By Chris McGrath
The Lysters love a wilderness. The snowfields above Jackson Hole are like a second home, and between them they have made dozens of visits to Sub-Saharan Africa. Now they have bred a pretty adventurous horse, too, in Bound for Nowhere (The Factor), who this week crosses the ocean for a third time in just 11 career starts. But he is only the latest to demonstrate that anyone trying to beat a path to the winner's circle–that sunlit clearing in the jungle of breeding and raising Thoroughbreds–can take their bearings from an exceptionally reliable compass in Ashview Farm.
Bound for Nowhere is another terrifically fast graduate of the family operation near Versailles, Kentucky, that gave us Johannesburg (Hennessy) and Runhappy (Super Saver). He has contested two Group 1 sprints at Ascot: fourth to Caravaggio (Scat Daddy) as a sophomore with just two starts under his belt; and then beaten under a length when third from a horrible draw in the Diamond Jubilee S. last year. Bound for Nowhere returns for the same race on Saturday, having again set himself up with a fine comeback in the Grade II sprint he won at Keeneland last spring (just collared a neck this time round).
Another showcase, then, for the horsemanship of Wayne Lyster, his wife Muffy, and their sons Gray and Bryan, who nowadays share front-of-house at Ashview. They found his dam Fancy Deed (Alydeed) at the 2011 Keeneland November Sale, needing just $15,000 even though she was a half-sister to the stellar Midnight Lute (Real Quiet).
“I think it was one of those scenarios where if a mare doesn't produce anything from her first few foals, she becomes worth an absolute fraction of what she might have been before,” says Gray Lyster. “But sometimes you can make an excuse for them. And in my opinion she just hadn't been bred to particularly good sires.”
“That's fun, from a $15,000 mare and a $15,000 stud fee,” Gray accepts. “But it certainly wasn't something we were shocked by. He was a really good-looking, smooth-walking colt, who vetted well, by a sire who was selling well. I guess the only thing was that as a May colt, he wasn't small, but compared to the big, beautiful horse he is now, he still needed to mature a little bit. Wesley kind of bought him at a moment's notice and, being the sportsman he is, kept him for himself.”
There was an extra dividend for the trainer, as Ward was duly sent the last foal out of the mare, who sadly colicked hours after delivering a filly by Goldencents the following March. The Lysters decided to keep her, and named her Bingwa: a nod, as the Swahili for “champion”, to their collective love of the whole bush environment and culture. And, a debut scorer last year, she looked highly progressive in winning a Belmont allowance last month.
“Wesley's very high on her, we're all pretty darned excited to tell the truth,” Gray admits. “Like with Bound for Nowhere, Wesley's not been in a big rush with her. But she'll likely take the next step up in the GIII Victory Ride S. in New York on July 5. We hope she might be a top-quality sprint filly.”
Bingwa was scratched from the 2017 September Sale. “If you cut one third off a golf ball, she had a lump like that on the outside of her ankle,” Gray explains. “She X-rayed clean but it was definitely an eyesore and you'd have been hard-pressed to pay a lot of money for her. But we knew it was a bit like buying a new vehicle with a big scratch down the side. It wouldn't affect how fast you could drive. So we never even took her to the sale. We said, 'You know what, we don't have the mother anymore and Bound for Nowhere looks really good. Let's keep her and race her.' And that's something we do very rarely.”
Yet Bingwa can only ever be a relatively trivial blessing relative to those shared by the family after a harrowing trauma at that same September Sale. Because the day the Ashview staff moved in the weekend yearlings, Bryan checked into the University of Kentucky Hospital with a mysterious spine problem.
He was in searing agony, couldn't even stand up. “Level nine-and-a-half pain,” he recalls. “Wondering how I hadn't passed out. Pain I didn't know existed.”
As the doctors struggled to identify the problem, ultimately revealed to be an infection of spinal disc and bone, so they assessed the odds. The thresholds of hope were uncomfortably low. A normal life? Or just life?
A week previously, Bryan's wife had delivered their third child. “It was really scary for my whole family,” he recalls. “The doctor told me I had a 10 percent chance of getting better; a 10 percent chance of never walking again; and then the 80 percent in the middle was where I'd most likely land. But afterward he told me he'd been pretty sure I was going to be in that bottom 10 percent.”
“The first couple of weeks we didn't know if Bryan was ever going to walk again–let alone, you know, pull through,” Gray admits. “It was a very, very difficult time. And while we're wondering will he ever be able to pick up his kids again, we're supposed to be shipping and showing horses at the same time.”
The staff stepped up to the plate. In fact, Ashview had a spectacular sale–so much so, that the family jokes about keeping out of the way in future. More seriously, they accept the reminder that routines work for a reason.
“All of our staff took care of everything perfectly,” recalls Gray. “We basically showed up when the horses went to the ring. Truly, credit to our guys, they do a great job. But you know, a nice horse sells himself as well.”
And they had one of those, from the debut crop of Cairo Prince, who gave Bryan a real tonic as he lay in hospital, following the sale on his iPad.
“Really one of the few things that got me through was watching the prices some of our horses were bringing,” he says. “It became one of the better sales we've ever had. And this colt in particular, bringing $320,000. A $10,000 stud fee and 100 percent for the home team: it was me, Gray, and dad that owned the horse. So for me, personally, it definitely lifted my spirits. I can't imagine if we'd had a poor sale on top of it all.”
Gray shrugs. “I gotta tell you, it didn't matter what horses were bringing,” he says. “It was pretty upsetting, the whole thing. And all while we're trying to make our harvest for the whole year. Trust me, if we had been selling worse, I'm sure it would have been more depressing. But nobody was slapping high fives.”
Happily, Bryan's recovery exceeds anything his doctor has seen. As for the Cairo Prince colt, he was named Mihos by Centennial Farms and sent to Jimmy Jerkens. A 'TDN Rising Star' when breaking his maiden, he briefly entered the Classic picture when winning the Mucho Macho Man S. at Gulfstream in January, only to disappoint in the GII Holy Bull S. Though given a break since, he has recently resurfaced on the worktab.
The dam of Mihos was another bargain, an unraced daughter of Lion Heart found for just $10,000 at the Fasig-Tipton February Sale in 2014. Her half-sister Sharla Rae (Afleet Alex) subsequently won the GI Del Mar Oaks and, unsurprisingly, she has gone back to Cairo Prince this spring.
But the ultimate coup was the mother of Runhappy. The boys had still been in college for Johannesburg, who was very much a Wayne Lyster production. But Runhappy sealed their integration into the regime, as son of a mare Gray claimed for $5,000 at Delaware. She was later sold for $1.6 million to Stonestreet.
The funny thing is, I don't know how many we claimed that year but it was a bunch,” recalls Bryan. “And she was literally the only one we kept. I don't know if that was because we saw the light–or if maybe we just got a little lucky.”
Their parents started Ashview as a house plus nine acres; it has since evolved to 350 acres plus 700 acres of alfalfa and other crops. But while the boys have assumed more responsibility, Wayne is still the fulcrum.
“He's the smartest guy out there,” says Gray. “Because he knows how not to micromanage while being involved in all the big decisions. He's the foundation of everything we do. We're all on the same page, really. Because while there's a certain type of mare you like, or whatever, I think the way you raise a horse is so much more important than how they look, or what their pedigree is. I think you see that over and over again, with some really good breeders. There's a lot of different ways to do it well. But, you know, our way is kind of raise them tough and…”
“Let them be a horse,” interjects Bryan.
“…Let them be themselves,” agrees Gray. “That's not to say you don't need an athletic animal in front of you. But I actually think people now, compared with 10 years ago, are acknowledging that. They say: 'Wait a minute. This type of operation raises a horse like this, and they have oodles more success with the same quality of stock as a different operation.'”
And that is consistent with the trademark Ashview has developed, not particularly by design, by growing their own organic forage.
“I wouldn't say it's a prerequisite,” says Bryan. “But it feels good when you know exactly where it's coming from, what you're putting in their bellies. Because there hasn't been a bunch of glyphosate sprayed all over what our horses are eating. I mean, honestly, it's no different than the way we raise our own children.”
Gray feels as though people sometimes “roll their eyes” if they labour the point. “It's a little old-fashioned, rather than organic,” he says. “I mean, there's a lot of good ways to raise horses. Same as there's a lot of good ways to train horses. Shug McGaughey and Wesley Ward are two great trainers who probably don't train the same way. And our way just happens to be a little more hay, oats, and water.
“But we put ourselves in that position by usually buying young mares, who don't need a lot of reproductive help, who have good feet, who can be tough outside. When we say we don't do a bunch of surgeries on our young foals, maybe it's just because we bought some nice, correct mares. And in 2019 I guess it's turned into a little bit of a brand: whether it's you going to the grocery market or the yearling sales, people want to know the history of this product and how it was produced.”
To a degree that's just one dimension of the literally hands-on scale of their operation. People know that every horse presented by the Lysters has been raised, day-by-day, by men who started not just under the same roof, but with the same principles of horsemanship.
“When we were kids, every farm used to sell their own horses,” remarks Gray. “Now there are some big consigners today that do wonderful jobs. But we want to promote ourselves as people who can say: 'We're the ones raising the product that's in front of you. Please ask us about it. We're not saying anybody else is right or wrong, but this is how we do it.'”