Former D1 Athletes Venture Into Breeding Business

Allen and Leslie Carter's Silver Springs Farm Eqwine and Vineyard | photo courtesy Silver Springs Farm


A former SEC running back and a Hall of Fame basketball player for the University of Kentucky, Allen and Leslie Carter are the sort of couple that doesn't do anything halfway as their myriad of  accomplishments have been earned through hard work, attentiveness and a passion for what they do. So it probably won't be long before this duo is making headlines in the racing industry because recently, they added the title of 'Thoroughbred breeder' to their list of many life works.

South Carolina native Allen Carter moved to the Bluegrass State in 1982 to play football for the University of Kentucky. While there he met–and eventually married–Leslie Nichols, a three-time All-SEC basketball player who still ranks fourth all-time in scoring in UK women's basketball history.

Allen has no background in horse racing, but the sport runs deep in Leslie's blood. Her grandfather K.C. Wilson and father Harvey Nichols were both well-respected members of the industry.

“I've been around horses all my life,” Leslie said. “My grandfather was a foreman at Jonabell Farm for 20 years. He handled studs and did pretty much everything. My dad worked at Stone Farm for Arthur Hancock. He took care of Sunday Silence and a lot of other really famous horses. There were four girls in my family and so I always hung out with my dad. Allen calls me my dad's boy. But I would go out to the farms with him and horses have just always been a part of my family.”

In 2010, the Carters came across an abandoned property on the north side of Lexington that was located just a few doors down from where Leslie grew up.

“We fell in love with this property,” Leslie recalled. “When we saw that it was abandoned, we would run up to the front door and put notes on the porch saying that we were interested, but we never heard from anyone. Finally the property came on the market and we were fortunate enough to purchase it.”

Leslie and father Harvey Nichols visit their Algorithms yearling out of Princess Laila at the sales | photo courtesy Silver Springs Farm

They soon learned that their 20-acre plot was home to Silver Springs Distillery from 1867 until Prohibition in 1918 and is now on Kentucky's historic register as one of the Commonwealth's first distilleries. Before the property was abandoned, it had served as a bed and breakfast. After moving into what was once the distiller's house, the Carters renovated the old cottage house into what is now a successful Airbnb.

Soon after moving in, Allen realized he would need some help with maintaining the farm's lawn. He asked Leslie's father about purchasing a horse. Leslie's father found a filly named Princess Laila (Souvenir Copy) who was on a layoff and could be ready immediately, but by the time Allen had the fences fixed and ready for an occupant, she had gone back into training.

“The guy asked me if I would be willing to split the cost with him in racing the horse,” Allen recalled. “We ended up racing her a few times and she actually won a race. When she retired, I brought her to the farm to breed her.”

Princess Laila produced several foals for Silver Springs Farm. Her first foal, Wine Devine (Wilburn), eventually became another broodmare at Silver Springs. She also is the dam of Sellwood (Girolamo), who sold for $40,000 as a yearling and ended up earning nearly $200,000 as a Grade I performer.

“I've just been lucky,” Allen said on his fast start as a breeder. “I guess it's a lot of listening and watching and research to make sure you're breeding to the right stallion to get the horse that will sell well at the sales or the horse that will run well.”

Well-respected Lexington veterinarian Dr. Robert Copelan helped Allen and Leslie land their second broodmare.

“Leslie's family is closely connected with Dr. Copelan and I was joking with him that I needed a second horse to help with the grass,” Allen recalled. “I think it was a week later, he called me up and said a guy was on his way to bring me my horse. I thought he was joking, but I looked out my window and a trailer was pulling up. I ended up breeding that mare as well and selling her foal at the sales.”

The mare, Jana D (Aptitidue), produced a $20,000 yearling in 2014 and later a Midshipman gelding named Breacher that Silver Springs raced themselves.

“The neat thing is that before this, Allen really knew nothing about horses,” Leslie said. “It's just amazing how much he's learned about the horse industry already and my dad has been very instrumental in helping us with the horses, the breeding and everything here at the farm.”

The Carters acknowledge that they are far from what is the typical breeder in Lexington.

“When people hear what we're doing, especially with us being a Black couple, they seem to be very surprised,” Leslie said. “In Kentucky, you're looking at million-dollar farms, but I mean we have [suburbs] right behind us. People ask us, 'What is that? Is that a house?' and we explain that it's a horse stable. I guess for us, it's about trying to expose racing to more Black people so that they can  understand that even though we only have 20 acres, it is a business that you can be a part of. We're doing it on a very small scale, but we've been fortunate enough to have some success with it and more importantly, we've enjoyed it.”

Along with their involvement in the horse industry, the Carters are also making a name for themselves as winemakers.

Allen first became interested in producing his own wine when he and Leslie were traveling Europe during Leslie's time serving as an assistant coach for the University of Kentucky women's basketball team.

“I fell in love with wine when I was over there because they have some of the best wine in the world, especially their champagne,” Allen explained. “I decided to purchase a vine and bring it back here. At the time we lived in the suburbs, so I planted it in the backyard. By the third year, it covered the whole fence. I made maybe two or three bottles out of the grapes that came off it and it turned out pretty good. After that, I developed a passion for wine and so one of the first things I did when we purchased the farm was plant five acres of grapes and start producing wine.”

Allen in his five-acre vineyard at Silver Springs | photo courtesy Silver Springs Farm

As the vineyard prospered and their small broodmare band continued to thrive, the Carters officially named their property Silver Springs Farm Eqwine and Vineyard.

Allen entered his first wine competition in the 2020 Kentucky Commissioner's Cup with his 2017 Black Type Reserve Kentucky Sparkling Wine Traminette and won double gold, a highly-distinctive honor given only when all judges consider it to be an excellent wine. At the same competition, his White Traminette  won a bronze medal.

“It was really exciting to win double gold,” Allen said. “At that point, I was just producing it for family and friends so I had to make the decision of if I was going do this as a business or keep it as a hobby. I decided that I would step it up as a business.”

Allen's hand-crafted wine, which is presented under the brand label Black Type Reserve, is now sold at various restaurants and stores throughout Kentucky.

Silver Springs has expanded its brand to offer several other unique products, including coffee beans soaked in an empty bourbon barrel as well as sweet potato yeast rolls.

“My grandmother used to make yeast rolls and she also made sweet potato pie,” Allen recalled. “One night I had a dream and decided to combine them and try making sweet potato yeast rolls. They turned out pretty good so I went to Weisenberger Mill outside of Lexington and they helped me mass produce it. Now it's in stores around Lexington and we're going to start carrying it at Whole Foods in this region.”

Silver Springs has a new venture on the horizon as Allen is now working on obtaining his distiller's license. He is planning for a single-barrel bourbon release this spring.

“Our long-term goal for the farm is to expand all the products that we are producing,” Allen said. “We have all our products on our website and a few stores around Kentucky. One of our goals for this coming year is to expand our farm, from the products to the racing to the breeding.”

Allen said his favorite aspect of his role as a breeder is awaiting the arrival of the foals each spring.

“When it gets close to the time of foaling and the broodmare lays down, it's one of the most exciting parts of breeding,” he said. “Then once the foal arrives and you have the baby running around, you don't know if one day it could be a Grade I-winning horse. That's one of the most exciting things.”

For Leslie, she said her ties to racing help her feel closer to her father, who dedicated much of his life to the industry, as well as the many family members who have gone before her in this business.

“My cousins and I were talking and sharing stories of our grandfather and we all agreed that we love the sound the horses make as they're racing and their hooves are hitting the dirt,” she said. “I think racing has always been a part of me and it takes me back to my childhood and the times I've spent with my dad. I think with knowing how much he loves horses, it just puts me in a happy place.”

To learn more about the products offered at Silver Springs Farm Eqwine and Vineyard, click here.

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