By Chris McGrath
Studying political science at college, the only Constitution she might have expected to see put to the test right now was the one that opens with the words, “We the people…” As it is, Shannon Castagnola just feels relief that fate diverted her from her original vocation, to chronicle impeachments or caucuses, and instead afforded her a professional stake in one of the frontrunners for the highest sophomore office of 2020.
Castagnola is the Director of Marketing and Client Relations at Woodford Thoroughbreds, the farm that bred and raised Independence Hall, the son of Constitution who undergoes his Classic primary in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. at Tampa Bay Downs Saturday. And while her employers sold Independence Hall as a yearling, they are still very much on the ticket in sending the colt's dam Kalahari Cat (Cape Town) back to Constitution this spring.
“It's amazing, the difference in awareness when you have a 3-year-old colt on the Derby trail,” Castagnola says. “Midnight Bisou (Midnight Lute) had a big 2-year-old campaign, did even better at three, and was huge at four. But I think we've already gotten more recognition for breeding Independence Hall, after three races, than we did for everything she did. That's what the Derby does. Anytime you get a colt good enough that you can start talking Derby, people get excited, they start strategizing: a horse can do this, can't do that.”
Kalahari Cat was an early recruit to the program then being developed by John and Susan Sykes, Woodford's owners, when acquired for $600,000, carrying her first foal, at the Keeneland November Sale in 2006. Out of a full sister to GI Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Desert Stormer (Storm Cat), she has since produced eight winners including one other at Grade III level.
“She's a big mare: 16.3 hands, kind of raw-boned,” Castagnola says. “She's really good-minded, easy to get along with, and a good mom, too. And she's that dark brown color that she's passed to every single foal, except her yearling by Frosted.”
This gray filly was actually catalogued for the Keeneland November Sale, but then Independence Hall added that 12 1/4-length GIII Nashua S. explosion to her page on the eve of the auction. Suddenly the Frosted weanling had the potential to top the bill at a yearling sale after the next Triple Crown series.
“The Frosted is a beautiful filly,” Castagnola enthuses. “Such a nice physical, we thought we'd just be taking a nice horse to the sale and be able to sell well. But when Independence Hall won, it wasn't hard to say now is not the time for her. She wasn't 100% anyway, with a little cold going on. So it was a very simple decision in the end. But gosh, she's pretty, I can't wait for everybody to see her.”
Independence Hall himself made $100,000 as a yearling, sold to Robert and Kathleen Verratti at the September Sale. He subsequently failed to meet his reserve at $200,000 when offered by Wavertree Stables at Fasig-Tipton's Gulfstream Sale. But the Verrattis were able to welcome Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Twin Creeks Racing Stable as investors after he won on debut at Parx last September.
“I remember which barn he was in at Keeneland, which shed row, which stall,” says Castagnola. “Yet it wasn't because he was necessarily a physical standout. And it's funny that he's kind of becoming known for these pre-race antics, because we never saw any of that either. He was just really easy to get along with, good-minded and easy to show. But he has that interesting facial marking and, since we have a share in Constitution, we were definitely keeping tabs on him from the moment he was born.”
One way or another, Woodford Thoroughbreds have certainly started the year–between Independence Hall winning the Jerome S. on its opening day, and Midnight Bisou an Eclipse Award as Older Dirt Female three weeks later–with an impressive magnification of both the quality and the breadth of their brand. For here is a farm with a very diverse portfolio: breeding and selling its own weanlings, yearlings, 2-year-olds and broodmares; breaking, training and consigning for external clients.
Hardly what its owners had in mind in 1997, when prospecting for a 10- or 15-acre hideaway, just a place for some downtime, away from the office in Tampa, maybe with some riding horses for the grandchildren. They'd never owned a single racehorse. Yet the moment they drove through the gates of this 750-acre Thoroughbred farm, something changed in their lives forever.
And Castagnola herself can absolutely identify with the way her employers became so absorbed by a business that had previously meant nothing to them. She was raised in the hill country of Eastern Kentucky, where her dad flew helicopters for a coal company. But soon after the family moved into Lexington, when she was eight, a pair of newlyweds moved into the same street: Jan Taylor, and her husband Ben. Who turned out to be vice-president of Taylor Made Stallions.
“So that's how this whole thing really got into motion,” Castagnola explains. “I loved horses, and they kind of took me in a little bit. Jan would take me out to the farm, she had an old riding horse and at the time didn't have children. They were just so good to somebody who was young and had no idea.”
In adolescence Castagnola became a decent rider but still knew nothing about bloodstock by the time she completed a degree in broadcast journalism at the University of Kentucky, with that minor in politics. As she prepared her resume for Capitol Hill, however, the Taylors suggested that she work the September Sale with their team.
“I just showed up,” Castagnola recalls. “All I knew was I needed khakis and a blue shirt. But when it was over, I found myself with a new addiction. I couldn't stop thinking about it. Not just the horses, but the people you come across, the characters that come through.”
She obviously made a reciprocal impression, promptly being offered a job at the farm office–and stayed for nearly nine years, until motherhood encouraged her to a more flexible position with West Point Thoroughbreds. Having been introduced to the supply element, in breeding and sales at Taylor Made, Castagnola was now introduced to the demand side of the equation. Here was an 80-horse stable to help manage, with all the associated demands in client relations, sales, hospitality.
After another six years completing her education, Castagnola felt able to identify her ultimate fulfilment. “The sales,” she says. “In the end, I realized that it was the energy of the sales that I really loved. And that's what I wanted to get back to. And while I'd never run a consignment on my own, I was hired by Woodford and will have been there six years in March.”
And she caught a rising tide. The previous year, Woodford had processed a first consignment through the 2-year-old sales. One of those initial pinhooks, a $47,000 Keeneland September yearling, realized $220,000 at OBS March. As Stopchargingmaria (Tale of the Cat), she would go on to win three Grade I prizes including the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Castagnola could then share the buzz when, in only Woodford's third OBS cycle, they set a sale record with a $1.9-million Tapit filly.
“So it had all started off very well, and obviously we were really excited,” Castagnola says. “In order to establish Woodford Thoroughbreds in the industry, Mr. Sykes had known he was going to have to do a few different things. He'd bought mares, he'd bought stallions. Several trainers had rented stalls at our training center before it became private: Beholder and Cairo Prince had trained over that track. And it was decided that buying yearlings, to resell as 2-year-olds, was the best representation of what we could do. If the horses could come to the sales, train well, go on and run well, then that was the best way to get our name out into the market.”
Midnight Bisou herself fell through the September cracks as Hip 4015, when bought back for $19,000, and moved her value up only to $80,000 at OBS April before embarking on her stellar track career.
“I vividly remember having her at Keeneland,” Castagnola says. “I mean, she wasn't a big imposing filly. The mare had been an excellent runner but the sire was cold at the time, she had a little writing on her X-ray report, and she was in that late book. We knew, showing her, that she wasn't getting the love she should; put the reserve on her, and brought her home. Because she had that big, free-flow swing, that back-and-forth walk that says, 'I can be an athlete.'”
Having a training center of your own, of course, made it easier to give her a second chance.
“Though [farm trainer] John Gleason will tell you that she wasn't necessarily an easy filly to break,” Castagnola says with a smile. “She's not silly, or mean. But she had a little bit of grit and determination about her.”
Having come into the industry as an outsider, John Sykes could come fresh to its standard assumptions; could apply the kind of business principles that had first secured him the means of investing in it. And he set a radical challenge to his team.
Castagnola sums up his key message in three words.
“Have a plan,” she says. “That's something he repeats to us. You might not always be able to follow the plan but you must have one. I can hear him telling me that in my head right now, because we get told quite often! So we're not just trying to get through the next breeding cycle. We are trying to project for the next five years.
She continued, “Obviously that's really difficult in the Thoroughbred industry, because markets change, what people are interested in changes and so many different things can happen with the horses themselves. But we're trying to figure out some longer-term goals.”
And that, dauntingly, extends to evaluating the odds in dollars and cents.
“Once the foals are born, we'll start appraising them in October and then continue to do so about every six weeks until they go to the sale,” Castagnola explains. “We're looking at them, physically, and then putting numbers on them. Because we have to show the accountant, for cashflow purposes, what's coming down the pike. And we're held accountable for those numbers.”
So while the goalposts are always liable to move with Thoroughbreds, Sykes wants his team at least to study their present position before running up to kick the ball.
“We have budgets for the weanlings, the mares, the 2-year-olds,” Castagnola explains. “We have budgets for the farm itself, the training track, for how much we'll spend at the sales. Of course we know that anything can change at any moment. That Frosted filly's value went up significantly with Independence Hall winning a Grade III; but another horse might go down at the same time, because of vetting. But we have a budget and we have to stick to it.”
At the same time, Sykes has not just marched in and pronounced that everyone in this strange business has been doing it all wrong.
“I think every bit of it is a learning lesson,” Castagnola remarks. “We're trying to figure out what's working, and what's not; to replicate what is, let go of what isn't. To try and figure out where the market's going, and what does that mean for us?
“At one point, for example, we had five stallions in Florida. In the past few years, the Florida market has decreased significantly. So we sold those stallions, and the mares bought to support them. Now our goal is to buy better-bred mares, and look towards a somewhat higher-end stallion-and-mare combo as we go into the sales.”
A similar nettle was grasped in selling the operation's Kentucky branch. With an increased emphasis on quality, the quantity of mares halved from 80 to 40 and the Florida farm obviously had ample capacity. Now, while the weanlings may be Kentucky-bred, they winter in Florida–building bone on large, undulating fields, alongside the training facility. And one arm of the business serves the other.
“There's a very large group of buyers we get to interact with, just because we do so many different things,” Castagnola says. “Making those contacts, having those relationships, only makes us stronger. And the more that people see these horses coming out of our program and doing well, the more the Woodford brand is reinforced–as a breeder that they want to buy from, a seller they want to return to.”
And that's why Gleason's emphasis is not on revving up youngsters for bullet times but on miles of jogging, on months of patient groundwork.
“Eleven breezed at OBS last year,” recounts Castagnola proudly. “Ten have run, and the other one is on the worktab right now. Six are winners, including one stakes winner. We know that there are some knocks, people who don't like the 2-year-old sales. But we take pride that our horses are showing that you can go on with them; that they're healthy, happy and sound; that the process hasn't blown their minds. Of course we want them to do well through the sales ring, but they have to do it on the track. In the end, that's their job.”
And that kind of longevity is exactly what Woodford overall is seeking for its own niche in the bloodstock business. Having Beth Bayer as head of sales can only help, as a known and trusted face around the community. Equally a recent shopping trip to Tattersalls, made by John Sykes and Woodford bloodstock advisor Lincoln Collins, to find five weanlings with classy European bloodlines, confirmed a willingness to keep experimenting; to keep testing boundaries.
“Because Mr. Sykes comes from a business background, he'll tell you there are only two ways to expand: product or geography,” explains Castagnola. “We have one product, and that's the horse. We sell in Kentucky, we sell in Florida, we sell in New York. What else is out there? So we decided to go to Newmarket. As an absolutely new venture for us, I'm sure it will be a learning experience, but we bought some really well-bred horses and we think we've given ourselves a lot of options.
“Maybe we're still considered a new kid on the block, even at this point; but less so, I think, with every passing year. We want to be here long term. That's the point. It's really an exciting project to be part of.”