How Brookdale Farm's Fred Seitz Made a Name For Himself

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Freddy, Anna, Fred and Joe Seitz | Jane Estepp

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It felt like everything was up in the air; but actually everything was falling into place. Even as a kid, from nowhere obvious, Fred Seitz had discovered an affinity for horses. And the young man stepping onto the tarmac at Lexington airport had meanwhile learned resilience and adaptability with the Marine Corps. Sure enough, all the perplexity Seitz felt about his future was about to evaporate.

“I was wondering what I was going to do when I grew up!” Seitz recalls in his gentle, humorous tones. (He was, by this stage, a Vietnam veteran and closer to 30 than 20.) “So seeing how I had loved the horses when I was younger, I took a trip out here. I'd never been to Kentucky before. They didn't have jetways back then, so as I went down those steps from the plane, it was a very odd sensation. I just said to myself, 'This is it. This is where I'm going to live for the rest of my life.' And I was right. I went down, I stopped, and I knew.”

And here he is, very nearly half a century later, reflecting in his office at Brookdale Farm on a career best measured not just by the scale or diversity of his achievements (raised and sold a Derby winner; pinhooked an Oaks winner; stood a champion stallion; raised a champion stallion) but by the respect of a whole community. In an industry often dominated by dynastic operations, he has literally made his name—to the point that the next generation, in sharing and enhancing its prestige, are themselves evolving into one of those Bluegrass clans whose nurture is a guarantee of trust. Seitz the outsider has become Seitz the patriarch.

“People use the term 'self-made man',” he remarks. “I don't believe in that. When I think of all the people that have helped me along the way—people who taught me, helped me understand, gave me a push, gave me knowledge, encouragement… That's not self-made. That's made by a lot of kind people. So I've been very fortunate.”

One way or another, it has been quite a journey to Versailles from his native Bronx. But he always had the right stuff in his own pedigree: his father had also been a Marine, serving on Iwo Jima; likewise an uncle, lost in a B-25. And when Seitz was five, he was blessed by a transformative change of environment—the family of six having previously squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment in the city—after his father joined the maintenance crew on a New Jersey farm belonging to the social reformer Geraldine Morgan Thompson. It was called Brookdale and, though since swamped by suburban development (for Brookdale University and a county park), Seitz would eventually preserve the name in tribute to the life-changing opportunity he found there. Because the farm, crucially, was divided between agriculture and a training track.

“All of a sudden, we'd left the streets of New York for this little hamlet in the country,” he recalls. “A wonderful place to grow up. And I became fascinated by those horses. There were all these different trainers in there, renting stalls, and the place had a great history going back. Regret had trained there—a Whitney farm was right across the road—and Colin was another that came off the place in the old days. And I was walking hots by the time I was 10. Of course, they gave me the easy horses, but I couldn't believe they were paying me: I thought it should be the other way round. A dollar per horse! It was a wonderful opportunity to learn, and I was so lucky to be able to find out, so early in life, what I wanted to do with all my ensuing years.”

Through high school, Seitz worked vacations as a groom and exercise rider at Monmouth Park. To this day he treasures a photograph of a filly named Triple Brook, in the winner's circle at Atlantic City in 1964. He's holding the halter, 17 years old, and couldn't conceive that life might contain any greater satisfaction: he'd helped to break the filly at her owner's farm.

The trainer is not in the picture. Seitz says that was pretty common at the time, to cede the limelight to the owner, though on this occasion Ralph McIlvain might just have been busy at the windows.

“Mr. McIlvain was a gambler,” Seitz recalls. “And he'd tried to hide this filly in the mornings. He knew she was really nice, and he didn't even run her in a maiden special weight, but in a claimer. She won by six. Obviously the word had gotten out, she only paid $2.70. He'd wanted to make a real killing. I didn't know anything that was going on, I was just a kid. But the owner found out that he was gambling with her, and that he could have lost her for $5,000, so he sent her to New York to Ridgely White. After that, she won the Vagrancy, she ran second in the Beldame, third in the Regret—all graded races today. Obviously she was a very good filly.”

Whether in the Brookdale barns or at the track, Seitz was acquiring a diploma in old school horsemanship: not just from veteran Irish trainers like Tom Harraway and Mike Fogarty, but also from other grooms. Seitz was avid to learn, and his vocation seemed plain. But then came two intrusions: college in Western Pennsylvania and then, with his country at war, aviation with the Marine Corps. In Vietnam, they were shooting down pilots as fast as they could be trained. With corresponding urgency, two days out of Officer Candidate School, Seitz married his sweetheart Peppe who had attended a sister school to his own.

Leaving Peppe with her family, Seitz became a bus driver in the sky, flying 50 men at a time in giant H53 Sea Stallion helicopters, first from Okinawa and then off the Vietnam coast with the fleet they called Yankee Station.

“I spent my last two months flying in, flying out,” he says. “I have to be honest, I was very fortunate. I did see some of the results, and I transported some unfortunates, but I never spent a night 'in country', as they called it. I never had those situations to deal with, that were so hard on many people.”

On his return, he became an instructor at the Navy Flight School. It was a traumatic time for the nation, and no less so for a young serviceman who had seen friends maimed or killed. There was much hurt and confusion over the hostility of so many compatriots when his peers had shown such courage and sacrifice.

“It was difficult,” Seitz says. “The country was fed up, and rightfully so by '73, '74. But it was difficult to understand the reaction of some people, it felt like they were shooting the messengers. I grew my hair long as quickly as I could. Aviators have those leather jackets, just like you see in the movies, with the squadron patches and identification. Nowadays I realize how beautiful those are, really it's your history. But I took them off, gave away my uniforms to my children. So I was actually disrespectful myself, because it all just felt so wrong—the way we were treated. Eventually you get over something like that, but I do still remember it very keenly.”

But if Vietnam had proved a white-hot furnace, then immersion in the cooling waters of the Marine ethos had forged a character that would serve Seitz no less well in his civilian career. He never lost his sense of pride, fidelity and resolute humility. “You find out who you are,” he says. “It's a separate culture that very few Marines don't honor. Once a Marine, always a Marine. So many aspects are valuable: fortitude, discipline, camaraderie, excellence. They have a saying: adapt, improvise and overcome. Simple, but very true.”

All the same Seitz was decidedly at a crossroads, back in 1973, when he took that fateful flight to Kentucky. But while he had just one door to knock, that was enough. Peppe's father had encountered a Standardbred man, Francis McKinsey who had managed Walnut Hall and Almahurst, and asked him to look out for a chance for a hardworking ex-Marine.

“He was a very kind, generous man and along with Joe Taylor, who had a Standardbred background also, helped me find this job on a small farm belonging to Tom Collins,” Seitz recalls. “On The Rocks Farm, it was called. Doesn't exist anymore. I was very early to be a farm manager. To put it bluntly, I wasn't qualified. My experience had been with horses in training. But if I didn't know something, which was often, I'd call Francis in the evening and he'd tell me what to do. So if I was often learning by my mistakes, he helped me to learn quickly.”

After a couple of years Seitz extended his education to the rapidly evolving sales scene. First came a stint under Ted Bates at a new subsidiary to the New York firm of Fasig-Tipton, testing out Keeneland's local monopoly. (Today, of course, Seitz's daughter Anna is bringing things full circle as Fasig-Tipton's much esteemed Client Development and Public Relations Manager.)

“It was just Ted, and a secretary, and I was his assistant,” Seitz says. “I did everything from putting on the hip numbers to setting out the chairs, whatever it took. Ted was not just a wonderful horseman but a wonderful man, very open with his experience. The [1976] Derby winner Bold Forbes and Preakness winner Elocutionist had both just come out of their tent sale, for about $15,000 each. Soon after came Genuine Risk, Seattle Slew, and, bang bang bang, they just kept coming.”

Then came a turning point, Seitz stepping into the slipstream of agency pioneer Lee Eaton.

“In my opinion, Lee invented that business,” he says. “He was very good at it, he was selling lots of horses and back then you got five percent for everything, whether you sold or not, so that was very lucrative. I did a few sales for Lee, and then he gave me some of his overflow. And it was amazing, the quality even of his overflow.”

With the help of his former patron Collins, who introduced him to his banker and the concept of debt, Seitz leased a plot and experimented with half a dozen weanlings in a nascent pinhook market.

“I wanted to play the game, more than just board horses,” he remembers. “The weanling trade was fairly new. There was Stanley Petter, there was Lee, a few others. So the timing was very fortunate. We spent about $60,000 total on those six and they sold for almost double, November to July, which was outrageous good fortune. Two became New York stakes winners, in races that would now be graded; and a third was stakes-placed in California. So we couldn't have been any luckier, starting out.”

Steadily Seitz expanded his portfolio, while acquiring parcels of land piecemeal: just 10 acres, at first; then another 10, 32, 165. Today Brookdale encompasses over 400 acres on different tracts.

“Which I could never have imagined in a million years,” he says. “When I got off that plane, I'd thought to myself, 'If I work hard here, in a couple of years I might be able to manage a small farm.' But fortune has been amazing for me, especially with my help. Victor Espinoza has been here 35 years. People like him have just been a godsend.”

Another market that then remained usefully immature was the one for stallions. “There wasn't the competition then,” Seitz says. “So I took a shot on a horse called Greinton. Beautiful, beautiful horse. Correct. Mile speed. Good pedigree.” He pauses wryly. “And he was an abject failure, just a dud. But I was in the business.”

In 1988, therefore, his friends Ric Waldman and John Perotta, who managed Deputy Minister, approached Seitz to stand the horse when Windfields closed its Maryland division.

“I believe he had 3-year-olds coming,” Seitz recalls. “And the rest of the story everyone knows. He took off, immediately he came here, and the arrangement worked extremely well. He was a big strong horse, very virile. He was a handful, a strong personality. In fact, one of the first times Victor went in the stall with him, the horse grabbed him by the pectoral muscles, lifted him in the air and threw him down. From that day on, we treated him differently. But he became leading sire in North America twice. He was here until he died [aged 25, in 2004], and is buried up in our cemetery. So, another big strike of fortune.”

Seitz has presided over many changes in the business. He remembers Paul Mellon, as a shareholder in Greinton, ringing to caution against the reckless expansion of his book to 60-odd mares. But he has always moved with the times, always adapted like a good Marine.

By the early 2000s, when stallion recruitment had become prohibitive, Brookdale streamlined back to sales prep and boarding only. Sons Freddy Jr. and Joe, also Marines, were meanwhile progressively given responsibility, in management of the farm and sales divisions respectively. The one constant, throughout, has been results.

Brookdale graduates remarkably include not just I'll Have Another (Flower Alley), the result of a mating recommended by Freddy Jr. to long-time client Harvey Clarke, but also the horse he beat in the Derby, Bodemeister (Empire Maker). Tapit was foaled and raised here before being presented for sale as a $625,000 yearling; Serengeti Empress (Alternation) was pinhooked as a weanling; while the latest champion through this nursery is Vequist (Nyquist), raised for breeders Tom and Sue McGrath of Swilcan Stable.

Yet for all these moments of fulfilment, Seitz admits that nothing has ever gratified him, day to day, more than his six or seven years with a trainer's licence.

“By that stage I had this place running smoothly, with the right people, and my background as a teenager had primarily been with horses in training,” he explains. “I had five stakes winners, never from more than eight to a dozen horses. Keeping horses in training truly is a sport of kings but I loved every minute of it. If the fairy came up with a magic wand, that would be very easy for me. Other than a healthy family, the thing I'd most want is a really good horse.”

One way or another, at 75, Seitz has left very few stones unturned with Thoroughbreds. But his own versatility is matched by the object of his obsession: he sees no golden seam to separate the best from the rest.

“They come in all shapes and sizes,” he says with a shrug. “I like correct individuals, with size and some quality. But I used to go to the spit box at Keeneland to look at the winners cooling out, trying to figure out what makes a good one. And I never accomplished much that way at all!”

Seitz credits David Lambert as a mentor who gets closer than any to finding that elusive formula, and Sally Lockhart among many others for their contributions over the years. Above all, of course, there is the immense satisfaction of having three of his children follow him into the world of Thoroughbreds.

When he first came here, the Bluegrass establishment could still resent perceived interlopers. Seitz feels this to be no longer the case; that commercial breeding has made for a wholesome meritocracy. In the meantime, of course, he has himself created a family brand. Typically, this observation elicits a modest chuckle.

“That's right,” he says drily. “And I think about that. There's an old saying, 'shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations'! I could worry about that, but it's too far down the road. I have 16 grandchildren, no doubt some will stay in the business.

“I've done this so many years now. I'm still here just about every day, but I'm learning to slow down. I try to stay in my own lane. I'm having trouble figuring out where I belong. But I'll get there, because I still love it just like that 10-year-old kid.”

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