By Chris McGrath
When this whole thing is over, some kind of reset seems inevitable: certain priorities renewed, others revised. And perhaps, with an abrupt end looming to the relentless bull run in the bloodstock market, commercial breeders might begin to dig slightly deeper foundations for their broodmares.
In recent times, they have been increasingly prepared to risk a mare's long-term viability by choosing her mates according to short-term market fads. Once that market plunges, however, it's all downside. The far-sighted breeder, as such, will surely seek to ride out the storm by giving his mare a chance at least to breed a runner or two.
If so, then perhaps a place like Crestwood Farm–this year celebrating its 50th anniversary–will turn from outlier into model. Its motto, after all, is one that should be a basic aspiration for any farm; should never have obtained that slight undertone of defiance.
“We raise runners.”
Sire vogues have lately become so fleeting, often spanning a single crop of sales yearlings, that only the factory farms can process enough covering fees to bankroll the experiment. And only those farms, equally, can expand their rosters sufficiently to find an occasional Into Mischief to redress dozens of failed imitations.
In this highly corrosive environment, for the breed, it's heartening to find Crestwood bucking so many trends. Yes, there are many family operations in Kentucky that survive by astute portfolio management: a modest broodmare band, breaking, pinhooks, boarding. And the McLean family do much of that here, too: it's a full-service farm, extending to 1,000 acres in three tracts. But in an era when almost all the new stallions in Kentucky are corralled by the Goliaths, how edifying to find a David sustaining such an imaginative roster–and doing so, moreover, by prizing old-school virtues in both horses and people.
Talk to any of their longstanding clients and you will soon know how the farm's octogenarian founder Pope McLean Sr. and his family are a byword for honesty. But the same holds true of the horses they bring to the farm.
Take the flourishing Get Stormy (Stormy Atlantic), who clocked up his fifth graded stakes scorer in Getmotherarose at Gulfstream a couple of weeks ago; and whose poster girl, Got Stormy, was foiled by just a neck in her quest for a third Grade I in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile S. at Santa Anita last month.
Get Stormy held his form for five seasons: a juvenile winner who won graded stakes at three, four, five and six, including three front-running scores at Grade I level. And you only have to look at him to see how. All that brawn, all that timber!
“His nickname is Clyde, because he looks like a Clydesdale, he's so strong,” says Pope McLean Jr., who along with brother Marc and sister Grandison, assists their father in the management of the farm. “It's not so much that he's big, just that he has so much bone and chrome.”
The old-fashioned robustness of Get Stormy's physique is matched by his pedigree. His damsire Kiri's Clown made 62 starts and won his Grade I at the age of six, while Claiborne legend Moccasin recurs top and bottom: she is the third dam of Stormy Atlantic, while her mating with Round Table produced Apalachee, sire of his own third dam.
Or take the new recruit, dual Grade I scorer Heart To Heart (English Channel), with that charming heart-shaped blaze on his forehead. He, too, was teak: graded stakes every year from three to seven; another who liked to go wire-to-wire on turf, amassing 18 triple-digit Beyers. Then there's Jack Milton (War Front), another Grade I scorer over a turf mile at five: he extends the line of another Claiborne matriarch, Bourtai. One of the more dirt-oriented stallions, GI Kentucky Derby runner-up Firing Line (Line Of David), likewise traces through Broodmare of the Year Kamar (Key To The Mint) to a storied family.
Pope Jr. and the farm's long-serving, passionately engaged bloodstock and pedigree analyst Robert Keck struggle to suppress their impatience with simplistic stallion formulae. “Ignoring the female family, it's ridiculous,” Pope Jr. mutters. But Crestwood makes a virtue of ploughing its own furrow. If you want stallions with flimsy pages, who ran fast for a couple of months and then bombed out, you can go find plenty of them elsewhere.
“Hopefully some of these horses here will infuse the genetic pool with that soundness,” says Pope Jr. “When my father got started, no one wanted to breed the first-year horses. It was all proven horses, which makes a lot more sense really. But I think a lot of what happens, commercially, is counter-intuitive. I do understand why. These first-year horses are all blue sky, and for someone buying pinhooks, I understand. But it's not always the healthiest. Maybe we just need more end users.
“There's a book I read, by a Navy Seal commander, and his first commandment is: 'You don't have to like it, you just have to deal with it.' I can't let myself get down about these things. I just have to work through it.”
By replicating his hardiness, moreover, a stallion like Get Stormy can keep himself in the game even if market caprice causes peaks and troughs in his books.
“His 'get' is so sound that even if there's a lighter year, they keep his pipeline full,” says Pope Jr. “When we started him, people said, 'This horse can't stand in Kentucky.' We got 118 mares that first year. Now, that would be harder to do today: there were more mares being bred, even though it was only seven years ago. But we were able to keep enough mares to him, in those critical years, to give him time to hit; for enough people to believe in him. And because they last, he didn't really have a blank year.”
Got Stormy, a graduate of Get Stormy's second crop, is an obvious case in point. Nor could she have been more helpfully named in terms of amplifying the value of her sire, who has been standing at $5,000 until earning consecutive hikes to $6,500 and now $7,500.
Co-bred with Mt. Joy Stables, Got Stormy was sold for just $23,000 as a yearling (and pinhooked to Alan Quartucci as a $45,000 juvenile). But her weanling half-sister by Mohaymen secured a due dividend when sold for $145,000 at Fasig-Tipton last November. She is due to Bolt d'Oro, with her next trysts already agreed as Uncle Mo and then back to Get Stormy.
“No, we didn't make a lot of money selling Got Stormy–but it came back to us,” Pope Jr. observes. “We own the mare, with a partner. We've a good share in the stallion. Remember we produced Xtra Heat here when the mare was old, so didn't make any money to speak of. But she's in the Hall of Fame. And if you can't take pride in something like that, you probably shouldn't be in the game, really. That's my take, anyway.”
Serena's Song was also raised at Crestwood. “That is what we're out here to do,” Pope Jr. says. “It's thrilling when it happens, because it's so hard to get there and there are so many factors. Like everyone, we've had several horses that we thought had the goods. But it never takes much to knock a good one off track.”
It was a couple of years after foaling Serena's Song that Crestwood took the plunge with a stallion program, in 1994. Pope Jr. had come home, having completed a finance degree and worked as a stockbroker for a couple of years, and argued that this was a niche they could fill. (Marc, three his junior, also returned to the farm around then. “We think differently, but work very well together,” says Pope Jr. “Our skills complement each other.”)
Dad, after all, had got in on the ground floor with a series of stallions: Storm Cat, especially, but also Exclusive Native, Mr. Greeley, Maria's Mon. “My father had a very good track record of picking stallions and we had an opportunity there to increase exposure to the farm,” he explains. “It took us a couple of years before we could really land it, but then Claiborne partnered with us on a Cox's Ridge horse they had, Discover; and then we added Storm Boot the same year. There were good opportunities back then. In comparison to today, numbers were still quite different. And the regional markets didn't have all these incentive programs, so a lot of mares would come in just for the season.”
From the first crop of Storm Cat, Storm Boot started at just $1,000 before working his way up to $15,000 while siring 46 stakes winners. He was actually a baptism of fire, still the toughest stallion they have ever had to handle. But it was a good way to learn and Pope McLean Sr., once again, had landed running–just as he had when adventitiously starting his Turf career.
He was a pre-med student, intending to emulate his own father as a physician, when one of Dr. McLean's patients, P.A.B. Widener II, former owner of Elmendorf Farm, thanked him with a part-interest in a Balladier mare. The young Pope raised her foal on the family's 20-acre parcel; as Oil Wick, he went on to win the 1959 Kentucky Jockey Club S., and Pope promptly switched his major to agriculture and set about learning a different trade under another of his father's patients, Melvin Cinnamon, at Calumet.
If Crestwood has evolved markedly since its foundation in 1970–not just by introducing stallions, but actually by moving to a new site (albeit just adjacent on North Yarnallton Pike) four years ago–the family has adhered throughout to first principles. The next generation certainly earned their partnership: Pope Jr. did his first solo foaling when he was 14.
“Dad has always led by example,” says Pope Jr. “He just worked so hard, and we saw and learned what it took. We worked after school and on the weekends, and not because he was making us. We wanted to, we were always just enamored with the whole game. My brother Marc's the same way–he's a non-stop machine! And though my sister is 11 years younger, she's been managing our office since 1999, in meticulously organized fashion. All of us were deeply immersed in the culture.
“About five years ago I herniated several discs in my back, and the doctor said, 'What have you been doing?' I said, 'Farm work, my whole life.' I'm in the office now, but everything we're asking people to do, we've done. I still handle the studs in the breeding shed.”
This level of commitment tells in the whole business of trying to raise a runner. Because with the genes in place, feed and management and education will complete the evolution of a racehorse.
“There are always environmental factors, too,” Pope Jr. assents. “Think of yourself, in your younger days: how the things you go through in life toughen you up. It's not much different. To bring out the best in these animals, they've got to be out there and toughening up. So while obviously monitoring their health, and making sure they're in the best condition, we try to let them be horses too. Weanlings and yearlings, they've got to be out there butting heads.”
Though the roster is headed at $10,000 by runaway GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red (Afleet Alex), there is a conspicuous turf flavour to the current Crestwood brand. This was originally predicated on the rise of synthetic tracks, a bet that could yet pay off in view of some of the sport's recent welfare challenges.
“And anyhow there's a lot of money, a lot of stakes races, on turf these days,” Pope Jr. says. “Obviously plenty of people want the big dirt horses and we have dirt stallions that we're excited about, too. But we definitely don't mind having turf as well.”
Actually a personal conviction, looking at his physique and the way he carried his speed, is that Get Stormy is perfectly entitled to produce dirt runners himself. So often, these things are self-fulfilling, and very few people are trying that option. Regardless, he's getting some pretty extraordinary dividends from cheap yearlings: Clyde's Image (remember that nickname!) cost virtually the same as Got Stormy as a yearling, at $24,000. And, usual story, he was Grade I-placed over a grass mile as a 5-year-old.
“We're obviously thrilled by what Get Stormy has been doing,” says Pope Jr. “Because it's not like it's just one horse. He's adding to his body of work all the time. We probably could have increased his fee a little more, but wanted to show that we're still providing value.
“And we're excited to have added Heart to Heart this year. Just a solid, solid racehorse: 41 starts and he doesn't have a pimple. Not a mark on his legs. We feel he deserves a real shot: we're breeding mares to him, and so is our partner Terry Hamilton. Then we have these two dirt horses, Firing Line and Texas Red, with their first 2-year-olds; and Jack Milton now has 3-year-olds. They're all capable of coming up with something big. We're hearing some good things. It just takes a breakthrough horse, to get people's attention.”
The odds can be steep from the outset, especially when sales companies so often appear to base catalogs on covering fees. Got Stormy herself was Hip 3101 at Keeneland September; Clyde's Image was Hip 4030. But yes, they raise runners here. Three Grade I winners, in fact, in the past six months: Got Stormy, obviously; Bowies Hero (Artie Schiller), McLean-bred and sold for $17,000 as Hip 2638, yet winner of his second elite prize (a turf mile at the age of five, wouldn't you just know it…) at Keeneland last fall; and a couple of weeks ago the 6-year-old Con Te Partiro (Scat Daddy), raised here for a client, won the G1 Coolmore Classic at Rosehill.
So the fidelity of those who know the Crestwood way–the farm's staff, and its core clientele–is instructive.
“We tend to develop longstanding relationships,” observes Pope Jr. “We have employees that have been with us over 20 years. Same on the client side. Of course, we love developing new business relationships as well. But I think people know, if they buy horse from us, what they see is what they get. It's a pretty organic animal. And, for the most part, it should continue to improve.
“Yes, we're definitely fairly old school. That's how we've come up, and it's worked for us. We've always had to pick our spots a little bit; to try and find and deliver value. The market is so commercially driven that it's challenging at times, but we have tried not to deviate too far. At some point, those horses have got to get out there and run.”