By Chris McGrath
A lot of you will know the feeling. Day three of the January Sale, back ring, and your horse is coming back out after a matter of seconds. The digital board had stalled at $2,500, and then cleared. Bret Jones exchanged a grimace with farm manager Ben Henley. Pretty terrible, no getting away from it. But what can you do? It wasn't the first time Airdrie has had to cut its losses on a horse, and nor would it be the last. As his father has always told Bret: “Better to sell and be sorry than to keep and be sorry.” After all, this was the one area they had to tighten up.
“Dad has always said that the thing he's done least well, in this business, is culling mares,” Bret recalls. “Because he's such an optimist. He's always gone back to that belief, that the next foal would justify why he'd loved the family in the first place. So around that time [January 2017] we'd decided to sell several mares that maybe didn't fit the bill, going forwards, and this was one.”
Memories Prevail had just turned three but it was plain that she was never going to make the starting gate. She was from the first crop of Creative Cause; her dam, similarly homebred in support of a resident stallion in Indian Charlie, had raced once; the next dam was unraced. A single start, in other words, across three generations.
“And at the time she catalogued that if you sold from her, you'd have had two blank dams,” Bret says. “We had her selling through our good friend Mike Recio. And I remember distinctly that as soon as the hammer fell Ben and I turned to each other, as you do, and it was, 'Okay, that's it. Disappointing. But move on.' And about a minute later Pop came along from the front of the pavilion with a yellow sheet of paper in his hand.”
Bret reprises the laughter that overtook the pair that day. For Memories Prevail, retained by Airdrie founder Brereton C. Jones, would a year later be covered by Upstart: and the resulting colt, his first three dams all mated in-house, is none other than Zandon.
To many who saw him cruising into the final turn in the GI Kentucky Derby, the way Zandon then flattened into third cannot possibly circumscribe his potential, and he arrives at Saratoga with every shot still to rise to the top of the crop.
“Pop knew,” Bret says. “He's always had an intuition about him that's pretty unnatural.”
With sophomore laurels very much up for grabs, hopes remain high that Zandon can set a perfect seal on the 50th anniversary of Airdrie's foundation. It's absolutely characteristic of this exemplary farm, after all, that his maternal line (though introduced by acquisition of his third dam, in 2001, for just $15,500) should extend to blue hens Your Hostess and Boudoir (GB).
At 83, admittedly, his countless friends and admirers across our community are aware that even Governor Jones—a man still more outstanding in the fundamental human registers, of integrity and decency, than in his many formal distinctions–cannot elude the universal vulnerabilities of age. But they also know that a living legacy has long been secured; that Airdrie represents continuity not just in the type of blood valued here, in mares and stallions, but also in their management.
This, too, is a question of pedigree–albeit the verve and charm that appears such a familiar inheritance in Bret would doubtless be credited by his father to the distaff side. “Brerry” met Libby, so their son has always been given to understand, at a dinner party “when both were on dates with other people!” At that stage, Brerry was visiting town as a young man so enthused by horses that he had literally rolled up his sleeves to give himself the chance to get involved.
“People don't believe me when I tell them this, but Dad actually started as a builder in West Virginia,” Bret says. “As a little boy in Point Pleasant, he'd ridden his pony Trixie around the hills pretending he was Roy Rogers. He started showing but then somebody told him about Lexington, Kentucky, and at that moment he made the decision: 'If that's where the best horses are, that's where I need to be.' So after university he decided that he needed to make some money before he could come out here and live the life he'd set his heart on.”
After their marriage, Libby was initially required to tolerate a migration to West Virginia, where her husband had already made a precocious impression in state politics—still in his mid-20s, in fact, when the youngest delegate ever elected to the lower house in Charleston. In those days, as he was often teased after resuming his political career in Kentucky a couple of decades later, he was still a Republican.
Bret, dismayed by the venomous polarization of politics since, wishes that we could retrieve the dialogue and engagement embodied by that switch of colors. “I think the truth is that Dad couldn't have cared less what party he was associated with,” he remarks. “He would vote for Republicans probably as often as he did Democrats, because it was all simply about who was right for the job; about the heart and soul of the individual.”
Between the novice and mature phases of his political life, however, Brerry and Libby uprooted to her native state to pursue a parallel vocation with the foundation of Airdrie in 1972.
“Mom's family had a farm,” Bret explains. “Not a Thoroughbred farm, an agrarian one. Dad never wanted to be viewed as someone who had just married into this, so he negotiated a 30-year lease with my mother's father and found a way to work 25 hours a day. And as he began to have some success, he was able to purchase more land on the back of investments he'd made. So that was always a great point of pride: that he'd worked for everything he had, and done it by working harder than everyone he competed with.
“By the time Dad bought the Woodburn division, about 20 years ago, it had been over a century since there'd been horses of consequence on there. So here was this land with an incredible history, that had raised five Kentucky Derby winners, but that had at the same time been rested for over 100 years.”
If it remained an intimidating environment for a young outsider, the Bluegrass then being dominated by the established farms, it was also a propitious time to be forcing an entry. The whole commercial landscape was on the point of transformation–an ironic spur to Airdrie's growth, given how scrupulously the farm today adheres to old-school principles, with relatively conservative books and an emphasis on deep blood and soundness.
“In the early '70s, this was a tough game to break into if you weren't a central Kentuckian,” Bret reflects. “And Dad was aggressive. He would go out there, he'd put partnerships together, and he'd compete for stallions that the big farms were also after. And I'm sure there were tensions that came from that. I'm sure plenty of people said, 'Who's this West Virginian upstart that's come in here shaking things up?'”
One early recruit, Bold Ruler's son Key to the Kingdom, was bought at the Belmont paddock auction in 1975 for a record $730,000. The horse didn't particularly pay off, in his own right, but had already served his purpose in terms of profile.
“Dad did that because he was a promoter,” Bret reasons. “He didn't have anywhere close to the money to do it himself, but knew that was how he could get his name out there.”
Terms were negotiated with the sales company and Paul Mellon, allowing a year's grace on payment. But it turned out that his purchase had made precisely the splash intended, and Brerry very quickly assembled the partners required. The sales company and vendor congratulated him on his successful syndication, and suggested that they could now go ahead and clear the debt. Came the reply: “Well, with all due respect, we had an agreement that I have a year to pay for this.”
“And Dad used that capital to fund his operation for the next year, which was a gutsy thing to do,” Bret says. “But he would always invest in himself. He has never played the stock market. Frankly, he never had any real investments outside the Thoroughbred industry because a) it was what he loved; b) it was what he knew; and c) he had total control over it. As much as anyone does, anyway. But if something was going to be a mistake, it would be his mistake.”
Just as Airdrie could harness a following wind in the early 1980s, so it would have to ride out the storms that followed.
“When so many in the industry had their struggles, in the early '90s, Airdrie had them too,” Bret concedes. “But that was when Dad brought Silver Hawk over from Europe, just a Group 3 winner, the absolute antithesis of the modern-day commercial horse: wasn't particularly attractive, wasn't particularly correct, and struggled mightily for mares. But Dad believed in him and bred his own mares to the horse. And Silver Hawk came through for him, really took off and became Dad's first major stallion.”
The program's seedcorn had been boarding, but every time Brerry made a score the proceeds were recycled into the broodmare band to support the stallion roster. Two of the three Airdrie graduates to have won the GI Kentucky Oaks, for instance, were homebred. Yet with no real apprenticeship or mentoring behind him, Brerry was developing his strategy through that most rigorous of instructors: experience.
“Trial and error,” says Bret with a shrug. “Nothing teaches you a lesson faster than investing your own money. I can't imagine how many mistakes he made along the way. But they were his mistakes, and they made him very good at the business he loved. Dad had tremendous trust in his instincts. There were plenty of times where he would invest in something that probably didn't make a lot of sense to other people. And those others may have been exactly right. But he was fearless. He would trust his own gut.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and time after time stallions reached Airdrie along the margin between lesser resources and greater imagination.
“We all know that top stallions can come from more humble beginnings,” Bret remarks. “So Dad would take a horse like Harlan's Holiday, whose sire Harlan didn't really have time to prove himself as a sire of sires. Indian Charlie was by In Excess, and now you look at Upstart, only a Grade II winner on the track. Some of these perhaps weren't quite shiny enough for a more deep-pocketed farm. But there was always a belief that with the right support, they could make it. Upstart always struck as a tremendously talented horse, so our great hope was that he was a Grade II winner with a Grade I future.”
It has been gratifying for the Jones family to watch the remarkable legacy of Indian Charlie and Harlan's Holiday, in Uncle Mo and Into Mischief respectively. In the meantime, however, Brerry had always nursed a parallel ambition to make a lasting difference in the wider world.
Not that he received much encouragement, when throwing his hat into the ring for Lieutenant Governor in 1987. “One of the initial polls had him at two percent,” says Bret with a smile. “And the margin of error was three percent! So it was quite possible he did not have a single vote to his name. But anyone who knows Dad just knows that he's a worker. One of the most formative things that ever happened to him was his father giving him The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, which made an impression that has lasted his entire life. 'If you believe you can, you can.' 'No such word as can't.' These mantras never left his mind. So while some people, seeing that they were getting two percent of the vote, would just have gone back to the farm and tried to breed a fast horse, he just dug in.”
Even after that dynamism in turn secured the Governorship, in 1991, Bret and his sister Lucy could remain grateful for an upbringing as loving as it was uncommon.
“I just have really great memories of growing up,” Bret says. “Mom and Dad did a pretty incredible job making it not seem as crazy as I'm sure it was. Though it would be hard to be in a busier profession, Dad always made time for us. He never scheduled anything for Sunday, that was always family day. And luckily the Governor's mansion was about 12 minutes from the back gate of Airdrie Stud. I can't imagine the stress that he and Mom were under, balancing it all, but I never got a hint of it because of how positive they always were.”
In those years, naturally, long-serving farm manager Tim Thornton was especially invaluable in Airdrie's day-to-day operation. “Timmy's a guy that takes great pride in the title of hardboot, because that's exactly what he's always been,” Bret says. “A horseman and a tireless worker. He was with us for 30 years and Airdrie would not be what it is today without Tim Thornton.”
Bret was seven at the time his father first ran for office in Kentucky, and remembers handing out “Jones for Lieutenant Governor” buttons in the street—and “having a big smile on my face as I was doing it”. That has remained a familiar sight ever since, as many of us are glad to attest, but the point is that Bret was no more pushed into that juvenile political service than he was, in later years, to enter the horse business.
“Not for half a second,” he stresses. “I fell in love with it just going out in the field with Pop, checking the mares and foals. And watching how excited he'd get before a big race. The first ticket I ever cashed was on Lil E. Tee, because we had At The Threshold at the farm–a forgettable stallion except for the fact that he sired the Kentucky Derby winner. I'm pretty sure, looking back, Dad booked that bet because he thought I'd waste my money!
“You either love it or you don't. Dad knew that and knew that pushing somebody into something as different as the horse business is futile. But it was always what I wanted to do–so the big question instead became: 'Can you do it with your father?' We'd always had an incredible relationship but as we all know, a working relationship is different. So, when I came back after school, and started working for the farm, I'm sure it was a question in his mind as well. But all it did was make us closer. It just worked. There was never a destructive argument. There was education–the greatest education a kid could ever have. There were disagreements, of course, because opinions are what makes horseracing. But we've never had a falling-out, never yelled at each other. At the end of the day, one guy's the boss and one guy's the employee. I knew who I was, and I also knew how lucky I was to be learning from someone like Dad.”
In this anniversary year, anyone with the interests of the Thoroughbred at heart will raise a glass to a farm that has become such a wholesome model for our industry. For Airdrie stands as a brand and a beacon for that elusive balance, between a sustainable breed and a sustainable business.
That has only happened so seamlessly because the genes that replicate excellence have not just been confined to the horses.
“I was very lucky that the message–'believe you can, and you can'–resonated with me as well,” Bret reflects. “We still probably do things a little differently than some other farms. But nobody on the Airdrie team is afraid to make a mistake. There's still that mentality on the farm that Pop always had. And that great relationship he had with Tim, I'm so lucky to have also with Ben Henley.”
Ultimately, however, it is another bond that has sustained farm and family alike: the one between Bret's own sire and dam.
“Mom and Dad have had one of the all-time great partnerships,” Bret says. “I don't know that Mom ever imagined for half a second that she would be involved in politics. She was always the lover of the land, the agrarian, never that comfortable in the public eye. But she knew that Dad felt an obligation of public service, with the ability he had, and she was totally supportive through everything they've done. So Dad has been really lucky, between his marriage, the business he loves, and trying to give something back. He has literally lived his dream.”
Do memories truly prevail, as Brerry suggested in naming the mother of Zandon? Well, if they do, it's not as mere reminiscence, but as a type of moral instinct. Recollection is like the flaky, porous bark of a tree, fallible in one and all. In the best, however, the grain will run ever true. The rest of us, meanwhile, can be grateful for 50 years of pattern and precedent; of communal memories become communal standards.