Shamrocks In The Bluegrass: Lesley and Ted Campion of Dundrum

From L to R: Ted, Rodger, Sive, Paddy and Lesley Campion | Courtesy Campion Family


Among the dogs noisily bounding to inquire after your business at Dundrum Farm, one is really something special. Gordon, a big black schnauzer, lost his sight to blastomycosis a couple of years ago, but you would never know it: he scampers confidently along corridors, through doorways, even joins the reception committee outside.

“Until he gets on the grass,” Lesley Campion explains. “Then he knows that he only has one stride, and has to stop. But no, he's a genius, that dog.”

Certainly he couldn't exhibit a more certain sense of where he belongs, and much the same is true of Lesley and husband Ted. The separate paths by which they entered Kentucky's Irish diaspora have long since blended to make a home of away, and young Americans of their children.

Actually Lesley went back to Ireland to deliver the first: duly named Paddy, he has a dual passport and so might be registered with the (Ire) suffix. But while Rodger and Sive are native, the Irish in the Bluegrass have their own kinship.

“When you're so far from your family, I think we're each other's support system,” Lesley says. “We all have our own crew. We're all very like-minded. Really we're a bunch of random Paddies that happen to be in the horse game. We're just very familiar. And people that are familiar are more relatable, I think.”

“I've been here so long now that Ireland's not 'home' anymore,” Ted admits. “For years we assumed that we'd eventually go back. In fact, when we got married Lesley gave me another five years here. But now she likes it just as much as I do.”

Admittedly the community lost a cornerstone with the death of Gerry Dilger four years ago.

Gerry Dilger | Keeneland

“The Godfather!” exclaims Lesley. “There was a chap now, if ever you were in any little bit of a bind, he'd always go out of his way to help.”

“Young guys especially,” says Ted. “Whether working for him, or somebody else. He'd put them in for a leg of a horse, whatever. And so approachable. It was harder not to meet Gerry than meet him. But he was something else, bidding on a horse. He was tough to beat.”

That being so, Ted ended up partners with Dilger on more than one horse, most famously in pinhooking a $180,000 weanling from the first crop of Uncle Mo.

“That's my main thing, buying foals and selling them as yearlings, and normally it's with Pat Costello, Spider Duignan and Adrian Regan, kind of a syndicate,” Ted explains. “But if one of us doesn't particularly like a horse, we have somebody put in for a leg. So with that one, it was myself and Pat that liked him. And in the back walking ring, you could see Gerry was interested. So I approached him and he took a half, and Pat and myself a quarter each.”

The colt sold to another compatriot, Mike Ryan, for $230,000 in the same ring the following September.

“So he only really washed his face,” concedes Ted. “But he was a nicer foal than he was a yearling. The sales hit him at a bad time. He would have been a nicer horse in October, and even in July. He was just at kind of an awkward stage. But that's the way it goes sometimes.”

Sure enough, he proceeded to make $400,000 as a 2-year-old. Regardless, Ted can share credit for a champion juvenile and GI Kentucky Derby winner. For this, of course, was Nyquist. Having by then secured breeding rights, Darley invited the first trio to have believed in the colt to Churchill as their guests.

“So there I am in the win picture,” Ted marvels. “It was great, something out of a fairytale. And my dad had been over for the Breeders' Cup in Keeneland, when he won the Juvenile, so he gave us a couple of great days out. Went through a lot of Irish hands, that horse: Mike bought him and sent him down to Niall [Brennan] in Florida. And of course we'd bought him from Timmy Hyde.”

Nyquist | Sarah Andrew

Which takes us back to where it all began for Ted.

“My father was a show-jumping rider in the Irish army, Chef d'Equipe for many years,” he explains. “So he and Timmy competed against each other–Timmy did that as well as being a jockey–and became great pals. After leaving school I was kind of at a loose end, and one day I came home and my father had my bag packed: I was going to Timmy Hyde, like it or not. Luckily enough, it was the best thing that ever happened.

“Timmy had a great bunch of lads at the time: Eddie Fitzpatrick; Andrew Murphy, who's one of Aidan O'Brien's main guys; Noel Murphy; Eddie Kenneally. And of course Timmy himself's a great man. Wouldn't say too much, but you could just watch what he did. He only had a handful of mares, but all good quality, and then all the foals coming through. It was great times.”

It was also Hyde who opened up the land of opportunity. In the late 1980s ,Ted found himself staying on after working the sales here, with Melinda Smith at Pegasus, to prep weanlings that Hyde was pinhooking with high-rolling partners. Indeed, they sold the last Northern Dancer under the hammer.

Then one night in McCarthy's, Ted met an Irish farm girl who was doing nine months at Creekview as part of her equine science degree at the University of Limerick. After graduating, Lesley returned to Lexington for a job at Hagyard's.

“My dad kept seven or eight mares, but only National Hunt, so when I came over and saw the professionalism of the Flat approach, I really enjoyed it,” she recalls. “To get a visa you had to be something fairly specialized, so I was a vet tech at Hagyard's for seven years. Then on occasion, I'd also work the sales with Paramount, and found I had a bit of an affinity for that. Much as I loved the job in Hagyard's, you were kind of capped in that there weren't a whole lot of places you could go with it. So when Pat was looking for somebody, I put my hat in the ring and I've now been there 16 years.”

A couple of years after joining Paramount, moreover, she was able to open a parallel line. Nathan McCauley, whose father happened to be one of her clients, approached Lesley about claiming a Malibu Moon filly for $7,500. Lesley agreed to go halves.

“We got her on the Friday afternoon, and I had her sold over the phone by the Tuesday,” she recalls. “So then I'm like, 'ding, ding'! We started flipping a lot of maidens: not even putting them in foal, just as they were. And then gradually we started parceling them up. We do a lot of no-guarantee seasons. It makes them more affordable, can increase your profit margin at the other side and gets you to horses you wouldn't otherwise.”

In his own line of work Ted has also profited through their friendship with McCauley, who bred GI Starlet S. winner Eda (Munnings) from a $24,000 Lemon Drop Kid mare. McCauley catalogued Eda for the November Sale, as a foal, and asked Ted to take a look at her. Ted was bought on the spot, promptly scratched her from the auction, and sold her for $240,000 the following September.

There have also been times when McCauley would sell to Ted while staying in for a share.

“Especially when you have a rapport with people, there's never a contract–it's always just a handshake,” Ted observes. “Mostly with Irish people. But McCauley's an Irish name! And he acts like it. He's a lovely chap, and a very good scout.”

The key to Dundrum, for Ted and Lesley, is that they have their own programs and keep them separate. They bought the farm 17 years ago, a 90-acre tract of Saxony Farm running down to the fabled Elkhorn Creek.

Sive and Paddy Campion | Fasig-Tipton photo

“It's a great location. We're very lucky,” Ted says. “We're 10 minutes to Keeneland, 10 minutes to Hagyard's, 10 minutes to the Horse Park. I keep 15 to 20 foals; and then Lesley has 10 or 12 mares that she'll claim or buy, and we'll get them pregnant. She picks all the mares, all the matings, everything, and then wheel them into November. That's her own gig, on top of what she does at Paramount, and I just help out on the manual side, drive the box and stuff like that. Essentially we keep out of each other's way as much as possible.”

Ted's pinhooking syndicates, for their part, tend to focus on later foals.

“We can't afford a beautiful January or February foal by a top stallion,” he reasons. “So historically, most of the foals we've bought have been April, May foals. They're not as furnished, but we see enough to hope that they'll come physically. We've been doing it a long time now, and we'd be more willing to take a punt that way because that's where we can find a smidge of value.”

Both Lesley and Ted have to deal with market realities, however exasperating. Lesley, for instance, chooses covers that might give her buyers a chance of “getting out in one go” if the mare throws a nice foal. If she's carrying a baby that might pay for the whole package, it takes the gamble out of the equation as much as possible.

“I mean, you have to play the game, I suppose,” Ted says with a shrug. “Go against the grain, and you'll go broke. Certain sires, when we're looking for foals, you can't choose. It doesn't matter how nice the foal is, they won't be pulled out the following September. And Lesley's the same, when she's breeding. It's really not an option for us to say that if a horse doesn't work, we can race it. We have to keep the wheels turning. A couple of years making the wrong decisions, and you'd be very quickly done.”

“But I think we also have to find some kind of a sweet spot, as regards the overbreeding,” Lesley remarks. “We're definitely seeing it this year, with the second-year horses. They made hay last year, but now they're definitely struggling. Nobody was turned away; when they were freshmen, some were breeding almost 300 mares. But that's diluting everybody's worth. What's rare is precious, so the more difficult it is to get into a horse, the more coveted the animal on the other side.

“People are looking for something as bulletproof as possible. They don't want risk. If you breed to a sire on the bubble, you're asking somebody else to take your gamble. And you'll be punished. Yet if you get into a coveted stallion, you'll be rewarded. So I think that farms are learning that they're nearly shooting themselves in the foot. They're weighting the numbers to get a leading freshman, simply by having so many foot soldiers, but I think it just dilutes the whole market.”

She hesitates to revisit the controversies of a mare cap, but wonders whether even one of 200 for a freshman might yield a more sustainable demand the second year. And she also observes wryly how times of recession tend to prompt people back towards proven stallions.

Lesley and Sive Campion | Paramount Sales photo

In a business where too many have arguably severed their decision-making from the racetrack, Ted can at least fall back on cutting his teeth as a groom for Charlie Whittingham. In those days, no less than stallions, even the top trainers would rely on quality rather than quantity. Ted reckons that of 27 horses in that barn at Santa Anita, 22 were stakes winners.

Lesley remarks that the disconnect between sales ring and winner's circle is also an issue in vetting.

“It drives me crazy,” she says. “These lads come in and say, 'Well, that's not going to work.' But how, in your experience as a repro vet, are you going to tell me that this is not going to hold up at the track? Did I miss the part where you did 10 years at Belmont? You can't beat boots-on-the ground experience.”

In the end, however, the abiding magic of the game levels out its frustrations. That includes the characters met on the way, seldom richer than among the Irish. Ted recalls Patsy Connelly, a stalwart in Hyde's service, holding a horse for one of those guys who go around with a tape-measure, putting every yearling on a spreadsheet: length of leg, back, withers, the works. “Well boss,” said Hyde's man, “will he fit in your garage?”

It's these tales of the old country that reinforce the bonds between the expatriates of “County Kentucky.” For even in embracing a new world, this community has always maintained its identity and solidarity.

“If somebody gets in a bind, we rally together,” Lesley reiterates. “We'll have a fundraiser at McCarthy's or something. It's really something to be proud of. We show up for people. That means a lot.”

“When friends or family come over and see how it works, when somebody gets sick or something, they're blown away,” Ted says. “I have traveled around a bit now. I've lived in Tennessee, California, Florida. But I always loved Lexington. Any time I was away, I always wanted to be here. I don't know. It's just a great spot, a great place to live.”

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