A beautifully sunny Saturday at Keeneland greeted Charlotte Weber on April 8 as she arrived in the Blue Grass, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to watch a pair of her Live Oak Stud homebreds compete in some of the country's premier graded stakes action. When both Holding Gold and Awesome Slew crossed the wire first in back-to-back graded races, the smile on Weber's face told the story.
“That's the ultimate satisfaction of most people in racing,” said Live Oak manager Bruce Hill. “Dreaming up the mating, getting the mares in foal, raising them and getting them started, and to win from there. (Mrs. Weber) gets a lot of pleasure out of that.”
It's not the first time Live Oak horses have won back-to-back stakes races. Half-brothers Sultry Song and Solar Splendor, both Live Oak homebreds, recorded a Grade 1 double at Belmont Park on Sept. 19, 1992, taking the Woodward and the Man O' War, respectively. As recently as 2006, half-brothers Revved Up and Miesque's Approval captured consecutive stakes races on the Sept. 9 card at Monmouth Park.
Holding Gold and Awesome Slew may not be directly related, but both are products of Weber's successful breeding program at the Florida-based Live Oak Stud. A 4,700-acre farm in Ocala, Live Oak is home to both blue-blooded Thoroughbreds and approximately 650 head of cattle; both animals represent the passions Weber has been nurturing since she was a child.
A granddaughter of Campbell Soup executive John Dorrance, Weber grew up riding horses in Philadelphia. While several of her cousins and other extended family members were involved in the racing industry, Weber's family was not, though she never let that stand in her way.
“She made a decision to get into the Thoroughbred business when she was very young,” said Hill. “She did her homework and due diligence, and she's a driven and competitive person so she wanted to play in the deep water. And she's built it up; she became successful by rolling her sleeves up and digging into the trenches.”
The acreage which would eventually become Live Oak was originally purchased in 1956 by P.A.B. Widener III, grandson of Hialeah Park's Joseph Widener and the heir to Kentucky's Elmendorf Farm. His father raced the famed Polynesian, sire of Native Dancer, among numerous other champion Thoroughbreds. Widener himself also owned a Montana cattle ranch.
When Widener's wife died in a devastating plane crash in 1963, he decided to sell the Ocala property. Weber and her then-husband, medical school professor Dr. John Weber, were in the market, and met the asking price in 1968. That price also included a herd of approximately 1,000 cattle, which Weber has embraced whole-heartedly and runs as successfully as her Thoroughbred operation to this day.
The farm's first major success came with homebred Laser Light, winner of the 1981 Remsen Stakes (G1) and runner up in the 1982 Kentucky Derby. More Grade 1 success followed with homebreds Solar Splendor and Sultry Song in the early 1990s, but 2005 was when Weber really hit her stride on the national racing scene.
High Fly captured the G1 Florida Derby and returned Live Oak to the Kentucky Derby, where the homebred son of Atticus finished 10th, beaten less than eight lengths. That same year, In The Gold became Weber's first sale purchase to win a Grade 1 in the Gazelle and also ran second in the Kentucky Oaks.
The next two years saw two more top-level winners added to the Live Oak legacy: 7-year-old homebred Miesque's Approval won the Breeders' Cup Mile in 2006, and sale purchase My Typhoon won the G1 Diana.
“We buy outside horses, and we've had success with outside horses as well, but our homebred program really works,” Hill explained, declining to name an exact number of broodmares but calling it “a relatively tidy operation.”
“We don't sell our yearlings: everything that we breed, we break and train and race. So we can do things for horses that other operations can't. They stay outside all the time; they're raised tough. We don't have to hot-house them, and they're just raised in the pastures. I think that's something that's lost on a lot of horses, there's just too much pressure applied.”
Weber's long-standing policy of taking her time with horses has added to her recent successes, led by Grade 1 winners To Honor and Serve, Zo Impressive, World Approval and Victory to Victory. Both she and Hill are cautiously optimistic that Awesome Slew and Holding Gold may be able to add to that legacy over the course of the 2017 season.
“Both horses, from the time they were born have never disappointed. Actually, we think we're just now hitting our best stride with them,” said Hill. “We are poised for a very good year, and that's Mrs. Weber's M.O.: she gives her horses breaks, and so late spring through the fall is her time to make hay, so to speak.”
Awesome Slew will be pointed to the G1 Metropolitan Mile later this year, and hopefully the Breeders' Cup thereafter, according to Hill. Holding Gold's next target appears to be a Derby weekend undercard stakes race.
With approximately 50 horses in training at any given time, Weber has recently begun to consolidate them under trainer Mark Casse. His international, wide-reaching program suits her needs, according to Hill, and the two have a lot of respect for one another. Hill said Weber carries that respect through to her entire staff at Live Oak and beyond.
“Mrs. Weber gives a lot of credit to the grooms, the people who just don't get enough recognition,” he said. “She's a good businesswoman, and she understands the game, but she very well might be the most thoughtful, considerate person I've ever known. And I'm not talking about a person in her station in life, either, I'm talking about anyone. That in itself is enough to create loyalty, and she takes good care of us.”
For example, Weber makes details about her employees' lives a priority, never hesitating to step in and offer assistance if someone's child is sick or has family coming in from out of town.
“She's a good leader, a good boss,” Hill continued. “There's a lot of tenure here and very little turnover, and she's very good to work for. Everybody is completely committed to Mrs. Weber and this farm; it's not about any of us, we get to ride the coattails.”
Weber's passion for the animals has extended through to the aftercare part of the Thoroughbred industry as well. Active in a number of different organizations, she sets the example by ensuring that each of her own horses is well cared for in retirement.
“We've got about 35 or so slow geldings, fast geldings, and old mares, a little bit of everything here,” Hill said. “So all of our horses either find a good home or they live here, win, lose or draw.”
In addition to the cows and Thoroughbreds, Live Oak has become home to an international carriage driving competition each year. Weber's son, Chester, became involved with the sport as a teenager and has earned a silver medal in international competition to become the highest-scoring American ever. The Live Oak International is approaching its 26th year and even added FEI-level show jumping in 2012 to draw a broader audience.
As for Hill, the general manager has been a part of the Live Oak operation for the past nine years and says he wouldn't trade it for anything.
“I'm on a nine-year honeymoon,” he concluded. “This farm and the staff here, they really are a part of her life.”
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