By Chris McGrath
Wayne Lyster always knew it to be miracle enough, for a farm this size, simply to get both into the starting gate. The Derby-Oaks double hadn't been accomplished since the heyday of Calumet, 70 years previously, and at Ashview, they foal out no more than a couple of dozen mares every spring. As such, Lyster can justly take pride in the fact that both Mo Donegal (Uncle Mo) and Nest (Curlin) finished their races so well, for fifth and second, respectively, that they are now converging instead on the GI Belmont S. And if a Classic double was always far-fetched, then a Classic 1-2 would represent a scarcely less astounding tribute to the hands that delivered this pair into the elite tier of a 20,000 crop, just 11 days apart in April 2019.
Lyster has been in the game too long to need reminding of the odds he has confounded in co-breeding Mo Donegal and Nest with longstanding partner Richard Santulli of Colts Neck Stables. How long? Well, when he was kid weed-hooking at Claiborne, he remembers Bull Hancock showing him seven yearling colts by Bold Ruler, all still sharing the same paddock as late as September. The idea was that they take their feistiness with them to the racetrack. “Mr. Bull”, as Lyster called him, also introduced the 15-year-old to bourbon eggnog–but that's another story.
None of us, however, will ever be around Thoroughbreds long enough to be exempted from the inflexible law that every hour of victory must be earned by months of vicissitude. Sure enough, even in the weeks leading up to the Derby, Lyster and his sons Gray and Bryan–who nowadays operate front-of-house at Ashview–were receiving fresh instruction in that cruel rate of exchange.
Marion Ravenwood (A.P. Indy) had already moved up in the world since her $400,000 acquisition at the Keeneland November Sale of 2017, her then-weanling by Curlin having turned into GI Santa Anita H. winner Idol. The Lysters sent her back to Curlin, and the resulting filly is Nest. Marion Ravenwood then delivered a Violence colt, who made $275,000 last September, but has since abruptly ended what had become a mechanical producing record since 2013. She missed on a single late cover in 2020, but then failed to conceive despite protracted nuptials with Curlin last year. This time around, she did conceive only to lose her pregnancy before her daughter ran in the Oaks.
If that was frustrating, the fortunes of Mo Donegal's dam have been outright distressing. Callingmissbrown (Pulpit), who had also gone to Curlin, went into premature labor–just a couple of weeks before the Derby–with her foal terribly contorted, upside down and backwards. While he made it onto the straw, he was never able to do more than torment everyone with his beauty.
“We were told he had a 50-50 chance, and he was in the best of care at Rood and Riddle,” Lyster recalls. “But unfortunately he wasn't able to make it. He was a very nice colt, but never actually got up without assistance. So yes, you could say we've been really unlucky with both these mares. But that's not totally true. We didn't lose either of them, nor had we sold. I'm confident both will be fine, and we have opportunities going forward.”
And, indeed, Marion Ravenwood has now tested in foal at 32 days, and Callingmissbrown sought a sibling for Mo Donegal from Uncle Mo a few days ago. Not that the seasoned perspective we know to expect from Lyster will make such traumas any easier at the time.
“Temperament,” he muses. “Patience. All those big words everybody likes to use, that are so difficult. Sometimes I don't even know why I do this. But when things do work out, the rewards are so great. They can be financially, too, but it's mentally that you just feel like you've conquered Mount Everest. And, honestly, that's why I love horse people so much. I'm competitive with my neighbors, my friends, my rival consignors. But I want them all to do well, because it's so difficult. Most of them can take horrible news, and pick it up, and go on. To me, they're some of the best people in the world.”
You can add to these stoics My Meadowview Farm, who bred and raced both these mares before culling them to Ashview. Callingmissbrown is still only 10, having been offered privately a year after the sale of Marion Ravenwood. By Pulpit out of GI Acorn S. winner Island Sand (Tabasco Cat), she had shown plenty of ability in a light career, and the Lysters gave her every chance with covers by Uncle Mo and Into Mischief. Though Mo Donegal had yet to run, her Into Mischief filly–now named Prank–made $500,000 from LNJ Foxwoods last September and as recently as May 29, hit the worktab for the first time with a promising three-furlong work at Saratoga in :37.28 (2/16).
The sheer quality of these covers tells its own story, as consummation of decades of patient, incremental progress from just nine acres on the fringes of Versailles, KY. This land is saturated in history, and Ashview's expansion would eventually include the tomb of General Marquis Calmes, who had crossed the Delaware with George Washington before settling here.
Lyster, too, had crossed from Pennsylvania. His father, who had introduced him to the sport at Delaware Park, needed a recuperative stint in Arizona after being wounded in the war and the family passed through the Bluegrass en route. Enchanted, they returned to take a farm near Paris, raising cattle, tobacco and hay; and incidentally inflaming a teenage boy with a love of horses (leading to that first, menial employment at Claiborne).
After marrying Muffy, 48 years ago, Lyster wanted their own children to benefit from a similarly rural upbringing. By that stage he was buying horses on commission, seeking an edge in the rapidly evolving commercial market. With pedigrees yet to be computerized, he spent hours poring over microfiche archives.
“And I'd go into the Lexington Herald-Leader at night, because we couldn't get results until the next day,” Lyster recalls. “I was so interested to see who might have won $50,000 out in California, and they'd get the wire at 11 o'clock, and I'd be in there waiting with the sports columnist, so that I might know before anybody else and maybe see if I could find a half-sister to a stakes winner. Information was so slow then. It could take six months to find out what had been happening in Japan.”
At every stage, Lyster has known how to turn up a diamond in the rough. In 1989 he gave $9,000 for a 19-year-old, empty mare. She had her credits, as runner and producer, but they were long faded. Lyster sent her to Seeking the Gold, and raced the resulting filly At the Half in partnership to win the GIII Golden Rod S. at Churchill by five lengths. She was sold for $950,000, but only after her first daughter had been retained. That was Lu Ravi (A.P. Indy), sold privately after winning her maiden and subsequently $1.8 million.
Every time, Lyster played up his winnings. Ashview expanded from nine acres to 16, to 90, to 110. Eventually he bought a bigger arable farm in southern Woodford County, where they could grow their own feed. The aggregate has now tipped 1,000 acres. Nonetheless, this remains a scrupulously hands-on operation, the stock elevating only in quality not quantity.
By 1997, Lyster felt able to gamble $350,000 for an Ogygian half-sister to the rising Tale of the Cat and bred trans-Atlantic juvenile champion Johannesburg. True, she had soon been sold on, barren, but Lyster shrugs about that: he has always obeyed the trading imperative. And, happily, his flair has been inherited by his sons. In 2010 Gray claimed a Broken Vow filly for $5,000–at Delaware Park, aptly enough. Sent to Super Saver, she produced a $200,000 September yearling that became another champion: Runhappy. The mare having this time been fortunately retained, she was cashed out for $1.6 million.
But even these coups would never have upgraded the program to the same extent, without Santulli.
“Growing the farm required a lot of capital,” Lyster stresses. “A lot of this land wasn't prepared. There wasn't fencing, water, roads, barns. It had been cattle and pigs. So Richard deserves so much credit. He's been a partner for 40 years. With his additional funds, we were able to double the quality of the horses we were buying. And it's just indescribable to me, personally, to have my best friend as partner, and all my family involved in breeding these horses: I really don't know how it can be any better.”
Lyster and his wife duly prioritized the university graduation of Santulli's daughter over going to the Derby. And, actually, that feels consistent with the intimacy of this whole operation: not just as a family firm (helped also by daughter Meredith), but simply in its conservative scale and the attention that guarantees each horse.
“The yearlings we sell, we've raised them all here on the farm,” Lyster says. “So when you come to me or my sons with a question, we can give you the life history of the horse. From before conception, we've handled the whole situation. If I tell you a horse has no bad vices, that horse has no bad vices. If a horse ships in from someone else, I couldn't know that.”
The farm can even attest to the caliber of hay and bedding, supplied in-house. And while branding their horses as authentically “organic” happens to coincide with the spirit of the age, this was no commercial contrivance. The family just found itself ahead of the curve.
“The timing was perfect,” Lyster acknowledges. “But we were doing it before it was a 'pitch'; we were doing it because we believed in it. I'd never liked buying food you didn't really know where it came from. We bought hay in Montana, in Ohio, in Kentucky, and I never knew what they might have sprayed on it. When we were able to purchase more land, and raise our own, I knew that none of it–the land itself, the spring water, the hay and bedding–had been supplemented with something I didn't know about. So we really are selling a product you're as close as possible to knowing everything about.”
That connection with Nature is fortified by an ardor, shared with the boys, for the wilderness. Lyster sees both business and pleasure through the same lens, and among the racing memorabilia in the office stands a wildlife conservation award from the State of Kentucky as landowners of the year.
And this sense of connection informs the whole upbringing of an Ashview yearling.
“We're trying to achieve a blend,” Lyster says. “You want to raise a racehorse, while also having a product you can sell. Because at the end of the day, they have to pay for the farm. That's not easy, but we have that whole process in mind from the beginning: with the stallions we use, and the way we raise horses. Our earlier foals, that we had in January, those mares and foals were turned out Feb. 28, rain or shine. If it became an icy rain, yes, they'd be brought in. We're not ever going to make a horse suffer. But they need to be out: they're not creatures that need to be brought in 4:30 in the afternoon because it's getting dark, to spend two-thirds of their time in a small box. We try to let them be horses as much as we possibly can.”
Another advantage, compared with more industrial operations, is that the farm principals can personally adjust their regime of each individual. Lyster feels that raising a horse, to that extent, is little different from training one. Sure, “super farms” can succeed no less than “super trainers,” but for one of this scale to keep producing such good racehorses suggests that something is functioning pretty well.
That's how you end up with two future Classic contenders in adjacent stalls at Keeneland, in the same September Sale, selling the same day.
“I guess this is easy to say, after the fact, but we did like them both very much as yearlings,” Lyster recalls. “Were they big? Not really. Each has grown nicely since. But after you've had as many foals and yearlings as I have, you either like them or you don't. Now I like all my kids. And I like most of my dogs. But some horses I like better than others. And we always liked those two. Leon Hamilton, he's been with me for more than 40 years, and he liked them as well.”
Arguably the Belmont feels even more tantalizingly within reach than did the Derby or Oaks, the Preakness having meanwhile fallen to a colt beaten by Mo Donegal in the GII Wood Memorial.
“We're extremely proud,” Lyster says. “It's almost surreal: we play odds all the time in this business, between breeding and wagering, and I couldn't even guess at the odds about this happening.
“We didn't inherit any of this land, and in order to grow at all, we've had to trade. Some horses I regret selling, of course, but that's the game. But we still have these two mares. And while my wife might disagree, as she has to listen to the brunt of my complaints, the reality is that I've never worked a day in my life. I've had difficult times. Financially, or with the death or sickness of a horse. But I've never had any difficulty getting up early, or staying out late, because I love what I do so much that it's never been work to me.”