'Nobody Has a Crystal Ball'

Carrie Brogden | Keeneland

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Probably you know Carrie Brogden. The way her ideas, opinions, memories, emotions come tumbling out, one on top of the other. And how even after a few minutes she will have shared way too much of this torrent of vitality for the narrow channel of paragraphs that follows here.

Except you don't know Carrie Brogden. For instance, did you know that she's only here because of Einstein? Seriously. We'll come to that, and to the Beanie Babies, too, who have a more immediate role in her story.

But how are we truly supposed to know any human being, when even our collective obsession with an animal of largely simple needs still leaves us groping for answers?

Okay, so the latest Machmer Hall graduate to hit the big time, Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup winner Gina Romantica, is one of those that makes us feel that we might indeed be working to some coherent, viable principles. She's by Into Mischief, she cost a million bucks, so of course she's a Grade I filly.

But then she only cost that much because her mother Special Me (Unbridled's Song) had already produced millionaire Gift Box and graded stakes winners Stonetastic (Mizzen Mast) and Special Forces (Candy Ride {Arg})–and Brogden and her husband Craig found that mare, all 14.2 hands of her, for $6,000 at the Keeneland January Sale of 2009.

“Nobody has a crystal ball,” Brogden says. “We bred another Into Mischief, a colt we sold for $500,000, and he was a morning glory. He did not give a crap about running. The only Into Mischief I ever had that had no heart to run, it's such an unusual thing for him.”

Rather more characteristically, Brogden made it her business to salvage the horse from the wreckage of expectation.

“He was running in cheap claimers, and being claimed and claimed and claimed,” she says. “So I called the last trainer and bought him privately, and we placed him. And of course, he shipped in and, goddamn, he is breathtaking. But I'll tell you one thing, he's a lot happier being a show hunter, because he's happy going slow. And that's something I cannot predict. None of us can.”

But that cuts both ways. If all that glisters is not gold, then nor should we ignore diamonds in the rough.

“I've had so many great horses whose X-rays do not match,” Brogden says. “Just recently, I had a super-nice racehorse failed for a private sale, because 'issue' was found on an X-ray–from a cracked shin as a young horse, before his racing career, long healed. He's running, he's sound, he's working awesome, he's just won a couple of stakes. I mean, Flat Out (Flatter) had a big old defect in his front sesamoid. And he won, what, $6 million? And the people that bought him did so because they took the consignor's word [i.e. Meg Levy of Bluewater] that this was a nice, sound horse–which, obviously, he proved to be.”

She cites a maxim of Florida horseman Albert Davis: “Never forget that vets pass as many horses that can't run as they fail horses that can.”

Without that crystal ball, then, all we can do is try to breed and raise horses for a competitive outlook.

“Management makes you, management breaks you,” says Brogden. “I mean, ours don't come in. Sleet, rain, thunderstorms, they're out there learning how to face adversity. Now, if they're sick or injured, we take care of them. But if they're healthy, horses need to be outside. As Chris Baker once told me, 'Barns were created for people.'

“Year after year, it's the same breeders raising the racehorses. There's a big reason why those Ashview horses ran one-two in the Belmont. Because they keep them out in the fields, bumping around. We don't separate any of our colts until we go to prep. That's why I'm really proud of my horses a lot of times: in a crowded situation, coming up the rail, they won't be afraid.”

Brogden works from flesh and blood, not paper formulae. She comes from a family of mathematicians, took statistics in college herself, and is dismayed by the influence of flimsy data on mating strategies. All she wants is to breed a big, beautiful athlete, and that should be challenge enough. If you breed by numbers, and end up with a little rat, good luck.

Of course, she absolutely believes in pedigree; and why wouldn't you, when you have one like hers? Ever wondered where Machmer Hall gets its name? Step forward great-grandfather Dean William L. Machmer of the University of Massachusetts. Opposite him, on the maternal branch of her family tree, stands an equally distinguished figure: Guido Fubini, who fled Italy as Mussolini began to accelerate persecution of the Jews.

“If you ever saw the movie A Beautiful Mind, with Russell Crowe, the theorem on the blackboard, that he's trying to work through, is the Fubini Theorem,” Brogden explains. “Einstein, believe or not, helped my great-great-grandfather get a job in Princeton. They didn't tell their anyone, their housekeepers, nobody, they just went across the Swiss border on a day trip, and my grandmother had sewn the jewelry into her fur coat.”

One day Guido's son found a young woman in the lobby of their New York apartment block struggling to buckle a ski boot. He offered to assist her, and that's how Brogden's grandfather Eugene met her grandmother Betty. Eugene went on to become Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Brogden has a vivid sense of her Italian ancestry. “Oh, definitely, those genes flow very freely through me,” she says with a laugh. “I love Italians because we wear our hearts on our sleeves, we put it all out there. We're flamboyant and ridiculous and over-the-top. I remember when my grandfather would blow his top, yelling and screaming. And then we'd sit down for dinner two minutes later, and he'd be like, 'Can you please pass the butter?' And that's kind of how I am, too. My poor kids! I have three great teenagers, all super-easy and responsible. Thank God they're not like I was!”

It would be wrong, however, to conflate this candid, demonstrative nature with her status as a relative pioneer, in a walk of life where women have long been underrepresented.

“Sometimes you do have to remember that you're dealing with a lot of men, and that often they're not so emotional,” she says with a shrug. “And that's okay. That's the yin and yang of it. My partner Andrew Cary always used to be like, 'Be careful, make sure what you're saying is what you mean–not the emotional, flippant Carrie!' And the closest men around me are all very smart, level-headed, even-keel: they do help to calm my over-the-top, passionate nature. But men are from Mars, women from Venus? I think that that is definitely changing. I don't think the young girls coming in will face the same stuff. I mean, women weren't even allowed in the breeding shed until the '80s. So, a lot of things have changed.”

Besides all her colorful antecedents, more immediately Brogden was also born to horses. Her parents were both veterinarians, ran an animal hospital in Virginia before taking on a farm in Ocala for a while. After they separated, Brogden's mother brought the kids back to Virginia to live with their Fubini grandparents. A traumatic experience, at an impressionable age, but the memory of her cherished grandmother would later be honored by Baby Betty (El Corredor) among Machmer Hall's foundation mares.

Brogden had been riding and showing through her girlhood, but parked the horses for psychology at college, and–ah yes, for the Beanie Babies. Her mom had launched a pet-themed gift store, and landed on a bewildering craze for these stuffed animals. Each cost only $2.50 wholesale but they were selling them online for $75 as fast as they could pack them up.

Their house was full of boxes, literally floor to ceiling. They rode the hectic wave, were glad when it finished, and Brogden's mom played up some of the winnings on a couple of mares, including an unraced daughter of Affirmed for just $7,700 deep in the Keeneland November Sale. And her half-brothers by His Majesty turned out to be GI Arlington Million winner Tight Spot and GI Hollywood Futurity winner Valiant Nature.

“So, she got really lucky there, and that was the start of it,” says Brogden, who now slipstreamed back to her first love, the horse; and met another one on the way, in the Australian chap she met one night in McCarthy's in Lexington.

But Brogden's debt to her mother Sandy Willwerth is not just a career path. All four siblings, growing up, were constantly challenged to raise the bar. And, sure enough, all graduated college to make an impact: one brother is a high-flying venture capitalist in California, another owns a construction company back in Virginia, their other sister has carved out a similar niche with show hunters to the one Machmer Hall has established with Thoroughbreds.

The program took root in Virginia but the superior land soon summoned them to Kentucky, where they started in 2001 with a parcel of 105 acres, cattle-grazed but auspiciously sited between Stone Farm and Claiborne. Craig had been working under the late Dr. Phil McCarthy, the pioneering reproductive veterinarian, at Watercress Farm.

“And a lot of our philosophy comes from Dr. McCarthy,” Brogden acknowledges. “Let horses be horses. Don't hothouse them. The only time they have to look spectacular is the day they walk onto the sales grounds.”

She says people give her grief over her support of HISA. It's not as though she won't give antibiotics to a horse with an infection; or apply shockwave to a hematoma.

“But I don't go through my stable and inject hocks and stifles on 15 different yearlings,” she says. “I think we've injected one yearling's ankle in two years. Any treatment we give is warranted and needed. I don't want to do blanket treatments, which I think is really what happened with Lasix. I know certain people won't like that I feel this way. But ultimately it's because I want our industry and everyone in it to be more successful.

“I'm not trying to talk down anyone else's product. I'm trying to raise the best horse I can. And I am not money-driven. I am success-motivated. The buyers know, if I know of a legitimate problem with a certain horse, I will absolutely tell them. I mean, we swim all our yearlings. I have a very good idea of who can and cannot breathe! The last thing in the world I want is somebody to buy a bad horse from me, especially for a lot of money.”

She would rather write off a sale and earn repeat business, just as she herself goes back to the same, trusted sources: whether Unbridled's Song mares, or Fox Hill mares, or mares bought by Ron Ellis for Spendthrift. Those have all added up, mind: Machmer Hall is now up to 560 acres, and 115 mares–the most they've ever had, and some will be traded out as they want no more than 85 foaling. Plus, don't forget 40 to 50 2-year-olds, spread among different consignors, and others retained for the track.

“I'm just a horse addict,” Brogden apologizes. “But they help you learn every year. I mean, one thing I've definitely learned through X-ray: don't start prep too early. They only need 60 days, otherwise you're going to create sesamoiditis. You watch that show, The Biggest Loser, where all these butterball people start a program of exercise and eating right, and all of a sudden most of them, wow, they look amazing. I think that prep is really our way of seeing the true nature of the athlete. When my parents had the farm down in Florida, you just kept them in the stall, kept their coats, and everything sold off pedigree. But all that's changing.”

The one constant, of course, remains the need for luck. Thirteen years ago this week Brogden and her partners were underbidders on the weanling colt that became Prime Cut (Bernstein), and instead settled for his dam for $4,500 from the back ring. If Life Happened (Stravinsky) could produce such a gorgeous son, then never mind if she was barren and reputed to be savage.

They tried to return her to Bernstein, but he had three mares confirmed that day so Brogden called round. Here was this big, stout, beautiful mare that needed to be bred today–and Spendthrift offered a new stallion called Into Mischief.

That mating produced Vyjack and next time, getting back in to Bernstein, they came up with Tepin herself. Brogden gratefully salvaged Prime Cut for $1,000 when he was discarded through a sale at the end of his racing days. Their dam, after all, couldn't have been better named. In a game of such uneven fortunes, in the end life just happens. No crystal ball.

“But that's the greatest thing about it,” Brogden says eagerly. “The fateful part that we can't control. I think that that's why so many men and women that are super-successful in other businesses come here–because they can't put a box around it. If they could, Sackatoga Stables would never have won the Derby with Funny Cide, you'd never have had the school bus and everything. I mean, that's what dreams are made of, right?

“You can have the best mare, the best stallion, and it's a beautiful physical mating. Everything works on paper. And then you have a nocardioform placentitis foal, 75lbs. And that's it, you're not going to have a racehorse. But ultimately, the fact that we can't really know is the greatest thing about it. Because the most valuable commodity of all is hope.”

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