PR Special: One on One with Headley Bell
The following feature was originally published in the Paulick Report Special, our print edition distributed at major Thoroughbred auctions
Headley Bell is the managing partner of Mill Ridge Farm, the historic Thoroughbred nursery in Lexington, Ky., founded by his mother, Alice Chandler, and celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012. The grandson of Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley, Bell is also founder of Nicoma Bloodstock, a full-service agency that has represented a variety of commercial and breed-to-race Thoroughbred operations since 1979. His son, Price, who is the sixth generation of the family to turn to the horse business, works with his father at Nicoma.
On the eve of the November bloodstock sale season in Kentucky, Bell took some time to share his views on the breeding business with Ray Paulick. He began with a general comment.
“When considering a mare either to buy or mate you naturally consider many, many factors,” said Bell. “Some of these factors play a greater importance depending on how much money you might have to spend or your long-term goals. The reality is, none of us knows from where the racehorse comes, but this should assist you in making your luck. Naturally, where and how the horse is raised and who becomes the trainer are equally important decisions to consider.”
How is it different buying broodmares for a breed-to-race operation than for a commercial one?
For the most part I treat a breed-to-race operation and a commercial operation as one and the same. The goal in either operation is to breed a racehorse and if you are able to do that it will take care of itself. Naturally, there are occasions where you might compromise slightly either with a broodmare sire or racing performance or pedigree but for the most part I treat them the same.
Which area (commercial vs. breed to race) is more competitive from a buyer's standpoint?
From a buyer's standpoint, I think it is more competitive to buy a commercial broodmare prospect than a breed-to-race broodmare prospect. For most commercial operations they feel as if you have to have more ingredients that the public will accept and thus this narrows the opportunity. For me, I am specific in what I am looking for in a broodmare but feel that it will satisfy either the commercial or breed-to-race operation.
This seems like a very cyclical business, not just in its economics but in what is in fashion. How do you avoid getting caught up in whatever is the flavor of the moment?
Discipline in the Thoroughbred business is rarely emphasized enough. It is very easy to have a herd mentality in following the latest trend of freshman sires or moment stallions or nicks that seem popular. When you consider you are four years in the process from mating to selling a yearling prospect there is significant change in trends. Thus, I spend considerable time trying to anticipate these trends and mate and buy accordingly.
What do you look for in pedigree beyond the first couple of generations of a mare?
There are particular families that I am very attracted to and attempt to get into these families whenever possible. Also, I will look for families that are active and appear to be breeding either legitimate runners or attractive individuals in the sales arena. A tool I used was the Thoroughbred Buyers Guide and now the Blood-Horse Auction Edge… since the Buyers Guide is unfortunately out of business. This gives me a guideline on how active a family is and its depth.
What are some ways to find value in buying mares?
Generally, I find there is value with a large sale and thus an abundance of supply on offer. If you had a limited budget for a mare I will generally compromise with the broodmare sire or possibly the race record if it's an active family and maybe her conformation if I am comfortable with the family. No one really knows from where a runner comes, you are only trying to line up as many positive ingredients as possible to give you the best result, so I weight the value of a mare and its potential accordingly.
How important is the physical match between a mare and stallion?
When I inspect a mare I try to determine what family it resembles based on its color, size and conformation. So often you will look at a mare by a particular broodmare sire and realize there is no resemblance whatsoever. Yet, people rely on nicks ratings as a guide but it may not have any characteristic applicable to the nick. When I am mating a mare I am trying to select a stallion which will strengthen the mare's weaknesses or the family's weaknesses whenever possible.
What are some examples of how you use a stallion to strengthen weakness in a mare or in her family?
I generally select my matings from a group of stallions I find useful that year for one reason or another. Each stallion I consider would have a particular attribute that I find effective for the mating. I will evaluate the mare and determine her needs and choose one to four stallions that I think suit and propose those to clients and discuss this with them.
For example, with Barbaro's mating, La Ville Rouge was a talented race mare by Carson City who was very strong and well balanced but not overly big. For the Jackson's I included Dynaformer with a number of their mares for I felt he was a blue-collar stallion growing to be a first-rate stallion. In the case of La Ville Rouge he provided some size and a good pedigree blend with her, and she would hopefully provide some quality, which he needed with his matings. In a nutshell this is what I attempt to do with each mating.
When you buy a broodmare prospect, do you do so already knowing or having a good idea of what stallion you want to breed her to that first year?
I rarely buy a broodmare with a mating in mind. So often I am buying the broodmare because she is the factory and her matings will come and go depending on the activity in the family or how well she is breeding. There is the rare occasion that I might buy a mare for the foal she is carrying but generally speaking the mare is the foundation and that is my objective to have her for the future.