Whenever I got the phone call from Mary Agnes in William T. Young's office, asking if I had time to stop by to chat, I knew I was in for an interesting afternoon. Young usually wanted to challenge me on something I wrote, hoping to convince me that I was wrong.
He loved to debate issues and almost always won.
One day we were talking about the economics of the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry and he remarked how tough a business it was. I told him he had it made in the shade the day Storm Cat, who died today at the age of 30, was retired to stud at his Overbrook Farm in Lexington.
I thought he was going to come out of his chair.
“Had it made?” he almost yelled. “I had to practically beg people to breed to that horse.”
Of course, he was right…as usual.
Young went on to tell me how, in those early years at stud, Storm Cat was a forgotten horse. His claim to fame on the racetrack had come in 1985 when the son of Storm Bird out of the brilliant Secretariat mare, Terlingua, captured the Grade 1 Young America at Meadowlands and was beaten a nose by Tasso in the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Aqueduct.
Storm Cat subsequently was injured, but Young and trainer Jonathan Sheppard brought him back a year later. He won an allowance race but was off the board in a minor stakes, then suffered another setback. They put him back in training with hopes of running in 1987, but Storm Cat never raced again. So, when he entered stud in 1988 in the depths of an economic downturn for bloodstock, breeders wanting to know “what have you done for me lately?” got the answer: “Not much.”
Not only that, but Young initially overpriced Storm Cat, putting a $30,000 stud fee for a horse that hadn't won a stakes in more than two years. As Young's longtime adviser, Ric Waldman, said, “Sometimes the stud fee is a function of ego as much as market analysis.”
Young called friends. He foal-shared, made deals, and bred his own mares to the horse. Just as he believed in Storm Cat as a racehorse, he believed in him as a stallion. His first crop consisted of 44 named foals.
The fact Young still owned Storm Cat was serendipitous. He bred the horse and planned to sell him at the 1984 Keeneland July selected yearling sale. But that was the year equine viral arteritis hit Kentucky, and yearlings were tested before being accepted for the sale. When Storm Cat tested positive, Young was told he'd have to withdraw the colt.
He wasn't very happy at the time, but said, “Okay, I'll just race him.”
From Storm Cat's first crop of foals came a filly named Joy Baby, who broke her maiden in an early season 2-year-old allowance race, then captured the Jean Lafitte Futurity against colts in late March at Delta Downs. She was the first of many stakes winners for Storm Cat and helped jump start his career.
His third crop of foals hit the motherlode when Sardula won the Kentucky Oaks and Tabasco Cat the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
“After that it was like shooting ducks,” said Waldman, who also had a hand in managing the stallion books of Storm Cat's grandsire, Northern Dancer, when he worked at Windfields Farm.
“Every great stallion seems to have a story like that,” Waldman said about Storm Cat's fortuitous scratch from the Keeneland sale. “E.P. Taylor put two yearlings in a ring, one of them being Northern Dancer, and said buyers had a choice. The buyer chose the other horse.”
Young died in 2004, a few years after selling 25 lifetime breeding rights in Storm Cat to Coolmore and a group of Kentucky breeders. Before then, he'd been the sole beneficiary of Storm Cat's rise in commercial popularity, which peaked when the horse's live foal stud hit $500,000 in 2002. He was the horse of a lifetime, both in the revenue he produced for Young and Overbrook and the influence he had on the Thoroughbred breed.
Young liked to say that Storm Cat made him look like a genius, but he was a smart and savvy businessman who could be very persuasive when he needed to be. He made Storm Cat just as much as Storm Cat made Young and Overbrook Farm such a force in the breeding world.
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