By Chris McGrath
If anything, you would think it the very last thing that might appeal to one who has spent decades acquainting himself, at viscerally close quarters, with all the things that can go wrong with a Thoroughbred. Yet here he is, sharing the same vicissitudes as those clients for whom–weighing the ups and downs of their trade–his veterinary skills so long served as a vital fulcrum.
As one of the original partners of the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, Dr. Scott Pierce could scarcely have gone into breeding with fewer illusions. Yet perhaps that is precisely why he has proved so adept; why no more than 100 acres at Omega Farm, straddling the Bourbon and Scott County border, should have launched a couple of alpha males from the same crop towards Grade I prizes at Saratoga. On Saturday, Three Technique (Mr Speaker) lines up for the Allen Jerkens S.; and then, a week later, Country Grammer (Tonalist) is sizing up the Travers S. (Both races, incidentally, under the Runhappy sponsorship umbrella.)
Certainly Pierce meets in similarly wry vein the suggestion that his professional experiences might sooner have put him off.
“Actually it was quite refreshing, not having to call owners and go through all the bad news,” he says. “And it also helped me relate to what my clients were going through, because now it was happening to me too. So no, it wasn't discouraging at all. In fact, it made you tolerate and accept when things go wrong. That's just part of the industry, part of a natural process, part of raising a horse. Things go wrong with all living species. And, when things do go well, this industry is a lot of fun. Especially when you have a business plan, and it starts to bear fruit, and you start to watch your horses run on the weekend.”
True, the 20-year transition out of veterinary practice–these days Pierce confines himself to public auction work–into a farm owned with his wife, Debbie Spike-Pierce, was a guarantee that he would never have anything recognizably resembling “retirement”. But there's no mistaking the accompanying fulfilment.
And that breadth of perspective, critical to both his vocations, prepares Pierce even for the times when the best of fortune is sometimes conflated with regret. When Country Grammer made a splendidly game Travers reconnaissance in the GIII Peter Pan S., he confirmed that Pierce and his team can breed and raise a good horse: perhaps he can even emulate Saoirse Abu (Mr Greeley), a dual Group 1 winner in Europe. On the other hand, there's no getting away from the fact that Country Grammer's dam Arabian Song (Forestry) was culled—for just $5,000, apparently to Saudi Arabia—a couple of months after her son had been sold, for $60,000, at the 2018 September Sale.
“Let me just say I have no illusions; I don't have any problem with that,” Pierce says candidly. “As we all know, the perfect, 20/20 vision is hindsight. If we had that, we'd make a lot less mistakes in this world. That's just life. But we're a small farm, and small farms usually purchase lesser-valued mares. I purchased Arabian Song [privately] for very little, as a maiden mare. And I'd been a little disappointed in her first three foals to hit the races. On a small farm, when things don't happen relatively quickly, then there's turnover; there's downsizing.
“If you can buy more expensive mares, they're longer-term investments; and they require bigger stud fees. I don't go there. That's not been our model. It's extremely expensive to keep mares. So small breeders like me typically tend to have more turnover. I had way too much inventory, and when it came time to be downsizing, she was one that got away. And that's okay. You know, I've had clients tell me that when they look back and ask how many mares they regret selling, they can maybe count one or two out of 100. Now I did break my rule a little bit, because typically I try to let four of them get to racing age, and she'd just had three. But they were claimers.”
All that makes perfect sense. On the face of it, after all, with another $90,000 banked for her Runhappy weanling at that same Keeneland November Sale, you could argue that a nugatory initial investment had produced a perfectly acceptable yield from her stint on the farm. Both Country Grammer and the Runhappy filly, moreover, proved productive pinhooks for their purchasers, much as Pierce had promised would prove the case. Country Grammer, remember, is a May 11 foal.
“I asked quite a few 2-year-old pinhookers to go see him,” Pierce recalls. “They loved his big walk, but said he was too immature, too small, to make a 2-year-old sale. Then somebody bought him out of California, I believe–and, lo and behold, he ended up going to a 2-year-old sale. Ciaran Dunne had him and when they got $450,000 I was over the moon. That's awesome. Those people will come back and want to buy another one from you.
“He was always a bit of a diamond in the rough, quite frankly: always a very nice individual, just not the super-obvious yearling that everyone just had to have. The mare was always bred late, which was a disadvantage because her foals were always a bit small. Always correct, but just a little immature. So he was not a great big bull. But he had that huge walk, and a great mind.”
Three Technique, sold as a weanling at the previous November Sale for $50,000, was found to have suffered a minor ankle injury after flattening into fourth in the GII Rebel S. He now reverts to seven furlongs, over which trip he twice impressed–by an aggregate 10 lengths–at the end of his juvenile campaign.
His dam has already produced Stan the Man (Broken Vow), runner-up in the GII True North S. on his latest start, and Three Technique will be going out to bat for a full brother entered in the September Sale.
“Three Technique was getting a lot of press early on so we'll see, maybe he'll be as good as some of the early reports,” Pierce says. “The yearling is very nice and correct, real similar to Three Technique. That mare Nite in Rome (Harlan's Holiday), she just has lovely foals.”
Another smart sophomore from the same little Omega crop is Bank On Shea (Central Banker), winner of a $500,000 stakes in the New York Stallion Series last winter. He was bred from a $5,000 mare, another that was flipped: brought into the program for 18 months, to do a job. Bank On Shea made six figures at auction, and his dam had no pedigree that warranted longer investment. (“Thank goodness for the breeders' fund!” exclaims Pierce.)
Even Saoirse Abu, who made $260,000 as a yearling, was bred from an unraced Florida-bred, picked up cheaply as a maiden mare. One way or another, then, it would certainly seem that Pierce has developed a shrewd eye for a horse during a career that had no roots in the Thoroughbred world.
Yes, his father was also a veterinarian, but in rural Missouri. “I knew I didn't want to do small animals and I didn't want to do food animals,” Pierce recalls. “So I went to Oaklawn Park as a vet student back in the early '80s and worked for a track vet there. And I recall standing by the first turn and hearing the sound of the horses galloping by during the race. And that was my epiphany, the 'ah-ha' moment that said: this is for me.”
For the education of his eye, in the years since, he gives much credit to a long professional association with Mike Ryan.
“If you hang out for 30 years with probably the best agent in the world, you hope some of that rubs off,” he says. “Just in my visualizing the type of horse people want, the type to breed for. I don't get down in the weeds with him: I'm his veterinarian, and I value our friendship. But vetting horses for him, I do see the type that he picks. That athletic horse, typically very correct. And obviously some that others tend to not choose. Mentally and physically, they have certain characteristics. A big stride. No question, he's the best; and it's been a privilege to work for him for so long.”
Pierce was one of a handful of partners when Rood and Riddle launched in 1985. “I was fortunate to meet Bill Rood early in my career,” he says. “And this has been a really fun endeavor: to start off with four or five of us and end up, I've lost count, with over 70 vets now. So it's been fulfilling. I always say how sorry I feel for people that get up in the morning and don't want to go to work, because I was never that person. I got tired, obviously, and wore out, but I always loved doing what I was doing.”
His veterinary career spanned a period of unprecedented advances. When Rood and Riddle opened for business, the first ultrasound pregnancy tests had been conducted only three years previously. But the restless quest of science goes on, each new answer raising new questions. The rest of us can only envy people like Pierce, viewing each breakthrough not as a conclusion but as a platform for fresh discovery.
“It's been phenomenal, all the advancements that have occurred,” Pierce enthuses. “I started off in mare work for years, loved it, but then became interested in upper airways: there was really nothing published, we had nothing to go on. So I started to do a lot of research, and actually I'm working on another paper now.
“Technology is advancing to the point where we know now that you can miss a lot of things in the resting endoscopic exam. That's why your 'over-grounds', your dynamics, are becoming so popular. We know a lot more; we know that certain airways aren't good, and that you don't want to buy those grade threes. But I think there's still too much subjectivity. You can have 10 vets look at the same video, and half of them call it one thing and half call it something else.”
He rejects fears that veterinary checks are becoming too defensive, suggesting that this perception simply reflects better information.
“With the repositories now, everyone is looking at the same exam,” he says. “Obviously if you're not happy with that, you can have your own exam performed by your vet. But I think there's more transparency on the vetting end now. And the steroid bloods they installed, that's another positive change. There hasn't been a single positive reported yet. A lot of good stuff has happened.”
And that is no less true of his personal journey through the profession. Most obviously, he met Debbie at Rood and Riddle, where she took over as President/CEO two years ago. Besides being listed as co-breeders of Country Grammer, they have “bred” daughters Vivian and Audra.
“My partner in business, and partner in life,” Pierce says.
“Debbie's helped me at sales since the mid-'90s, she's one of the best at reading radiographs. She still helps me, goes to Tattersalls every year.”
And it was also at the “day job” that Pierce found Emma Quinn, originally his assistant but now–along with husband Dermot–indispensable to the day-to-day operation of Omega Farm.
“We started off small with just five or six mares,” Pierce says.
“And Emma and Dermot have done a great job, making the business as profitable as it could be–both with a few boarders, and in allowing me to do my thing. It's important for the owner to have his or her boots on the ground, too: to see things, fix things, advise. But they're the ones who have created the business, not me.
“Emma also has a little sale consignment, Garrencasey, that mostly sells off our farm; and she's really good at that too. For years everyone has kept trying to hire her away from me, but she stuck it out–so something must be going right!”
Indeed it must. Omega may be a relative minnow: Pierce says that even around 20 mares is still too many. But this is a consignment that deserves attention. Its graduates are given a foundation that allows them to keep thriving. Pinhookers were able to get Country Grammer, Three Technique and Stan the Man for an aggregate $192,000, before selling them on for $780,000.
Pierce and his crew don't cram these animals with supplements. They just try to raise a healthy, robust animal, physically competent for the next stage of its education. “We try to do things as naturally as possible,” says Pierce. “We try not to have an extended period in the stalls, etc. They're not raised rough, they're well cared for, but they're raised naturally.”
So nobody is trying to be reinvent the wheel here. Cloth is cut according to resources, and it's a case of keep things sufficiently shipshape to ride out the bumps in the tide.
“The way the small guy gets lucky is breeding to a new stallion in his second or third year and hoping he hits before the stud fees go up dramatically,” Pierce says. “But there's downsides that go with that. A lot of stallions don't hit, and you're also buying mares you hope to make from scratch. So I'm pretty satisfied with our little program. We're just waiting on our next Grade I winner, and I hope Country Grammer could be the one.”
If he is, then Pierce is seasoned enough to shrug off his dam's exit. No farm, of any size, can afford to keep rolling every single dice; can persevere indefinitely with every mare just in case one of her ugly ducklings turns out a swan. The bigger picture is that the emergence, from so small a farm, of two legitimate Grade I contenders in consecutive weekends must be welcomed as a symbol of hope for anyone operating at the unforgiving margins of the business.
“It's a win for the small guy,” Pierce says. “Kudos to the people that got lucky and bought Arabian Song. Hopefully we'll have more in the pipeline. We've had a bit of success on this lower end, we're very happy with how it's going, and feel pretty good about the future. We've some really good 2-year-olds coming out, some nice yearlings. So I'm pretty encouraged. And it's a lot of fun to watch these horses you've raised. There's camaraderie, and congratulations, and relationships. And that's what it's all about. It's fun when you see that the small guy can occasionally jump up there and be a winner.”