after year."

The Pamplemousse's final price of $80,000 was the lowest of the three Clarkland horses sold, but it was not because the colt lacked potential.

"He was a big, good-looking colt, but the Malibu Moon just was stunning and the Forest Camp filly (that sold for $102,000) showed just like she was a halter horse every time," Fred Mitchell recalled. "There were no problems with him, but we had two that were overshadowing him."

Still, were it not for some late interest in The Pample-mousse, the Mitchells might be racing the handsome colt themselves.

"When we led him up there, Fred told me his reserve and I said, 'Well he's going home,' and Fred was like, 'That's fine,'" Buckner said. "When we got out back, (pinhooker) Becky Thomas got on him and she ended up being the under-bidder. He ended up going well over the reserve."

Just as they are committed to their horses, the Mitchells also are committed to the industry — a fact that already has yielded dividends.

In 2003, the couple put Clarkland Farm in the Purchase of Development Rights, a program that was implemented to preserve farmland in the Bluegrass, and used some of the funds they received to purchase Comfort Zone.

Should The Pamplemousse triumph this weekend and go on to Kentucky Derby glory, the types of well-wishes and congratulatory notes that already have come the Mitchells' way most likely will flood the farm's mailbox.

Being able to make a living out of their passion has become the greatest reward for one of the industry's most respected couples.

"One of my most enjoyable things is foaling the mares and pulling all the foals out," Fred Mitchell said. "The only time I have any problem getting any sleep is after I foal a mare, especially if she foals one of those gorgeous things that jumps up in 10 minutes instead of an hour and a half.

"It's just a big, big thrill to have one like that and watch them grow from there."

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