By Katie Ritz
Sometimes you talk to a breeder and know instantly that each and every horse he or she raises is their pride and joy.
There might be no better example than Chris Welker.
As the co-breeder of 'TDN Rising Star' Travel Column (Frosted), Welker can share dozens of stories of the youngster's time at Spring Ridge Farm. She can tell you about the many frustrating sessions they went through when Travel Column was a hard-headed yearling, but if you bring up the filly's win in last year's GII Golden Rod S., you can practically hear her beaming through the phone. Ask her to show you a photo or two of Travel Column's younger days, and she'll pull out 20.
For Chris and her husband Bayne Welker, Fasig-Tipton's Executive Vice President, Travel Column is their most accomplished horse after nearly 20 years in the business as breeders. To make her even more special to the couple, they nearly missed out on purchasing her dam.
In 2016, Welker was on the hunt for a mare for a client at the Keeneland November Sale. While stopping by the Denali Stud consignment, she asked if they had anything that might fit her farm's budget. They said they did, but that the mare was by Victory Gallop.
“I told them I didn't know if I wanted a Victory Gallop mare, but I saw her and I really liked her,” Welker said. “She was very pretty, not really big. I loved the fact that a couple of her foals had sold for a lot of money.”
The mare, named Swingit and in foal to Bodemeister, had produced three winners but she also had two dead foals on her record and had not produced a foal the year prior.
“She had a little bit of a spotty produce record but you could say she'd probably be worth a shot for $50,000,” Welker said, recalling her thought process. “I thought if she ends up having a good Bodemeister, she'll pay for herself.”
So with a strict budget in mind, Welker watched Swingit enter the sales ring and crossed her fingers as she raised her hand for a budget-maxing $50,000.
“Lo and behold, we got her for exactly that,” she recalled. “I don't think I'd have paid any more. That's a lot of money for us.”
The next day, Swingit's third foal Neolithic (Harlan's Holday) ran second in the GIII Discovery S. in his stakes debut. He would go on to place in three Graded or Group I races and earn over $2 million.
Welker's hopes for the Bodemeister foal came true when the colt sold for $310,000, the highest-priced yearling for his sire in 2018.
Welker had a stallion in mind for Swingit after she foaled, but Denali's Craig Bandoroff called with a different idea.
“Craig was kicking himself for not buying the mare,” she said. “He called and said he would like to do a foal share with Frosted. He said we needed to breed her to something new and exciting.”
When it came time for Swingit to foal, Welker was left on her own as Bayne was off inspecting yearlings.
“The mare had a bit of a funny produce record and I was a bit nervous because I didn't know her well,” she admitted. “Most of the mares I've had for a while and I know them.”
Thankfully, everything went smoothly and Travel Column made her way into the world Apr. 10, 2018.
“The mare was perfect and it was a beautiful foal so I took pictures and sent them to everybody,” Welker said. “I'm proud of the fact that I got to foal her by myself. If I had known what she was going to be worth, it wouldn't have been so easy, I can tell you that.”
It didn't take long for Welker to learn this Frosted filly danced to the beat of her own drum.
“I thought she'd be either really good or not worth a damn because she was really tough,” Welker quipped. “She took tough to a whole new level. If she was in one of those moods, you might as well walk away and try the next day. It was her rules, not yours. I don't care if you were six feet tall and 250 pounds, it wasn't going to happen if it wasn't on her terms. I hated that about her, but I also loved it about her.”
As the filly developed and the weeks closed in on the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Sale, Welker knew a flight from Kentucky to New York could prove problematic for the spirited filly.
“I thought, God if we get to the airport and she gives us any trouble on the airplane, it's not going to be good,” she said. “So I just started trailering her around. If I was going somewhere I would just load her up and take her with me a few times a week. I took her to the grocery store with me.”
When the day came for Travel Column to ship out, she boarded the plane without a hitch or an ounce of sedative.
Welker's goal going into the sale was for the filly to reach $400,000, but she said her conservative husband was thinking perhaps half that amount. A few days into showing, Welker's price point had gotten a bit higher.
“By the second-to-last day of showing, you're starting to think crazy because you could see how popular she was and how she had absolutely taken control of that show. When they would bring her out, everybody wanted to know who she was.”
Travel Column's $850,000 hammer price was the most expensive sale for her first-crop sire in 2019.
But Swingit's next foal would prove to be Welker's favorite yet.
After foaling Travel Column, Swingit was supposed to go to an up-and-coming proven stallion with some rumored fertility issues, but Welker had bigger plans.
“Bayne really wanted to breed her to the less expensive stallion and I said 'Bayne, I really do not have a good feeling about this. Just let me do what I need to do,'” she said. “From the time Neolithic came along, my dream was to take her to American Pharoah because I thought, when else would a person like me have a chance to breed to him?”
The horsewoman said she still remembers hauling the mare into Ashford Stud and clipping American Pharoah's tag onto Swingit's halter.
“I've got pictures of it on my phone,” she said. “I just remember standing there thinking that this foal is going to be worth a million dollars, he's going to be a solid bay and it's going to be a colt.”
Aside from one small star on an otherwise bay colt, Welker's premonitions turned out to be completely correct.
Last year, Swingit's American Pharoah colt, now named Corton Charlemagne, sold for $1.25 million to Speedway Stables.
“I had envisioned for so long what he would be like and he was exactly that,” Welker said with emotion. “He's got the same temperament as American Pharoah. He knows what you're thinking. He's smart, very laid-back and self-confident. His picture is my Facebook profile. Every time I look at a picture of him or start thinking about him, I just start crying. I just want everything to be the best for him.”
This year, Swingit's City of Light yearling colt will see the sales ring.
“We're as excited about him as we've been about any of them,” Welker said. “I see a lot of the filly in him. He's a little more precocious like she was, but he's got that laid-back way like the American Pharoah colt.”
While Swingit was barren this year, she was bred to Uncle Mo a few days ago.
As Welker monitors the development of Swingit's youngest foal, she keeps a close eye on Travel Column from afar.
“I think she has a really exciting future,” she said. “[In the GII Golden Rod S.] we were just hoping she would hit the board. We didn't really expect her to win, but then the way she won was pretty exciting.”
Travel Column made her sophomore debut in last weekend's GII Rachel Alexandra S., running second by a neck to Stonestreet homebred Clairiere (Curlin).
“I would not want to be around her right now after she got beat,” Welker said. “I guarantee you that she's a little tougher than normal if I know her at all.”
For nearly 20 years, the horsewoman has been running the Welker's 70-acre Spring Ridge Farm with the full-time help of two employees and weekend help from husband Bayne. They currently have five of their own mares, plus three client mares, seven yearlings and two geldings.
She said she tries not to think about what a win in the GI Kentucky Oaks would mean for their farm, but instead focuses on everything that has already been achieved since she purchased Swingit.
“This mare has already changed our lives,” she said. “The American Pharoah colt is the love of my life. [An Oaks win] would be amazing but I don't even want to think about [it]. I'm just so grateful for what Travel Column has done for us already. She's the most accomplished horse for us by a landslide.”