For anyone looking for a feel-good horse to get behind this Breeders' Cup weekend, here's a mare who just might fit the bill. Her name is Cambodia, and while she was never expected to even look through a starting gate, she'll be breaking from one on Saturday in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf (G1).
With recent wins in the John C. Mabee Stakes (G2) and Yellow Ribbon Handicap (G2), both at Del Mar, the daughter of War Front has earned the respect of horsemen and handicappers alike, as her 8-1 morning line odds would suggest.
For owner Don Robinson, his admiration for the 5-year-old homebred runs much deeper.
While Robinson and his Winter Quarter Farm are known for raising and selling quality horses, such as Grade 1 winners Golden Pheasant, Vicar, Matty G, Balance and Zenyatta, it is not often that one carries his own silks around the racing oval, as he discussed in a Paulick Report Connections story.
Robinson is a hands-on horseman through and through. Growing up on the farm he now owns and being one of the first members of Lexington's United States Pony Club chapter, his love for horses began early and has only grown over time.
For Robinson, it's about so much more than the horses. From the hay he grows to the mares he foals out, his knowledge and respect for agriculture runs deep.
“The land is one of our biggest assets here in the Bluegrass. It allows us to raise superior forage animals, whether they be horses, cattle – anything that gets its nutrients from consuming the grass,” said Robinson. ”We have refined the model from 'forage animals' to Thoroughbred horses. The best ones in the world come from here in Central Kentucky. That's not because we're smarter. It's because of our land.”
As the board chairman of the Fayette Alliance, Robinson has been one of the area's strongest proponents of protecting the Bluegrass's signature farmland from urban sprawl. It is natural, then, his love of horses stems from an admiration of the land they're raised upon.
It was also natural, then, that when his yearling filly by War Front, who was out of a female family known for producing hard-knocking, durable offspring, x-rayed with a lack of bone density in her stifle, he put his faith in the land.
“We typically breed to sell, but when [Cambodia] x-rayed with a lucency in her stifle, it would have been detrimental at the sale. People look for reasons not to buy a horse, and that was a pretty good reason,” said Robinson, who estimates that typically half of the yearlings he's seen with such an issue have had it resolve over time. The other half are often well-suited for lower-intensity careers. “So, I turned her out and left her be while we focused on the others heading to the yearling sales.”
Nutrient-rich soil and time can do wonders. Winter Quarter's herd of retirees is living proof of that.
From retired broodmares in the twilight of their lives to a gelding whose career came to an end before it began and everything in between, the 20-25 horses living out their days at Winter Quarter are a testament to the land upon which they've been raised.
“Some are our own horses, and some are owned by clients. Between them all, it's a whole mix of characters,” laughed Robinson. “We've got a pair of geldings right now that we're rehabbing for Arnold Zetcher. Once they're 100%, they will go to New Vocations to be adopted out. We try to support aftercare in every way that we can.”
The time to mature and take in what the land had to offer did Cambodia a world of good. As the yearling sales season came to a close and breaking season began, Robinson was pleased that not only was the stifle a non-issue, but she had matured into a very promising young filly. He had his team start her under saddle with the other horses in her crop on the farm, then turned her back out for the winter when the others shipped down to Florida to begin their on-track training.
“She was so balanced and did things so easily – all of my riders loved her, but we didn't want to push her too hard, too soon. She was definitely one of the stars in the group,” said Robinson about the horse he had bred in partnership with longtime client and friend Eric Kronfeld.
The other standout of the group, ironically, was Avenge, a fellow daughter of War Front who is also slated to make her next start in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Purchased by Ramona Bass for $650,000, Avenge was sent to Winter Quarter by Bass to be broke. The 5-year-old has won the last two installments of the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive Stakes.
When Kronfeld passed away in 2013, he left his half of the filly to Robinson, who invited his childhood friend and avid handicapper Alan Schubert to become his partner in the filly. The men were excited about her potential but conservative with her training.
It wasn't until fall of her 3-year-old season that Cambodia made her first start, winning just two months later.
“We took it slowly with her waiting to see if the stifle would ever be an issue, but to this day it hasn't bothered her one bit,” said Robinson. “We ran her the first few times on the dirt, but her pedigree suggests she'd like the turf. She won her first race on the grass, then her second and her third. It was really something to see everything come to fruition.”
Since switching to the turf, Cambodia has never finished off the board. Trainer Tom Proctor, who has trained several other members of her family, has continued Robinson's conservative approach. It seems to be working, as her accomplishments since May alone include three graded stakes scores.
“We've been lucky to breed and raise horses that have gone on to achieve tremendous success for other people and that is incredibly rewarding because we think of them almost like our own, but I've never had one make it to this level in the sport that I've actually owned myself,” said Robinson. “It's really something to own a horse that can run like she can. It is a dimension of the sport that, until now, I'd never really experienced. I've felt close to all the horses I've raised, but this one is really special.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. While she currently has no plans to build an ark, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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