By Chris McGrath
Every breeder will recognize the parallel. You stand in the icy water and patiently dip the sieve again, hope never failing no matter how often that momentary glint turns out to be just another worthless piece of grit. Because you know that somewhere upriver, beneath the snowy uplands, lies a seam of gold. And it’s just the same with Thoroughbreds: pan enough tributaries of the gene pool, someday you’ll trap that stray nugget.
So if Charles E. “Chuck” Fipke has his own way of going about trying to make a stallion–his stable almost exclusively comprises not only homebreds, but homebreds by homebred sires–it’s not hard to see why. The only reason he can afford to do it, after all, is because he saw the world in a different way from every other geology graduate. They all knew there were no diamonds in Canada, until Fipke demonstrated that they were wrong.
In much the same way, very few Thoroughbred breeders would have tried the formula that has continued to produce a series of elite Fipke performers, the latest being Seeking The Soul (Perfect Soul)–runner-up in the $9-million GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream last Saturday, and now on his way to the G1 Dubai World Cup.
Fipke is every bit as singular a character as he is individual a thinker: squat and pugnacious in aspect, freewheeling and buzzy in conversation.
He’s telling you about his latest hit, a massive silver deposit in the Yukon. “And I’m really excited about it,” he says. “Because you know, hey, I’ve got this horrible, horrible addiction.”
Really Chuck? This is quick: we’ve only just met.
“I’m just horribly addicted. I wish I was an alcoholic, hey, or a heroin addict. It’d be a way more economical.” He’s on a roll now. (We’ll quit including the “hey” from this point; but you should know that the staccato exclamation continues as a kind of bass rhythm to his freestyle riffs of thought.) “I’ve tried to find psychiatrists and therapists that could help me, but there is none. I looked in the yellow pages. I asked around Keeneland and they said, ‘We had any of them? We’d run them out of town. Bad for business!’ Yeah, it’s horrible. There’s only been one person, lives nearby, Russ Bennett, he’s been a leading breeder. He’s finally told me the one way I can get rid of my horse addiction.”
And how’s that, Chuck?
“Yeah. That is. The problem was, I was spending quite a bit of money. Around $14 million a year. It was really eating up my savings. And then just in the nick of time I found this new one [mine]. I’ll be able to last longer now.”
Using the old prospecting methods, most of Fipke’s wealth would almost literally have slipped through the net. Because the “indicator” particles from those icy rivers are so small, so fine, that you can barely see them; too fine to settle in water, they were panned away by the old timers. His team reduces 12- or 15-kilo gravel deposits to a concentrate of five to ten grams, using a variety of separating techniques such as magnetism or conductivity. And within these filtrates, they can find a spectrum of flaked mineral fingerprints–for everything from diamonds to base metals–measuring just four or five microns.
It’s not even that expensive. They needed only 2,500 samples to read 50,000 km2 of the Yukon, ultimately leading them to a claim of 20km by 25km. They drilled down, found the gold, and then stumbled over silver-lead-zinc deposits surpassing the three richest in the world: Broken Hill and Mount Isa in Australia, and Sullivan in British Columbia. To give you a sense of the find’s historic stature, those respectively date to 1883, 1923 and 1909.
And now there’s more. “Just recently we think we have another,” Fipke says. “I rarely say this, but it’s so rich that it just went off scale. The interesting thing is, Sullivan, Mount Isa and Broken Hill, they’re all in protozoic rocks, about 1.3 billion years old, and they’re all in marine clastic sediment. And so is ours, it’s in the same geologic environment.”
The same patented methodology had previously led Fipke to four gold mines in Nevada; and, famously, to the diamonds that were not supposed to be in Canada, tracing them back through glacial “tills” (sediment pushed ahead of the ice) to the south. It’s a staggering outcome from the curiosity of a kid raised in modest circumstances on the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta, with a passion for the outdoor life. In the meantime he has worn out his knees–now mostly titanium–but never his enthusiasm, through all those epic meanderings in desolate, remote regions, with little or no company.
“I love it out in the wild, it’s so peaceful: the lakes and the rivers and the streams, and going out in the bush,” he says. “You see all kinds of animals. Minx and otters. Grizzly bears. Yeah, grizzlies. You never back away, because they think you’re prey, they go after you. It’s like playing poker. You’ve got to bluff them a bit.
“I worked two years in New Guinea with head-hunters everywhere. They thought you were like a god coming down from the sky with a helicopter. One time the helicopter took off, but then came back. I thought, ‘What the heck’s this guy doing? I haven’t had enough time to collect my sample.’ So I thought I’d teach him a lesson, take that much longer. He’d go off and he’d come back, put the skid up against me, and I ignored him and just did my job. Then when we took off, a whole bunch of arrows came at us. And what had happened was, he’d seen all these warriors coming up the drainage with bows and arrows, so he kept buzzing them and trying to get me.”
There were personal prices to be paid. As a young, first-time father, he spent four months away in the Yukon. As his family grew, so did his commitments; it proved too much, and Fipke ultimately made the papers with Canada’s most expensive divorce. But even in working six and a half days a week, there was still Sunday afternoon. And on one such, fatefully, he was taking the kids along a creek on their Shetlands and Welsh ponies.
“And we went through this farm, Mission Creek, and they had a whole bunch of yearlings in the barn, a yearling in each stall,” he recalls. “So we went with all the little horses through the barn, and going through I saw this filly. I just stopped. She just took the breath out of me. I went up and down, and I came right back to her. I just fell in love.”
He knew practically nothing about Thoroughbreds, but phoned the stable manager of neighbors Russ and Lois Bennett. She told him the filly he had picked out was by Irish Ruler, and just about the pick of an upcoming sale. Fipke, hooked, was reeled in: he bought the filly. On her debut, she tore clear but stopped dead in the last sixteenth. That was as good as it got: she deteriorated, turned out to have a bone chip. Suddenly Fipke found he was a breeder. He mated his young mare with various Kentucky stallions, but her best foal was bred on his doorstep with the Bennetts’ own stallion, Travelling Victor, Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1983.
“Travelling Spirit, he was called, and he was the leading 2-year-old in British Columbia,” Fipke explains. “So I got a taste of it. I think that’s how I got addicted. And yeah, it is like minerals, we’ve developed our own methods.”
On the face of it, a similarly maverick approach to his hobby would seem doomed to invert the yield he has achieved in his business. Because trying to breed your own stallions is–well, it’s worse than standing in the river with one of those old pans.
“Well, why I do this is, I find it more challenging,” he says with a shrug. “Going to the sales and picking out a great horse, I’ve done that. Doesn’t always work [either] and it’s just not as challenging as actually breeding the mare yourself and covering her with your own stallion. It’s far more challenging, the way I do it. That’s probably why I do it. I don’t want to take the easy way out, you know? But it’s also the only way I could ever even think of breaking even, to have a good stallion.”
And, albeit it evidently helps if you can keep turning up ore deposits, Seeking The Soul’s performance on Saturday confirms his eligibility–he is already a Grade I winner and had also chased home City Of Light (Quality Road) in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile–to emulate several other homebreds already at stud.
Already Fipke has four of those standing at Darby Dan–Perfect Soul (Sadler’s Wells), Tale Of Ekati (Tale Of The Cat), Tale of Verve (Tale of Ekati) and now Bee Jersey (Jersey Town)–plus others in California, Canada and on his own farm in Kentucky. Bee Jersey looks a particularly interesting prospect, having won the stallion-making GI Met Mile in a lightning time, as he’s from one of the great families in the Stud Book (fourth dam is Lassie Dear).
Being from the first crop of a horse raced and retired by Fipke, he’s a characteristic model. Fipke has a heroically stubborn fidelity to a project most would view as a virtual guarantee of expensive failure. Even the most expensive broodmares will be given a chance with his own stallions, albeit they stand on the lower rungs of the commercial market. His $1.7 million purchase Title Seeker (Monarchos), for instance, was bred to Perfect Soul–as, subsequently, was the Seeking The Gold filly she was carrying at the time of her acquisition. Named Seeking The Title, she was a graded stakes winner and the result of her mating with Perfect Soul was none other than Seeking The Soul.
Then there was the $600,000 mare Bourbon Belle (Storm Boot), whose resume would have qualified her for any stallion in Kentucky. Instead Fipke sent her to Not Impossible (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells), an unraced brother to Perfect Soul whose stud career was almost entirely his own doing. The clue is in the name he had given the horse. And the result of the mating was Not Bourbon, who in 2008 won the premier Canadian Classic, the Queen’s Plate.
It is not hard to share his belief in Bee Jersey. “Yes, the A.P. Indy line–and he had a beautiful running style,” Fipke says with enthuiasm. “He’d go right to the lead and had enough oomph to just barrel on. And if you go out and look at him, he’s absolutely gorgeous, just so perfectly balanced. Just ask John Phillips, he said to me: ‘I can’t believe how beautiful that horse is.'”
Jersey Town (Speightstown) himself has now moved to Daehling Ranch, California; and the hardy Canadian Classic winner Danish Dynaformer (Dynaformer) is starting out on home soil at Colebrook Farms in Ontario, with a fee of Can$2,500.
“I’m hoping to get a Storm Cat or something to try and make my operation break even!” exclaims Fipke. “It’s tough, because I don’t know how to find a stallion–and actually I don’t think anybody else can. Viceregal was a Canadian Horse of the Year; Vice Regent only won $70,000. And they’re full brothers. Vice Regent became a fantastic stallion, and Viceregal was a dud. So it’s really, really tough. I don’t think anybody really knows. The only thing you can do is try them.”
That said, he has firm tenets: a strong believer, for instance, in the kind of “kin breeding” exemplified by the great mare Coup De Folie (Halo), whose grand-dams were both out of Almahmoud. He calculates distance aptitudes, viewing them more or less as gospel, and likes elite performers multiplied across a mare’s family. And he counts WTC president Sid Fernando as an invaluable adviser.
“But there’s only one rule I really, really go on; that I never, ever contradict,” Fipke stresses. “And that’s the one that says rules were made to be broken.”
And that, of course, is exactly why he is in a position to do it in the first place. He casts his mind back to his earliest days as a prospector.
“One time, I had this big hike, it was about 40 miles and I had to collect samples,” he reflects. “Between myself and where I had to go, there was this big mountain in the way. And I could’ve went around the mountain. But I decided to climb it. I made it up to the top of this mountain and I felt really good. And I looked over there, and there was a mountain that was a little higher. And over there, another one that was a little higher again.
“What happens is, I set these goals that seem impossible, and try and reach them. Just for the fun of it. People thought there were no diamonds in Canada, only in Africa and Russia. It was like impossible. We worked at it, and did it. Same with horses. It’s impossible to get another Storm Cat. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”