It’s Saturday night and the extended family is gathered in the living room for a night of entertainment in front of the television—a scene played out in millions of homes across the country.
On this Saturday night the extended family is gathered in the living room for a night of entertainment with the television tuned to TVG—a scene played out in hundreds of Thoroughbred farm houses in Kentucky.
At Clarkland Farm it’s been another work day, but there is time to check TVG from time to time throughout the afternoon. This particular evening is a big night in front of the flat screen because Beholder, the three-time champion bred and raised on the farm just north of Lexington, is taking to the track 2,000 miles away at Santa Anita as the 2-5 favorite in the Vanity Mile Stakes (gr. I; see cover story on page 46).
Following the running of the Shoemaker Mile Stakes (gr. IT) and as storm clouds sweep across the Bluegrass, Clarkland’s Fred Mitchell tours the yearling paddocks, pointing to Beholder’s half brother, by Scat Daddy, who has been nominated to this year’s Keeneland September yearling sale. In another paddock, a feisty Shackleford yearling hangs his head over the fence. Yearlings by Into Mischief (another half brother to Beholder), Eskendereya, and Maclean’s Music graze in other paddocks.
“Any kind of farming is a gamble,” Mitchell said. “Whether it’s corn, soybeans, hogs, or horses. It’s just with the horses it takes a long time. It takes three years to make a yearling.”
And for every Leslie’s Lady—the 20-year-old dam of Beholder; successful stallion Into Mischief; and $1.1 million yearling Leslie’s Harmony (by Curlin)—there are fields full of mares that don’t work out and yearlings that don’t bring their studs fee when taken to market.
Breeders put untold hours into a tough business and are the first cog in the wheel that gets horses to the racetrack. Foaling mares in the numbing temperatures of winter goes hand in hand with prepping yearlings in summer’s heat and humidity. A lot can go wrong in three years. Stallions go cold; mares don’t catch; a million things can happen to a yearling on the farm. And as a horse’s life cycle turns to racing, breeders rarely see the fruits of their labor live.
For example, Mitchell, along with his wife, Nancy, her daughter Marty Buckner, and Marty’s husband, Matt Ernst, have only seen B. Wayne Hughes’ Beholder race live once in her 22 starts—in the 2013 Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) at Churchill Downs. Even after she flipped in the post parade, the Mitchells remain amazed the filly was able to run second that day.
The rest of the races they’ve seen, like a lot of racing fans, on television.
For the Vanity mother nature is the only spoiler. A heavy downpour hit Clarkland Farm with a few minutes to post, knocking out the Dish television signal. Technology prevailed as the family gathered around a laptop computer and a smartphone.
Beholder, as she had 16 times before, wins under wraps. After some brief applause and minor crowing—“He never even asked her for run”—Fred rises and holds Nancy’s hand. They embrace and Nancy says, “That was my best birthday present,” which had been celebrated the day before. Fred sits back down but pops up again quickly to watch the replay.
There is one lighthearted complaint to the convivial evening—Fred points out that as a 6-year-old mare Beholder is no longer eligible to receive state breeder awards. Fred figures the farm has collected more in state awards and Breeders’ Cup breeder awards than Beholder sold for as a yearling.
As Fred and Nancy head for the door, Nancy stops to gather the leftovers of a chocolate cake from her birthday.
“Gotta go out and give the old mare a peppermint,” Fred said, adding sweetness to a Saturday night in the Bluegrass.