Breeders' Spotlight: The Stories of Hidden Brook

Hidden Brook Farm's Sergio de Sousa | Katie Petrunyak


The first thing you notice as you pull up to Hidden Brook Farm's yearling division is how, on either side of the doors leading into the indoor walker, dozens and dozens of nameplates are lined in neat rows, serving as the honor roll of horses bred, foaled, raised or sold by Hidden Brook. Ask farm manager Sergio de Sousa about any one of the names you see listed there and he will have a story.

Take, for instance, Tell a Kelly. The daughter of Tapit was consigned by Hidden Brook at the Keeneland September Sale the year that her sire's first crop were sophomores. At the time Tapit was showing plenty of promise, but a lot of his winners were grey. Tell a Kelly, a pretty chestnut with a flaxen mane, only sold for $45,000 after many buyers told de Sousa that only the grey ones could run. The next year the filly won the 2010 GI Debutante S. at Del Mar.

Then there's Firing Line (Line of David). He is known for running second to American Pharoah in the 2015 GI Kentucky Derby, but de Sousa remembers him from when he grew up at Hidden Brook as a yearling. Across the road from Firing Line's paddock, their neighbor Beau Lane had a nice Giant's Causeway colt who came to be called Carpe Diem and also ran in the 2015 Derby.

A portion of the honor roll wall at Hidden Brook | Katie Petrunyak

“I wonder if they ever looked at each other at the Derby and said, 'Hey, remember me? I was your neighbor!” de Sousa speculated with a grin.

Dixie Chatter (Dixie Union) was consigned by Hidden Brook back in 2006, but breeder Herman Sarkowsky was so high on the youngster that he decided to keep him after he RNA'd for $220,000. The colt was sent to Richard Mandella and the first time de Sousa saw him breeze, he immediately called Sarkowsky.

“Either this horse is really good or Mandella is about to fire the rider because Mandella's horses do not work like that,” he told Sarkowsky.

Not long after that conversation, Dixie Chatter won the GI Norfolk S.

Pretty Discreet was one of de Sousa's all-time favorite mares. He first met the Grade I-winning daughter of Private Account back when he was working for Indian Creek. Breeder Paul Robsham already had a stallion picked out for her to visit in 2001, but de Sousa was adamant that she needed to go to a better stallion, one like Awesome Again. Robsham agreed and the mating produced Discreetly Awesome, who was very crooked and never made it to the track. They tried to breed her to Medaglia d'Oro several times as a maiden mare, but for some reason they couldn't get her in foal. Finally de Sousa called an audible and sent her to Maria's Mon. The resulting foal was Grade I winner and Eclipse finalist Awesome Maria.

Pretty Discreet's next foal Discreet Cat (Forestry) was foaled and raised at Hidden Brook. He was an athletic-looking colt but he was noticeably knock-kneed for the first few months of his life. That didn't stop him from going on to win the G2 UAE Derby, GII Breeders' Cup H. and GI Cigar Mile H. in 2006.

A few years later, de Sousa was able to tag along during the walkover for the 2010 GI Kentucky Derby with Pretty Discreet's son Discreetly Mine (Mineshaft), but he was so in awe throughout the experience that he barely remembers a thing.

“They started singing my Old Kentucky Home and then boom, the horses crossed the wire,” he recalls with a laugh.

As de Sousa walks on down the line of plaques, he reads off one name after another and the trip down memory lane continues. For every horse, there is an amusing anecdote or an interesting factoid that connects the people and horses that have helped build Hidden Brook Farm into what it is today.

“At the end of the day, people will remember the horses before they remember us,” de Sousa explains. “They all have different stories and they're all special in their own way. They're all connected somehow with a story that makes them special to us.”

Growing up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, de Sousa took every opportunity he could to escape the city and visit his uncles' farms, where coffee production was the main source of revenue but there were also some show jumpers and a few racehorses. After graduating high school, he played basketball for a while but didn't have the height to make it big. So he joined his cousin Alberto Figueiredo–now the director of Bonne Chance Farm–working for a bloodstock agency in Brazil as a bid spotter and bloodstock researcher.

In 1987, de Sousa and Figueiredo made their first trip to Kentucky, where de Sousa worked at Margaux Stud in Midway. He then traveled to work at various stud farms in Ireland, France, Italy and New Zealand. When he began working for Dr. Michael Osborne at Godolphin's Kildangan Stud, it was–as de Sousa puts it now–the start of his own version of Godolphin Flying Start before the program existed.

“Dr. Osborne said that when you fly in, you start,” joked de Sousa. “I was never in the office. There were no assignments, no breakfasts in the morning, but it was great. Horses can take you everywhere and the horse business is a very small world.”

Not long after de Sousa returned to the U.S., he began working for Adena Springs, where he met Jack Brothers, Dan Hall, Mark Roberts and Danny Vella. In 2002, the quintet put their heads–and their checkbooks–together and purchased a 300-acre tract of land in Paris, Kentucky.

Dan Hall recalled how Hidden Brook was thus born.

“Adena Springs had stallions, but they didn't take on any boarders so for years we were referring mares to go to other places. We discussed it with Frank [Stronach] before doing it, but there really wasn't any conflict of interest because Adena was completely private. So we took a gamble, put some money on a down payment on the property and then ran to the mailbox every week waiting for checks to come in. We didn't envision all of us ending up working for the farm. It's worked out pretty well.”

Twenty-two years later, the makeup of the partnership is slightly different and the business has evolved in many ways, but their philosophies are much the same as when Hidden Brook was founded. Vella sold his share to Texas native Kevin Latta about a decade ago and Brothers also recently sold out, but is still an active part of the team even in retirement.

An enthusiastic winner's circle after Hidden Connection's win in the 2021 GIII Pocahontas S. | Coady

Hidden Brook has always primarily been a boarding facility, but they also breed about a dozen of their own mares and campaign a few racehorses each year with a group of partners. Knights Templar (Exploit) was the first yearling they purchased in 2004. The $80,000 Keeneland September graduate was the Sovereign Award-winning juvenile filly the next year. Flash forward to present day and Hidden Connection (Connect) carries the flag for the operation. The winner of the 2021 GIII Pocahontas S. is approaching a million dollars in earnings and was recently second in the GIII Doubledogdare S. for Hidden Brook and Black Type Thoroughbreds. Hall leads the racing partnership end of the business, which usually consists of about six fillies per crop.

In 2015, Hidden Brook added a training division in Ocala. Headed up by partner Mark Roberts, their facility has seen the likes of champion Jaywalk (Cross Traffic), Grade I winner Arabian Lion (Justify) and most recently, three-time Grade I victor Program Trading (GB) (Lope de Vega {Ire}).

Today, de Sousa has the same position he started out with as managing partner, running the day-to-day operation of the Paris, KY division. The farm has doubled in acreage since it was founded. Around 100 client-owned mares call Hidden Brook home and the farm will consign about 60 yearlings every fall.

With four or five partners comes four or five differing sets of experiences, theories and approaches. The Hidden Brook team has figured out how to utilize each other's ideas as assets rather than sources of division.

“There are a lot of opinions, but I think we've done a pretty good job of being able to separate things,” said de Sousa. “I think we all kind of feed off each other a little bit when it's necessary. If you combine everybody's experience, you have over 100 years of horse knowledge. Like anything in the horse industry, there's a lot of different ways to do something and it doesn't mean there's a right way or a wrong way. You do it the way it works for you.”

Since 2002, Hidden Brook has had a hand in raising 230 blacktype winners, 103 graded winners and 27 Grade I winners, but de Sousa will be the first to say that not much has changed in terms of management style over the past two decades.

“Doing more in the business doesn't mean doing better; you're just doing more,” he said. “We've never made drastic changes. We have our knowledge, don't get me wrong, but we've seen so many things in 40 years. The program has to evolve around each individual horse, but we try not to complicate it. We try to keep them happy. We take pride in that we try to raise them all as racehorses and there's no better place for them than outdoors.”

The key to good management, according to de Sousa, is observation. He doesn't rely on scales to weigh his horses. He monitors their body condition regularly and makes adjustments accordingly. Their behavior out in the pasture is important too. de Sousa tries to match horses up with a group that will be a good fit for their personality.

Take Dynaire (Dynaformer), for example. The dam of GISW Sadler's Joy (Kitten's Joy) is a bit of loner when you stick her out in the pasture with a big group of mares, but put her in a smaller paddock with her daughter Dyna Passer (Lemon Drop Kid), and she is happy as a clam. The mother-daughter pair graze side by side with their foals by Not This Time and Munnings napping nearby.

A sunny day in May at Hidden Brook | Katie Petrunyak

Another quality of a good farm manager is understanding that a lot will happen on the horse's terms instead of your own. de Sousa good-naturedly recollects a conversation he has grown accustomed to having over the years.

“When customers say, 'I'm going to send you my mare and you're going to breed her to this stallion during this heat and then I'm going to bring her home.' I say, 'Have you told your horse what your plan is? She probably has something to do with it.'”

And of course, no one can truly predict a horse's athleticism until it gets to the starting gate.

“I remember when we were lucky to participate in buying Big Brown (Boundary) for Paul Pompa Jr.,” de Sousa recalled. “At the time people would call me and say, 'If you find another Big Brown, let me know and I'll go in on it.' I'd say, 'If I find another Big Brown what would I call you for? I'll just go to the bank by myself!'”

Although there are constantly mares, foals, yearlings and layups coming and going from the farm, de Sousa can look out over the pasture and call each one by name, rattling off their race history or produce record with pinpoint accuracy. Every horse has a story, he says.

That's true even for Hidden Brook's beloved teaser pony, who passed away last year at the age of 23. de Sousa bought him off a nurse mare trader when he was just a 2-year-old. At the time Chris Brothers, the son of partner Jack Brothers, had come to work for the farm. He would go around introducing himself as Jack's son, so the teaser was named Jackson.

“He was a great teaser,” de Sousa reflected. “You could put a rope shank on him to tease mares. When my kids were young, they'd ride him bareback. His ashes are still in my office and Hagyard just gave us a tree that we planted for him.”

Managing the four-legged residents of Hidden Brook comes naturally for de Sousa. When it comes to overseeing employees, he doesn't view himself as the boss.

“We're all the same here,” he explained. “I don't drive around saying how I'm the owner. I'm part of the crew, no different than the grooms or the night watchman or the maintenance staff. We're all part of when a horse succeeds.”

Never has Hidden Brook been represented quite like it was during Kentucky Derby weekend this year, where the farm was associated with nearly a dozen stakes horses at Churchill Downs.

GI Turf Classic S. winner Program Trading and GII Alysheba S. contender Pipeline (Speightstown) both graduated from the Florida training facility. Horses born, raised and sold by Hidden Brook included GII Edgewood S. runner Pink Polkadots (Candy Ride {Arg}), GII Churchill Distaff Turf Mile S. contestant Evvie Jets (Twirling Candy), Knicks Go Overnight S. contender Oscar Eclipse (Oscar Performance) and GII American Turf S. contestant Neat (Constitution), who was co-bred by Hidden Brook. The GI Kentucky Derby field featured West Saratoga (Exaggerator), who was consigned by Hidden Brook at the Keeneland September Sale, and fourth-place finisher Catching Freedom (Constitution), whose dam Catch My Drift (Pioneerof the Nile) raced in the Hidden Brook silks and placed in the GI Beldame S. before selling to WinStar for $400,000.

Neat battles from the inside to win the GIII Transylvania S. | Coady Media

Prior to the Derby festivities, Hidden Brook had plenty to celebrate during the Keeneland Spring Meet. Bo Cruz (Creative Cause), who was also born and raised at Hidden Brook and then sold with them as a yearling at Keeneland September, claimed the GIII Commonwealth S. That same weekend, Neat won in his graded stakes debut in the GIII Transylvania S. The Rob Atras-trained, Red White and Blue Racing-campaigned colt was co-bred by Hidden Brook and Spruce Lane Farm. Later in the meet, Neat's 2-year-old sister Burning Pine (Nyquist) won for fun in her debut for Wesley Ward and Hat Creek Racing.

Hidden Brook purchased Orabella (More Than Ready), the dam of Neat and Burning Pine, for $62,000 at the 2015 Keeneland November Sale. de Sousa was familiar with the unraced mare and her stakes-placed dam Hot Trip (Yellow Heat) as both were bred by Paul Robsham, the same breeder responsible for Pretty Discreet.

When Hidden Brook sent Orabella to Constitution a few years later in 2020, the WinStar sire stood for just $40,000.

“He was in a real bubble year that year,” said de Sousa. “We bought three seasons to him and people tell me that we were so smart. I tell them if we had known, we would have bought a lot more.”

Neat sold with Hidden Brook as a $200,000 Keeneland November weanling and has since earned over $350,000.

“All of Orabella's foals are very good-minded,” de Sousa said. “Neat was very laid back and Burning Pine was the same. She was very long and she's kind of a narrow, leggy filly. That's why she only realized $80,000 at the sale, but they are all very sweet. If you saw her in the winner's circle after the race at Keeneland, a lot of kids from the syndicate were all loving on this filly. It's just what the mare does.”

Sergio de Sousa and Orabella | Katie Petrunyak

While Orabella lost her foal just a few days after Neat's victory this spring, she has a promising Medaglia d'Oro yearling filly pointing for the Keeneland September Sale.

If, 22 years ago, the Hidden Brook team could have looked ahead and imagined all that their operation was going to accomplish, you would be hard-pressed to find one partner that would believe it.

“We're a little bit unique in this business in that none of us came from money or previous connection,” reflected Hall. “We all just came up from the bottom and were passionate about it. You'd like to think we've made some smart moves, but you have to be lucky in this business as well.”

“We had years that were very difficult,” de Sousa added. “Thankfully the last few years have been very good for us, with the numbers on the farm and with our own horses. We're actually investing in more mares. Whereas many people are cutting back, we're bullish on how we can improve based on what we can afford and what we like.”

“There's no greater thrill than having a good one that you bred,” he continued. “When you have one that you had the whole way and you see it running and doing well, it's a different feeling. But, it all has to make sense financially. I can romanticize the whole thing but at the end of the day, this farm has to pay for itself. There are no gold mines here. It needs to provide jobs and incomes for everyone. The horse business has so many ups and downs and you have to endure through it. You have to have a passion for the whole process to be a horse breeder and you have to learn to enjoy when it's good and learn that you can't control nature when it's not. For us as a commercial breeder, that's what keeps the doors open here. As a breeder, you always have to keep dreaming.”

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