Jed and Tim Cohen: Stark Warnings in Spite of Recent Success

Tim Cohen | Tattersalls photo


There's something quintessential, romantic in the Hollywood sense, about the notion of casting off the corporate shackles of an existence dictated by the ticking wall-clock for a life governed by the sun and the stars and the seasons. The city slicker turned cowboy, emancipated from the daily grind. The Wall Street hotshot who replaces the stock-market with the market-garden.

In most cases, that dream is simple–an opportunity to get back to the land. Chickens and goats in the back-yard. A few fruit trees, perhaps. A vegetable garden to put food on the dinner plate and a few coins in the pocket. A hand-to-mouth existence that harkens to an agrarian ideal of days past.

Not so for Tim Cohen, whose family purchased nearly 20 years ago a 6000-acre plot of land in California's Ventura County, and transformed it from a cattle ranch and oil field into what it is today: a sprawling topographic tangle of fruit groves, emerald pastures and horse farm.

“I used to manage luxury hotels and restaurants. Now, I manage luxury horse facilities,” said Cohen, about his former life as a corporate suit. “What I knew about water and dirt was don't bring the dirt in the house, and water went well with Scotch. Now I know a lot more about dirt and water, so it's been a great educational experience.”

At Rancho Temescal, you'll find about 100 acres of avocado trees that produce a million pounds of fruit a year. Some 100 acres of citrus trees recently yielded 4 1/2 million pounds of lemons. Rows and rows of blackberry vines are wrapped in plastic. A small beef herd roam the hills that hold the farm in the palm of a giant green velvet glove.

Then you get to the horse side of things. There's a mission-flavor to a Spanish style main barn with 23 stalls, some of them for foaling. There are 25 sand pens, two mare motels, and a pick-and-mix of pastures. Two-hundred of the farm's 6,000 acres are devoted to the horses. Parts of the ranch are used for filming shows like Westworld. If there's a visitor's book, you'll find names like Tom Cruise, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in it.

Cohen's reading of events glosses over the enormity of the task he and his father set themselves. As Cohen tells it, he knew nothing of farming when they first purchased the ranch. The abrupt career change necessitated a crash-course in things like soil management, growing cycles, climate and water conservation.

“I always tell my kids that there wasn't a day that I ever woke up I dreamt that I was a farmer,” said Cohen, dispelling the romantic notion of any long-held back-to-the-land yearnings, along with its inherent challenges. “It's a little riskier here where we farm,” he said, alluding to the existential threats from all around (more on this later).

As for the racehorses–which often run under both Rancho Temescal and the Red Baron's Barn banner–Cohen admits his role has always been more of a secondary one to his father, Jed. That was until a few years ago, when Darrell Vienna, who for the longest time had been Jed's sole trainer, decided to retire after 40 years with a license. “That's when I took a more proactive position in managing my dad's stable, and then also the ranch,” said Cohen.

The horses were distributed around a bunch of barns: Jeff Mullins, Jack Carava, Ed Freeman, Mark Glatt, Jim Cassidy and John Martin. And the slump the stable had been under for a while began to slowly lift. “It had taken a downturn I think for a variety of reasons,” he said, about the stable's quiet years after a boom period in the early 2000s, when the likes of Janet and Suances were Grade I-winning performers. “It just wasn't that much fun for my dad, and the stable wasn't doing well, not for lack of effort.”

Jed Cohen agrees. “I was getting too used to running out–that's not a good thing,” he said, before turning his attention to the recent boom period. “I've never experienced a run with horses like that. Nice to have it happen.”

During the last fruitful few years, the Mullins trained Itsinthepost (Fr) (American Post {GB}) has mopped up no less than seven Grade IIs. The Glatt-trained Sharp Samurai (First Samurai) is a four-time graded stakes winner, last pinching the GII City of Hope Mile S. at Santa Anita in October. River Boyne (Ire) (Dandy Man {Ire}) finished second in last December's GI Hollywood Derby.

Back in the day, Jed was an economic advisor to JFK. Now, he has a Beverly Hills-based investment advisory business. Much the stable's recent success, he said, has been down to shrewd horse selection, many of them procured from Europe. “Just look at River Boyne,” he said, of the former Gordon Elliott-trained colt. “I've been in the business nearly sixty years, and I've often thought, 'boy, would I love to have a horse like that.' And what do I do? I end up with this midget of a horse who's been phenomenal.”

Nevertheless, as the stable's fortunes have grown, the stable itself has undergone a bit of pruning. The stable “peaked,” said Tim Cohen, with about 40 horses at the track and as many as 60 mares, he said. “That's when we were trying to establish Suances as a stallion.” Now, they have between 40 and 45 in training, with another 10 two-year-olds being broken. But they're down to about 15 mares.

Part of the reason is pragmatism–Suances didn't take flight as a stallion. Not that the Cohens are governed by their bottom line. “Our expectation isn't necessarily economics. Right?” said Cohen. “If racing didn't drive some other satisfaction other than economics, I think a lot of us wouldn't be in racing. My father, who's been racing for almost 60 years now, that's his passion. This component of the ranch is because of his passion, not because of economics.”

Nevertheless, despite the success the stable has enjoyed these past few years, “you can't eliminate the economic component of horse racing entirely,” Cohen said. “People go, 'oh, you had the best year ever.' And I go, 'yes, we lost the least amount ever,' right? The joy of it hasn't changed, the economics have, and I'm not as bullish on racing in California as I would've been five years ago.”

One reason for that has to do with what Cohen sees as a fractured dialogue between the four main interests in the state: the horsemen, the owners, the track operators and the regulators. “At the end of the day, it's like four divorcees in a room,” he said. “Nobody talks to anybody and I think everybody is trying to protect their interests, which at the end of the day, really should be one common interest.”

An antidote would involve “more integration of people,” he said. “I think I shouldn't be wondering what Santa Anita's doing. I shouldn't be wondering what the racing secretary is thinking about. I don't see a whole lot of conversation back and forth where they're meeting with people and saying, 'hey, what are we doing?' We're all in this together, right? You can't control the economics, but you can control the expectations and you can control discussions and make people part of the process so that they understand it. But all this stuff behind doors and not communicating, it's just–it's frustrating.”

As to the prize money levels in California, “it is what it is,” he said. “We'd all love for higher purses, right? But I think the purse level is okay.” Same with the limited training facilities. “I think there are ways to resolve that.”

Rather, there needs to be a greater focus on ways to “upgrade the entry process,” and to take a “better inventory” of horses on the backside, so that racetrack operators “can write races that keep horses in California at all levels,” he said. Ultimately, he sees a lack of “consistency” in the races being carded.

“I need full fields. I need the races to go. But I also need to understand and plan ahead,” he said. “When are those races going to be? And if they're not in the book, why are they not in the book? I think there's a lot of people who are interested in doing this as a business and as a passion, and when you start getting frustrated on the passion side, and the business isn't there, people go away, right?”

He's buoyed by Fasig-Tipton's latest foray into California, when they'll conduct two sales at Santa Anita this year. Their first auction, a 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale, is slated for June 5, followed by a Fall Yearling Sale penciled in for Sept. 25. “I hope they bring some organization and some consistency, and I think they'll have a great opportunity out here.” Nevertheless, the product needs to be commercially appealing, Cohen warned. “You can only sell what's in the sale,” he said. “And so, if we're not breeding a commercial product, you can put on sales all day long. It won't sell.”

The Cohen's own foray into the commercial market with Suances was a learning curve, he said. “Yeah, I learned that buying 40 mares wasn't going to make a stallion.” For one, there's only so many mares “in play” in California, he said. “The majority of the mares are really controlled by the larger farms.”

That, and the geographic location of Rancho Temescal, away from California's breeding hub, was another factor. “It's expensive to ship your mare. Then you've got to breed. And maybe she's going to foal here. It gets expensive.”

The farm's geographic location, nestled deep in the heart of wildfire country, brings other challenges. The last wildfire that ambushed the ranch was back in 2005, “so I'm due one again,” he said. Not that he's losing too many sleepless nights.

“We built it conscious of natural problems.” Pastures are fitted with overhead sprinklers, “so, all we would just do is reverse them and they would throw water 150 feet in the air.” The barns and buildings sit isolated and alone, away from the hillsides and the brush. “Yeah, when there's fire, we're actually in the safest place.”

It's not just the wildfires that pose problems. “Where we're located, we're kind of on the cusp of too hot, too cold.” Avocados are particularly sensitive to heat and cold, and California's scorching heatwave last summer wiped out about 95% of the crop. As for the lemon trees, Cohen must now contend with the Asian Citrus Psyllid, a Genghis Khan of disease-carrying invasive pests. “In Florida they lost a lot of their citrus because of that. We now have that bug.”

As should be evident, Cohen's not one for shirking challenges. To tackle the pesky Asian Psyllid, he's turning to UC Davis for guidance. “There's some hope of a wasp that may be a predator for it.” If the SoCal climate continues to change, gets hotter as anticipated, some of the avocados might go, replaced by more of the hardier citrus. And in terms of the horse business, Cohen said that he and his father could, for the first time, send horses to the East Coast.

According to his father, Jed, Churchill Downs and New York are possible venues for patronage. The reason for this Eastward expansion is simple: the business models in other jurisdictions are more attractive than the one in California, he said. “It's so poorly managed or mismanaged [in California],” he said. “It saddens me.”

His frustration is borne from a genuine passion for the sport in California–decades ago, for example, he was the impetus for the formation of a California backstretch employees pension plan. “I love it–I've a wonderful history with the business. There's a beautiful racetrack here [in Santa Anita]. It's a love affair for me. But what about all the people who know nothing about this [sport]. We need to get them to fall in love with it as well.”


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