“The Toughest Game Played Outdoors”

Tim Thornton | Sue Finley


We are all the products of our environment. Tim Thornton could see as much, when he saw a foal that had been delivered at sea trying to walk on dry land for the first time. “He was, like, six weeks old,” he recalls. “It was so funny to see him get off that ship, rocking everywhere, giving it the sea legs.”

But then that's pretty well how Thornton himself might have felt, as one born and bred for horses, had he ever been torn away to work in some other walk of life.

Even today, seven years after retiring from a long career with Airdrie Stud, he still has around 15 mares–many in partnership with his old buddy Tony Holmes–on a 330-acre farm established by his father in 1946 outside Paris, KY. This was where Thornton first learned about horses, and this is where he continues to find them a daily source of wonder and discovery. In between, for three decades as general manager of Airdrie, he could be entrusted with any and every responsibility, especially while his employer Brereton C. Jones had one or two other claims on his attention. For the Governor of Kentucky knew that here was a man whose innate flair for horses had been honed to a degree uncommon even in the Bluegrass–and never more so, indeed, than in the remarkable 14,000-mile voyage that had induced such a comical stagger in that sea-born foal.

It was Humphrey Finney who had urged Carter Thornton to send his son Tim, on graduating college, to complete his equine education a little further afield.

“Dad wanted me to come here and work right off,” Thornton recalls. “But he said okay, and let me go to England and work at the National Stud there. And then Humphrey got me onto this ship, from Southampton to New Zealand: 170 horses, the most ever gone to sea. It was pretty amazing.”

A couple of years previously, Thornton had taken a rather smaller number through the Panama Canal with Charlie Nuckols.

“That gave me the appetite, that's why I wanted to do it again,” he says. “But I didn't know it was going to be 60 days of sea. Going through Panama was only two weeks, but going around Africa took forever.”

And with so many more horses! They ranged from an 18-hand Clydesdale to miniature ponies.

“There had only been 14 head going through Panama,” Thornton recalls. “But that wasn't even a livestock ship, they were just strapped on the back. The waves would come over, it was just wood crates and a couple times we had to fix the wood back down. That was much more dangerous than the big ship. Those 170 were all below deck and air-conditioned and in steel pipe pens.”

Nonetheless, confinement and rolling seas brought obvious risks to a creature that must colic instead of vomit. Hence a low-energy diet, bran mash and so forth.

“I mean, one would get colicky every once in a while, but luckily nothing bad,” Thornton says. “But because of the disease factor, they wouldn't let us stop anywhere. Our first stop after England was Perth. From Perth we went over to Sydney and unloaded some more. And from there we went another 1,200 miles to New Zealand and unloaded the last. It was a good experience. Wouldn't want to make a living of it, but it was something to see.”

Topping off this unique lesson was the chance to escort a Thoroughbred from the hold to Ra Ora Stud for Sir Woolf Fisher, and then to stay on for six months working at Widden Stud (and becoming fast friends with “Bim” Thompson).

He had seen quite another world, then, by the time he returned to Threave Main–and another world is just how the family farm, in that era, might strike the younger generation today. For it was still possible in the 1960s for a small family operation to maintain a thriving stallion program. At a time when people referred to 20 mares as a full book, even the factory farms couldn't monopolize the mare population. As a result, the Thorntons were routinely able to stand half a dozen stallions including The Doge, sire of Hall of Famer Swoon's Son, and the imported British sprinter Tudor Grey (GB).

Carter Thornton had himself made an equally uncommon start in the game, aged just 19 when invited to succeed his grandfather–who had himself first learned his horsemanship with draft horses–as manager of Fairholme Farm for Robert A. Fairbairn, who had been part of the syndicate that imported Blenheim and Sir Gallahad. What names! One way or another, then, several generations of horse lore were condensed into the energetic young man from Threave Main who caught the attention of Kentucky's new lieutenant governor in 1988.

“Hopefully he would go on to be governor, so knew he wasn't going to be around that much and was looking for a manager,” Thornton explains. “He knew me, from breeding mares over there and so on, and knew I'd been around stallions a lot. Main thing, he knew I was honest; and he knew I was a hard worker. And we just got along real good. Couldn't have been a better relationship. He was a great boss but has become a great friend. I mean, I consider him almost like kin. And we always owned a couple of horses together. He'd do that with you. We had fun.”

And the things that made Jones a great boss, according to Thornton, were exactly the same as those that served him so well as governor.

“Definitely,” he says. “I mean, everybody loved him, from the people running the state to the grooms at Airdrie. Because they knew he's honest and he treated you fair. His word was his bond. And he expected that from everybody else too. That's why he always had good people around him. And that's kind of like my dad was, too.”

That trust became the foundation of Thornton's long tenure at Airdrie. During his employer's terms of public service, he found all manner of responsibilities delegated his way.

“Pretty much I did it all,” he acknowledges. “Recruiting, all that kind of thing. I was hands-on, every part of the farm. But we had a real good stallion manager, Kelly McDaniel, who was there forever. Really good guy. Another unbelievable guy was the broodmare manager Mark Cunningham, an Australian who's been there 40-something years now. He's really down-to-earth and you can't run him off the farm. He's a worker, and a very good horseman. And then we had a real good yearling manager, Richard Royster. Brery's philosophy was that if you did a good job, he didn't bother you. He knew you could do it. And it was the same for me: if my people are doing a good job, I don't bother them. That's a successful way to run a farm.”

All that said, Thornton stresses that it was Jones who always had his hand on the tiller; Jones, even with all his other distractions, whose inspired stallion recruitment and syndication were the foundation of the farm's half century of success.

“He couldn't afford the $15-million horses,” Thornton says. “But he was such a good promoter and even though he had to buy cheaper, he always had the best-looking horses in Central Kentucky. Never had an ugly horse in the barn. And that was something he could promote, because they'd have good-looking foals that would sell. And he did it over and over. So people started getting in line to buy shares. He was really at the cutting edge of syndicating and making the first-year horse popular. And he was an unbelievable salesman.”

Moreover Jones would put his money where his mouth was, building up an unusually large broodmare band of his own to support the stallions. He ran an aggressive program, but the farm has always retained an unchanging bedrock of trust and probity.

“Brery had some battles, but he wouldn't back up, believe me,” Thornton observes. “He's the most genuine, honest person and has really been so good for the horse business. And though he had a few clients, 95% of those horses were his. That's what amazed everybody. He had, like, 150 mares. That was a lot back then. And it was so much more fun just to deal with your own horses, rather than with clients!”

The ultimate vindication of this strategy, of course, was three homebred GI Kentucky Oaks winners in eight years.

Larry Jones, Rosie Napravnik and Brereton Jones after Believe You Can's victory in the GI Kentucky Oaks | Getty Images

“That's probably one of the things I'm proudest of,” Thornton says. “All three RNAs. Unbelievable. That was always one of the good things about him, he wasn't afraid to race. He was pretty much a commercial breeder, but he'd set a value on them and if they didn't bring that, he would race them. And he's been so lucky with smaller fillies. With the smaller ones, it's not as hard on their joints. But you lead one up to the sale ring and see what happens. It's weird. Seems like every good filly Brery's had has been smallish. So he's always upped the ante, on the reserve, if they're small because he figures they can run. Especially after Proud Spell (Proud Citizen). She was a game, sweet girl.”

Thornton's own continued engagement with the marketplace means that he can proudly monitor the legacy he built up with his former employer. Every few pages, in every catalogue, one of the stallions they made will be right there in the second or third generation–notably Harlan's Holiday through Into Mischief, and Indian Charlie through Uncle Mo.

“Probably one of my favorite horses, Indian Charlie,” says Thornton. “I can't get enough Indian Charlie mares. He was such a good sire, and such a nice horse to be around. He always put such a pretty horse on the ground. Stretchy, good-looking horses. And he's even doing it now, through those mares. Half their foals end up big, stretchy horses like him. It's amazing, all that coming from that gene.”

Indian Charlie | Barbara Livingston

Not so amazing, mind you, when you see the parallel genetic heritage handed down from one generation of Thorntons to the next.

Thornton's father, setting aside wartime service training air pilots, gave him a direct link to another era; to an age when yearlings were walked from Winchester to be loaded onto the train to be sold at Saratoga. You're looking at four generations of hardboot lore stretching to a great-grandfather who'd started out with draft horses and ended up selling Hoop Jr. for Fairbairn. Another Kentucky Derby winner, Canonero II, was subsequently raised here at Threave Main for breeder Edward B. Benjamin.

“But the horse was crooked so Mr. Benjamin got rid of him,” Thornton says with a shrug. “He brought $1,200 as a weanling. Just shows, you never know.”

Yes, well, that's never going to change! But nor will the benefits secured for horses by those who do the job right; who have the patience to do things the way their forefathers did, without cutting corners. That's why this man and this land continue to outpunch their weight. With his old employer, Thornton co-owned 2015 GI Mother Goose S. winner Include Betty (Include); and more recently he raised one of the richest Thoroughbreds in history in G1 Saudi Cup winner Emblem Road (Quality Road).

“A lot of things are done a lot fancier than back in the day,” Thornton reflects, before trying to explain what has been lost in the process. “Just old values. Tried-and-true things that work. Some of the best experiences are right here. Growing up on this farm and learning from dad, and running a bunch of horses, with not very much help, just us doing it all ourselves, hands on.

“In the '50s and '60s we always had five or six studs here. Cheap horses, $2,500 to $3,500 horses. But back then, you could make money breeding a horse like that. It was good living. We raised tobacco, and cows. Still like a cow. And I bale all my own bedding. Saves a lot of money. It's definitely an old-school farm. We're kind of proud of it, because there's not that many left.”

His father was such a thoroughgoing horseman that summertime he would go off and train at places like Delaware and Monmouth, especially fillies that could be bred someday. Some won stakes, like the 18-for-41 sprinter Plumb Gray or another daughter of Tudor Grey, Little Tudor, who won the Debutante S. at Churchill.

“Just hard-knocking horses,” says Thornton. “But the farm and the track, back then, were together. For years it was just the trainer and the owner would go around and buy horses. Now you've got all these agents, scared of their jobs. Every hair's got to be perfect in line, or they won't touch it. And they let so many good horses go by.”

That's a market environment that makes it hard for farms on this scale to remain viable. Though his nephew Eric Buckley ran Threave Main for several years, nowadays it is Thornton's daughter Jessica who channels the family horsemanship into a fifth generation as a reproductive veterinarian.

“There's not many family farms left really,” Thornton says. “We're kind of proud of being one, but it's tough with these big conglomerates taking over. It's getting harder and harder to play ball. The purses are really good, that's what's keeping the yearling market going. But the bottom line is you need quality. We try to upgrade every year, get rid of two or three [mares] and buy one. But it's so expensive. You can't breed your cheap horse anymore and make a living. The labor situation's gotten so tough, and you got put a lot more into the stud fees to compete.”

He has seen things become similarly challenging for trainers who try to maintain the same hardboot standards; and doesn't see many of the same stamp as Larry Jones, who trained all three of those Oaks winners.

“He's just a down-to earth, no-nonsense horseman,” Thornton says. “Kind of like me, hands-on and old school. He trained for me a little bit, too, but he's cutting back. Got a farm down in Henderson, fixed up real nice. But he can flat train a horse.

“You can't get any labor and the cost of operating is just getting out of hand as far as smaller guys to make a living. You can't do it. And it's gotten to be these big conglomerates that are doing it. Can't knock them. But you don't have to like it.”

As a result, though, very few general managers today will handle stallions daily the way Thornton always did. He loved to have just a couple of other people around, letting Mother Nature govern as much of the covering process as could be safely allowed.

So, yes, Thornton might strongly resemble a particular president; and he may have shown Silver Hawk to the late Queen of England, while discussing each other's corgis. But he already has the highest status he could wish for, as a horseman's horseman.

“I'm very lucky to have been among horses all of my life,” he says. “You'll always learn something every day. I went to Airdrie in '88 and was there 30 years. We had a lot of changes. We had a lot of fun. They say time flies. I mean, Bret [Jones, Brery's son] was raised up when I was over there and now he's running it. That's amazing, to me, but he's a great boy. He's got a lot of his daddy in him. He's doing a good job and I'm so happy for him. He was smart enough to buy into Girvin. Who would have known Girvin was going to do what he has? But he's on fire now. It's a good feather in his hat.

“He can't pay the crazy money, either. But if it was an exact science, nobody would be in the business. If you don't like this game, you don't need to be in it because it's the toughest game played outdoors. Dealing with Mother Nature, and livestock, the lows can be very low. But the highs are very high. I'm lucky to be bred and raised into it, and lucky to be still going seven days a week. I love it.”

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