A Case Apart, Clay Gets the Last Laugh

Case Clay | Keeneland photo

He'd given himself five years to make it onto Saturday Night Live. But it had now been six years, and Case Clay could see where he might be headed if he wasn't careful. Stick around too much longer, and he could end up like the guy in the comedy club, sitting there on his own every night with a drink at the end of the bar.

“He was a fixture, and a beloved fixture,” Clay stresses. “Sometimes he'd be on stage with you, performing, but the rest of the time you'd see him back there in the same seat, clapping or critiquing. At one point he did get hired for a writing job, but he came back after a season, said he'd missed it too much. And that's fine: each to their own, right? But we were all, like, 24 and he was getting on for twice that. I was married, I knew I wanted to have a family. And I just couldn't see myself supporting kids sitting at the end of that bar, never having made the big time.”

Clay and his buddies had started out in the graveyard slots, 7 p.m. and nobody there, and meanwhile he was doing all manner of day jobs to keep the dream alive. These included a couple of years as a management trainee at Arlington Park, albeit the only time he got anywhere near Mr. Duchossois was when manning the elevator for him on Elvis Day, duly equipped with shades, slicked hair and sideburns. But nor, equally, did he then imagine that he would ever get any closer to the business for which anyone – anyone other than Clay himself, maybe – could see that he had been born.

For it was his father Robert, of course, who founded Three Chimneys Farm in 1972. Clay was born the following year and, to any inherited intuition, he could add endless horse lore absorbed every time the family sat down to dinner. But while he did take vacation jobs on the farm as a young man, that had been sheer convenience. There had been no thought of following in his father's footsteps.

Instead, while his fellow economics students at DePauw were all putting on suits to interview for management consultancy, Clay had allowed his imagination to be captured by a night out in Chicago with wife-to-be Lorin in 1996. Though his stage experience to that point had been virtually nil, Clay started out with classes at Second City—past training ground for the likes of John Belushi, Chris Farley and Tina Fey—and landed with a project named Improv Olympic. He found himself routinely on stage with Seth Meyers and Jason Sudeikis, with whom he has lasting friendships. Gradually the young livewires worked their way up the bill until cracking the prime 10.30 p.m. slot. Always a pretty tough crowd, in Chicago, but at least there was now a crowd.

“By random luck I just happened to be put into this group with these incredibly talented people that are on TV now,” Clay says. “I remember coming back to Lorin and I'm like, 'These guys are really good.' My grandmother was very funny, so maybe I got a little bit of that. But obviously I'm not that funny, because here I am sitting in Kentucky!”

That same modesty is also referenced if you look Clay up on the Improv Wiki database. “He's funnier than you,” someone has written. “But too nice to say it.”

One way or another, it was fun. “Lots of adrenaline,” Clay acknowledges. “You're getting home at midnight and you're buzzing, your heart's racing, you can't get to sleep. With improv, the nice thing is that you're all up there together. If you're dying, you're dying together. You're looking at each other like, 'This is going horrible.' But standup, you're up there alone. I didn't do a lot, but when I did, I'd make sure I filled the crowd with my friends! But then there are nights where you just kill it, and it's a great rush.”

But there was always that guy reliably perched at the end of the bar, night after night: a flesh-and-blood warning from a future he could still evade. Clay wisely took his cue. Having done so, he's entitled to tire of being asked about a walk of life he abandoned nearly 20 years ago. At the same time, however, many of the skills honed in those days still serve him well in the niche he has meanwhile carved in our community.

Puca sold for $2.9 million to John Stewart at Keeneland November | Keeneland photo

Take Clay's recent appearance on center stage at the Keeneland November Sale. Not because there was anything remotely improvised about the sale-topping deal he secured for Puca (Big Brown), carrying a sibling to GI Kentucky Derby winner Mage (Good Magic). True, there had been something a little surreal about showing her again, 90 minutes after she left the ring unsold, under the archway light in the largely deserted barn complex. There was actually something magical, to the handful present, in seeing such an important mare in this moment of quiet, animal calm, putting her head down to graze on a rope shank while her future was settled. But the point is that you can't create the opportunity Clay did, in ultimately selling her to John Stewart at $2.9 million, without first having positioned your horse, and your clients, by much unseen diligence before and during the sale. And that was pretty much true of comedy, as well: wit without professionalism will never be more than the guy who makes cracks at the bar.

“Yeah, I suppose this business is about combining improvisation with a lot of thinking, a lot of deliberation,” Clay reflects. “You're always going to have some bumps in the road. But when all's said and done, I'm really happy that we stuck to our guns, because she's such a nice mare. Not many horses RNA and then sell for more outside the ring. That mare ended up well sold and well bought. If Dornoch [Mage's 2-year-old brother] wins the [GII] Remsen, she'll surely be Broodmare of the Year. So [vendors] Grandview Equine got what they wanted, and so did John Stewart.”

A gratifying start, then, to this latest dimension to Clay's Thoroughbred Management portfolio. For in making his debut as a consignor, with two of the best mares in the catalogue, he had also seen Dalika (Ger) (Protectionist {Ger}) confirm herself in his affections by fetching $1.65 million. In the process, she doubled her racetrack earnings for the clients on whose behalf Clay had purchased her privately from Germany four years previously.

A few days later, Clay was back in the headlines from the other side of the fence, signing consecutive $350,000 dockets that shared top billing at the Horses of Racing Age Sale: a mare to send to Australia, and a juvenile for Wathnan Racing. In bookending trade at Keeneland, then, he had offered an instructive snapshot of the diversifying services he has been able to offer since going solo 11 months ago—and a measure of the way he has adapting a flair for teamwork to an environment barely less colorful and unpredictable than the stage.

In Chicago, approaching 30, Clay had gradually been drawn into office jobs that drew more on his college training. And then, while copywriting ads for retirement homes, he kept reading about small advertising agencies selling up for big money to the Leo Burnetts of the world. At that time, Clay didn't know how to start a business. But he knew a man who did.

So he called his father and asked to pick his brains.

“And for a year, nine o'clock every Saturday morning, he said, 'You come up with the questions, and I'll try and answer them,'” Clay recalls. “And every example he gave was about the horse business, and it just became more and more interesting.”

Lorin happens to have family in Lexington and, when they came home one Easter, Clay's father showed them a farm he was looking to buy: Big Sink, now the yearling division of Three Chimneys. On their tour, they went into the dilapidated main house.

“So on the drive back to Chicago, for about three hours I was just thinking,” Clay recalls. “And then I said, 'Would you ever want to live in Lexington?'”

They renovated the house, and Clay belatedly started doing all the things he might easily have done a decade earlier. He had a latent foundation of knowledge, of course. But now he filled that out with stints at the Irish National Stud and Arrowfield Stud in Australia. By 2004, he was ready to start under Braxton Lynch in the sales division of Three Chimneys.

But the twists and turns of his path, to that point, would continue even after this homecoming. Clay had assumed that Three Chimneys would remain a family business. In the event, however, his father sold the farm in two phases to the Borges-Torrealba family. (Grandview Equine, of course, is one of the projects that has engaged him since.) Clay stayed on, but was grateful to the new owners for permitting him to serve outside clients. Over time these have proliferated to the point that last December—albeit he still represents Gun Runner for Three Chimneys in Japan and Australia—Clay set up shop on his own.

“It's a really great group,” he says of his clientele. “And the fun part of it is that I can be selling yesterday, and shopping today. It's compartmentalized. After Dalika sold I was having a beer with [her vendor] Paul Varga, and someone came up to me and said, 'I just bought this weanling, can you insure it for me?' Everybody has different lines of business. We're all working in multiple buckets. And nowadays, thankfully, we have so much data coming to us. It's a completely different world from when Dad started the farm. Things are happening all over the world that we can see in real time, all the time, and people are very sharp. You don't want to miss anything.”

And one thing leads to another. Last year someone called Clay about a mare entered for the Magic Millions Sale: instead of paying for an advert, he wanted Clay (“You know everybody…”) just to make a few calls so that she would be on people's radar. And then one of those calls, in incidentally alerting a contact to his new availability, opened another door. That was typical of how various silos can support each other.

Naturally Clay feels a profound debt to his father, as a conduit to such relationships. One way or another, moreover, there's evidently some real creative flair in the pedigree. (Besides Clay's own adventures in comedy, his sister is a novelist.) There was a degree of trepidation, of course, about going solo. He has a daughter in college, after all. But Clay is hugely gratified by the progress he has made inside a year, and can now also look back on his consigning debut with relief, as well.

But then that had itself emerged organically from an expertise he has long established: Dalika herself had been a private purchase, while completing the Puca deal ultimately hinged on the same practiced instinct for bringing parties together. You could almost say that it became just a public variation on the private market Clay knows so well.

“So often in horse deals, you find yourself thinking at the 11th hour that this isn't going to happen,” he remarks. “And then it all falls into place and it gets done. The whole experience was great, a lot of fun. Many thanks go to Solis/Litt for all things Puca, from start to finish, to the team at the barn, to Runnymede Farm and Trackside Farm. As a consignor, I'm thinking of myself like a pop-up shop. If I don't have anything in my camp next November, then I'll just keep my sign in the shed behind my house. But if I do, then I'll put it up and keep vertically integrating.”

As things stand, he certainly doesn't envisage expanding to yearlings. “I put clients' yearlings with consignors, I do business with consignors, I insure for consignors,” he notes. “So I'm just trying to pick my spots and keep those relationships good. Also, selling yearlings is a grind.”

That said, the whole appeal of this game is that you never know what opportunities might lurk around the next corner. All Clay knows for sure is that there can never be complacency, whether about his own business or the sport overall.

“I have such admiration for people who bear the overheads of a farm,” he says. “That's stressful. I just have an office and an accountant that helps me. But the most coveted, most valuable thing we have in Kentucky is the land. So I have great appreciation and respect for people who own that land. Because they're carrying it forward for the next generation.

“There's always going to be another shortsighted builder trying to make a buck. Once that land goes, we're Columbus, Ohio; we're like any other town. So that's critical. And then safety, that's also paramount; and having a clean sport. And we have to keep up with the rest of the world, as well. Learn from them. Australia's booming. Japan is incredible. And meanwhile we keep shrinking. What's it going to look like here, in 20 years? Hopefully this business is still here. Because it's a great game.”

In fairness, Clay must be pretty well equipped for nearly any eventuality, if he can stand up to the hecklers of Chicago. And to go from RNA to sale topper, either side of sunset, on one level was just another test of livewire adaptability. But everyone still had to be confident where they stood.

“Oh, for sure, you had to think on your feet in Chicago—and everybody, in this business, is a pro at that.” he says. “Horse racing is a difficult business. Just about the only one you could find that's harder is show business. But none of what transpired is about me. It's about horses, their owners and their connections. I'm lucky to have grown up in the business, to know a lot of good people, and I'm grateful to those who have helped me along the way: they know who they are. It's not easy. But you're only ever a conduit. And then it just goes back to what feels right; to how you earn people's trust, and keep it.”

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