Classy Mares Not the Only Producers at Dixiana


Quality Road–Brielle's Appeal yearling | Keeneland photo


While some pretty resonant horses have grazed this land, right back to Domino himself, few have played a more significant role in its story than a 25-year-old gelding retired here with a single Grade III success to his credit. But if the first horse to lure William Shively onto the Turf can be thanked for doing so with a somewhat flattering sample of the dividends available–he won eight of 30 starts and close to $500,000–then nor should anyone be misled about the kind of odds that typically stimulate his owner.

Shively's arrival in the Bluegrass has been conspicuous locally for two radically contrasting enterprises: the reintegration and loving revival of one of its most storied estates and the introduction of a rather less indigenous sporting culture, through Lexington's forthcoming soccer franchise. And if both may demand uncommon ambition and perseverance, then you only need consider the way Shively has met parallel tests to know his competence to last the course.

“In the horse business, I think you just have to claw your way through,” he reflects. “My theory is you have to take enough swings to get a home run. You have to play, you have to trade, you have to try to find the right ingredients–and eventually you get lucky, if that's what you want to call it. You do need that factor of luck. But what's nice is to take really challenging businesses and see if you can figure them out. If you think about my main business, I insure 400,000 policy holders in Florida for hurricanes. For a lot of people, that would probably keep you awake at night. But you have to look at things a different way.”

Think differently, moreover, and you might discover useful ways to think the same.

“I think I love the horse business and the insurance business because it's numbers,” remarks this relaxed figure, seated in his plush office at Dixiana Farm. “In both cases, we have so much statistical information. And then it's about how you evaluate it, how you tear it apart and put it back together. What's the risk of a home blowing away in Florida? There are amazing calculations made. Some of them, you're not sure they're right. So you have to take risks, at some point.”

He took one, more or less on a whim, the day in 1999 he took a bunch of his insurance agents on a trip to Hawaii and heard Dianne Waldron, an agent, complaining that the horse she was bidding for, over the phone, was going beyond her budget.

“Well,” Shively heard himself saying. “Why don't I go half with you?”

And that was Personal First (Personal Hope), the cherished veteran he can visit anytime he's on the farm. There must be days when Shively asks the old horse just what he must have been thinking, having since assembled over 1,000 acres, some 50 broodmares, and a top-class team of horsemen. But that $190,000 OBS 2-year-old gave him an exhilarating glimpse of the possibilities, taking the partnership to the Breeders' Cup as a juvenile and then springing a shock in the GIII Amsterdam S. at Saratoga the following summer. It was a whole new world for Shively, albeit rekindling a boyhood affection for ponies in the rural south of Pennsylvania.

“As a first experience of racing, it was about as far off typical as you could possibly get,” Shively concedes with a grin. “That race at Saratoga, we were a longshot against Trippi (End Sweep), who'd won like six [of his first seven]. But Pat Day was riding our horse for the first time, just calmed him down and gave him a wonderful ride. And there we were with the champagne in the stakes room at Saratoga. I thought, 'Man, this is pretty good stuff!'”

Waldron's primary interest was endurance and Arabian horses, and Shively actually started out breeding those on a farm in Gainesville, Florida. But the Thoroughbred spark had been lit, and before long he had not only bred Florida champion sprinter Benny the Bull (Lucky Lionel), but also bought 100 acres for broodmares in Kentucky. As he learned more about the surrounding land, Shiveley began a piecemeal acquisition that has gradually reunited broken fragments of Bluegrass heritage.

Dixiana was founded in 1877 by Major Barak G. Thomas, breeder of Domino and Himyar. The land was absorbed by Elemendorf Farm for a while, before being sold to Charles T. Fisher, the Detroit automobile tycoon, who bred Mata Hari on Dixiana. During the Fisher family's 58-year tenure, half the site was sold off, eventually becoming Domino Stud, but the core legacy was enhanced under Mary Lou Wibel and Bruce Kline, who stood Mr. Greeley and also raised Epsom Derby winner Benny the Dip.

Shively and his wife Donna took the reins in 2004, and now three farms–Elk Hill, Domino and Dixiana–have been welded back together. With the assistance of such accomplished horsemen as farm manager Robert Tillyer, consultant Robert Hammond and racing manager Steve Cauthen, Dixiana is once again a brand trusted to produce Grade I horses. Mares on the farm include I'm A Flake (Mineshaft), dam of Express Train (Union Rags); Julia Tuttle (Giant's Causeway), who gave us Tom's d'Etat (Smart Strike); and Brielle's Appeal (English Channel), the homebred mare named for Shively's daughter whose Quality Road colt made a breakout $1.15 million from Mayberry Farms at Keeneland last September.

If the renewal of Dixiana attests to Shively's ability to square all those unaccountable variables, then so, too, does the fact that 2022 marks 50 years since the foundation, by his father, of a small insurance agency in Miami. When the young Shively entered the firm, it still had only a single employee, but Bill has since expanded Tower Hill Insurance across 17 states via a series of acquisitions and mergers.

“And I've had a lot of employees that have been with me 30 years,” he says. “That's special. And that's one of the things I like in the horse business: seeing the results of your labor, that doesn't come quick. You can't do this in a hurry, especially the breeding side. Again, same with insurance. I've been with Lloyd's of London since the '80s. It's about survival of the fittest, yes, but relationships and history mean so much, also. The guys I started with were the underwriters then, and now they're the syndicate CEOs. So it's worthy, I guess is what I'm saying. It's time that's worth being spent, because you end up with something that's hard to duplicate.”

Get those foundations solid, indeed, and your business can even harness the winds most dreaded by the wider industry.    “It's when things get to their worst, that's when you can shine all of a sudden from doing it right,” he reflects. “We grew tremendously after Hurricane Andrew [1992].”

Nobody can win every time, of course, but even reverses can contain latent benefits. As Shively says: “Win, lose or draw, you always want to learn something.”

It was in that spirit that Shively dipped his toe in the movie  business, soon becoming sufficiently immersed to produce 10 films. In financial terms, he acknowledges, these did not score as a win or even a draw. On the other hand, how does one put a price on the experience?

A business associate's son had wanted to make a film so, much as when he went halves on a racehorse, he took a cue from fate and offered to finance the project.

“It was called 'O,' Othello done as a basketball movie,” he recalls. “Martin Sheen was the coach. Probably within six weeks of shooting we'd sold it for something like $6 million. And I just left that money on the table to create a company called Film Engine. Every movie is like its own company, a gigantic snowball: you spend two years on it and it goes away. We made some interesting movies. But like everybody, you want to make the one that moves people. You want to make Bridge Over The River Kwai. But you soon realize that's not how the world is going to work. But the experience was invaluable. I liked buying the scripts, I liked the deal, I liked putting people together.”

Especially that: the people part. One time he sat round a dinner table in Los Angeles with Johnny Depp, Marilyn Manson, Nick Nolte, Mickey Rourke and Hunter S. Thompson, the chaotic father of Gonzo journalism whose book, The Rum Diary, was being adapted for the screen. Thompson, who took his own life not long after, rounded off the evening in characteristic fashion.

“Hunter was a brilliant man but obviously just different,” Shively recalls. “And that evening he ended up getting mad and putting his arm through a window, and we had to take him to hospital to get stitched up. But he was a genius, in my mind. If you turn to page 36 in one of his books, he could quote you the page. I remember sitting in the hotel suite we'd got him and in walks Warren Zevon. Remember him: Werewolves Of London? He's on his death march, he has cancer, and he's visiting all his old buddies and filming. So it's Hunter Thompson and Warren Zevon and this insurance company guy! And I'm thinking, 'I need to leave. I shouldn't be in this documentary…'”

Here, then, is one who brings a cosmopolitan breadth of perspective to our often parochial community. And while there are admittedly local anxieties about the siting of the new complex, Shively hopes that Lexington will recognize and embrace the opportunities available through soccer.

With four children under 13, all enthusiasts, he has a very immediate sense of the value to the young of team sport. He also has three older children, and remembers how they tapped into the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States.

“That was like the first wave of the game here,” he recalls. “I took them to matches and realized what a great sport this was for young people: the way it can help you understand relationships, teamwork. It also helps you get in great shape, with an injury spectrum nowhere near football, which I played.

“So I've been a fan a long time and when we came here we laid out a pitch for the farm workers, and sponsored a farm tournament. We have so many different cultures coming in here, and a lot of them are soccer cultures, so I think it all ties in well. We're having fun with the stadium, bringing things together in the design: like limestone walls, and making locker rooms look like horse barns.”

The new franchise has been underpinned by the registration of 1,400 children for what Shively hopes will prove a benign new force, both social and economic, on the Bluegrass.

“Cincinnati has an MLS team and Louisville has its successful USL team that's built a really nice stadium, so there's this nice triangle of soccer,” Shively says. “I think the growth is really pretty significant. MLS just opened at Charlotte and they had 70,000 people for the first game. I just think we're ready. We'll have a women's pro team, too. We're going to have great coaches and great facilities and make great opportunities both for individuals and for the community.”

If bedding down the club will not be without its challenges, Shively stresses that the ultimate aim is to bring people together. (The initial hope, indeed, had been to name the club Unity.) And he'd like to see the same ethic suffusing the Turf community, too, when it comes to ongoing reform.

“It's been the longest process but we're making progress,” he says. “I do feel better about the horse business, across the board, than I did 10 years ago. Keeneland have seen an 80% increase in people applying for credit for the September sale. I think with some of the heavyweights that have been stepping back recently, guys now feel they can get into the business, with a couple of hundred thousand, that previously didn't want to go in there just to get beaten up. Especially with the Kentucky circuit so fulfilled now, with $150,000 maidens at Kentucky Downs and $100,000 maidens in other places.”

Shively himself has a penchant for turf racing, to the extent that he imported a Kingman (GB) filly from the yearling sales at Tattersalls last October. He knows that to invest in grass blood in Kentucky is to wade against the commercial tide, but perceives grounds for optimism in the longer term.

“Every field is 12, and the bettors like that,” he says. “We're just not laid out the right way, structurally, to have enough grass racing. Part of the business is not yet there. I own shares in grass stallions, and I know you can get killed trying to sell the babies. But there are things that give you hope, like Belmont coming up with these back-to back races worth lot of money. And I think the blood can cross over. Horses are born to run on grass.”

The Dixiana focus, in the meantime, is rigorously on quality. At one stage, the quantity bloated to 128 mares.

“And that did not work out so well,” admits Shively wryly. “Culling is hard and you have to be a good loser. I sold Letgomyecho (Menifee) [dam of Echo Zulu (Gun Runner)] and they've been selling million-dollar horses out of her. So that was a mistake. But the intrigue is to follow it all. It's stimulating just to have those 35 to 40 foals to go through every year, asking did that work? And it's been fun to get to the point where I have repeat customers, where I feel we have earned people's trust.”

It meant a lot, therefore, that the farm's first seven-figure sale was made from a homebred mare. But those unaccountable variables will, of course, always remain. You can do everything right and be unlucky. Or you can let your 11-year-old daughter pick out an Uncle Mo filly in the back ring at Keeneland, with none of your advisors around–and end up with GII Ashland S. runner-up Cocktail Moments.

This, to be fair, is the same daughter who was asked by a recent visitor what she wants to be when she grows up. She fired back: “CEO!”

But Shively isn't just raising kids with the right spirit. He's raising horses that way, too, not least because he's doing so with future generations in mind.

“I'm doing this because I love the farm,” he says. “I'd rather be here than the racetrack. I know that sounds bad, but I love going down to the foals in the paddocks and seeing how they're doing, how they're changing and growing up as they prep. That's what I'm here for; to see them grow and become something great.

“My goal is to make this something my family will hang onto, because it's not that painful. So the answer, for me, is making it viable. When I bought Dixiana, I said I won't ever feel like I own this. I feel like I'm taking care of it for somebody. But I do at least feel that's what I've been doing: taking care of it. I feel I've improved it, from where I was. So that's something I think I can feel good about. My goal with all businesses is to make them better for the people. I want to leave good things for all.”

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