In one way or another, everyone in the Thoroughbred industry learns on the job. The University of Kentucky's Maine Chance Farm is the rare consignment that makes learning on the job its priority.
The farm, positioned within a stone's throw of Fasig-Tipton's Newtown Paddocks base in Lexington, Ky., affords students the opportunity to get hands-on experience on a working farm and go through the process of foaling, raising, prepping, showing, and eventually selling a young Thoroughbred.
Because it's a learning facility, the Maine Chance broodmare band is on the lower end of the commercial spectrum, but the program has been gathering steam in the public consciousness.
The consignment moved its most expensive offering to date at last year's Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July Selected Yearling Sale when a Northern Afleet colt brought $75,000. Over the past two years, Fear the Cowboy has carried the banner for the Maine Chance grads, becoming a multiple Grade 3 winner and finishing fourth in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes.
“When we started out, we had about 10 horses and grossed about $35,000 if we were lucky,” said Matt Zehnder, Equine Farm Technician at Maine Chance. “One year, I think we grossed about $40,000 for the whole year. Now there's years we're making $200,000 a year.”
Maine Chance Farm had one horse on offer at this year's Fasig-Tipton July sale — Hip 171, a flashy chestnut Mucho Macho Man filly given the barn name Fern, out of the stakes-placed El Corredor mare Charlotte's Di. Like all of the farm's Thoroughbred foals, Fern was conceived on donated stallion season.
Three students handled the walking and grooming duties for the filly under the watch of the farm's staff. Though each had varied equine backgrounds, none of them had dealt with a Thoroughbred hands-on before working for the farm. With a couple sales under their belts though, the group operated like experienced showpeople in the days leading up to the sale.
Jessie Parsons, a senior from West Virginia, had worked with Fern from the filly's earliest days, foaling out babies with Zehnder.
“I've learned everything from this farm, all handling experience,” Parsons said. “That's how it is with most of the students that come here. It's a great experience to handle them as they are foals and watch them grow up and mature into a yearling, and prep them for sales and taking them to the sale ring.”
Brittany Blackwell, a junior from California on track to graduate a year early, came to Maine Chance with a background showing Arabians. She traded off showing duties with Parsons at the sale, and she also worked with the filly from early on.
“She's a very sweet filly,” Blackwell said. “She loves the attention at the farm. She loves all the kids working with her. She's been really good.”
Dakota Isaacs, a senior from Jackson County, Kentucky with a Standardbred background, was on his last tour of duty with the consignment. He helped prep Fern, and decided to stay with Maine Chance until the day after the filly sold. Then, he planned to move on to his next job at Marula Park Stud.
“I'd never really worked with Thoroughbreds until [working at Maine Chance],” Isaacs said. “I started to like them and wanted to work with them a little more hands-on. Ideally, I'd like to run a broodmare farm, so it was a great opportunity to be around the mares and foals.”
Because of its student-driven approach, Maine Chance holds a different vibe from other consignments. There is a genuine feeling of rooting interest from many in the industry, both buyers and fellow consignors, wanting to see the young hands succeed.
Part of that could be supporting a program and a college that has meaning to many in the industry, especially in central Kentucky. Part of it could be cutting students a break from the razor-sharp scrutiny that professional consignors might face. Part of it could be helping nurture new faces in the business that might one day be working for their own operations.
“The consignors are a lot more respectful than you would think,” Isaacs said. “They're really respectful of our horses. I feel like the people looking give us as much of a chance as anyone else. They like to see that the program is focused toward a new generation of the people in the horse industry, so they give us a fair chance and a fair look. I think we're respected, but a different type of respect – like, we are the next set of hands in the industry.”
The morning of the sale was quiet for Maine Chance, but it was the same for just about everyone in the barn area. Fern had gotten 80 to 90 shows over her time on the grounds, which was fewer than hoped, but enough to establish some degree of expectation.
In the downtime, Zehnder organized the show cards in their box, a custom-made, stained wooden container with a “UK” logo painted on the front. He finished up and placed Rally Horse on the top. Rally Horse is the consignment's unofficial mascot – a small equid made of foam stress ball material with the farm's logo on its back. Any recipient of free promotional material in the horse industry likely has a stable of them.
While many horses have passed through the Maine Chance consignment over the years, Rally Horse has been a part of the team for nearly a decade.
“He's the last of his kind,” Zehnder said. “He had friends, but people would steal them. It was a herd at one point. Now we're down to one rally horse, so we just call him Rally Horse. He's very special to us.”
As Fern's time in the ring approached, the crowd around Barn 6 started to grow. A handful of students that helped raise and prep the filly on the farm came out to see her moment in the spotlight, complimenting her appearance while the three handlers got her ready for the ring.
“Everybody on the farm gets to handle her, so it's not just the people that are here,” Parsons said. “Everybody has worked hard to get her ready for the sale.”
Isaacs and Parsons took the final steps to get the filly's coat shiny and her whites their whitest while Blackwell kept the Fern's attention with a playful, repetitive tap on the nose with her curled-up shank. She then handed the slightly fidgety horse to Parsons, who waited in the middle of the aisle for the public address system to call their number.
When the call finally came, the three handlers and farm manager Bryan Cassill took a route with the horse separate from the rest of the group to minimize what was already going to be a lot of stimuli for the filly.
“She was better than I expected,” Parsons said. “She was very calm, even though we had a lot of colts around us. She went in the chute [from the back ring to the auction ring] fine, which you always wonder if they're going to go into the chute. She listened well, and was better than I thought she'd be.”
Parsons turned over the shank to the sale ring handler and watched the bidding from behind the podium. Isaacs and Blackwell watched the proceedings from the other side of the windows inside the pavilion, along with eight other students and family members.
Fern handled her paces well, then stood politely as the bidding climbed up to $15,000. The hammer fell to Florida-based David McKathan's Grassroots Training and Sales, and the filly will be a likely pinhook candidate for a juvenile sale in 2019.
Walking back to the barn, the conversation between students and onlookers centered on who ended up with the horse, and all involved being pleased with the result.
“It went well,” Cassill said. “It's nice to sell and get some money for the program, but you see the value that you get from having them here and having the students here, and the exposure we get to the rest of the industry being here. That's invaluable. It shows them what they do when they donate a mare or a season to us. It gives them an idea of what we can turn out, and it shows the students that develop with us.”
The mood was never tense in the time leading up to Fern's sale, but the attitude was clearly lighter among the Maine Chance crew after the transaction. For Isaacs, the pressure was off – for a day, at least. With the last horse under his watch sold, it was time to look ahead.
“Leaving Maine Chance in general is going to be hard,” he said. “It's a transition. It's a good transition, but it's sad being my last sale.”
Blackwell said she'd be back to work the Maine Chance consignment during the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling sale in October, and she might return for the Kentucky Winter Mixed Sale in February before graduating.
“I think there's a different attitude in July than in October or February,” she said. “Racing is totally a new world for me, so I'm trying to get used to it and into it, and learn all the people and all the horses.”
After a year and a half of work with the filly, from the foaling stall to the sale ring, there wasn't any overwhelming feeling of sentimentality amongst the students. There were no tears or hugs toward the horse or each other, as one might expect from young people still breaking into the industry and selling a horse they handled from birth. In the same auction where 195 other horses changed hands in the exact same way, approaching the transaction in a businesslike manner was probably a good trait to display.
Still, the students allowed themselves one bit of memory-making, handing each other their phones to take pictures with Fern while the others waved their arms to perk up the filly's ears. Working with the horse was a group activity, from day one to the last snapshots.
“It was a great learning experience,” Isaacs said. “I'd never touched a Thoroughbred before I started here. I've learned a lot. Bryan's taught me a lot. The farm's taught me a lot.”
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