By Frank Mitchell
A Thoroughbred breeder and owner for about 40 years, Irving Cowan built his business success on the ownership and management of hotels in South Florida, and he built his breeding and racing operation on outstanding broodmares. The two foundation mares for his international successes are a pair of unraced Mr. Prospector mares named Love From Mom and Miss Wildcatter.
Miss Wildcatter produced champion Hollywood Wildcat (by Kris S.), a winner of the Breeders' Cup Distaff (now the Ladies' Classic) who has produced four stakes winners. Among these are Breeders' Cup Mile winner War Chant (Danzig), European group stakes winner Ivan Denisovich (Danehill), Ministers Wild Cat (Deputy Minister), and Double Cat (Storm Cat). Hollywood Wildcat's yearling filly by the Danzig stallion Hard Spun topped the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling sale at $310,000 last month.
Love From Mom, out of Fantasy Stakes winner Hoso, produced four stakes winners for Cowan, including Dancing Jon (Gate Dancer), Fight for Love (Fit to Fight), Sea of Secrets (Storm Cat), and Love That Jazz (Dixieland Band.) The latter was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and has produced Alabama Stakes winner Society Selection (Coronado's Quest), who also won the G1 Frizette and Test and who will sell as Hip 43 at the Keeneland November sale on Monday.
Frank Mitchell interviewed Cowan by phone at his office in Florida.
What prompted you to get involved with racing and breeding?
While it sounds naïve today, my initial purchases in Thoroughbreds were 35 to 40 years ago, when all the accountants were busy running around selling tax shelters, and the fashionable thing at the time was Black Angus cattle. My family had a feedlot in Denver and were feeding somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 a day.
So I told the accountant, the last thing I need is another cow. Can we do the same thing with horses? One thing leads to another, and you're hooked for a lifetime, and that's how I initially got involved.
I made all the usual mistakes, although you get more involved as you get to know your animals. My wife and I bred to race, not commercially, so you get a kick out of it when you realize that you put it together from conception all the way through to the finished product. And when it turns out to be top-quality horses, you get a nice feeling of pride in racing a homebred.
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How did you come to have a pair of unraced Mr. Prospector mares like Love From Mom and Miss Wildcatter?
Life has some funny twists. Our family was very friendly with [A.I.] “Butch” Savin, who raced Mr. Prospector and syndicated him. And the family bought a share in Mr. Prospector.
We were just getting involved, my father-in-law maybe had two or three mares, and those two broodmares were off that Mr. Prospector share. We remained part of the Mr. Prospector syndicate when he came to Kentucky. We bred to him the first year and owned the share till he died.
It was a different kind of business back then, I sold very few, if any, of the seasons. I mostly bred our own mares to him.
What are your plans for Hollywood Wildcat, who is now 20?
She was the first big one that hit the national scene for us, and she is still making babies and is still a great-looking mare. Even with her age, you'd never believe she was that old.
I've been to see her many times, and when they'd turn the mares out, she went through the gate into the paddock like it was a starting gate. She would run around the paddock for five or 10 minutes, usually with a foal at her side, then she would slow down and graze.
Hollywood Wildcat is a special mare to me because she was the first really big performer. And there is an affinity for what she's done in her career as a broodmare, and I'm going to see to it that she lives out the rest of her life the way she deserves to. That's not a dollar and cents proposition, and she is not for sale. She's more like family.
Hollywood Wildcat is out of Miss Wildcatter. How did you develop the other family out of Love From Mom?
My mother-in-law had Love From Mom initially and left it to my wife. We mated her with Dixieland Band to produce by Love That Jazz. She won the Kentucky Cup [Juvenile Fillies and then ran second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies]. From there, we bred her to Coronado's Quest and produced Society Selection. After winning her maiden, I told Allen Jerkens, who was training Society Selection, that I thought she ought to go in the Frizette. He said, “What?”
I use the Ragozin sheets, have for a long time, and felt she could win that race because of her running style and numbers. He was skeptical but said, “Well, she's your horse. So I'll run.” He started her with the stable exercise rider on Society Selection, and she won nicely.
The next summer, she won the Test at Saratoga, then came right back and won the Alabama. She would go along at her own pace, and when you asked her, she would pick up horses like she just broke.
She is a very good-looking mare but is not heavy-bodied. Society Selection doesn't look big standing in front of you, but if you put a stick on her, it'll raise your eyebrows. She's got those long legs.
Are there particular things you look for in breeding stock?
Of course, everybody wants to look for a well-conformed horse. So you have to look at the sire and dam when you're putting them together to see if they appear compatible to the eye and trying to envision what the mixture is going to bring. I guess if we could all figure it out, we wouldn't have any trouble in the horse racing business.
We generally look for anything that we've bred over the years to be a distance-type pedigree. I'm not talking about a mile and a half horse, although it's OK if you get one. It's looking at [breeding] a horse who can run a mile or a mile and a sixteenth. I generally stay away from pure sprinters because it has worked reasonably well for me, and when you hit a good one, you also have a better shot at syndicating and getting a stallion that is more desirable for the competitive market.
Are there advisers who have made a serious contribution to your program?
Probably during the early years when I could have used them the most, I didn't really have a lot of hired staff. It was more of a hands-on operation, including the mating. I never wanted to own my own farm, because I felt I had enough businesses to keep me busy. Trying to run a farm is a full-time job, and I much preferred to pay somebody else to do it properly and not worry myself about things working out.
Over the last 15 years, I started to use professionals more than I did early on. Information, wherever you can get it, is extremely valuable. I made a lot of mistakes, but a good adviser might have kept me from doing some of those things. I was a subscriber for Jack Werk's program for quite a few years, and we got kind of friendly with him, and I would use his nicking system but not necessarily to pick out the particular stallion.
There are some things you find in your own stock that you think you know better than anyone else, but I used it more as a guide for the family lineage.
What prompted you to disperse?
I've had my share of good ones, and the mares are all well bred with good prospects. If the racing gods are with the buyers, they will be happy. I've set them up as good as I can. We'll follow them and see what goes on.
My wife, whom we lost a year and a half ago, really loved it: going to the races, watching the horses run, and all the excitement. When the partnership gets split up, you lose half your enthusiasm. So it was a good time to withdraw and take a little rest.
Any advice for owners?
It's part of the game to pick out the good stories and savor them because they don't come everyday. We've got a great one out there now: Zenyatta. The Mosses have pretty good nerves because it's time to put your head under the covers and say, “Let me know what happens.” I'd be nervous as hell.
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