It's Queen's Plate time in Canada, which means that Sam-Son Farm is gathering its forces to find the winner's circle again. But the dominant decades-old Ontario outfit that produced stars like Smart Strike and Dance Smartly, has a new face: leaner, trimmer, even younger as it looks to the future.
The family business isn't about to crumble. Even though Sam-Son hasn't even had a starter in the Queen's Plate, the country's premier race for Canadian-breds, since 2010, this year it's back with all flags flying. Sam-Son has race favorite Up With The Birds set to start in the CAN $1-million race on Sunday at Woodbine, along with up-and-coming stablemate His Race To Win, a 10-1 shot in the morning line.
“I don't think it's any surprise,” said Rick Balaz, president and general manager of Sam-Son Farms. “From my perspective, Sam-Son never went away.”
The farm could have slid from the racing map in Canada after the death of founder Ernie Samuel in 2000, and then of his daughter, Tammy Samuel-Balaz, who ran the operation after her father's death. Samuel-Balaz died at age 47 of cancer in 2008, just a couple of months before her mother, Liza, passed away. In the farm's heyday, it had won 10 Sovereign Awards as leading owner in Canada, and seven times for leading breeder. And it had won five Queen's Plates, the most recent in 2009 with homebred Eye of the Leopard. Samuel-Balaz's husband, Rick Balaz, had only married into horse racing. He preferred automobile horse power to four-legged horse power.
Currrently, the farm is a family affair. Ernie's son, Mark is now the chief executive officer. As the farm righted itself after the death of its principals, it also had to confront a recession. “It's a different world,” Balaz said. “We made a conscious decision to cut back and be more efficient and that's been working for us very well. We've cut our costs back dramatically. I was always of a mind that more horses doesn't always make it better. It's the quality of the livestock that you have.”
Now, Sam-Son has about 100 horses altogether (a far smaller operation than at its peak during the 1990s), with about 27 horses at the track, trained by Malcolm Pierce, and about 30 broodmares. And it employs a small group of dedicated people. Their Canadian farm manager, Dave Whitford, dreams up the matings, using science and a computer, a dollop of knowledge and input, and a feeling that the farm can't get to all of the stallions it wants to. Sometimes it's more cost effective to go to a less expensive but proven stallion. Both of their Queen's Plate entries are sons of Stormy Atlantic, whose stud fee was set at $45,000 when Sam-Son bred their mares to him in 2009. In the past, Sam-Son went to stallions like A.P. Indy or Danzig. It still owns shares in Smart Strike, the leading North American sire in 2007.
The results this year are clear: Sam-Son is having a good year, currently ranking third in the owner standings at Woodbine on the eve of the Plate. Its future may be most secure because of the next generation of racing devotees: Balaz's children, Lisa, 21, and Michael, 19.
Lisa has primarily gravitated to show-jumpers. Between the two, they have five show-jumping horses. Michael's prized mount is The Air Up There, from the last crop of Dutch sire Nimmerdor, voted the stallion of the century in The Netherlands. “He's a relic,” Michael said proudly of the 15-year-old horse he rides in amateur classes. The Balaz offspring spend winters riding in Wellington, Fla.
But it was impossible for them to escape the lure of the racetrack, what with their mother's abiding interest in the sport. When the farm's crack filly, Dancethruthedawn won the Queen's Plate in 2001, it sealed the deal for both of them. It remains Lisa's first Queen's Plate memory, exciting because it meant “girlpower” and the filly was also a daughter of Dance Smartly, once the richest mare in the sport. At the time, Lisa was 10, Michael only 8, with a faint memory of Dance Smartly's son, Scatter the Gold winning in 2000.
“I remember going to the farm as a toddler and playing with the babies,” Lisa said. “I had my own pony at the farm. I was riding since I could walk. For me, it still connects me with my mom.”
But for Michael, racing has become a keen passion. He can't remember a time when he didn't think about horses. Two Queen's Plate winners in a row had an effect on an impressionable 8-year-old. “Without racing, it would just be a very bland life for me,” Michael said. “I've got the showjumpers and everything, but it's not the same without the racehorses.”
He's at the barn every morning. His father says of his children: “They'd love to sleep in a barn. So they're barn rats and they're around it all the time. It comes pretty natural to both of them.”
Balaz says Michael has an “amazing natural aptitude” for the racing game, “certainly far more than I have ever or will ever have.” Michael can recall second-place finishes from four or five years ago. He's familiar with bloodlines.
There are other children in the Samuel family: Mark has two young children, and his sister Kim Samuel-Johnson has an older daughter, Caitlin Samuel-Johnson, who has just started to show an interest and will attend the Plate on Sunday. But Balaz's children have landed in the middle of the sport, because their mother, Tammy, was directly involved with the racing side.
“Obviously, the connection with their mother was very strong,” he said. “That led to them going to the track at a very young age. Going to the track always meant a trip to the backstretch afterwards.”
And after the Plate? The family's Win Or Lose Party, Lisa's favorite part of the game.
Lisa has long said that if Michael does not grow up to be a trainer or have some career with the racing stable, “then something is terribly wrong,” And he has his own thoughts about the Plate prospects, although his favorite horse from the farm's crop of 3-year-olds is Golden Sabre, a Medaglio d'Oro son of his favorite mare, Strike Softly, a versatile stakes winner at Woodbine. Golden Sabre will run in the Charlie Barley Stakes at Woodbine on Saturday.
Michael remembers Up With The Birds (Birdman around the barn) when farm workers were breaking him as a big, lanky colt that just wasn't put together the way he is now. “Racer” (His Race to Win) was tall and very athletic. Up With the Birds wasn't so athletic in the beginning, a tubby sort with a big barrel. But he hasn't put a foot wrong as a racehorse, having won the Coronation Futurity as a 2-year-old over His Race To Win, and earlier this year winning the Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds, a 7 1/2-furlong race on the turf that was really too short for him. He then finished second in the Transylvania Stakes at Keeneland, after being blocked and getting his run in for only sixteenth of a mile. Then, of course, he won the Marine Stakes at Woodbine by almost five lengths, setting him up as a horse to watch on Sunday.
On the other hand, Michael says, His Race To Win might end up being the better horse of the two. After all, he lost the Plate Trial by only a nose when bested by a late-charging Dynamic Sky in the final strides. “He's rapidly improving and he's doing it at the right time,” he said. “He's going the right direction very quickly.”
Currently, Michael is attending first year at University of Guelph, but when he's finished, he'd like to apply for the Darley Flying Start program, an international management training that awards only 12 scholarships annually to youngsters willing to study the global Thoroughbred industry at the highest level.
Michael admits that, eventually, he may become swept up into the Samuel family business. The Samuel Son & Co. Ltd company is a massive firm, the largest family-owned metals distribution and processing company in North America, with 4,800 employees, $2-billion in annual sales and more than 100 centers around the world. “Selling steel doesn't really get me going,” Michael said. “Fast horses do. (The steel company) isn't something I'm actively pursuing. I don't want a desk job. I'm fine being a barn rat.”
All of this bodes well for the future of the farm.
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