Hard Not To Admire This Model Breeder

David Anderson | Keeneland photo


David Anderson had lost his father barely two months previously, at just 64, to a heart attack. Returning home, trying to light a path through the fog of sudden grief, Anderson had sat down with the farm manager, Ray Carroll.

“Ray, what are we going to do here?”

Carroll looked at Anderson and said: “Dave, I couldn't imagine working anywhere else in my life.”

“Perfect. That's all I need to hear. Let's put the pedal down and go for it.”

It was much the same with Marette Farrell, whose eye for a horse the late Bob Anderson–a man of strong will and opinions–had respected more than any other.

“Marette had been my first phone call,” Anderson recalls. “And it was Marette who gave me the confidence and strength to do what we did. I didn't know whether I wanted to consign my own yearlings. Dad always had, but I interviewed different consignors and thought long and hard about it.”

Farrell told him: “Dave, you've got this brand here, with Anderson Farms; this legacy. Just do it. You can do it.”

Anderson will always be grateful. “And also for the guidance she gives me,” he says. “In buying, and matings, we have the same theories, the same logic. We look at a horse the same way. And she's not driven monetarily. As we know, the only way agents make money is if they buy. Marette doesn't care if she buys. She wants the right horse, for the right price, for her clients. And that's why she's so successful.”

Here they were, anyhow, beginning their tour of the 2011 Keeneland January Sale. The very first mare on their list. The Warrendale consignment, for Live Oak. Out she came, into the freezing morning, exhaling a pale cloud of vapor.

“I remember it like yesterday,” Anderson says. “And the first thing I noticed, her breath heavy in that cold January air, was that she had nostrils on her like a hippo. I can always remember, as a kid, my dad saying: 'No nostril, no horse.' They've got to be able to breathe.”

Loving Vindication had just turned six. Anderson had her walked up and down, turned to Farrell and announced: “This one's coming back to Canada.”

The last time she had been at Keeneland, as a September yearling, the daughter of Vindication made $725,000. Though she had won a couple of races and run some big numbers, Anderson was able to buy her for $180,000. He sold her first foal for $385,000: a colt by Medaglia d'Oro who went on to be Grade II-placed. Otherwise, her only two other starters are Canadian Horse of the Year Wonder Gadot (Medaglia d'Oro); and now the one-eyed marvel 'TDN Rising Star' Hard Not To Love (Hard Spun), flamboyant winner of the GI La Brea S. in December for John Shirreffs. On Saturday, Hard Not To Love takes her four-for-five record into the GII Santa Monica S. at Santa Anita.

The only other mare Anderson bought, that first January Sale, was Song and Danz (Unbridled's Song). She had been tailed off on her only start but was already responsible for a graded stakes winner and in foal to Tapit.

“As the first sale where I was hanging my own shingle, I had come down with the intention of restructuring our whole broodmare band,” Anderson recalls. “So soon after Dad had died, I'm not going to say it wasn't without a lot of emotion. But honestly, I felt like I had an angel on my shoulder. We had limited resources. I don't have an oil well in the backyard. But I really came in feeling confident. And we just got so fortunate: the marketplace was really weak at the time and those two purchases, right there, kick-started our entire operation.”

At $400,000, Song and Danz remains the most expensive mare Anderson has bought. But it was money well spent, thanks to the Tapit filly she was carrying. Not that it seemed that way to Anderson, when unable to sell her as a yearling.

Tapit was on fire and I had this really pretty filly,” he recalls. “But she got a high nail when they put shoes on her, the day before, so she showed up at the sale just dead lame. I wanted to kill the blacksmith. So I bought her back, raced her–and she had a ton of ability. Unfortunately she broke down, but I bred her to Scat Daddy and got $1.1 million for her first foal; and then bred her to Hard Spun and got $950,000 for the second.”

The farm's first seven-figure yearling became Sergei Prokofiev, a group winner for Ballydoyle who could yet break into Europe's sprinting elite. And nor did that angel on his shoulder let Anderson down in choosing a single broodmare to retain from the existing band.

“Dad's numbers had been up and down, over the years, but in the end his quality was maybe not where it should have been,” he reflects. “We had to reduce those numbers and get some better quality. The only one we kept was a very fast Saint Ballado mare, Flawless Diamond. And she has thrown great foals. They can all run, and last September I sold her Nyquist colt for $500,000. She's now 20, but last year I think she just laid down and had her best foal ever, an unbelievable colt by Honor Code.”

Of course, Anderson also inherited the soil, hay and climate that had favoured every animal raised on the family estates round St Thomas, Ontario, since 1969. He had been running the flourishing Standardbred division until the loss of his father, and still rears Angus cattle, Clydesdale and Percheron draft horses. So far as Thoroughbreds were concerned, however, the family's greatest legacy had perhaps been the benign interest and counsel of E. P. Taylor. Anderson's father was so inspired by Canada's pioneering Thoroughbred breeder that he liked to call his own farm “Windfields West”.

“Mr. Taylor was the reason my father was in the business,” says Anderson. “He was Dad's mentor, took him under his wing when he was just 21. Every Saturday morning, when I was a kid, we'd get in the old station wagon and drive to Windfields and hang out for the day: watch horses being broken, stallions breeding, whatever was going on.”

One special memory: his seventh birthday, the family round the dinner table, a Windfields van driving up.

“What the heck's going on?” exclaimed his father. “I'm not expecting any horses from Windfields.”

He went out, and was met by the driver with an envelope.

“Is David here?” asked the driver.

Taylor's card read: “Happy Birthday, David. I hope you enjoy your new Fell pony.”

So much for the forbidding tycoon Taylor. “He was one of the most caring, good-hearted people you'd ever meet,” Anderson recalls. “He didn't look at the business from a monetary perspective. He did it because he loved it and because he believed in himself and in his people. It's just remarkable, the empire he built–and that still exists today.” He picks up a catalog. “Almost every page.”

True to that grounding, at 50, Anderson is one of those rare breeders who has built viable commercial stock not on market fads but on blood that runs.

“I am a commercial breeder,” he concedes. “But at the end of the day, I'm not a trader: I'm a builder. And if I have a legacy someday, I want people to say, 'That's an Anderson family.' I buy mares with the intention of keeping them 10 years, plus; maybe buying daughters back. That's what all the great breeders have done. So you won't see me buying a mare in January, breeding her back, and flipping her in November for a quick profit. Yes, I try and get as much as I can for my yearlings. I have bills to pay like everyone else. But ultimately I'm trying to produce stakes winners.”

The breed would certainly prosper if more people grasped that there should be no attribute more commercial than racing ability. Perhaps Anderson, by prospering himself, can help them do so. His consignment has obtained a boutique quality; prospectors come to seek a talented horse, not a cheap one. And he has achieved this by sticking rigorously to the three principles that govern his business.

“And those are discipline, discipline and discipline,” he says with a grin. “That's it, period. Disciplined when you sell, disciplined when you buy. My father always said to me, 'David, you make your money when you buy, not when you sell.' And trust me, it's hard for me: I'm a horse guy! At a sale, I want to go up there and buy horses. But you have to be smart.”

You might assume this attitude to be informed by Anderson's parallel success in a more conventional commercial environment, making and distributing sports safety equipment. If anything, however, he says that the more transferable lessons were learned in the horse business.

“In manufacturing, there's cashflow every day,” he explains. “We make a widget, it's out the door, and you get paid. In this business, maybe 90% of your revenue comes within one month of the year; and the remaining 11 months, you're either on food stamps or you're going out for steak dinners. It's tough to manage your budget.

“But I've grown up on the farm, I've been in it my whole life. I've seen the roller coaster ride. At the end of the day, we're farmers–and some years it rains, some years it doesn't. We're all in this game because we love it. If you don't, and you lose money, then you're out. Guys come and go. But if you really love the game, you know you're bound to have a couple down years, but you pick yourself up and stay the course. And those are the people that are going to be successful.”

Nothing affirms faith in the program like the graduation of a new star. Anderson is especially gratified by Hard Not To Love because of his regard for the ownership team assembled after her $400,000 sale as a September yearling.

“And I'm convinced that if she was in the hands of anyone other than John Shirreffs, she would probably never have set foot on the track,” he says. “In her early days, she was a definitely a quirky one. The first three months of her life, she would not follow her mother in the stall. We had to back her in, every day. The dam has fire in her belly, and she throws it in all her foals. But that's been true of any really good filly I've ever had: they're not necessarily mean, but they can be tough–and they're driven. Wonder Gadot had that little edge on her too.”

Anderson notes that while Loving Vindication's dam Chimichurri was a graded stakes winner, her 10 daughters were not so accomplished. But another of them, Chimayo (A.P. Indy), produced last year's GI Beholder Mile S. winner Secret Spice.

“So it's the old adage: maybe the good racemares won't produce, but their daughters will,” he says. “Secret Spice went to Japan for a lot of money in November. I have her sister by Street Cry (Ire) who's now in foal to Justify. So the whole page is really starting to fill in.”

He jokes that he doesn't know what he “must have been drinking” when he put Loving Vindication through the ring at Fasig-Tipton last November, before repenting and bringing her home at $1.45 million. Happily, though offered more than the reserve the next day, he still said no. Just weeks later, Hard Not To Love inflated her dam's value with her Grade I breakthrough. Discipline, it seems, can take many forms!

“When you have that much money staring at you…” Anderson shakes his head. “And I'm a working man. You've got to dig deep. But in my gut, I felt like this mare has been so good to me, and she still has so much potential ahead of her. Hard Not To Love was showing tons of ability, and we'd heard great reports out of California. She was, without doubt, her dam's best yearling, in terms of conformation; and she's in the best possible hands, given that she only has one eye [result of a paddock accident while in Florida to be broken]. She's only just finding her stride, only just getting her confidence. And I commend her groom Martin, too. This guy is unbelievable with her. I've never seen a connection like it, between a man and a horse.”

Unsurprisingly, Loving Vindication is heading back to Hard Spun. She has a Curlin colt at foot and is due to Medaglia d'Oro–a stallion also favoured for consecutive dates with Orchard Beach (Tapit), whose yearling filly Anderson reckons the most beautiful he has ever raised.

His commercial success makes Anderson a living rebuke to all those breeders prepared to trade a fast buck for a slow foal. Except sometimes with a proven mare, he will resist new sires in favour of “boring” achievers. He feels that such early profit as breeders can make, backing new sires, will be lost in the depreciation of their mares.

True, he has rolled the dice with six shares in Collected. (“I just thought he was really good value and it's a great family.”) But overall he feels that you will need the solid achiever when the market eventually turns, as it must.

“Whether it's next year, or the year after, at some point it's going to happen,” he reasons. “And if you're left holding the bag, with a bunch of these first-year commercial sires, you're done. In tough times I think you need proven winners to keep afloat.”

Hard not to admire that approach. Hard not to love it, in fact, especially in a spiritual heir to E. P. Taylor; in such a patriotic Canadian breeder.

“People think that we're up in the great white tundra,” he says. “But I'm telling you, I raise all my horses outside, 24/7. They have lots of shelter and cover. But even if the snow's blowing sideways, they're still not in the shed: they're out standing in the middle of the field. And I think it breeds a much healthier animal. They're in a herd environment, which they love. So mentally, they're sound. And physically, they produce better feet, better bone.”

With a seat on the board of Ontario Racing, he acknowledges that his domestic breeding industry has recovered only to a state of emergency from the slots crisis. But he describes himself as “semi-optimistic”, thanks to government assistance, creative incentives, one of the world's premier racetracks and investment in turf as a surface for the future.

No question about it, Taylor would be proud of the boy who was ecstatic to receive a Fell pony; and likewise, his own father. Anderson himself credits everything to his team on the farm, headed by Carroll. But there's no mistaking his own navigational flair.

“It's become a game of getting the edge,” he reflects. “It's not like it was 30 years ago, when you'd just pull them out of the field and bring them into the ring without shoes. There are so many sharp and astute people, all trying to do the same thing, and it's ultra-competitive. So you either play at that level, or just be a country fair guy. That's the bottom line.

“But there's noone in this game that's been luckier than me. Not just in the horse business. I've been so lucky in life. Everything I've done: my wife, my kids, my other businesses. I could die tomorrow and I'd die with a smile on my face. Literally.”

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