By Chris McGrath
People making their way, horses making their way; you never know how they're going to end up. Spend any time with someone who has earned his stripes in this business, then, and you're only ever a step or two away from champions.
When Animal Kingdom turned out to be, well, Animal Kingdom, and everyone started asking Gary Bush what he had been like to foal and raise, the Denali manager didn't quite know what to say.
“I remember thinking I've got to go back to the office and see what I wrote about this guy,” he said. “You know, he wasn't anything special. But he never did anything wrong. All the parts were there; he was big, strong, couldn't fault him in any way; he just did his own thing. He was just one of the other boys out there.”
You hear that a lot: how a star in the making was never an obvious Alpha male, just never gave any trouble. Whereas the yearlings who come in from the paddock with nicks or bruises often turn out to be unlucky on the track, as well. But then a horseman as seasoned as Bush, after 38 years in the game, can also take you up close and personal with animals whose quirks were developed precisely through their status as pack leader.
During his days at Three Chimneys, for instance, Bush remembers a thunderstorm brewing up one evening.
“I was the broodmare manager but my stallion manager was off and I lived across the street from the stallion barn,” he recalled. “And this storm was rolling in. So I went to help get the stallions in, we went and grabbed horses and put them in the barn. But when I went out to Seattle Slew's paddock, he came up to the gate and I saw the whites in his eyes.” Bush paused and laughed. “I have never seen that look before. So I said: 'You're on your own, big boy!' I called up the stallion manager and said: 'I'm sorry–but he scared me.' And he replied: 'When he has that look in his eyes, that don't-mess-with-me look? He will hurt you.' Well, thank you! I'll never forget that look.”
At 58, Bush does not need any kind of Seattle Slew menace to underpin his authority. It's constructed from the same calm and dignity as his conversation. The delivery could not be more sonorous; the content, more considered. For however scrupulous his modesty and courtesy, however easy the movement of his rangy limbs, the guy sitting across a desk in the Denali office is a natural leader.
Bush is truly a first among equals, named Kentucky Farm Manager of the Year by his peers in 2015. As one of them, Steve Johnson of Silver Springs Farm, put it at that time: “Gary is the quintessential farm manager.”
Despite an inborn affinity with Thoroughbreds–his father was a foreman at the Bluegrass division of King Ranch, and there were also uncles and a grandfather who had worked on horse farms around Woodford County–Bush had never intended making a life with them himself. He had lost his father at 12, and was studying business at college when the door back to the world of Thoroughbreds was prised open: first through a friend's father, who ran a veterinary practice in Versailles, and then when the same friend took a job at Three Chimneys. Bush would accompany his buddy on vet calls to horse farms, and then started hanging out at the one where he was working.
“Horses? None of that was even in the picture,” he admitted. “It was always a part of me but I was never thinking it might be my career until I started going out to Three Chimneys and was fortunate enough to meet Dan Rosenberg. I had no clue. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. And he said why don't you come out here and work? I was in school part-time, so I got out there at weekends and in the summer: just grooming, mucking stalls, leading horses in and out.”
But that was enough to ignite something. It was in his blood, after all.
“For some people, it is natural,” he said with a shrug. “I don't mean to say that arrogantly at all. It's just I see so many young people come work for me, and they have all the passion, all the desire–but they just really don't have the knack for it, the touch for it. For me, it was easy. Second nature.”
The timing was right in more ways than one. Three Chimneys was on the point of major expansion, but then still only comprised two farms of 200 and 90 acres. Bush started out at the smaller site, and so gained a rapid across-the-board grounding.
“Whatever needed to be done, I just jumped right on in there and did it,” he explained. “Everything: foaling, night watch, breeding shed, yearling turnouts.”
Within a few months he was assistant to the broodmare manager and, when she moved on, Rosenberg promoted him to fill the vacancy. By the time he left that post, 15 years later, Bush was managing three farms and over 200 mares.
“They were just very good people: Mr. and Mrs. Clay, and Dan Rosenberg, they treated me like family,” he said. “Robert Clay is just as class as they come, I have so much respect for him. And Dan, he just taught me everything. All those years, as it grew into a 2,000-acre operation, it was so interesting watching him. I'm very proud to call him not just my mentor, but my friend.”
It was a corresponding wrench, then, when Bush left Three Chimneys to help set up WinStar for Kenny Troutt and Bill Casner. Once again, his responsibilities would snowball: before long he was overseeing the venture's entire daily operation alongside Doug Cauthen. Once again, there would be special people and some very special horses. Funny Cide (Distorted Humor) was bred there and returned, after his New York foaling, to be prepped for his sale. (No more of a standout, it seems, than Animal Kingdom: “Same thing. Pretty cool horse, nothing special, he just went and did his thing.”)
“Being a part of something like that from the beginning is just unbelievable,” Bush said. “They let you do what you needed to do, and Doug is one of the sharpest guys I know in this business; one of the best I've ever worked with. We had Distorted Humor; we had Kris S; Tiznow came on board. He was a very interesting horse, very smart. The breeding shed, it took him a little while to figure it all–he was so busy looking at everything else around. Just because there was a mare that was red hot, sitting in front of him, he wouldn't be quite sure that's what he needed to do yet. But once he figured it out, he was fine. Distorted Humor is an absolute breeding machine. He'd come in, doesn't matter what type of shape the mare's in, whether she's in season or not, he's going to take care of business and he's out!”
After five years, however, Bush was ready for a sabbatical.
“It had been 25 years, day in, day out,” he explained. “And this was such a big operation, I just needed a break.”
That was 13 years ago, but he was soon refreshed and ready to take up his present post at Denali with Craig Bandoroff.
“Here was one of the top sales companies in the world,” Bush said. “Why not be a part of something like that, if you can? And this place has been very special. Shortly after I arrived was when the economy kind of went crazy–but we've survived, we're better and stronger now than when I started.”
It is instructive that Bush should be able to count so many old allies–like Robert Clay and Doug Cauthen and WinStar–among the clientele here. In all, there will tend to be 150 to 160 yearlings prepared for sale at Denali, around half having also been foaled and raised on the farm.
“And what I really enjoy is the young horse,” Bush said. “And helping it develop into the guy that's going to go into a sales ring for somebody–and really shine. There are so many changes, so many things that happen, from a foal being born to the time it goes into that ring or to the racetrack. So if you can just put the base on those babies, you let everybody else do what they need to do, after they leave, but you know your foundation is set. And that's pretty cool to me.
“The biggest part of my job is to eliminate the human error, and allow the horses to do what they're supposed to do. Eliminate all the B.S., all the problems, and just let it be a horse. So I really want hands-on horses right from the get-go, because I feel that if they trust you–and that starts at day one, those babies get their halters the day they're born–it's like imprinting; they'll give you everything they've got, when they have to. Because they trust you. They really do. You hear that from different trainers, or from owners when you send the horse back to their farm: 'This horse, yes; this horse is good; it behaves well, thank you.' That's cool.”
Like so many horsemen charged with nurturing young stock, Bush feels that more than half the battle is mental. But obviously the horses' physical development is also vital, measured by graphs charting monthly growth. And while sheer numbers make it impossible for Bush to monitor each and every horse in person, each and every day, that is where he can depend on the depth and quality of his team.
“Anything jumps out at anybody, we discuss it, we can make adjustments,” he explains. “You look at a horse and you say: 'Okay, maybe it doesn't have quite the weight on it I'd like.' So you look at your tracking, and if it really hasn't gained that much this month, then let's take a look at that. But they're all individuals and you got to play them differently.
“I tell the people who work for me: 'Every time you look at these horses, everybody has to be happy. If they're not happy, let's fix it. I want them out there playing and grazing and not stressed out. If there's a problem, let's figure it out. Can be hard to figure it out. But don't ignore it, that's the thing. Fix it.'”
You can't put his tone on the page. You don't even work for him and you still want to get out there and please him, and please the horses. Which, of course, amounts to one and the same thing. For here is a horseman's horseman, rightly proud of his family's touch with Thoroughbreds, from his grandfather down to cousin Nick, who became a popular figure on the Triple Crown trail only last year as the exercise rider of Always Dreaming (Bodemeister).
“It's been fantastic for me, I wouldn't want to do anything else,” Bush said. “I've been very fortunate to hook myself to some really good people; and that's helped me as a person, as a manager. Because it is tough. But I've been very fortunate to learn from some of the best.
“The horses are so special, you just want to be there for them. To me it's still amazing, this birth canal that puts out this 120-pound, 150-pound animal; and then the mare gets up and the foal gets up, like in an hour, it's pretty cool. It's still special, no matter how many years you've been doing it.
“And just walking through this place at 4.30, 5 o'clock, when everybody's gone home, and seeing these guys out grazing: there's nothing more soothing. No matter what's gone on all day, how many calls you've had to make, a mare did this, a foal did this, bad news, good news–you know, there's nothing more peaceful than letting it all down at the end of the day, walking through the fields here. It's like a slice of heaven. It really is.”