By Chris McGrath
Never mind all this talk of walls; and never mind the fact that Matt Koch was actually putting up a fence when the idea was first put to him. Because here, in these notoriously fractured times, is a young Republican eager to build bridges.
As co-owner of Shawhan Place, Koch was supervising a consignment at the Keeneland January Sale last week when breaking off to Frankfort to be sworn in as the new state representative for the 72nd District of Kentucky. The day after his election last November, similarly, it was at Keeneland that you would have found him, showing horses with his team. That’s how symbiotic is the connection he wants to maintain, not just between his professional duties and those he has embraced at the capitol; but also between the industry in which he was raised (and which, of course, employs much of his electorate) and the forum where the broadest interests of the Bluegrass are weighed.
Koch is the first Republican to represent Bourbon County and its environs in the Kentucky House of Representatives since 1974–when the seat was held by none other than his partner in Shawhan, Teddy Kuster. And it was Kuster who accosted him just over a year ago, while Koch was busy digging post holes round the foaling barn, to lament that nobody had yet filed to run on the Republican ticket; and that there were now only a couple of days before the deadline.
“Being a politician was never anywhere in my wheelhouse,” Koch admits. “Teddy was really the push. He’s the one who put the idea in my head. He came out there while we were putting up some fencing, and I was complaining about the current situation, talking like we always do. And Teddy said, ‘Well, do something about it!’ And I said, ‘Well, by God, maybe I will!’ So Teddy and I drove to Frankfort and met a few people; my wife and I had a long talk that night; and next day went up there and signed the papers on the filing deadline. And here I am.”
One Democrat friend assured the writer that he would gladly have voted for Koch, in his own district, as the kind of local figure who can transcend the virulent partisanship of the national stage. Sure enough, though it plainly remains very early days, Koch is already able to say: “I think the greatest thing so far is that I’ve met some amazing people on both sides. You may not always agree on everything, but the fact that we can sit down and have these conversations, that’s a big starting point–and that’s how eventually we’ll see some of these issues get ironed out.”
If he entered the field almost inadvertently, moreover, Koch could not have a more natural affinity with the concept of service. Even the current divisions infecting national political discourse, after all, are pretty trifling compared to the kind of thing Koch witnessed during his four-year stint as second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, when exposed to the volatile and violent theatres of Kosovo and Afghanistan. As an intelligence officer, Koch had to show wisdom beyond his years to make the best use of authority and responsibilities that would have daunted many an older man.
“You’re 24, 25 years old, moving into a town with your Marines, and all of a sudden you’re kind of the mayor, you’re the most powerful force there,” Koch reflects. “So it was all about learning how to deal and work with the local people. You’re not there to shove them around. You’re there to help them have a better life and to provide protection. You can’t just come in and say: ‘Well, we’re modern, we’re sophisticated, and by God, this is the way we’re gonna do it!’
“Because if you can make them successful, can teach them to be self-sufficient, they won’t have to grow the opioids; they won’t have to do all that for the Taliban. I learned how to listen in the Marine Corps. Your way’s not always the best way. You sit down with the local elders, with your interpreter, and you listen. They’ve been here for generations. You need to be able to adapt: take some of what you know and some of what they know, and put it together.”
So while the idea of “working a room” like a politician may remain alien, Koch is actually one step ahead. He wouldn’t do that because it’s expedient, but because it fits the way he has learned to deal with problems.
“As a Marine, you deal with the highest all the way down to the poorest of the poor,” he says. “I was very lucky to have such an experience. You can’t even imagine what poverty is until you saw some of those people in Afghanistan. And yet an hour later you’d be with the head of state.”
Nor is it as though these seeds were ever falling on fallow soil. Koch is indebted to parents who raised their many children to have a sense of social duty, an instinct for giving something back. His father, of course, is Gus Koch Sr.–long-serving manager at Claiborne, and himself a Marine veteran. So the young Koch absorbed much of value, growing up on that storied farm, besides the horsemanship he has applied in his own post-military career.
“Where I grew up was the best place you could be raised, whether as a horse or a kid,” he says. “I’m very blessed to have grown up in a big family. You learn how to share. You’re number five of 10 kids? You don’t always get your way! But we’re very lucky in that when we were ready to leave home, the one thing we left with was our last name. That’s one thing nobody can ever take away from you, so it’s up to you to maintain that integrity and the honesty in your name, the number one thing Dad instilled in all us brothers and sisters. And the only way you can do that is get out there, work hard and do a good job.”
Despite a battle with cancer extending nearly two decades, Koch’s father remains a daily sounding board in the professional dimension to this living legacy. That traces right back to his boyhood, and the great Moccasin: only 2-year-old filly to be named Horse of the Year and, along with her sister Thong, one of those who immortalised their dam Rough Shod II.
“I’ll never forget Moccasin,” Koch says. “She was a paddock buddy for this other mare, I can’t remember if she was blind or just had health problems. But obviously Moccasin was very friendly because I would hold her, when just six or seven, while Dad would treat the other mare. And [after Mocassin passed, aged just eight] whenever her daughter Flippers was going to foal, Dad would always try to get me to the foaling barn.”
Koch was only 10 or 11 when he worked his first November Sale, and it became unremarkable for him to be around mares as resonant as Personal Ensign, Relaxing and Inside Information. “Every Saturday morning, my brother Steve and I would go down when the eight o’clock session was over, cleaning all the mats and the breeding shed,” he recalls. “So you learned a work ethic even while you were being around some of those great mares.”
His favorite job was to hold tools for the farrier and, after himself learning the art of shoeing, he paid his way through the University of Kentucky trimming mares. After his military service, his father sent Koch to Teddy Kuster and together they started the Shawhan consignment in 2006.
Daniel Shawhan bought the land in 1788 after sampling what he declared to be the cleanest spring water he had ever tasted and promptly built a distillery. The same water, and the limestone pasture, quickly put the latest Shawhan venture on the map. After a $7,000 purchase named Queen Randi (Fly So Free) threw a stakes winner, client Jeff Anderson was emboldened to mate her with Mineshaft (A.P. Indy). The result was Fly Down, who finished second in the GI Travers S. and GI Belmont S. and third in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic. From breeding half a dozen mares in its first year, Shawhan now processes sufficient numbers for Matt to supervise the breeding and foaling; and brother Gus Jr., the babies and breaking and sales prep; while Courtney Schneider serves as director of sales.
“But we’ve learned that where we have most success is that when the clients call us, we’re the ones to answer the phone,” Koch stresses. “We’ve tried a bunch of things, but learned that big numbers weren’t the way to go. A lot of our clients just have one or two mares–but when they call us, they know that either myself or Gus or Courtney has handled their horse that day, and can talk to them about it. We’ve kind of learned that’s where our niche is.
“I was very lucky when getting started because I could just go to Dad or Teddy, and you have two walking encyclopedias right there. You can say, ‘Hey, what about this?’ But it’s hard to go to them with anything new. They’ve seen it at some point. I mean, yeah, maybe there’s some new ways to treat something, or do something. But at the end of the day, it’s old-school horsemanship. Yes, you do adapt. We take some of the old ways, things we learned at Claiborne growing up. But Gus and Courtney did the equine program at UK, and Courtney went over to the Irish National Stud, so we just kind of mixed things until we found what worked for us.”
That teamwork will be more important than ever now that Koch finds himself suddenly having to devote himself to civic duty. “But I think it’s mutually beneficial,” he argues. “I’m all in with the horses. It’s all I’ve got. So what better way to help my business than to be part of the decision-making that’s going to drive our whole industry in the future? I’m thrilled to be part of that. And I’m very lucky to have Gus and Courtney, they’ve been doing a heck of a job running the farm during the campaign this past year–and it’s doing better than it ever has.”
Here’s a regular guy, then: married to a schoolteacher, a father of three, determined to stay attuned to the hopes and fears of his constituents, regardless of formal political allegiance. He’ll not charge in promising to change the world overnight, but he’ll quietly make it his business to figure who does what at the capitol and who needs what back in the 72nd District.
“You get more and more comfortable, you get so you can walk in and talk to people,” he says with a shrug. “It’s not much different from being at the horse sales. Being my first session, I understand there’s going to be a lot of that. But I won’t be afraid to stick my head out on stuff I feel strongly about.”
Personal, daily exposure to the challenges that count for so much in Bourbon County, however, is only one guarantee of his eligibility. The other is that grounding: first of all from one of the most respected horsemen in the Bluegrass, and then from military mentors.
While he shows the Marine’s habitual reluctance to dwell on the dangers he endured, he does acknowledge the power of the experience.
“You do grow up,” he reflects. “I mean, you’re looking at young men and women in their early 20s, corporals and sergeants, in charge of armory that’s worth $8 million. Or they’re out there leading squads, actually in charge of human lives. It’s so much responsibility that coming home is sometimes a let-down. I think that’s why a lot of veterans have a hard time when they return.
“But you will also have learned to know where you stand, and to be behind people in what’s right. I give a lot of credit to the Marine Corps for being my own man; for being able to come in [to Frankfort] and not care what side of the house you’re on. You’re just ready to work, and to do the right thing.”