At Runnymede, the More Things Change…

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Brutus Clay III | Lucas Marquardt

By Lucas Marquardt

Seven years ago, just after the market crash, Catesby W. Clay handed a cartoon he’d clipped from the New Yorker to his son, Brutus Clay III. The cartoon depicted a businessman and son standing in front of a chart. A jagged, downward arrow tracked a the market’s plummeting performance. “Son,” the father says, “I think it’s about time I handed things over to you.”

The elder Clay scribbled on it, “Apropos.”

Catesby meant it as a joke, of course, but there was some truth there. Catesby was winding down a terrific six-decade run as the master of Runnymede Farm, and had just handed over control of the historic nursery to his children. And while Runnymede itself was on solid footing, the economic downturn forced many farms, Runnymede included, to reexamine how they conducted business.

“When my father ran the program, financial implications weren’t really a major consideration,” admits Brutus. “But today, we don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Well, if we lose money, no big deal.’”

For Brutus, it was paramount to keep Runnymede going strong for future generations. The Clay family had operated the farm for four generations, and the family name itself was interwoven with Thoroughbred history. Since its inception in 1867, Runnymede had produced four Hall of Fame inductees, three Kentucky Derby winners, and three Kentucky Oaks winners. Its runners had won the Alabama S. and Clark H. six times each.

Yet Brutus acknowledges he wasn’t the obvious choice to operate Runnymede. He grew up around horses, but began his professional career away from the farm. For almost two decades, he worked in finance and real estate, and later as the lead partner responsible for the development of Texas Roadhouse restaurants. In fact, everyone assumed his brother Chris Clay would be handed the reins at Runnymede. But when Chris chose a different (read: elevated) career path and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 2007, it was Brutus who was called upon.

“People ask if I always dreamed of taking over the farm,” said Brutus. “The truthful answer is no. The plan was that Chris would one day do it, but he had a higher calling. So when people ask how I came to run the farm, I say, ‘Divine intervention and nepotism.’”

Today, Runnymede is emerging from a restructuring that began when Brutus took the proverbial keys to the castle. And if recent results are anything to go by, Runnymede’s best days might still lie ahead. Last weekend, the 3-year-old colt Collected (City Zip) put himself on Kentucky Derby trail with a successful switch to the main track in the GIII Sham S. (video) at Santa Anita for trainer Bob Baffert. It was Collected’s second win in three starts.

That result followed on the heels of a big 2015 for the farm. The Runnymede-bred Lady Eli, a daughter of the GI Met Mile winner Divine Park, whom Runnymede also bred, confirmed her status as one of the most exciting horses of the last few years with a brief undefeated season that was derailed only by a scary bout of laminitis. Another Runnymede-bred horse, Undrafted (Purim), registered a historic win in the G1 Diamond Jubilee S. at Royal Ascot. At Keeneland September, meanwhile, Runnymede sold seven horses for six figures, including a homebred half-brother to Lady Eli by Ghostzapper to Juddmonte for $400,000.

These results become more impressive considering Runnymede’s size. With about 35 mares in the broodmare band, this isn’t a farm that gets things done with huge numbers. Nor were they achieved with marquee stallions. Divine Park stands this year for $7,500. Purim was set to stand for the same fee when he died of colic in 2012.

Instead, Runnymede achieved these results by sticking to what has historically worked for the farm–a focus on strong female pedigrees, good horsemanship, and quality Bourbon County land. But Brutus, along with Runnymede’s new Vice President and General Manager Romain Malhouitre, has embraced new ideas and methods, too, all while keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line.

“You don’t want to ruin what got us to this point, but you also want to make it a sustainable program,” said Brutus.

Malhouitre agrees. “As soon as you stop evolving, you become obsolete,” said the Frenchman. “But we want to carry on the traditions of the farm, too. We’ve freshened things up a bit, but the goal remains the same–let’s be excellent at what we do. The day that Brutus passes the farm to his children, or his siblings’ children, we want the farm in as good as shape as it was given to us. It’s a privilege to be part of, and we’re here to keep it alive. If we do that, mission accomplished.”

A Historical Perspective…

For a long time, the folks at Runnymede enjoyed posing a trick question to guests. There is a large stone church on the property that was originally built in Virginia. How, then, did it wind up Kentucky? The answer is that the church was built before Kentucky, formerly Virginia’s western frontier, was incorporated as a state in 1792, and so the state line moved, not the church. (Brutus now believes the church was built after 1792, which is a bummer if you like trick questions.)

Still, the anecdote speaks to the history of the 365 acres that Runnymede sits on. A hundred years before Runnymede was founded, a relative of the Clay family, Kentucky’s second governor, James Garrard, had help settle the land. The manor house that Brutus, his wife Sarah and their children live in was built in the 1830s. By the 1860s, just after the Civil War, Col. Ezekiel “Zeke” Clay had been gifted the property by his father, and had named his new estate Runnymede after the site in England where the Magna Carta was signed. A decade later, Zeke began breeding Thoroughbreds with neighboring Raceland Farm, owned by Col. Catesby Woodford, and the partnership became a rousing success. Their runners included the great Hanover, who registered 32 wins on the track, including the Belmont, and later became a breed-shaping sire. Clay and Woodford bred the first two horses to earn over $100,000–Hanover, who was preceded by Miss Woodford–and followed by breeding and/or raising the further Classic winners Agile, Ben Brush, Buddhist, and Sir Dixon.

Ben Brush, Hanover, and Miss Woodford were all enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame, as was the 1914 Horse of the Year Roamer. “He’s an example that, sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good,” said Brutus. “Roamer was the get of a teaser and a blind mare. It’s not clear who jumped the fence.” In any case, Roamer ran 98 times and was first or second in 65 of those.

The 1950s ushered in a new era at Runnymede. Catesby W. Clay, Zeke’s grandson, was tabbed to run the farm, and for the next six decades made his own mark on Thoroughbred racing and breeding. In 1973, the Runnymede-bred Angle Light (Quadrangle) defeated Secretariat in the GI Wood Memorial S. Runnymede bred the Grade II winner and GI Kentucky Derby runner-up Tejano Run (Tejano), as well as the Japanese champion, G1 Hong Kong Cup winner and $8 million earner Agnes Digital (Crafty Prospector). In Europe, the farm has been represented by the G1 Racing Post hero Palace Episode (Machiavellian) and the Group 2 winner Laughing Lashes (Mr. Greeley), while in the U.S. Runnymede bred the Grade I winners Awesome Gem (Awesome Again), Jaycito (Victory Gallop), Marylebone (Unbridled’s Song) and Divine Park (Chester House). Runnymede also campaigned Rogue Romance (Smarty Jones), third in the 2010 GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Much of the credit for Runnymede’s recent success in recent decades should go not only to Catesby W. Clay, but also to Martin O’Dowd, Runnymede’s longtime farm manager.

“I have to acknowledge Martin and my father for building a great operation,” said Brutus. “I think we have a really good program here, and a lot of that has to do with them.”

Malhouitre agreed, adding, “Martin was here for 27 years, and it’s a privilege and a challenge to take on his role here.”

Asked about leaving his post as manager of William Shively’s Dixiana Farm to become Runnymede’s general manager in 2013, Malhouitre said it was a tough decision, “But if the Aga Khan or Phipps or the Humphries, those pure gentlemen breeders, call you up–and if you are a student of the sport–it’s very hard to say no.”

The Need to be Exceptional…

“If you wind up being an average commercial breeder, and your horses bring the sire’s average at the sales, you’re probably going to lose money in the long run. You have to be exceptional in order to be profitable in this business.”

Brutus Clay III says this as he trudges through a broad but sharply rolling paddock at Runnymede. It’s a raw winter morning in Kentucky, and Clay, leading a walking tour populated primarily by a cadre of dogs, is noting the farm’s production in recent years. By his count, since 2000, Runnymede is turning out graded stakes winners at a clip of 5.7%, and Grade I winners at a rate of 2.5%–both well above industry averages.

“The fact of the matter is that we have to be exceptional to carry on, and fortunately, I think we have been pretty exceptional on many fronts,” he continues. “We just need to be smart about it.”

Clay and Malhouitre have spent the last few years trying hard to be smart about things. They culled roughly 20% of Runnymede’s broodmare band, and scaled back on Runnymede’s overseas participation. Runnymede was one of the first American operations to send mares to Galileo (Ire)–in 2004, Runnymede sold a colt by from Regina Maria colt at Keeneland September for $1.9 million–but has kept things closer to home in recent years. The farm also maintained some horses in Japan and sold there, but their lone remaining mare in Japan, a half-sister to King Kamehameha (Jpn), was returned to the States this year, carrying a foal by another repatriated horse, Empire Maker.

“Hopefully the mare’s carrying a filly, and if she is, she may be one who’s hard to take from us,” says Malhouitre, referencing the fact that all of Runnymede’s yearlings, fillies included, are put before the buying public.

“As a commercial operation, people can’t think that we’re selling fillies, but not the good ones,” says Malhouitre. “But we’ll protect them at auction and buy them back if we have to.”

That was the case with the 3-year-old filly Koala Queen (Lonhro {Aus}), one of two horses Runnymede currently has in training in the U.S. “We defended her at $60,000, and we were happy to do that,” says Malhouitre. “She’s now two-for-two with Arnaud Delacour without even trying, and hopefully she’ll start in a graded stakes in the near future.”

Malhouitre relates this information as he strides alongside Brutus toward some of the farm’s best mares. The mares lift their heads and begin to stroll toward the men. Among them is Lady Eli’s half-sister Bizzy Caroline (Afleet Alex), a Runnymede homebred who won a pair of graded stakes for the farm. In foal to Medaglia d’Oro, the 8-year-old mare is decidedly unimpressed with her visitors and throws her head at attempts for affection.

“It’s a family trait,” says Brutus. “They know what they want to do, and when, and they do it. Lady Eli has the reputation of having the dominant, alpha personality of, ‘I’m going to be there first.’ It’s fascinating to me to see that personality, that glimmer of the eye and desire and will, carry down through the generations.”

Both sisters are granddaughters of Runnymede’s foundation mare Kazadancoa (Fr) (Green Dancer), whom Catesby Clay bought in partnership in 1981. (He later acquired a full interest.)

“It’s interesting, when you look back at the great breeding operations in history, a lot of times you can link that success to one or two mares,” says Brutus. “For Runnymede, Kazadancoa is that mare. My dad bought her, really, from the culls of a European operation, and we went on to breed three graded stakes winners out of her. We currently have seven mares from that line.” They include Kazadancoa’s last produce, Sacre Couer (Saint Ballado), dam of Bizzy Caroline and Lady Eli. Palace Episode, Laughing Lashes, Tejano Run, the King Kamehameha (Jpn) half-sister all hail from the family, as well.

Before she died in 2011 at the age of 33, Kazadancoa had developed a reputation not only as a top mare, but as an opinionated sort.

“Kazadancoa was retired and spent 14 years as a pensioner in a barn that now bears her name,” explains Brutus. “When they used to let out the mares, she would give the farm hands trouble. She’d pull and rear and act up. So Martin O’Dowd said, ‘You know what? Just open her stall door, and open the paddock gate, and she’ll lead herself out. And that’s what she did. And she did that for over a decade.”

As Brutus and Malhouitre continue to walk from one paddock to the next, they point out improvements that have been made on the farm. There is plenty of new fencing at Runnymede, and several barns have been refurbished. A new show ring was put in so that prospective buyers can come out, enjoy a beverage and look over the farm’s yearlings.

A walking tour, as it turns out, is the perfect way to see Runnymede, since it’s the land itself that helps make the farm unique. That, at least, is what Brutus and Malhouitre believe.

“My father and his ancestors were always proud of the way the horses moved off this land,” says Brutus. “Our horses tend to have big walks on them, with a big overstep, and know how to use themselves. And I think a lot of that comes from the horses are running these hills every day.”

But it isn’t just the topography, says Malhouitre. “The limestone is really just under the soil here–we are sitting right on it,” he says. “The minerals are coming right into the grass. And we have well water–it’s not city water–and it’s halfway red. There’s so much iron and other minerals.”

Whether it’s the land, the water or the horsemanship, something’s working at Runnymede, as evidenced by their latest graded winner, the aforementioned Collected. The Bob Baffert-trained colt was sold by Runnymede for $150,000 at Keeneland September, though was purchased by current owner Speedway Stable LLC for $170,000 at the OBS March Sale. Collected is another from Kazadancoa’s family, but, interestingly, hails from a line that diverged under his sixth dam and Kazadancoa’s second dam. It should be noted, too, that Collected was produced Helena Bay (GB), by a Johannesburg half-sister to Koala Queen.

Collected was a weanling on the farm when Malhouitre arrived at Runnymede, and made a favorable impression immediately. “He was always a straight-forward, athletic horse,” said Malhouitre. “The more work we gave him to do during the prep season, the better he got. And obviously he kept going after that.”

Given Collected’s female family–his third and fourth dams are by Lyphard and Alleged, respectively–there wasn’t too much worry that he’d handle the Sham’s one-mile distance. But the surface change was another matter.

“You always have a question with that kind of pedigree, but who are we to question Mr. Baffert [laughs]?” said Malhouitre. “But he was big for a City Zip, and very well made, and he’s always used himself very well.”

The End Game…

So with a possible Triple Crown contender and the return of Lady Eli in the cards, what’s next for Runnymede?

“In the last few years, we re-grouped, culled, and really focused on quality,” said Malhouitre. “It’s like a rosebush. You cut it back to the trunk, and you let it grow again. So we’re in the phase now that we culled what we had to cull, we kept our best families, and now we are ready to grow again.”

Runnymede hopes to take on a few select clients in the coming year–“People who share our philosophy of raising horses the right way and being honest and straightforward,” says Malhouitre–to go along with established clients like Peter Callahan, whose GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up Beautician (Dehere) is a farm resident. Callahan co-breeds many horses with Runnymede, including Collected, and Brutus said Callahan has become much more than a client.

“He’s been a partner for over 27 years, and I feel blessed to have him as a friend and a mentor,” he said.

Runnymede also plans to do some weanling-to-yearling pinhooking, and could grow its consigning arm, too. That, however, depends on farm clients.

“We don’t mind selling horses for clients, but they have to be raised here on our land,” said Malhouitre. “If we want to be boutique and keep our reputation, it would be difficult to say to our clients that they should buy a Runnymede consignee when we didn’t raise the horse. We’ve done a little bit of pinhooking since I’ve been here, but those horses are raised here on the land.”

Brutus and Malhouitre are also big proponents of Horse Country, Inc., the nascent organization that is hoping to make Kentucky’s horse farms a tourist destination in the same way the state’s bourbon distilleries are.

“People are fascinated by this lifestyle and of what Kentucky is,” says Brutus. “I think we can help reinvigorate our sport by making people fans of not just the horses, but the farms. You do that by opening our gates and connecting with them emotionally to what we’re about. It’s going to take all of us working together–you’re not really able to move the needle if just one farm is doing it–but there are 33 farms signed up to Horse Country. And the reality is that we’re selling something more than a horse. We’re selling an experience.”

At this, Malhouitre smiles and says, “Obviously we are big dreamers–did you catch that?”

 

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