In the music industry, superstars don't come along that often, and being able to spot a budding star before anyone else is a rare and coveted skill.
After decades of experience with a record company and a lifetime at the racetrack, owner/breeder Stewart Madison has a unique understanding of the similarities between both worlds.
“There's a lot of speculation in both businesses,” he said. “The music business has artists you've never heard of that become very famous. Horses do the same thing. Horses you've never heard of unexpectedly become great horses.”
Madison hopes a colt he bred might have a shot at stardom — at least the first Saturday in May kind. Off to a nearly perfect start as a juvenile, Airoforce appears to have what it takes to be a serious contender on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. The son of Colonel John has three victories from four starts, including a convincing win in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last month. His only loss so far is a neck defeat to well-regarded European invader Hit It A Bomb in the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
While Madison doesn't have personal ties to Airoforce's trainer Mark Casse or owner John Oxley, he has been following the colt's progress since his Cuvee mare Chocolate Pop produced the colt and Airoforce was sold as a yearling for $20,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton October Sale.
“All I have is hope for him, and I think he's a very legitimate horse,” Madison said. “If you get in the horse business, you always dream of something like this.”
While he's never bred a Derby contender, Madison does have a few success stories to tell. A decade ago, his homebred mare Happy Ticket finished first or second in nine graded stakes on her way to earning more than $1.6 million. Her resume included a victory in the G1 Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga and a second in the 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff.
“When you get a horse like Happy Ticket, those come along very, very seldom,” Madison said. “You dream something like that's going to work, and it did. I bred her and raced her and went to 8 or 9 different tracks with her.”
Madison grew up going to Louisiana racetracks with his family in the 50s and 60s and after launching his career in the music industry, he got into ownership buying claiming horses with friends.
His first yearling purchase in 1990 was Vivid Imagination, whose dam Imagining would later produce champion and Hall of Famer Serena's Song. Madison credits a lot of his success to the late David Greathouse of Glencrest Farm, who picked out Vivid Imagination, Chocolate Pop and other horses for him through the years.
Since Airoforce was born, Chocolate Pop has produced a full sister who is now a yearling, a weanling half-brother by First Samurai, and she's currently in foal to Sidney's Candy. Despite remaining active in the game, Madison has reduced his broodmare band from about a dozen to five — split between Glencrest in Kentucky and Channon Farm near Shreveport.
“It's not a cheap business to have, and I've had plenty of horses and more luck than most people,” he said. “I feel more comfortable having less than more.”
Madison hasn't quit his day job either, as director of business affairs for Malaco Music Group, the Jackson, Miss., record label he's worked for since 1978. The likes of Paul Simon, Dorothy Moore, and the Pointer Sisters have come through Malaco's studios over the years.
“Mostly rhythm and blues, blues and black gospel. That's basically what we've done for 40 years,” he said. “Most of the artists are our own artists, so we're like a traditional record company. We have our own studios and distribution.”
Or in the Thoroughbred business, you might say “homebred.”
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