Anymore, most horses you see on the track are racing for an owner who bought them at a sale. The game needs auctions to continue because many of the players aren't interested in the breeding aspect of the industry. They only want to race.
For instance, the marathon Keeneland September yearling sale is currently in its second week. Horses are swapping hands, money is being spent, and the sale continues to validate its revered place on the calendar. After all, at the start of September, 91 horses that trotted through that auction ring as yearlings have gone on to win graded/group stakes to date in 2013, including 29 Grade/Group 1 winners.
However, what makes this sport so great is that there is no one way to taste success at its highest levels. Take for instance the fascinating case of Ken Ramsey and Kitten's Joy.
Ramsey bred and raced Kitten's Joy, who retired a champion. Although he has a beautiful pedigree and was undeniably talented, Kitten's Joy didn't exactly have breeders falling all over themselves when it came time to send mares to him. Why? He was a turf horse, and most of the time, turf horses are the red-headed stepchildren of the American racing scene.
Unless it is too hot, the horses are out there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and can have ice in their manes. We raise them tough, and they run tough.
”-- Owner Ken Ramsey
A little thing like industry-wide doubt has never stopped Ramsey though. He strategically acquired well-bred fillies that had fallen into the claiming ranks for one reason or another and filled Kitten's Joy's book that way.
It may have been a joke at the time, but no one is laughing now. In August, Ramsey Farm won three Grade 1 races in a single day with three homebred sons of Kitten's Joy, including the Arlington Million. The horse is at the top of all the sire lists and the farm is at the top of the leading breeder and owner lists. After that historic day, a significant statistic came to light: of Kitten's Joy's 38 stakes winners, Ramsey Farm bred 36 of them.
"We are breeding to race, which is quite different from most of the farms," said Ramsey. "Unless it is too hot, the horses are out there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and can have ice in their manes. We raise them tough, and they run tough."
In other words, those 36 stakes winners grew up a bit differently than horses destined for the sales ring. Ramsey and his farm manager, Mark Partridge, never had to worry about making sure those foals' coats didn't get sun-bleached or if they played too rough with their paddock mates. Instead, they focused on letting them be, well, horses.
"We raise them for the race track not the show ring," said Partridge. "That is probably one of the reasons we are doing so well. They are used to running with 30 head in a field. We have 70-acre fields out there that are up and down hill. They are running across there, biting each other as they are running."
Another thing Ramsey takes pride in is the fact that the horses on Ramsey Farm don't drink city water. Instead, they have set up a system to pull water from springs and creeks that are on farm property.
"There is no chlorine, no fluoride, none of that," said Ramsey. "The water is out of springs and creeks that flow from our farm. If given the choice of drinking spring water or city water, they will drink the spring water every time. I drink it myself. If it is good enough for my horses, it is good enough for me."
A perk of being a Ramsey horse is taking daily trips to "Kitten's Spa." Although originally built just for Kitten's Joy, the spa is now used for any horse on the farm. It features an underwater treadmill with whirlpool jets that can be heated in cooler weather, followed by a stint on a vibrating platform that has a solarium-esque heat lamp above it.
"Any muscles that are tense, it will work that out," said Partridge. "In the winter time, the heat is needed because they can't leave here soaking wet. They all love it and find it very relaxing."
Kitten's Joy, of course, gets first dibs at the spa. During the breeding season, he will go three times a week, and in the off-season he goes five.
Right now, the horse that is second in line for the spa is multiple Grade 1 winner and 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf heroine Stephanie's Kitten, who is getting some time off due to bone soreness. After her stint at the spa, she is turned out during the day so she can graze her fill and then is in her stall at night.
"She's enjoying being a horse and having time with 'Dr. Green'," Ramsey said. "She's very gentle, and she is probably the most valuable mare we have on the farm. She's a nice horse, and she could get invited to just about any place she wants to go."
"We want to campaign her next year," confirmed Partridge. "We are thinking about England because if she comes back and wins another Grade 1 in America, it is not that big of a deal. But if she does it in England, it is huge for the stallion."
Stephanie's Kitten's relaxed manner on the farm could be applied to every horse we stopped to visit. From Kitten's Joy to recently weaned foals, all of the horses were content to come up to the fence to say hello.
Ramsey's way might not be the normal way, but it certainly works for both himself and his horses.
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.