By Chris McGrath
Bill Betz won't forget the first day he worked on the farm he now calls home. Dr. McGee's son never even got out of his car, just told the college kid to start out front and work his way up.
“Back then they had those weed-eaters with a motor you strapped onto your back,” Betz recalls. “Weighed about 40lbs. So 7:00 a.m., I started weeding down the front of the farm. Get to 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 1:00 p.m., I don't see anybody. I'm thinking, 'Boy, people really work hard on a farm.' Finally, about quarter to six, no lunch or anything, I'm weeding round these trees up here, and Doc McGee comes in off his rounds. And he drives by, backs up, rolls down the window and says: 'Who are you?'”
Betz introduced himself to the Hagyard veterinarian. First day of his summer job, funding classes at the University of Kentucky: nutrition, farm management, that kind of thing. He'd arrived from Notre Dame with all his worldly possessions–a '64 Dodge and a dog–with a vague plan to transfer some Bluegrass know-how to the Quarter Horse game where he'd been learning the ropes.
At that moment Mrs. McGee appeared with a tray.
“Young man,” she said. “You look like you could use some iced tea.”
Many years later, they all met again on the top floor of the First Security building in downtown Lexington, to close on the sale of the farm. And Mrs. McGee reminded Betz of his response.
With a self-deprecating chuckle, he admits: “Apparently I said to her, 'Yes, I could. Because now I know how Jesus felt when he carried that cross up Golgotha.'”
When Mine That Bird crossed the line, the first person to call was Dr. McGee, saying how happy he was that the farm had raised a Kentucky Derby winner.
Mine That Bird famously brought only $9,500 as a yearling. Betz doesn't pretend he was any kind of standout, though he always believed in the genes: he'd bought the granddam because she managed second in the Canadian Oaks despite cracking a knee. “Something like Mine That Bird, though, that's just the icing on the cake,” Betz says. “That's just being in the game and giving yourself a chance to get lucky.”
Among countless other photos sharing the office walls, however, are a sale-topper and the half-brother to Roman Ruler and El Corredor who made $4.6 million at the 2006 Keeneland September Sale; and many besides, that did their job both in the ring and on the track. The latest is Echo Zulu (Gun Runner), herself a $300,000 yearling, who assisted her American Pharoah half-sister to $1.4 million last September at Keeneland, even though she had just won the first of the three Grade Is that secured her Eclipse Award.
These mementos of elite horses-remarkably copious, for a farm that has seldom grazed more than a couple of dozen mares–attest to the journey dividing that perspiring college kid from the reflective figure now lounging behind the desk. But perhaps it can better be charted by less familiar navigational points dotted about the room: native American totems, a scale model of a Great Lakes freighter, even the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius. Hardly standard issue, on horse farms. But never mind that Betz was a Philosophy and English major; here, simply put, is a man profoundly inquisitive about the world around him. And, really, that was also what drew him to horses.
“I think that's the number one thing you need in this business,” he says. “A natural curiosity. To be a careful observer. I think in some ways it's probably been an advantage, not to be second or third generation [in the industry]. Some of those people either don't have that curiosity to really see things and learn. Experience is a great teacher.”
Betz is instead indebted to his father for the template of a self-made man. Having started out as locomotive fireman, he had ended up president of the railroad–and his sons, in turn, were expected to learn about life by experiencing it. Hence the desk replica of the SS Kinsman Enterprise, where Betz had another of his summer jobs.
“She was built in 1927 and was sister ship to the Edmund Fitzgerald that they wrote the song about,” Betz says, referring to the loss of all hands in a Lake Superior storm in 1975. “Having this here reminds me of a different time in my life. We'd bring taconite pellets mined in Minnesota and Wisconsin down to the steel mills. Loading onto the dock, being the young kid, they'd swing you over in what they called the bosun's chair, with a big cable you had to run up and put on a cleat. And the taconite, of course it spills out and you're running over these marbles, with the boat coming in and the gap so wide.” He holds his hands apart. “These boats come in at 660 feet, into a real high dock. And there are no brakes on a boat! There weren't a lot of safety rules back then.”
It was a grounding that gives Betz a distaste for any sign of entitlement in young people today, and he's grateful that his father's “nepotism” was confined to putting his sons on a section gang, laying the track.
“We were knocking these spikes in with a sledgehammer, and the Mexican men would go all day and then build a fire and cook their tacos,” Betz recalls. “But after about five hits, my arms were rubber. And they'd come up, put their arms round me and say, 'That's okay, you go rest.' So when the Mexicans started embracing the horse business, I had nothing but respect for them. It does open your eyes: what the real world is like, and that if you want something you have to go out and earn it.”
A first exposure to horses came through upcountry Ohio weekends with his great uncle, who drove a school bus, but traded work horses on the side.
“He was quite a character,” Betz recalls. “He'd go in there and next thing you knew he'd be coming out with a different horse from the one he went in with. And he'd hook them up to a sleigh, and we'd go on trail rides, and he'd tell all these stories round the camp fire.”
Having learned to handle horses, Betz hooked up with another rare type to show Quarter Horses through his high school years. “This trainer took me all over the country: Dallas, Denver, Fort Worth, Chicago,” he says. “He liked the drink, he liked the ladies, so he'd go out and party while I stayed behind to feed and groom and then bed down in the corner of the stall. Interesting experience, to say the least. But there I was, a 15-year-old kid, paid $25 for every horse I showed in the ring. I'd go into tack shops and buy myself fancy chaps, I was king of the walk.”
To persevere with horses, even so, struck his family as “a ridiculous thing to do” with law school beckoning. But it was a time of opportunity. People were starting to cross Quarter Horses with Thoroughbreds, and Betz figured that he should come to the Bluegrass and learn a few angles–only to become so absorbed by Thoroughbreds that he never went back.
Lee Eaton gave him a little office to comb through regional racecards, digging out the pedigrees of any fillies entered for a claim. He also had to index, longhand, the families of the many horses sold by Eaton's pioneering agency: toil that left him thoroughly versed in pedigrees. Betz then rounded out his education with the chance to manage Helmore Farm for Edgar Lucas in Maryland.
“They stood three stallions and bred a couple of hundred mares each year,” he recalls. “I didn't have much experience of handling stallions, and it was three old racetrackers and me. I can remember to this day the first mare I foaled on my own, I was so nervous. But you got a lot of stuff thrown at you, real quick, and you learned how to deal with it. After that baptism under fire, coupled what I'd learnt with Lee, I felt there wasn't anything I couldn't do in this business if I kept working hard.”
Betz befriended another outstanding horseman in David Hanley, nowadays at WinStar, but then managing a farm in Ireland before an impressive stint as a trainer. They'd begun a transatlantic pinhook partnership, along with Irish vet James Egan, at a time when the weanling market was little contested.
By now Betz was leasing a farm near Paris from his former boss Lucas, who kept his mares there as part of the package. But then he heard that the McGees were selling and Betz, initially with partners, became only the third proprietor of 300 lush acres previously maintained on a revolutionary war land grant by heirs of Patrick Henry. (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”)
“I knew I didn't want to work for anybody else,” Betz reflects. “I'm my own best critic. It's my life, not somebody else's, and you're not going to give that away. But I realized early on that there was no money in boarding horses, if you do it as you should without cutting corners. So if I was going to have a farm, I decided I'd want a piece of everything that's on it. That was the business model: populate the farm in partnerships, with people loyal to your program. And then upgrade as much as you can, whenever you have the capital.
“You have to be willing to take chances–I started out week to week, payroll to payroll–and you have to be objective. It's like running a sports franchise. These mares are draft choices: some work out, some don't. I want to strengthen their weaknesses without weakening their strengths, but to do that you have to see those strengths and weaknesses clearly. You can't be sentimental. And I think over the years, you develop intuition about it.”
To Betz, mating is all about match-making. “I don't think any stallion is too 'cheap' or too 'expensive',” he says. “All that matters is whether it's the right one for the mare. Can he enhance her? That's what you strive for. Breed the best to the best? Nice if you're Vanderbilt. But sometimes best to the best isn't the best. Yes, I have to be aware of the commercial side, because I sell yearlings for a living. I only race the odd filly. But within that context, within that group of successful stallions, there will always be matches that fit my mare.”
A case in point is Echo Zulu's dam Letgomyecho (Menifee), who had fallen beyond reach in the 2010 Keeneland November Sale, at $235,000, only to slip to $135,000 in the same ring a year later. Her first covers had been pricey, commensurate with her record as winner of her first three starts including the GII Forward Gal S. But maybe they weren't the right covers. Betz sent her to Mineshaft, and came up with graded stakes winner J Boys Echo; to Speightstown, for Grade I winner Echo Town; and then to Gun Runner for her champion. As Steve Asmussen said to him, after Letgomyecho's American Pharoah hit the home run last September: “'Well, I got mine. Now you got yours!'”
“I want to breed aptitude to aptitude,” Betz says, dismissing another lazy convention. “If your mare's fast, don't breed her to a stayer. Breed a stayer to a stayer and hope it's fast, or a sprinter to a sprinter and hope it can carry its speed. But those are just principles over-riding the program. It's like if you're a painter, and someone says why did you use that color? It all goes together at the end of the day, and you just hope that you got it right.”
That feels an instructive analogy, for there's a really creative sensibility at work here.
“I think I do have an artistic side,” Betz accepts. “I love music, I love art, and the way people can express themselves like that. To me, this is really my way to express myself. I'd love to be a musician, but I'm not, so this is kind of my extension.”
Like all artistry, all intuition, horsemanship is hard to articulate. As Betz says, if he can't always remedy a situation with a horse, he tries not to be confused by what's causing it.
“We like to give them human qualities, say they're courageous or whatever,” he muses. “And maybe there's a little bit of that: they can be competitive. But truth be told, the ones that excel, I think it's probably just easier for them. What did Vince Lombardi say? 'Fatigue makes cowards of us all.'
“I remember being sent down to Hialeah to look at this filly Jimmy Conway had, who used to train for Darby Dan. And I was asking him what he looked for, in terms of soundness and all that, and he said: 'Bill, if they can run, they're all unsound.' You train them hard; they run hard. So there's probably some truth to that, too.”
What does seem obvious is that Betz's empathy must reflect a hinterland so much wider than you tend to encounter in the obsessive, all-consuming world of Thoroughbreds. Asked about the Native American totems, for instance, Betz gives a shrug. “They understood one very important premise, in my view,” he says. “People complain about the world. But if there's a God, maybe he didn't just make the world for us. That may be inconvenient for us, but maybe we're missing the point. We think we're the center of everything-and those native cultures understood that maybe they weren't.”
Not that he pretends the slightest immunity to the vexations of a horseman's life, whether in trivial daily frustrations or the disasters that can ruin a whole business cycle.
“It is a rollercoaster,” he says. “The emotional highs and lows can be pretty dramatic. That's not for everybody. I've had people over the years wanting to get into the business, but I'm pretty careful who I partner with-just because you know what's coming, and you need the mentality to accept those pitfalls. But I guess if you've got enough nerve to keep getting back on the rollercoaster, the thrills can be memorable.”
And surely the good days, all those photos on the wall, redress the disappointments?
“I think that's true in life,” Betz replies. “But I don't know that you do this for those kinds of things. You do it because this is what you do.”
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