Liberal Arts A Ferraro Family Adventure

Evan Ferraro | Fasig-Tipton

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His father had long since ceased training, but they still always stood at the same point by the Santa Anita paddock.

“There was a spot there, where the horses come out from the saddling enclosure and make a right,” Evan Ferraro recalls.

“From there you could look at them straight on, so you could see their conformation, their joints, and my dad would point stuff out to me.”

And there was one filly by In Excess (Ire) that just blew the veteran horseman away: a Harris Farms homebred, saddled by Carla Gaines to win on debut down the turf chute. This was 2005, soon after Evan had graduated USC as an English major.

Since then, he has become a familiar face through 15 years at Fasig-Tipton, where he is now director of marketing. But at the time he was still wondering about emulating his father Stephen, who had for 20 years operated a small barn on the Southern California circuit before retiring in 1990 to join the family's vending-machine business.

Stephen Ferraro | Ralph Merlino

“He liked to have a 12-to-16 horse stable, and back then you could make a good living doing that,” Evan says. “It was a different time. But he was well respected and had some nice graded stakes horses.”

Evan was doubly blessed, then, not only to grow up in the immaculate climate of Sierra Madre-around the corner from Charlie Whittingham-but also to have many formative experiences on the backside.

“I just loved getting up early and hanging out at the track,” Evan says. “I'd sit in the tack room while Dad worked, walk out with him to watch training, or he'd put me on the outrider's pony, things like that. Santa Anita was still getting 30,000 people at the races during the week, and 50,000 on the weekends, as standard.”

To this day, Stephen retains a box at Santa Anita. But his attention over recent months has shifted to Kentucky-and all thanks to that In Excess filly. Her name was Never to Excess, and Stephen knew the family well. The dam had won the Torrey Pines S. at Del Mar and was a half-sister to elite winners Fabulous Notion (Somethingfabulous) and Cacoethes (Alydar).

Never to Excess only managed a couple more starts. “But my dad just loved her in the paddock, every time, and it was a family he'd always revered,” Evan says. “In fact the first broodmare he ever owned, in the '60s, was from this family. So eventually he inquired whether John Harris would consider selling her. Mr. Harris already had a lot of the family, so fortunately he agreed and let us into it.”

The Ferraros sent her to Tribal Rule, a son of Storm Cat who tore up the track a couple of times in a curtailed career for Pam and Martin Wygod. Here they had some extra encouragement from Evan's mom Richmond, who had brought her own Turf pedigree from the opposite coast. Her mother had managed several farms in northern Virginia, including a stint running a training barn for none other than Liz Tippett.

View from the Santa Anita Park grandstand | Horsephotos

“Oh yeah, we're a racing family,” Evan says. “That's how I got the bug, being around it so much. My paternal grandmother was a racing commissioner [in California] in the '80s. And my mother did stallion advertising for years, and worked for Barretts during that company's whole existence. Anyway she was doing advertising for the Wygods, so we knew how talented Tribal Rule had been. He never won a stake or anything, but in his few races he'd put up a couple of incredible, open-length romps in fast times. And that speed was what worked for us, raising Cal-breds.”

So they bred Never to Excess to Tribal Rule three times running. The first foal was stakes-placed on his second start, albeit didn't really build from there. But the Ferraros struck gold with the third, a 2009 filly they named Ismene. (She was Antigone's sister, never inclined to excess: Stephen, demonstrably, had also majored in literature!)

“She was raised by Russell Drake, Mr. Wygod's farm manager,” Evan says. “And all along he told my dad, 'This is a really nice filly you've got here.' Dad put her in training with Bill Spawr, an old buddy of his. Patrick Valenzuela rode her at Del Mar in her first race, and she 'whistled.' And then she came back and won two stakes: the Anoakia at Oak Tree, against open company, and then the Cal Breeders [Champion S.] on opening day at Santa Anita.”

That qualified Ismene as champion state-bred filly of her crop. Unfortunately she had to sit out her sophomore campaign with a knee chip, but she returned to finish runner-up three times in stakes company at four. She even took a swing at the GI Breeders Cup' Filly and Mare Sprint, but that proved a bridge too far and they retired her.

Never to Excess had shown speed, class and versatility, being effective on dirt, turf and synthetic. Throw in the looks that had captivated Stephen, and some elite blood close up, and Ismene appeared a very eligible proposition for her next career.

Clocker's Corner | Zoe Metz

Her first date was with Lucky Pulpit, freshly exalted by his son California Chrome. And there was a sentimental connection here, too, Evan having held Lucky Pulpit in the breeding shed during his first season at stud.

“I'd gone to Harris Farms to get some experience,” he explains. “I'd worked at TVG for my last semester of college, as a production assistant, but wanted to get closer to the horses. So I went to work there and did a little bit of everything: breeding shed, worked with mares and foals, yearling sales prep, sales consignments, just learning all the aspects of a horse farm.”

Then one morning at Clockers' Corner he was introduced to Walt Robertson, at the time president of Fasig-Tipton, and sent him a resumé. Evan was offered an internship, and has never looked back.

“So that's how I ended up not being a trainer,” he says with a smile. “The hours were better, and it was a lot of fun. I got to travel-and I saw that these Fasig-Tipton guys all eat pretty well!”

We'll come back to life at Fasig, but meanwhile let's not forget the mare we left with Lucky Pulpit. Their daughter made $90,000 as a yearling and won a stakes. Next came an Acclamation filly, who brought $160,000 and was placed in four stakes. “She was gorgeous, still is,” Evan says. “I think she was as high a priced filly as her sire ever had. So after those first two, because she was showing herself to be a good producer, we decided to bring Ismene to Kentucky.”

Her first couple of covers in the Bluegrass did not prove productive, but then they rolled the dice with an upgrade to Arrogate.

“He was a horse my dad saw coming up the ranks in California, and always loved,” Evan explains.  “And he believed strongly in a cross to Caro [grandsire of In Excess]. That's what he got with that first foal, with Lucky Pulpit [whose dam is by Caro's son Cozzene]. And then with Arrogate, you get it through Unbridled's Song [out of a Caro mare].”

Right from the outset, James Herbener Jr. was upbeat about the resulting colt.

“Jimmy was just as good a horseman as there was in Kentucky,” Evan says. “And though he usually never said a whole lot, he was pretty high on this foal the whole way.”

So was there a temptation to convert that promise into dollars and cents, at a certain auction house down the road on the Newtown Pike?

“Yeah, we hemmed and hawed about it,” admits Evan. “You had to, because that's how you keep the whole thing going. But this was such a cool horse. And finally my dad just said, 'I want to race him.' We thought that potentially he could be a bit special, certainly he was the best-bred we'd ever had, and at my dad's age [80] he'd rather just give the horse a shot.”

Liberal Arts | Coady Photography

As a pair of English majors, with a mare named from Greek myth, Stephen and Evan named the colt Liberal Arts. They put him into pre-training with Robbie Medina. Then at Blackwood, Medina subsequently decided to open a public stable based at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington.

“And when Robbie went out on his own, we just kept it simple, kept the horse where he was doing well,” says Evan. “Robbie had broken the horse for us, he'd spoken highly of him and wanted to continue on with him. I'd met Robbie several years back, through a good friend and colleague at Fasig-Tipton, Max Hodge. They'd worked together for Shug [McGaughey] way back when, and remained very close friends. So I knew how good a horseman Robbie was.”

For these patrons, Medina had to meet high standards. For Stephen had learned much about their calling from his friend Willard Proctor, the Texas hardboot who had trained his first winner in 1933. Sure enough, Liberal Arts has been given a fairly throwback grounding as a 2-year-old.

“He's had an old school campaign, really,” Evan notes. “He ran five furlongs at Churchill in May, six furlongs a month later at Ellis, and then broke his maiden five or six weeks later, going seven furlongs. Then he had a one-turn mile race in the [GIII] Iroquois. He had a bit of trouble, almost clipped heels in the stretch. I don't know if he would have caught the winner, but I think that cost him second anyways.”

But that's the whole point: if a horse gets to learn its trade by racing, those little reverses can be worn as learning experiences. Okay, this year we had a GI Kentucky Derby winner unraced until late January; but runner-up Two Phil's (Hard Spun) showed that the time-honored “school of hard knocks” remains as valid as ever. In the big picture, then, the Iroquois could be counted a net gain.

“Absolutely,” agrees Evan. “That was the deal all along. He was just starting to mature, and we knew that he was going to like going two turns. Robbie was really excited to stretch him out in the [GIII] Street Sense S., and he relished it. I know there was the off-going, but I think he benefitted from the distance more than anything.”

Certainly it was a revelatory performance, Liberal Arts bursting through from the rear to take control in the stretch, hitting the wire in full cry. While you sometimes see odd scenarios in slop, this just looked like a horse for whom everything is falling into place.

“I watched every race that day, and nobody else made up that much ground,” Evan reflects. “He's really learned to relax and turn off a little bit. He's an unusual horse. Truthfully, we thought he'd be a fall 2-year-old. He's a good-sized horse by Arrogate. I think Arrogate's only had one other 2-year-old colt win a graded stakes, and that was Cave Rock.”

“But Robbie broke this horse and then just went on with him, because he kept picking it up. He didn't want to stop on him, when he was going along so naturally. The horse has learned with each race, and hopefully he's only going to get better as he gets older. He's got a great foundation now, with five starts in him, and I think he's only just getting into what he wants to do. Hopefully, that bodes well for him as a 3-year-old.”

Liberal Arts under the Twin Spires | Coady Photography

The Ferraros know the game too well to be getting carried away. Its vagaries have already intruded poignantly, in that Ismene is no longer around. But for all the lows that must be weighed against its occasional highs, somehow the captivation of our sport never fades.

Certainly Evan adores the life. “I love going to farms, being on the road, working with the people breeding and raising these horses, and trying to direct them to the best place possible to get the best return they can,” he says. “I do advertising and marketing, but I'm also inspecting horses, recruiting for the November Sale, handling certain accounts. We all wear a lot of different hats at Fasig-Tipton. We have a tremendous team and a wonderful working environment.”

That team spirit at Fasig has certainly contributed to the enjoyment Evan and his father are deriving from Liberal Arts. Even the heartbreaking loss of Herbener, in September 2021, ended up widening the circle of engagement.

“We were all just rattled, it was such a sad deal,” Evan recalls. “And then when his family decided not to go on with a boarding operation, we had to find a spot for Liberal Arts to be raised. So then Bayne Welker, another colleague at Fasig-Tipton, steps in and says, 'I need one more colt on my farm to pair some stuff up. I'd be happy to take him.' So he and his wife Chris raise him as a yearling for us.”

Those extra layers have made the emergence of Liberal Arts feel extra special.

“I think about all that stuff,” Evan says. “We bred our only mare to this horse my dad always really liked; decided not to sell; he was raised by Jimmy; Jimmy passes away, a colleague and friend steps in; and then another one introduces us to the guy who trains him. Robbie goes out on his own, and Liberal Arts becomes his first graded stakes winner. And it's actually the first time I've been in partnership with my dad, the first time our names have ever been on the program together.

“So there's a lot of different pieces all fitting together. I can't say enough about the job Robbie has just done, developing this horse. He's a first-class horseman, with great staff. It's a long ways to get this horse to the big dance. If we get there, it's because he's going to take us there; we're not going to take him. But before the Breeders' Cup, he was the top-ranked horse by Derby points. That felt pretty wild. You've got to stay grounded, because so much can change or go wrong. But no, we're really excited.”

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