The moment that defined the decades of commitment and dedication by the late Edward P. “Ned” Evans to the Thoroughbred industry may not have occurred in the winner's circles of Saratoga or Belmont or Gulfstream Park. It happened late on the afternoon of Nov. 7, 2009, at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, far away from his Spring Hill Farm in Casanova, Va., or the boardrooms of major businesses Evans ran in New York City.
Evans watched in shock as his homebred colt Quality Road refused to load into the starting gate for the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic, became increasingly agitated, and was scratched from a race that could have launched him into Horse of the Year consideration.
“It was like a kick in the teeth,” said Chris Baker, the Spring Hill Farm manager who sat alongside Evans in the Santa Anita stands as the gate mishap unfolded before them. “It would have been easy for someone to take weeks or months to recover from the shock of what happened. But Mr. Evans said ‘We're staying the course.'”
For Evans, “staying the course” meant looking at the big picture, the long term, nurturing the band of broodmares and foals he so carefully and skillfully put together and produced, culling those who failed to yield the desired results and looking to add strength to those already in the fold. A single setback like Quality Road's, even if played out on the national stage, was no reason to change.
A few days after the Breeders' Cup debacle, Evans was at Keeneland, spending more than $3.5 million on four mares and a weanling from the Overbrook Farm dispersal of the late William T. Young.
“That said so much about his resilience and dedication,” Baker said. “He was getting more and more confidence in what his investments could do for him. In some ways, he was just ramping up, just hitting his peak. He was driven to be at the top of the game.”
Less than a year later, Evans learned he had acute myeloid leukemia. He died in December 2010, leaving behind a legacy of a Thoroughbred racing and breeding operation – more than 100 stakes winners were bred in his name – that few people in this industry will ever match.
The bloodlines will carry on. Quality Road entered stud at Lane's End Farm in 2011, and the foals and mares that Evans owned and bred at his Virginia farm will be dispersed, beginning this September at the Keeneland yearling sale and continuing in the breeding stock sale in November. It's a rare opportunity for owners and breeders to acquire bloodlines so carefully cultivated over several decades.
But there's more to it than that, of course. The 2,700-acre Spring Hill Farm – which began in 1969 with the purchase of a parcel of land not far from the Buckland Farm owned by Evans' father, Thomas Mellon Evans – wasn't just about the horses. The farm had a full-time staff of 30 employees, most of whom lived on the property with their families. It supported veterinarians, feed companies, farriers, vanning companies, and more. Since Evans had no heirs, the farm is being put up for sale, and only a few maintenance people will remain once the last of the horses leave in November.
It's a difficult time for everyone associated with Spring Hill Farm.
“We all know the end is in sight,” Baker said, “but we're all so proud of what was accomplished here. This was a team thing, everyone knows that. We're all a lot better off for having had the opportunity.”
Last Saturday at Colonial Downs, the Virginia Thoroughbred Association held its annual awards ceremony, honoring the 2010 Virginia-bred champions, an event traditionally dominated by horses bred by Evans (he had been named Virginia breeder of the year nine of the last 11 years). This year was no exception, with Evans homebreds winning five Virginia-bred championships, including Quality Road as 2010 Virginia-bred Horse of the Year.
The only thing different was that the “boss” was missing. In his place, Robert S. “Shell” Evans was on hand for a ceremony in which his brother was inducted into the Virginia Equine Hall of Fame. A group of Spring Hill Farm employees took a bus to the track for one last celebration of sorts and had a group photo taken in the winner's circle.
“It was Shell's idea to bring everybody into the winner's circle for a photo,” Baker said. “It was a nice gesture, but certainly a bittersweet moment.”
Anyone who knew Ned Evans, has stories about his eccentricities. “He wasn't the most gregarious or warm guy,” Baker said. “But if you look at what he did and how he did it, if you understand the game, you'll see he provided a template for success with what he did.
“I don't know how he could have gotten more bang for his buck than he got. He never skimped on what horses needed and was very value-oriented on stud fees. He believed that if you had the right mare, you needed an acceptable stallion – not the greatest or most expensive. He would go against the grain of commercial trends and didn't follow trends or fads, in breeding or veterinary medicine. He stayed the course in what he thought was right, and that was a big reason for the success he enjoyed.”
Baker, who was hired as Spring Hill's manager in 2000, recalled the time Evans bought a yearling filly and Baker remarked how he thought they got good value. “Mr. Evans said, ‘We'll know her value in about 10 years' – once she's raced a few years, then entered the breeding shed and produced a few foals. He looked at it as a 10-year picture.
“His basic principles were learned from his father (a hard-nosed businessman and among the first to conduct hostile corporate takeovers), who worked under the assumption that he was as smart or smarter than the next guy. He went to great lengths to educate himself in the horse business and had his father's independent business mind.”
Baker said Evans looked for mares with size and substance. “He was forgiving somewhat of pedigree if their racing performance was strong, although he would take a chance on a mare if she had a strong third dam. Our culling decisions were based on a mare's progeny performance more than anything else. He wouldn't give them forever. If you didn't see something in their first few foals, he wasn't afraid to cull, but he would give some mares a couple more years if they had reasons or excuses. You may see some unraced mares, but in a lot of cases those horses were really fast and trained well but bowed or got injured before they raced. He would always try and breed soundness into a mare like that.”
When he died, it was announced Evans was giving $50 million to Yale University's School of Management, the largest gift in the school's history (he was a Yale graduate who then went to the Harvard Business School). His gift to the Thoroughbred industry will be the bloodlines that continue to produce outstanding racehorses for generations to come.
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