How Darby Dan Got Its Mojo Back

John Phillips | Shandon Cundiff


It may still seem at times that Darby Dan Farm is something out of racing's past, when America's aristocracy–Mellons, Vanderbilts, Galbreaths, Phippses–ran the sport's top racing and breeding farms. Think Darby Dan and you think Chateaugay, Proud Clarion, Roberto, Little Current, Graustark, great horses but horses from a long gone era. John Phillips, owner of the farm, is proud of Darby Dan's reputation but knows nobody in modern times cares what a farm might have done in 1967. If Darby Dan, after many down years, was to have a resurgence, resting on laurels was certainly not the answer.

Darby Dan Farm, which was purchased by the Galbreath family in 1935, may never be what it was in its glory days and it does not go after the most sought after stallions when they come off the racetrack, but Phillips has found a formula that is working and has sparked a resurgence of the iconic property. He doesn't try to hit home runs. Ground rule doubles are fine.

Though not one to cry poverty, Phillips does not have the resources of his grandfather, Darby Dan patriarch John W. Galbreath. Galbreath, who passed away in 1988 at age of 90, made his fortune in real estate, owned the Pittsburgh Pirates and campaigned two GI Kentucky Derby winners, Chateaugay (1963) and Proud Clarion (1967). Darby Dan also owned 1972 G1 Epsom Derby winner Roberto, named for the Pirates' Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. Galbreath made his fortune in real estate, and in 1986, Forbes estimated that, along with his son, Dan, he was worth $400 million.

Darby Dan has done remarkably well in recent years with mid-level stallions. Now standing for $25,000, Dialed In (Mineshaft) was the champion first-crop sire of 2016 and had more black type winners than any other second crop sire in 2017. The $20,000 sire Shackleford (Forestry) had 71 winners in 2017, making him the top second-crop sire by winners. Klimt, standing his first year at stud, had his book sell out in what seemed like a matter of minutes. His stud fee is $10,000. The field for the 2017 GI Kentucky Derby included three horses by Darby Dan stallions, including Tale of Ekati (Tale of the Cat)'s Girvin, who would go on to win the GI Haskell Invitational.

“It's really hard for us to compete with the billionaires,” said Phillips. “I'm very blessed with a lot of material fortune, but the reality is the farm is not in a position to compete against sheikhs and billionaires from Europe or from the United States, for that matter. The obvious horses are generally not on our radar screen because we are not going to be able to compete with the kind of largesse that it now takes to get those horses. But we are mindful that we try to make all our stallion deals such that they're good business arrangements for all participants and not just for ourselves.”

Klimt (Quality Road), the winner of the 2016 GI Del Mar Futurity, is a good example of the type of race horse Phillips tries to find when bringing in a new stallion. He was a successful race horse with a top pedigree, but did not accomplish enough on the racetrack that he was highly sought after by Kentucky's biggest breeding farms.

“Klimt has three qualities we all admired,” Phillips said. “Number one, he's a very good looking horse. Number two, he had that Grade I-winning 2-year-old form. Number three, he's got an up-and-coming sire line. I think Quality Road is going to prove to be a sire of sires. All those factors led our team to be very interested in him when he became available.”

Phillips also realized that Darby Dan needed to reel in its numbers and focus on quality.

“I know everybody loves to say we just want to go out and get the very best horses, but that obviously is very much our goal,” said Hunter Houlihan, who was recently promoted to the position of Darby Dan's Director of Sales. “We are not focused on numbers or quantity as much as we used to be.”

At the Keeneland January Mixed sale, Darby Dan sold a session topper in a Bellavais (Tapit), who sold for $485,000. She is out of the Ghostzapper mare La Cloche, which Darby Dan sold for $2.4 million at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Mixed sale.

While its sires are prospering and Darby Dan's foals are selling well, Phillips might be even more proud of a recent accomplishment on the racetrack. Under Phillips, Darby Dan sells the vast majority of its colts and races the fillies. They race under the name of Phillips Racing Partnership, a stable that has included 1999 Female Turf champion Soaring Softly (Kris S.) and two-time Grade I winner Winter Memories (El Prado {Ire}). The Phillips silks are green and white.

The traditional brown Darby Dan silks are owned by Phillips's cousins, who are not active owners. The agreement among the family is that only male horses are to run with the Darby Dan silks. Phillips got the itch to run a male horse and put together a group of friends to campaign a homebred named Manitoulin (Awesome Again). In his 17th lifetime start, he won the Nov. 24 GII Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar. To the best of Phillips's recollection, the last time a horse wearing the Darby Dan silks in a stakes win came all the way back in 1997 when a filly named Buckeye Search (Meadowlake) won the Bourbonette S. at Turfway Park. In order to run Manitoulin in the Darby Dan colors, Phillips had to be granted permission by his cousins.

He said he may try again with another male horse, but don't expect any major changes to the Darby Dan blueprint. The 2018 Horse of the Year, whoever that may be, will not be standing there. But there will be plenty of talented horses that will retire at the end of the year, plenty that flew under the radar. Darby Dan will be on the lookout.


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