Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: The ‘Fly On The Wall’ Behind West Coast

by | 08.31.2017 | 1:59pm
General Manager Bill Landes has spent four decades at Hermitage Farm

Just through the door of the refurbished black and red-trimmed farmhouse, the welcoming foyer is comfortably furnished with wide leather furniture set against polished wood-paneled walls. A cursory glance reveals an eye-catching pair of paintings, each of a single Thoroughbred in strikingly red blinkers posing artfully against a pitch-black background. From there, the eye naturally wanders along a collection of winner's circle photographs adorning three of the room's four walls.

Some pictures are a bit faded, but the names inscribed therein still ring true. Among the Grade 1 winners are a Kentucky Derby conqueror, a Kentucky Oaks victress, several Breeders' Cup champions and million-dollar earners, several more multi-million-dollar sales yearlings, an Irish champion, and even an Irish Classic winner.

Down the hall, general manager Bill Landes cracks a broad smile over the mountains of paperwork on his weathered desk, tilting his computer screen to show off the next picture he'll add to that Wall of Fame. Last Saturday's Grade 1 Travers winner West Coast will get a prominent placing; the colt was bred and raised at Hermitage Farm.

Located just outside Louisville in Goshen, Ky., Hermitage has been a working farm for nearly two centuries. Currently owned by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, Hermitage's title also went through Carl Pollard, owner from 1994-2010 and West Coast's breeder. The late Warner Jones originally purchased the property in 1936, and it is his legacy of hard work and innovation which began the farm's transformation into a high-class Thoroughbred breeding operation.

Arguably Jones' greatest accomplishment was 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star, who has the honor of being the only horse to defeat the great Native Dancer. The dark brown horse was 25-1 that first Saturday in May, but took the lead out of the starting gate and never relinquished it, holding off the Dancer's run by a head at the wire.

“West Coast's picture will go up there right next to Dark Star,” proclaimed Landes, a fixture at Hermitage for the past forty years. “Mr. Jones would have been proud.”

Dark Star was from the first crop of Australian champion Royal Gem II, a Caulfield Cup champion and winner of 23 of his 51 starts. Jones him imported to stand at Hermitage for the 1950 season. He was out of the mare Isolde, who won 14 of her 66 starts. By leading sire Bull Dog, Isolde is out of Kentucky Oaks, Latonia Oaks and Latonia Derby winner Fiji, by Bostonian.

Dark Star, seen here, famously handed Native Dancer his only career loss

Dark Star brought $6,500 as a yearling at the Keeneland Summer sale from Harry Guggenheim, under whose colors he captured the Run for the Roses. Dark Star bowed a tendon in the Preakness and was retired to stud at Claiborne Farm, which fostered a long-standing friendship and business relationship between Jones and the Hancock family.

Though Jones has taken his place among the horsemen in the sky, Landes provides a special link to the forward-thinking horseman: He's worked at Hermitage since 1977 and served as Jones' right-hand man for a number of years. He is one of the few to have been privy to the inner workings of Jones' mind and has lived and breathed the farm's legacy for the past four decades.

A native of York, Pa., Landes remembers being 17 years old when he figured out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

“I took a right-hand turn into Hunt Valley in Maryland,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what is this all about. This is my heaven.'”

Landes' love of the horses and the land propelled him into the gig at Hermitage, and he spent his next 18 years working under Jones, the latter ones as the farm's general manager.

“It was always Mr. Jones' farm,” Landes said. “He was an aggressive manager of his stallions, breeding 80 to 90 mares in a season before large books became a popular thing, and he was a commercial breeder back before there were commercial breeders. It used to be that to buy a nice horse you had to go to someone and buy it privately, or breed it yourself. Mr. Jones was one of the first men to raise horses to sell (Hermitage first sent horses to auction in 1937)… And he was so competitive.”

One aspect of Jones' genius, Landes explained, was that despite his competitive nature the man was unafraid to seek the advice of his peers. Landes recalled a time during which Keeneland gave away an annual golden award to the seller of the most expensive horse. Jones watched as Dr. E.W. Thomas, who owned Matron Farm just off the rear of Keeneland's property, took home that award two years in a row.

“The very next week,” said Landes, “Dr. Thomas was in Jones' office. He asked him what the secrets of his success were, and what Dr. Thomas said I'll never forget: ‘Whatever I take out of the soil, I put back in.'”

Nutrient management in the soil became an enormous part of Jones' program at Hermitage. Landes started out taking samples to a local lab, then spent hours tracking down the exact type of lime or mineral needed to balance what the horses were taking out of the ground, primarily nitrogen. To this day, Landes believes soil management is a non-negotiable aspect of the farm's maintenance.

Several years after Landes' arrival, he played a major role in a world-record yearling sale. Seattle Dancer, a Nijinsky II half-brother to Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, was bred in partnership by Jones, William Farish and William Kilroy. The colt brought a final bid of $13.1 million at the 1985 Keeneland July sale (he would go on to win a Group 2 and Group 3 in Ireland, closing out his career with a Group 1 placing in France).

Seattle Dancer brought more than $13 million at the 1985 Keeneland July Sale

“He knew everybody in the business, and I got to draft along and meet them all,” Landes said. “I was responsible for being Mr. Jones' scribe in those meetings, and sometimes even over the phone with Mr. Hancock. I was the fly on the wall.”

Another of Jones' most successful ventures was the decision to stand Raja Baba at Hermitage. A multiple stakes winner for owner/breeder Michael G. Phipps (cousin of Ogden Phipps), the 1968 son of Bold Ruler ran out a record of 41-7-12-9 and total earnings of $123,287. Phipps sold the horse to William Farish near the end of his career, and Farish sold a 50 percent interest to Warner Jones.

In 1972, Raja Baba was syndicated for 36 shares at $10,000 each. It would prove to be a bargain: he became leading freshman sire in 1976, and after becoming one of Landes' primary responsibilities, champion sire in 1980. In total, Raja Baba sired 62 stakes winners and two champions in a career cut short by fertility issues in 1987. The stallion lived to the ripe old age of 34 and is buried at Hermitage.

One of the last Grade 1 winners bred by Jones was sired by Raja Baba. Is It True, out of stakes winner Roman Rockette, brought $550,000 from D. Wayne Lukas at the 1987 Keeneland July yearling sale. He won the '88 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs for owner Eugene Klein, and later the Jim Dandy Stakes, before he was sold again for $1 million at the Keeneland breeding stock sale. After standing in Australia for five years, Is It True began shuttling to the U.S., and his second crop on home soil produced Grade 1-winning millionaire and sire Yes Its True.

“That was quite an education, through Raja Baba and the July sale, and all those high-flying yearling sales,” Landes said. “And Tom Shartle was our farm manager here, and Tom was one of the hardest working men I've ever met in my life, and dedicated. He kind of set a standard for a farm manager; he had his way, and it was hard work with no shortcuts. I learned an awful lot from him.”

(Shartle's nephew, Brian Knippenberg, now serves as Hermitage's farm manager: “He does an excellent job,” Landes said.)

Landes was key in dispersing 130 head of Jones' breeding stock at Keeneland in 1987, for a total of $32.6 million. Jones passed away in 1994.

Carl Pollard took over the helm at Hermitage later that year. He and Jones had a couple of similarities: both served as the chairman of the board of Churchill Downs, Inc., and both committed to caring for their employees, taking special interest in the education of farm workers' children.

“Oh, Mr. Jones always loved watching the children growing up on the farm,” Landes recalled. “And Mr. Pollard, he founded a scholarship at the University of Kentucky for children of full-time farm workers, and he's a booster for the Horse Farm Workers' Educational Fund.”

Pollard has been active with aftercare as well, including a grant-matching program with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. As recently as March 2017, Pollard privately re-purchased a 9-year-old gelding named Son of a General who had been struggling in the claiming ranks at Parx. The gelding is a half-brother to Justwhistledixie, dam of Grade 1 winner New Year's Day and multiple Grade 2 winner Mohaymen. Son of a General was rehabbed at the farm and is in the process of retraining for a new career.

When he first took over Hermitage, Pollard briefly attempted to follow Jones' example in the stallion market, but it was not meant to be.

“Things had changed from Mr. Jones' time,” Landes said. “Mr. Jones could stand a stallion and make him work without going to Lexington… He could syndicate a horse without touching Lexington. That just wouldn't work anymore.”

Pollard's approach to the bloodstock game became two-pronged, according to Landes. He sent bloodstock agent Mike Ryan to the sales to pick out female racing prospects, and he sent Landes to other sales for broodmares.

“Actually, looking back, I think we had more success breeding out of the race mares,” Landes laughed.

One of the mares picked out by Ryan was Caressing, a 1998 daughter of Honour and Glory bred by Brereton Jones. She commanded $180,000 as a yearling, and the next year carried Pollard's colors to victory in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Caressing's first two foals did not survive, but she foaled a filly in 2005 by Storm Cat. My Goodness brought $475,000 as a yearling at Keeneland, and though she won a single race in the U.S. she has since become a graded stakes producer in Japan.

“It seemed like something clicked after that foal,” said Landes. “She started producing bigger and better stock after that.”

Her 2007 Distorted Humor filly named Fun Affair was a winner, and Caressing later produced a pair of stakes-placed runners in Gold Hawk (2011 Empire Maker) and Juan and Bina (2012 Indian Charlie).

Caressing foaled the future Travers winner West Coast in 2014.

West Coast as a yearling

The other side of West Coast's breeding is, of course, Claiborne stallion Flatter. Landes had continued the relationship with Claiborne and the Hancocks after Warner Jones' death, so when Bernie Sams came calling at the 2003 Thoroughbred Club of America dinner peddling shares in a new young stallion, Landes didn't hesitate. He and Pollard each purchased a share in the son of A.P. Indy that same evening.

Flatter hadn't done much on the racetrack to merit a stallion career, winning several allowance races and placing in a Grade 2 stakes, but the fact was that Claiborne had decided to stand the horse.

“If he was good enough for Seth Hancock, he was more than good enough for me,” Landes declared.

West Coast was born on May 14, a relatively late foal. Keeneland traditionally comes to inspect Hermitage's stock for the sale on Memorial Day, and the agents were concerned about his foal date.

“They said, ‘He is either going to stay back or he'll blossom,'” said Landes. “Luckily, he blossomed. I remember looking at him in the paddock and thinking, ‘Boy, what a man.'”

Agent Ben Glass went to $425,000 for the colt on behalf of Gary and Mary West, who in turn sent him to trainer Bob Baffert. On Saturday, West Coast scored the biggest win of his career in a dominating Travers victory, running his record to five wins from seven starts with earnings just shy of $1 million.

“When I saw him in the paddock, he looked unbelievable,” Baffert said in the post-race press conference. “You could tell he was like a man amongst boys. He looked the part. I mean, he was a specimen when he came onto that track. And the breeding, his mother, he's out of a great mare.”

Caressing was not bred back in 2015 but has a 2016 colt on the ground for Pollard sired by Carpe Diem.

Pollard, now 78, sold Hermitage to entrepreneurs Brown and Wilson in 2010 (Pollard maintains his bloodstock operation with Landes on the property). The couple also own several mares and have expanded the farm's vision to include an event venue, international combined driving competition, and they have long-term plans of a locally-sourced restaurant in a refurbished barn loft.

Landes has taken it all in stride, focusing his diverse education on maintaining Hermitage as the red-and-black jewel of Louisville. A relic of the past who has found his place in the modern world, Landes stands as a brilliant example of Warner Jones' legacy in Kentucky. Already looking forward to the next breeding season, Landes will quietly keep adding to the legacy that is Hermitage Farm.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Hermitage's old farm manager as Tom “Shorter,” instead of the correct Tom Shartle.

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