The Joy of Kittens

“Winner’s circle; Ken Ramsey speaking.”

Ken Ramsey’s greeting on the phone shortly after Kitten Kaboodle’s victory in the Jessamine Stakes pretty much summed up the amazing run of victories he’s been on this year, especially the last four months.

It’s as if Disney has made a feline version of “1001 Dalmatians.” Racing has been literally overrun by kittens, (offspring of Kitten’s Joy that is), and you can expect to see as many as eight of them in the Breeders’ Cup alone.

What is even more amazing about Kitten’s Joy, in addition to being the No. 1 sire in earnings in America, the No. 1 turf sire, the No. 1 sire of grade I winners, the No. 1 sire of stakes winners, and the No. 1 sire of stakes horses, is the fact that his offspring all look alike and run alike, and as a genetic phenomenon, they all seem to be the same bay color, even though Kitten’s Joy was a chestnut.

Ramsey has kept the reason for that a mystery, saying it’s like the formula for Coca-Cola. And he’s not telling, other than to say he’s figured out what to breed to and what not to breed to, and what to put in the sale and what not to put in the sale. He is a firm believer that stallions, such as Tapit, will stamp their best horses with a particular color. In Kitten’s Joy’s case, that obviously is bay, despite the stallion’s own color.

Ramsey, through exhaustive research and the determination to do things his way, has created his own gene pool where offspring of Kitten’s Joy (a huge number of them major stakes horses) seem to be churned out off an assembly line. And he’s done it mostly with cheap to moderate-priced broodmares.

When Ramsey initially had trouble selling Kitten’s Joy as a stallion, he used the money he earned from winning the Dubai World Cup and bought an arsenal of mares from the sales ring and claiming races and built sort of his own Kitten’s Joy harem.

He hopes to put the stallion on display at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, and is optimistic he will make a major impact, and is planning on raising his stud fee to $100,000 next year. He admits he’s dreaming when he talks about possibly having multiple Breeders’ Cup winners, but says he’s put himself in position to get lucky again.

Ramsey has been leading owner this year at almost every track at which he’s competed with a string of horses – whether they’re trained by Chad Brown, Mike Maker, Wayne Catalano, or any of the other trainers he uses. He keeps a file folder on each of his trainers and maintains up-to-date past performances on each horse that he owns. After one of them runs, his secretary will pull the past performances the following day so he’ll know exactly what the Beyer speed figure was. Then he’ll call his guy at the Ragozin Sheets and get the Sheets number. He keeps all the condition books and will go over each horse with his trainers to decide where that horse should run next. He admits he’s very aggressive spotting his horses, and if one should get claimed, so be it.

“I don’t tell my trainers what to do or boss them around,” he said. “But I’ll put my two cents worth in.”

It is safe to say Ramsey is cut from a different cloth than other owners and breeders. He’ll   “suspend” a jockey, no matter who he or she is, for not following instructions (the Kitten’s Joys need to be ridden a certain way). He’ll take horses away from a trainer if they’re not in the kind of physical shape he feels they should be. And he’ll turn down grade I mares with impeccable pedigrees if he feels they don’t have the correct pedigree to match up with Kitten Joy. Yet he will claim a filly for $15,000 if she does match up with him, and often will get a Kitten’s Joy stakes winner out of her.

In dealing with jockeys, he said. “I’m not interested in excuses; I’m interested in performance. We’ll get somebody else to ride. I don’t have any problem getting jockeys to ride the Ramsey horses.”

Although it seems as if Ramsey breeds an army of mares to Kitten’s Joy every year, he says that’s not the case.

“I only bred 40 mares to Kitten’s Joy this year,” he said. “The most we ever we bred was 80 in his heyday. His only knock is that he didn’t have a yearling like War Front that brought $2 million at the sale. People never wanted to buy a Kitten’s Joy because they said ‘I’m not gonna buy that horse ‘cause Ramsey claimed the mare for $25,000 or $40,000 or $15,000.’

“But there was a method to the madness. We didn’t just go out and pick up any mare. We picked has-beens instead of never wases. But the gene pool is there. All the stuff clicks. If I can replicate the same pedigree with 20 mares and can put the same gene pool in there. there’ll be three or four of them of the 20 that will end up being graded stakes horses. The percentage is on my side getting the gene pool mix. When the sperm hits the egg that’s it, its decided. So I’m making damn sure that mixture is in most of the pedigrees that I breed to Kitten’s Joy.

“I’ve turned down grade I stakes mares. I’ve had the farm manager call me and say, ‘Mr. Ramsey, you must not have seen the pedigree.’ I said I have seen the pedigree and I don’t like the pedigree. I’m not interested in selling at the sale. I’m interested in breeding a racehorse, one that can run. So I’ll turn down a mare; I don’t want to waste a lot of sperm, because he’s busy breeding, sometimes three or  times a day and I don’t want the mare being brought back here three or four times.”

One of the biggest keys to Kitten’s Joy’s success is his conception rate, the life span of his sperm cells, and his demeanor and personality in the breeding shed.

“He has a 93% conception rate and his sperm lives four and five days,” Ramsey said. “It’s amazing for the sperm to live that long. So, if a mare comes in here and ovulates any time within that time frame, 93 out of 100 walk out pregnant. He’s very gentle in the breeding shed. He’s got a beautiful temperament, which is why you don’t see any of his horses raring up and acting crazy at the starting gate. They’re all even-tempered horses with that quick pace.

“The secret is, to win with these horses you have to bring them from off the pace. That’s why I make sure I put the right jockey on the right horse. I don’t care if they’re male or female or what their religion is – Jewish. Hindu, Muslim, or Catholic – I don’t care. And I don’t care what color they are. I’m looking for the right jockey to ride the right horse and ride like we want him to, and I don’t give a damn who he or she is. You can win an Eclipse Award as leading jockey, but if you don’t fit the horse you’re not gonna ride him.”

Of the 42 stakes winners Kitten’s Joy has had, Ramsey as bred and raised 39 of them on his farm.

“I have no city water for my horses here on this farm,” he said. “I experimented a few years back. I got two big tubs of city water, so the horses could smell the chlorine and all the other chemicals. I put it over beside Jessamine Creek, which runs through my farm, and I have a trough over there that has spring water – 57 degrees coming out of the side of the bank. I took 10 horses over there in a van and didn’t give them any water that morning.

“We loaded them up and took them over about 1 o’clock and turned them out in the field. These were all thirsty horses who hadn’t drank anything in four or five hours. They came to the city water first. They all sniffed it; one of them went over and started drinking out of the creek, and every one of the others went over and started drinking the 57-degree cold water coming out of the spring. So now I have spring water in nine of my fields, flowing by gravity from one field to the next. I have a 2,000-gallon holding tank that runs out of the spring and gives it enough pressure that it spouts out of each of the three troughs.”

As for Kitten’s Joy, he is treated like the king he is.

“We spent $300,000 on what we call Kitten’s Spa,” Ramsey said. “It’s an underwater treadmill, and we have the old boy in there five days a week. After that, we take him out and put him on a vibrating platform that increases the bone density.

Ramsey believes his success begins on the farm, an old Kentucky establishment dating back to the Revolutionary War where Exterminator was raised, as well as the immortal trotter Greyhound. The soil is abundant in potash and lime, and every spring, the University of Kentucky comes out and does a complete analysis of all the pastures to see if there are any deficiencies. If there are it is quickly rectified. So, the horses are assured of getting good nutrition and diets, and as a result they’re raised tough and they run tough.

“None of my horses are put up at night,” Ramsey said. “All of them run out in the cold, rain, and snow. The only time I put them up was when we had an ice storm several years ago. All these mares and babies and yearlings run out 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. You do not want to buy a horse at a sale that was sold as a weanling, then sold as a yearling, and now they’re trying to pinhook as a 2-year-old, because he’s spent so much time in a stall in the summertime when he should have been out there stretching his legs running and eating green grass and scuffling around with his 25 or 30 buddies in the field. Instead he’s standing in a stall not getting any exercise because the consignor does not want the sun to bleach his coat out. If he takes that horse to the sale with a bleached coat, the buyers don’t want that. They want that shiny thing, just like when you go to a jewelry store and they have those special spotlights shining on the diamonds, so it knocks your eye out every time it hits one of those points.

“Those are what I call hot house horses, with the toes all polished and the mane combed down, and his coat just glistening. And he’s on that extra fat diet when he’s too chubby to start with. I send my yearling down there and he doesn’t look nearly as good or nearly that fat, but at the end of the day, when you put them on the racetrack, the Kitten’s Joys are just as competitive as the horse who was hot-housed, and a lot of times is much more sound and durable. We hardly have any breakdowns with these Kitten’s Joys and it’s due to the way they were raised.

Ramsey, who once was a trainer himself, having won at River Downs, has had success with horses by other stallions, but the vast majority are by Kitten’s Joy, who is the king who reigns the Ramsey empire. That is his pride and joy, who he has taken from being a relatively unwanted stallion and elevated him to the top of the breeding world, where he has wreaked havoc on all those who originally turned him down.

As an example, Ramsey and trainer Chad Brown won the grade II Bowling Green Handicap Sept. 7 with the improving Hyper, a son of Victory Gallop. Although Hyper certainly belongs in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, having finished in the money in his last seven starts, Ramsey will pass the Breeders’ Cup, because he and Brown have two grade I-winning sons of Kitten’s Joy – Big Blue Kitten and Real Solution – already pointing for the Turf.

“If I’m gonna get a Kitten’s Joy beat in the Breeders’ Cup Turf it damn sure is not gonna be with one of my own horses,” he said. “So were running Hyper in the Canadian International. The only way he would go to the Breeders’ Cup is if something happened to both of the others.”

Despite Ramsey’s abundance of stakes victories, he could have had more. “We got beat three head bobs -- in the Virginia, Derby, the Joe Hirsch (Turf Classic), and the Jamaica,” Ramsey said. “That could have gone the other way, but, heck, we’re still winning enough of them anyway.”

Despite all the work and all the factors that go into it, Ramsey can sum up his success very simply: “To be honest with you, I’m good and I know I’m good. And that makes me very dangerous.”

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