Keeneland Breeder Spotlight: Albaugh Family Back on Derby Trail

Catching Freedom | Coady

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To get his new business off the ground–or at least out of the basement of his house in Iowa–Dennis Albaugh took out an SBA loan of $10,000.

“Against the house,” he says. “Had to talk my wife into that. Then I bought an old tanker and, my first trip out, I loaded up with chemicals headed for South Dakota. And all the way up there I'm thinking, 'Hey, this is really a good truck.' It just runs a little better all the way up. I get there, I get out, and it's empty. The seals got eaten up, en route, and I'd dumped the whole load. It happened to be a weed killer, so didn't hurt anything.”

“Except kill all the weeds all the way up to South Dakota,” interjects his son-in-law, Jason Loutsch, with a chuckle.

“So I get home that next day and my wife said, 'How'd your first delivery go?' 'Well, not so good. I just put $7,600 of the $10,000 on the road, and I don't have any invoice out.' So it was a rough start.”

That was 1979. Albaugh was in his late 20s and, within a couple of years, they had two infant daughters to feed as well.

“But you just kept at it,” he says with a shrug. “About '93, I bought out my biggest competitor and put the two companies together. After that we started growing real fast. And today we sell in 44 countries, we're manufacturing in nine, and we're the ninth biggest agricultural chemicals company in the world.”

So if he could achieve that in his business life, after such an unpromising start, then where might Albaugh take a racing program which, as we'll remind ourselves in a moment, could hardly have started more auspiciously? Well, we saw one answer to that last May, when Albaugh Family Stable achieved something quite incredible. From just 12 of the 10,000 eligible colts in the 2020 foal crop, no fewer than three made the gate for the GI Kentucky Derby, including the strong-finishing third. And the next cycle has started pretty well, too, with Catching Freedom (Constitution) laying down an early Derby marker in the Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn on New Year's Day.

Okay, so Miss Macy Sue was not the very beginning of the family's Turf adventure. First, in 2003, Loutsch put five grand into a gelding with a buddy at Prairie Meadows. They won a few small races, even placed in a stakes for Iowa-breds. It was a lot of fun, and Loutsch's father-in-law became interested.

“So when's he going to run again?” Albaugh asked.

“Oh, these horses only run every three or four weeks.”

“Well, let's get some more.”

And so, yes, after that the first meaningful play was a half-share in a Trippi filly for $42,000 at OBS in June 2005. They named her Miss Macy Sue for Albaugh's granddaughter, put her into training with Kelly Von Hemel, and she won a maiden at Hawthorne a few months later. The next year, she proved one of the quicker young sprinters on the local circuit, picked up some black-type at Prarie Meadows, Mountaineer.

But then, with maturity, she got on a serious roll. She won a listed race at Oaklawn, then a Grade III at Churchill. At the end of the year, they found themselves contesting the inaugural GI Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Monmouth, and she came through traffic out of the one hole to grab third.

“She just kept going around the country winning,” Albaugh marvels. “Our first big involvement in the horse business. That horse spoiled us! And after a year or two, I was telling Jason, 'Let's get into this more.'”

Albaugh met Jerry Crawford on a plane one day and they talked about putting together a partnership to buy some colts. Under the Donegal Racing umbrella, Albaugh took 30% of one by El Prado (Ire) with Dale Romans. Paddy O'Prado ran third in the 2010 Derby before switching to grass and winning the GI Secretariat S.

On the racetrack, then, Albaugh was getting all the beginner's luck that had eluded him on that first truck ride to South Dakota. He decided to ride the wave, and suggested that Loutsch should manage a stable for the family in its own right. Duncan Taylor came up to Iowa and listened to the business plan, gave them a couple of names. Barry Berkelhammer of AbraCadabra Farm was one, and he has become a key player in selecting stock and then supervising their education in Florida. But Albaugh certainly meant business. Albeit the market was less demanding at that time, he wanted to pitch for 10 to 12 colts annually with a feasible Derby profile.

Yet it would turn out that the keystone had been in place all along. Albaugh had bought out his partner in Miss Macy Sue, so that he could retain her as a broodmare.

“We were up at Toronto, a very cold day,” Albaugh recalls. “And I said to Kelly, 'When will we know that we need to take this horse over to be a mother?' And he said, 'She'll tell us.' I'm like, 'Yeah?' Sure enough, that same day, at the end of the race [third as favorite], Kelly said, 'Look, it's like I said. She told us. It's time to breed her.'”

“She gave us everything,” Loutsch says. “Every race, she ran hard. She won our first graded stakes, won the Presque Isle Masters when it was worth $400,000. Her heart was so big. Every time she'd give full effort. Kelly said she'd run on glass. She was such a sound horse, too. Never an injury, never needed a surgery or any time off. And I think that's really carried over to her offspring.”

Albaugh rewarded Miss Macy Sue with some generosity of his own, sending her first to A.P. Indy and then to Unbridled's Song, at the time standing at $250,000 and $115,000, respectively. Her A.P. Indy filly managed a single start, but her Unbridled's Song colt brought $800,000 at the 2012 Keeneland September sale.

A developing program couldn't turn down seedcorn like that. Only he then turned out to be none-other-than Liam's Map. As they watched him earn a lucrative career at stud, Albaugh and his team vowed that Miss Macy Sue's latest yearling–a colt by Giant's Causeway–would not be sold at any price. And that, of course, is how he got his name.

“At the time, we were very excited to get $800,000,” Loutsch recalls. “We were just starting in the business, and that was a nice check.”

“Oh yeah, we were jumping up and down,” Albaugh agrees. “I was very happy. But after seeing all the success he had, and what he made to go to stud, we said about the next one: Not This Time.”

Unfortunately, the colt by the Iron Horse out of an iron mare derailed with an injury just as he was getting started. He'd won the GIII Iroquois S. by nine lengths and ran Classic Empire to a neck at the Breeders' Cup after giving him a start, the pair miles clear of Practical Joke.

“That was one of the fastest Juveniles ever,” Loutsch says. “And we just went out wide on the last turn. It was so close. We saw what a special talent he was that day.”

“But then we got the call from Dale Romans that he was done racing,” Albaugh remembers. “Today, of course, we're very happy with what he's doing in the stallion barn. But this business is high and lows and that was certainly a low moment.”

Not This Time started out with TaylorMade at just $15,000, but has now soared to 10 times that fee, with five Grade I winners from his first three crops.

“I think what's really great is that they're so versatile,” Loutsch remarks. “They're short, they're long. Dirt, turf. He's had Sibelius win the Group 1 over six on dirt in Dubai; Epicenter caught at the wire when it looked like he had the Derby won; and now Up to the Mark going from a mile to a mile and a half on grass. So I think Not This Time is just like his sire. Giant's Causeway got all types, and I think that's what he's throwing out too.”

Classic Empire nearly redeemed his debt to the Albaugh team in the Derby last year, his son Angel Of Empire closing from 10th to third in the stretch. Simply to have three horses earn the necessary starting points, however, was itself astonishing.

“One of them only got cleared [to run] on the day,” Albaugh recalls. “You hate to see that, for someone to have to pull a horse out of a Kentucky Derby. But we figured the odds, oh, it was in the thousands. We had to go way back to the '30s to find somebody else that had three runners, and then it was a partnership of many people.”

If nothing else, their feat showed the merit of focus. Because this whole program is oriented to precisely those two minutes at Churchill on the first Saturday in May. (And by the way, while they don't wish to dwell on a negativity that disappoints them in the industry, Albaugh and his family are adamant that those two minutes would not hold the same mystique on a synthetic surface).

“The Derby, in my opinion, is the best race in the whole world,” Albaugh declares. “It's the one that we have our targets set on, every year. You come into that March, April timetable and try to figure out which of all these prep races you want to be in, and you move the horses around, New York or Miami, Fair Grounds or Oaklawn.”

“The next Kentucky Derby is going to be No. 150, so there have only been 149 winners that anyone could own,” Loutsch says. “We feel it's such a prestigious event, like the Masters in golf. This is our Super Bowl. So, yes, that's our goal: someday we want to win that thing. And we were so close last time. Going into the gate with the favorite, it was a special feeling. And he gave us a thrill. I've always wanted to know what that must feel like, having a chance to win the Kentucky Derby as they're running down the lane. And 'Angel' gave us that.”

The Pennsylvania-bred had been found for just $70,000 deep in the Keeneland September sale, where the stable had also recruited its two other Derby shots, Jace's Road for $510,000 and Cyclone Mischief for $450,000, both from Book 1.

“September is pretty much the sale we shop at every year,” Loutsch explains. “And since 2015, when Dennis came up with this program to buy colts to get to the Derby, I think we've had 10 horses that have made it across six different years. So our strike-rate has been good, and we have a great team that helps us get to our goal.

“With Angel, we'd left the sale and felt like we were a colt or two short of where we wanted to be. So I asked Dennis if I could just spend $75,000-100,000, looking for something in Book 4 or 5 with the pedigree to get two turns. And from there it's all just luck, obviously. But he was a big, rangy, good-looking colt that just fell through the cracks and it worked out for us.”

The latest to rekindle the dream, Catching Freedom, was a Book 1 find at $575,000.

“That's our sweet spot, the four-to-six range,” Loutsch says. “That's where we gravitate to.”

Catching Freedom started his career at Churchill in the fall, winning on debut before meeting heavy traffic in an allowance race. He evidently learned from that experience, weaving through the field in the Smarty Jones, albeit still green as he organized himself on the outside to kick clear in the stretch.

Angel of Empire won the same race last year and their trainer Brad Cox sounds inclined to stay on the same route with Catching Freedom, with the GII Risen Star S. as a potential springboard to the GI Arkansas Derby.

Whatever that colt can do next, Albaugh Family Stable continues to consolidate. It would have been more typical of our business for Not This Time, retained after his sibling became a star, to have turned out a dud. As it is, he's brought a whole new dimension to the adventure. For a start, there were the 10 mares acquired at the 2017 Keeneland January sale to launch his stud career, including one that was sold on carrying his first Grade I winner, Princess Noor. And now the program that took the risk of keeping Not This Time is finding itself close to self-sufficiency, thanks to his growing stud revenue.

“I'm excited,” Loutsch says. “Dennis has obviously put a lot of money into this business, so it's great that he will finally get to reap the benefits and get a nice check every year instead of just putting more in. We've just been very patient, stayed with the plan, and it's ended up working out.”

When things do go well, it's even better with family. But when you get the inevitable tougher days, well, those are better, too. So even when Angel of Empire flew too late in the Derby last year, they knew to savor even a bittersweet experience.

“It was tough because you always have the 'what ifs'?” Loutsch acknowledges. “What if he'd come inside? All these questions you ask yourself, because how many times do you think you're going to be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby? I mean, that might be our only time ever. So the one thing that we made sure of was that we had a fun week. It was always the same, right back to Miss Macy Sue. Of course we like to win, but it's also about all those fun places she took us, as a family, just hanging out and experiencing the whole atmosphere together.”

“She's still living a good life,” Albaugh stresses of the mare who started it all. “We quit breeding her about three years ago, she'd lost a couple of babies and we weren't going to put her through that anymore. We did think about bringing her to Iowa, so we could see her more often. But we get ice in winter, and she wouldn't want that. But what's neat is that when we come to Kentucky, we can look up the hill and see where Macy's at. And then, right below, in the stallion barn we've got her son.”

Which is just as it should be: a family stable. Few programs are registered that way, and there's no mistaking the genuine, intergenerational bond achieved by this one. The husband of Albaugh's oldest granddaughter, for instance, is not just working for the chemicals company, but also enthusiastically embracing the racing. Likewise Mick, the brother who stayed on at the farm when Albaugh went out into the world.

“The whole family are in it,” Albaugh says. “My brother, my daughters, everyone. The one problem is that when we go to one of these big races, we have more than a plane load. We have to run a plane back and forth two or three times to get them all there. But it's a lot of fun to have them all sat down together–especially when you get down to that winner's circle.”

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