(Originally published in the March 26, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
One of the most distinct memories Thoroughbred owner/breeder John Gunther has of Triple Crown hopeful Stay Thirsty as a foal is watching the dark bay son of Bernardini run in huge, spirited circles around his paddock on warm spring afternoons at Glennwood Farm near Versailles, Ky.
“I remember thinking, ‘This foal looks like he could be a racehorse,’ ” said Gunther, 65, who after the colt won the March 5 Gotham Stakes (gr. III) in preparation for the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) felt a twinge of regret for having sold Stay Thirsty.
But Gunther, a Canadian native who has kept a relatively low profile over the years in the Thoroughbred industry despite his continued achievements, knows selling can be an important factor in helping a breeder stay successful in the long term.
“It happens; it’s a part of the business—you’ve got to sell some of the good ones to pay for the other ones,” said Gunther, who also bred grade I winner First Samurai and co-bred champion Stevie Wonderboy and sold those two horses before they began their racing careers.
Gunther, who first entered the racing industry as a fan in the 1960s, bred the Mike Repole-owned Stay Thirsty in partnership with his son, John Darren Gunther Jr. The elder Gunther is now relishing how the colt is continuing to make the family-run operation proud.
Glennwood, which Gunther purchased in 1991, may be a relatively small operation compared to its gargantuan neighbors Ashford Stud and Diamond A Farms, but its mission is to never skimp on quality. When asked how he had managed to stay strong in the Thoroughbred business in light of the struggling economy, Gunther, with a humble demeanor, chalked it up to having retained many of his successful racemares for Glennwood’s broodmare band.
“I kept a lot of the good mares I raced that won and placed in graded stakes instead of selling them, and I bred them to the upper end of the various stallions in Kentucky,” explained Gunther. Some of his best mares are Stay Thirsty’s dam Marozia, grade II winner Bending Strings, and grade I-placed Magical Illusion, who have produced foals by such stallions as Indian Charlie, Distorted Humor, Bernardini, and Medaglia d’Oro.
Glennwood keeps between 75 and 90 head of horses at the farm, the majority of which are owned by Gunther and his family. The farm offers boarding, consigns horses, and provides mating advice and bloodstock representation for a select number of clients, however.
In recent years Gunther’s daughter, Tanya, has also been an integral part of the operation. Tanya left her investment banking job in London in 2008 to help run her father’s Kentucky farm, and her expertise in pedigrees has helped tremendously in purchasing promising new racehorse and broodmare prospects.
Tanya also aids her father in choosing matings for their mares each year.
“There is both science and art to the matings for our mares in the form of the gut feeling that goes into these decisions, and I enjoy the challenge this presents,” she said. “If we get it right, maybe with a little luck, we might breed an extraordinary horse one day.”
This year John Gunther is particularly high on Marozia’s 2-year-old Mr. Greeley colt, which he decided to withdraw from the 2010 Keeneland September yearling sale after seeing Stay Thirsty’s racetrack potential.
“I decided to take a chance racing (the Mr. Greeley colt),” said Gunther, who currently has 25-30 horses in training. “On a physical aspect, he’s probably the best yearling I ever raised, an absolute standout. He’s just imposing to look at—he’s got everything that you would hope for.”
Gunther, who is president of Jones, Gable & Company, a stock brokerage and investment banking firm in Vancouver, has felt distanced at times from his Thoroughbred operation due to his demanding work schedule. But he has recently been traveling more frequently to Glennwood, especially when the yearlings are being broken and the 2-year-olds are being prepped for the racetrack by Jose Fernandez at Calumet Farm near Lexington.
“Jose does a tremendous job, and having your horses in training close to the farm works out well because we can go over there and be more hands-on,” Gunther said.
Changes at Glennwood in recent years include the purchase of adjoining land to expand the property to 330 acres; adding two more barns to its three already existing facilities; and adding a new farm manager, Ricky Payne.
“I think we’re pretty well set up now,” said Gunther when asked about future plans for Glennwood. “We’ve got enough room and enough barns, and a new farm manager that is doing a tremendous job.
“I might buy another four or five mares in the next year or two,” he added. “If I end up racing a couple more graded stakes mares, I would keep them and end up breeding them as well, so I might get up to about 20.”