Kentucky Derby Dreams: The Making of Thoroughbred Champions

Kentucky Derby Dreams: The Making of Thoroughbred Champions

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by Susan Nusser

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Author Susan Nusser takes readers inside the excitement and suspense at one of Kentucky's biggest breeding farms. Every year, two hundred broodmares in the farm's barns give birth to the next generation of racehorses. In the eighteen months following their births, those foals will meet the world's most skilled and knowledgeable horsemen — from grooms to

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Author Susan Nusser takes readers inside the excitement and suspense at one of Kentucky's biggest breeding farms. Every year, two hundred broodmares in the farm's barns give birth to the next generation of racehorses. In the eighteen months following their births, those foals will meet the world's most skilled and knowledgeable horsemen — from grooms to veterinary orthopedists — who will shape them in to the kinds of yearlings that attract the attention of the sheikhs, moguls, and magnates who prowl the yearling sales, hunting for their next Derby winner.

From the carefully calculated birth of the new crop of foals to the horses' debut at the world's premier yearling sale in Lexington, Kentucky, this is a rare behind-the-scenes look at the vets, the surgeries, the long hours, and the hard work that it takes to breed a Derby hopeful. Kentucky Derby Dreams follows the lives of foals born during the 2009 foaling season and uncovers the inside drama and heartache that accompany these potential champions from the foaling barn to the sales ring. Compelling, fascinating, and fast-paced, this is a must read for anyone who's ever watched the Kentucky Derby.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Nusser's meticulously researched, if occasionally arcane, newest (after In Service to the Horse), the author follows seven Thoroughbred horses born during the 2009 "foaling season" on the Taylor Made farm, "Kentucky's leading consignor of Thoroughbred yearlings" for the last sixteen years. In an industry long-ruled by bluebloods, the Taylors are "upstarts and outsiders--" a charming brood of Irish Catholic brothers who, as one puts it, simply "have to pay the bills." And boy do they manage to pay the bills: Taylor Made farm has "grossed over a billion dollars in sales sold three hundred graded stakes winners, including twelve Breeders' Cup champions." Details of horse-care are relayed in unrelenting detail, from elaborate breeding procedures (e.g., the ovulation cycles of "broodmares" are predicted and regulated with hormones, valuable stallions are scheduled for breeding down to the half-day, ultrasounds and a panoply of diagnostics are performed, and so on) to readying the horses for the big annual yearling sale in Lexington. The book is jam-packed with the nitty-gritty, which unfortunately derails a larger compelling narrative. This, along with lengthy discussions of hoof-size and unexplained jargon ("a touch parrot-mouthed?"), risks alienating amateurs, though equestrians and equine enthusiasts will likely feel right at home. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“A journalistic tour de force, perhaps the best nonfiction ever penned about the troubled horse business.” —Jim Squires, author of Headless Horseman

“Reading Nusser's book is tantamount to visiting horse country and never wanting to leave. It's a well-written, superbly researched narrative that will enlighten every reader and perhaps bring more people into the irresistible yet hard-driving world of breeding, training, and racing horses.” —Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, author of Wild Ride

“Once again, Susan Nusser proves her writing skills, perception of human nature, and depth of equine knowledge…Nusser vividly recounts the daily human efforts and emotion that combine the create a perfect racehorse… Entertaining and thoughtful.” —Sandra L. Olsen, Ph.D, Head of Anthropology, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Kirkus Reviews
Life on one of the nation's foremost horse-breeding farms meticulously rendered in loving detail and set against the ominous backdrop of an uncertain economy. It's a good thing thoroughbred racehorses are such remarkably beautiful creatures, because as Nusser (English/Carroll Coll.; In Service to the Horse: Chronicles of a Labor of Love, 2004) so adeptly illustrates, they are a handful. The risks involved in caring for these fragile beasts are myriad, while the rewards are fleeting. A tanking economy has only further trimmed the odds, and even the sport of kings has been forced to tighten its money belt. The author's main subject is Taylor Made farms in Nicholasville, Ky., one of the nation's most successful horse-breeding operations. Bringing a novelist's descriptive prowess to her reporting, Nusser provides a fascinating tour for the uninitiated, who will learn plenty, whether following a fledging veterinarian up to her armpit in a mare's hindquarters or a veteran groom running down a wayward colt. In fact, the book may even be an eye-opener for veteran horse enthusiasts. The author also brings her discerning eye to the employees of Taylor Made, who are no less compelling than their equine charges. After all, it is the drive and dreams of these Kentucky horsemen and women that keep the bluegrass barns going year-round, as well as the very human hope that at least of few of their foals will grow up to be champions. An absorbing look inside the daily lives of both the people and animals powering the exciting world of thoroughbred racing.

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St. Martin's Press
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Kentucky Derby Dreams

The Making of Thoroughbred Champions

By Susan Nusser

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Susan Nusser
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01149-7


February 2009

Broodmare manager Scott Kintz is on the phone. In khaki jeans and a burgundy baseball cap and ski jacket embroidered with the name of his employer, Taylor Made, he stands with his feet wide apart and planted firmly in the middle of the lane between the two barns of Whitehouse upper. It's 7:00 A.M. on a frosty February morning and as he's talking, he's watching a broodmare named Maddie's Charm, who has just been turned out with her new colt. Only days old, the colt is already leaping and bucking at her side, puffs of steam coming out of his nose as he races around his paddock. Scott, whose family has been raising and training racehorses for three generations, lives on the farm with his wife and four children. He likes Maddie's Charm very much; her colt, he's not so crazy about.

It's February 12, early in the foaling season, and the seventy-mile-an-hour winds that whipped through the bluegrass last night have left the farm looking scoured: dust blown out of the driveways, the dull midwinter grass blasted at its roots and standing upright. The sky is sparkly, cold, and clear, and, surprisingly, the storm didn't leave any damage behind. As Scott listens to his early-morning messages, he keeps an eye on the grooms who are leading the mares out to their paddocks.

The Taylor Made Farm rolls out over a thousand acres in Nicholasville, Kentucky. The farm is divided into three divisions: stallions, yearlings, and broodmares. The broodmare division under Scott's management has fifteen barns, all but three of which have twenty-six stalls. The fifteen barns are themselves split into sections: Whitehouse (four barns), Springhouse (three barns), Ivywood (two barns), Bona Terra (four barns), and a catchall category called Casey, which includes the barns where the maiden and barren mares are housed. In all, Scott has his eye on about three hundred mares during the foaling season. On a hillside dotted with identical brownish-reddish broodmares, he can pick out each one by name, knows their pedigree, and, for most of them, can tell you what their siblings are up to.

This morning, he's waiting for Dr. Bart Barber from Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, one of the two largest vet clinics in Lexington. During the breeding and foaling seasons, which roughly coincide, every mare on the farm will get an ultrasound when she's coming into heat so they can schedule her trip to the breeding shed; she'll get another two days after breeding to make sure she ovulated, a third at fifteen days to make sure the egg was fertilized, and another at twenty-eight days to be sure it's still there. Rounds begin around 7:00 A.M. and include the managers of the different broodmare divisions and, when they're not taking care of horses elsewhere on the farm, two young vets from Rood and Riddle.

The barns of Whitehouse are converted tobacco sheds, and slivers of pale winter light slice though the spaces between the wide boards. The asphalt aisle, covered with interlocking rubber mats, is messy, straw from the mares' stalls spills out as they are led to their paddocks, and their hooves make a soft whop, whop, whop on the rubber mats. Spotting Barber's white truck coming up the lane, Scott pulls the phone away from his mouth and shouts to the groom in barn B: "Juan! We need Universal Peace in a twitch!"

Barber gets into the barn before Scott, who's still on the phone. Juan, an Argentinean student who is part of Taylor Made's intern program, rolls the grain bin out to him. There's a worn plywood board over the top that converts the bin into a rolling table for Barber. On it are a portable ultrasound machine, two plastic totes of supplies, a box of latex gloves, and another box with rectal sleeves. Seeing which horse Barber was aiming for, Juan and the other groom have caught and twitched the mare — slipping a loop of rope over her lips and torquing it down with an attached pole — and she's standing quietly, her ears flopped to the sides. In 1984, Dutch researchers concluded that the twitch was effective not because it was a painful form of restraint, but because it released endorphins — a kind of equine acupressure. It's believed that horsemen adopted this method of controlling horses after watching wild dogs bring down zebras by first latching onto their muzzles, after which the zebras would become still and calm, allowing the pack to close in on their flanks.

Scott walks into the barn and describes how he and his nine-year-old son, Nick, stopped the family's trampoline from blowing into the mares' paddock in last night's winds. Leaning back, his arms straight in front of him, knuckles white, Scott demonstrates for Steve how hard it was to hold on to the trampoline. Nick, he says, was almost off the ground.

Steve has his back to Barber while he listens to Scott's story, grinning. The two men have known each other for twenty-five years. In the past, Scott and his family stayed with Steve when he worked for Gainesway, and Scott says the first thing he did when he became broodmare manager at Taylor Made was to bring Steve on board.

Barber pulls on a fresh rectal sleeve, squirts some lubricant on his hand, and works it inside the mare's rectum, scooping out manure and tossing it into her stall, and then pushes in the ultrasound probe. Universal Peace looks fine, but she isn't coming into heat, despite having given birth two months ago. Scott would like to see the mare get pregnant soon.

Universal Peace, the men decide, will need hormone injections to cycle her back into heat. Ninety percent of the mares, Scott says, are short-cycled in this way.

Whitehouse upper A and B, Whitehouse lower, Springhouse middle, Springhouse lower, Springhouse upper, Ivywood A and B. Across East Hickman Road to Gullette, Casey, Bona Terra D, C, A, then B, and finally Mackey Pike, with a stop at the quarantine barn if need be. The order is the same every morning, but rarely do they have to hit all of the barns. The mares are sorted by their due dates, so by the time Ivywood's mares are ready to foal, for instance, the Whitehouse mares are done. Once Bona Terra C is ready, Bona Terra A is done. And they don't deliver foals in every barn; some of the barns are the ones they move the mares to after they've given birth. During rounds, everyone travels from barn to barn in their own trucks — a four- or five-truck caravan on most mornings. Scott's includes his old dog Silks, who props her feet up on the toolbox mounted behind the cab and barks joyously into the wind.

By the time they get to Casey, they've dropped Steve, who stays in his division, and have been joined by Dr. Lori Henderson, the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital intern, and first-year associate, Dr. Dale Brown. Lindsey Terrazas, who recently had her own baby, meets them at the big double doors, clipboard in hand.

The team gets through the mares in Casey quickly and moves up to Bona Terra D — a small barn, just fourteen stalls — housing barren mares, those who skipped a pregnancy last year and may be having trouble getting into foal this year. The mares in this barn are agitated. They pace and weave, sink their teeth into the stall ledges or their buckets, and suck in great gulps of air, called "cribbing." They pin their ears when approached.

Lori scrubs up the hind end of a mare named Hishi Diva while Scott checks in with Lindsey about a newly hired groom.

It doesn't have to work out, Scott says, they'd like to give it a try.

Once the mares are palpated, Barber, Lori, or Dale — whoever performs the procedure — predicts, within half a day, when the mare is going to ovulate. The divisional managers, Lindsey, Steve, or Bob White, write that down on their records, and Scott uses his radio to call Sue Egan in Taylor Made's office so she can book the time with the stallion. The Jockey Club, the registry for all horses who want to race in North America, requires that all registered Thoroughbreds be bred via live cover. In theory, this protects the breed from having too few stallions dominate the bloodlines. It also protects the value of those stallions by ensuring that their genes remain a somewhat rare commodity. Historically, this may have contributed to genetic diversity in the breed, because up until the 1970s, stallions could only breed to about forty or fifty mares a year. Most stud fees come with a live foal guarantee, and it used to take multiple trips to get a mare pregnant. But advances in reproductive technology — the use of hormones to regulate the mares' cycles and the use of ultrasound, common since the 1990s, to predict ovulation — mean that where it once took multiple covers to get a mare pregnant, it now usually takes just one. As air travel has become more accessible, top stallions are also flown to the southern hemisphere during the off-season. Top stallions now breed to between 150 and 200 mares a year, says Duncan Taylor, CEO of Taylor Made Farm. If they're going to the southern hemisphere, that's another hundred. "So you take that over ten years," he explains. "You know there's a lot of that blood available in the population." To be this productive, farms can't miss an ovulation cycle, or they'll have to wait eighteen to twenty days for the mare to come into heat again. The universal birthday for all Thoroughbreds is January 1, and mares have an eleven-month gestation cycle, so to produce a viable racehorse, mares need to be bred between early February (breeding sheds typically open around Valentine's Day) and late May. Researchers at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center who've analyzed the relationship between reproductive efficiency and the financial value of broodmares reported in a 2009 study in the Equine Veterinary Journal that over a seven-year investment period, "live foals must be produced in all but one year to yield a positive financial return." Drift — mares getting pregnant later in every subsequent foaling season — means that for the 60 percent of mares who don't get pregnant every year, they'll come up barren every 3.4 years. Profitability, then, for the owners of the broodmares lies in getting them pregnant early and often. Though he's never heard it discussed by the Jockey Club, Duncan says that there are some in the industry who think that horses might be better off if people in the breeding business were restricted to, say, eighty mares a year.

The stallion owners, says Ben Taylor, who directs Taylor Made's stallion division, fill a horse's book and then keep a list of people who might also want to breed a mare to that stallion. If they have an empty slot in the horse's schedule — a Tuesday afternoon, for instance — they get on the phone and try to fill it. Sue Egan is competing against any number of people who are aiming for the same half-day window, so the farm can't wait until the end of rounds to start booking its mares.

Scott turns down his radio and tries to get Miranda, who, like Juan, is another one of the farm's interns, to tell a funny story about yet another intern's early-morning mishap while leading in the foals over the weekend. It's an elaborate story and Miranda misses the punch line, which is something about the intern lying on the ground, waving her arms and legs like a bug. Barber, who has heard the story already, tells her to go back and tell it again. Lindsey is smiling because she's already heard the story, too. In fact, everyone on the farm has heard it, because it's been passed around for two days. But no one has yet heard it from Miranda, who started it, and if there's one thing this team likes to do, it's have a big laugh.

Lori is only half-listening as she manipulates the probe inside the mare, searching for her follicles. Lori already has her veterinary degree, and many young veterinarians would have already begun their careers. But Lori, and Dale before her, have extended their training with the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital internship. The Thoroughbred industry, with its deep pockets, not only drives the technology and the treatment models for equine veterinary science, it also provides a high quality, high volume practice opportunity for interns like Lori.

The downside for Lori is that Bart Barber, who is supervising her work, is very, very good, and very, very fast, and the staff at Taylor Made Farm is very, very knowledgeable. Not only is deference to her education not automatic, it's also part of her job to take whatever teasing Scott and Barber want to dump on her while she's learning her job. One of her talents is her ability to handle that teasing with good humor. Lindsey is waiting on Lori.

Miranda still hasn't gotten to the punch line because just remembering the story is making her laugh, and in the midst of this, Hishi Diva rocks back on her heels and rears up.

They give up on the punch line. Lori finds the follicles. Lindsey writes the instructions on the chart and they snap off the ultrasound and load the gear into the truck.

"You're getting through these mares quickly," Scott says to Lori.

"You're welcome," Lori reminds him, trying to prod a little gratitude out of him.

"Thank you for doing your job," Scott replies, teasing, that gratitude not yet forthcoming.

Lindsey is done and goes back to Casey as the team heads over to Bona Terra. In his book, Joe Taylor's Complete Guide to Breeding and Raising Racehorses, Taylor, who was the farm manager at one of Kentucky's first huge commercial breeding farms, Gainesway Stud, before his son Duncan started Taylor Made, offers a compendium of wise farm-management practices. Not only should paddocks not have any corners in which galloping horses can get trapped but the fencing should follow the natural contours of the land. Taylor Made's blackboard fencing gallops up and down hills, through gullies, and around trees. The barns are situated to make turnout convenient and safe, and so it is the farm's roads that go in last, accommodating first the horses' need for natural terrain and then the humans' need to get from point A to point B in a straight line. The caravan motors slowly over the curving blacktopped roads that connect the four barns of Bona Terra B, then heads to the most distant corner of the farm, an older barn that fronts on Mackey Pike and is contiguous to the rest of the farm only by its back pasture. To get there, they drive down a narrow and winding public road along Hickman Creek, passing houses, where Scott's truck is chased by a black Lab and a golden retriever who have been lying in wait. Silks barks frantically at them until Scott gets away.

Lindsey is in charge of all the odd barns: Casey, which is full of just the horses owned by Aaron and Marie Jones; Gullette and Bona Terra D, which house the barren mares; and Mackey Pike, which houses the maidens. Just off the track, these mares are sleek and fit, their manes and tails silky. Their whiskers have been shaved off and the long fur on their legs trimmed. Soon enough, they'll look like the rest of the mares: shaggy, their bellies dropped, covered in nicks and bumps from living outside with their girlfriends, their slender legs stocked up with fluid, and, for the most part, calm and friendly. But right now, they're racing-fit and hyperalert. The grooms, who don't know how well they were handled on the track, can't always catch them in their stalls. In this barn, everyone slows down. Older, smaller, at the edge of the woods, Mackey Pike seems less like it belongs to Kentucky's leading consignor of Thoroughbred yearlings for sixteen years in a row, a farm that's grossed over a billion dollars in sales, and sold three hundred graded stakes winners, including thirteen Breeders' Cup champions, and more like a neighborhood barn, in which a handful of friends have gathered on a cold and sunny Thursday morning in February to sit and talk about their horses.

Barber is leaning against the wall; the sunbeam coming in through the double doors stops just at his feet.

"What would you rather do, Dale?" Dale is finishing up an ultrasound. "Win the Masters or pitch the winning game seven of the World Series?"

"World Series or winning quarterback in the Super Bowl?" Barber asks, amending his own question.

Scott wants to know if you also get MVP.

"Definitely MVP," Barber says.

"Winning the Super Bowl or president of the United States?" Scott asks.

"I'd rather be Bill Buckner than president." Barber shakes his head.

Someone points out that they've left out the Derby.

"Winning trainer/owner at the Derby or the winning quarterback?" says Scott, offering a new dilemma.

They look at their feet, silent. The other choices were between equivalent fantasies, but they know what it's like to be a trainer. Scott has trained horses in the past, and his brother and stepbrother train them now. For these two men who've placed their families at the center of their lives, they understand the costs and risks of being a trainer.

"I would say trainer," Scott begins, "except for ... your life is ... to be that kind of trainer ..." The thought goes unexpressed, but everyone knows what he's talking about.

Meanwhile, the grooms have been unable to get Dale's mare back into the stall. She planted her feet on the way in and they backed out and circled her, hoping to trick her into walking right back in, but she planted her feet even farther away and is now refusing to budge. Scott and the vets stare at the grooms, who are tugging, clucking, and shoving ineffectually, mildly curious about how they're going to resolve this dilemma.

The problem with being a quarterback, Barber explains, is that you know at some point that your career is going to be over. You know that someday you'll throw your last pass. But being a trainer, there's always a shot. "There's always another horse out there that might be the one," he says.

"My grandfather used to say," Scott adds, "a man with a two-year-old in the barn will never commit suicide because that could be the one."

It's an old horseman's story. They all tell it and they all kind of believe it. Any horse on the farm right now could be that one. You never know.


Excerpted from Kentucky Derby Dreams by Susan Nusser. Copyright © 2012 Susan Nusser. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

SUSAN NUSSER is the author of In Service to the Horse, which explored the bond that develops between one of Kentucky's most valuable stallions and his groom and between other competition horses and their grooms. She teaches writing at Carroll University and lives in Milwaukee with her husband, daughters, cats and a pit bull.

SUSAN NUSSER is the author of In Service to the Horse, which explored the bond that develops between one of Kentucky’s most valuable stallions and his groom and between other competition horses and their grooms. She teaches writing at Carroll University and lives in Milwaukee with her husband, daughters, cats and a pit bull.

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