A Day in the Life of A Breeding Farm
A world away from hitting the finish line of a classic race in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans, the dream is reborn.
In the quiet of a gray winter morning, when the earth throws its warmth off into the cold air and envelops fields in a shroud of fog, it begins. A van door slides open; a stall gate unlatched; hooves rhythmically hit ground; workers struggle to position their wards and renew the cycle of life.
Hours earlier, in the blackness, the fruits of last year's labor appear--wet, impossibly fragile, irresistible. Beautiful babies rise up from the straw, find their first meal under mom's watchful eye, and carry on their backs the hopes of so many. Could this be the one?
The generations of the Thoroughbred are entrusted today to the breeding farm. Unlike the beginnings of life in the wild, the goal is to create as controlled an atmosphere as humanly possible. To do so requires dozens of workers expert in trades as diverse as medicine and muck. It requires also an investment of millions of dollars in land, equipment, and labor. And an emotional investment that will reap moments of joy and despair.
Hill 'n' Dale Farms may be a relatively new kid on the block by Bluegrass standards, but under the aggressive stewardship of John Sikura has become a major player in the breeding business. The farm was generous enough to welcome The Blood-Horse staff onto its grounds to convey what it looks and feels like through the eyes of its workers.
Ryan Adams, the numbers guy, doesn't have to go very far to escape the books. All he has to do is look out the window of his second-floor office.
"You see my view," he said, motioning to the large window that overlooks a paddock with horses. "It's kind of nice to drive into the country every day instead of driving downtown. It's different."
Adams, the Hill 'n' Dale Farms controller, is getting his feet wet. His first day on the job was Feb. 9 after a stint at Hopewell Farm. Before that, the resident of Lexington and graduate of the University of Kentucky worked downtown in the financial field.
His workday now--"I've had to do a lot of work to get caught up," Adams said--begins at about 7:30 a.m. and can last until 7 p.m. He's learning about the stallions and mares and other aspects of the operation.
"One of the biggest jobs is collecting the stud fees," Adams said. "I keep track of that money, make sure it gets collected, and make sure commissions are paid to agents.
"Obviously, there are a lot of bills, and I have to make sure they get paid on time. I also manage the billing for all the boarders, and make sure bills are sent out to clients."
There also are payroll duties, but one thing Adams doesn't have to worry about is filing taxes. The farm has a certified public accountant to handle that job.
"It's a challenging accounting environment," he said. "It keeps you on your toes."
When he gets acclimated, Adams, a Woodford County native, said he'll probably work about 45 hours a week, though at certain times of the year--particularly during auctions such as the Keeneland November breeding stock sale--it could be more.
Roger Allman, a consulting agronomist, makes his annual daylong visit to Hill 'n' Dale Farms in the spring. Assisted by Elise Todd, he conducts soil analyses and offers recommendations involving lime and fertilizer, seeding, and herbicides. He also acts as a troubleshooter in trying to solve any pasture-related problems the farm might have.
Allman walks every acre of Hill 'n' Dale and takes a soil sample every two acres. His goal is to help the farm produce pastures that are both balanced in their nutrients and palatable to the horses. The pastures at Hill 'n' Dale, he said, contain bluegrass, orchard grass, clover, and tall fescue.
Hill 'n' Dale owner John Sikura "has always been very diligent in caring for his pastures," said Allman, who has done work for Sikura for approximately 20 years. Allman was also analyzing the soil on the Hill 'n' Dale property long before Sikura owned it.
Allman is the vice president and a part owner of The Farm Clinic. The company is based in Indiana, but its pasture and Thoroughbred divisions are located in Lexington.
Hill 'n' Dale is one of about 500 farms Allman visits each year. His travels take him to 26 states. He also journeys to England, Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
"Hill 'n' Dale is a high-quality working farm that has nice soil," Allman said.
The silt/loam soil at the farm is known as Maury. It drains well and is high in phosphorus. It's also one of the deeper soils found in the Bluegrass. In addition, the soil at Hill 'n' Dale is not compacted and "hasn't been overly disturbed by bulldozers or man," making it a good foundation on which to raise horses, according to Allman.
As the veterinary technician, Amy Ashley is the extra set of expert hands for Dr. Terry Blanchard. "I set everything up, keep him supplied, and stay one step ahead of him all the time," Ashley stated. Her uniform is tan coveralls and work boots; the number of layers worn underneath are dictated by the weather.
Ashley, who lives on the farm, starts her day at 5 a.m. by wheeling out the ultrasound cart and getting all the equipment ready for Blanchard to perform pregnancy checks, uterine cultures, and check heat cycles. She is his right hand until 6 p.m.
After one side of the farm is finished with the day's veterinary work, Ashley sets up the laboratory for Blanchard. "I'll set up the cultures from the mares for Dr. Blanchard by preparing the agar plates. I also get the IgG (immonuglobulin G) tests ready." While Dr. Blanchard is peering through the microscope, Ashley is preparing the veterinary truck for the rounds that will be made on the other side of the farm. She fills soap bottles, pulls clean cotton for washing horses before a procedure, disposes of syringes from the previous round, and makes sure the truck is filled to the gills to deal with any situation that might arise.
Each day, she also drives to a local vet clinic to "drop off any blood work and tests we don't do here at the farm.
"The end of March, and through April and May is the busiest time because of all the reproductive work," said Ashley. "When the breeding season is over, we have yearling sales prep to keep us busy."
As Ashley packed up the ultrasound machine to take to the next barn, she said, "Being able to make a career in the industry and work with amazing bloodlines" are what make all the work worthwhile. "I just love being with the horses."
Madelein Basson is a world away from where she was raised. But the assistant manager at Hill 'n' Dale often draws on the years in her native South Africa when dealing with the Thoroughbreds she cares for today.
As a young child, her father gave her a camera, and through its lens she began to see the world of nature and wildlife. Today, that nurtured love of animals is felt in her hands and heart as she oversees the care for 130 mares and their foals. And, as evidenced by the gorgeous slide show on her computer and the fact her Nikon D100 sits on the seat beside her in her truck, she has become an accomplished photographer.
She and her husband, Jan, a blacksmith, arrived in the United States in January 1999.
Having lived most of her life in a country known for its terrible crime rate, Basson appreciates the little things, like not having to lock her truck. "A big adjustment because you feel so safe here," she said. "We had bars on our windows and doors and I carried a gun 24 hours a day."
Today, the 35-year-old's guiding philosophy is to treat people with respect and work hard to gain that same respect in return.
"I feel very lucky the way I've been treated here," she said. "You have to show you are willing to work hard, to respect those you work with, and gain their respect."
Basson has 14 employees who help her care for the seven barns full of mares and their offspring. During the breeding season, her days begin early, as in very early. She arrives at 4 a.m. to do 90 minutes of paperwork before joining veterinarian Terry Blanchard on rounds to palpate mares. She then has to book the farm mares, clean mares, make sure the halter IDs are proper, attend breeding and foaling sessions, aid with the administering of plasma to foals and, well, the list goes on and on.
He's the man who helps "sell" the farm to potential clients. While he runs the advertising company that promotes Hill 'n' Dale and other farms, Lance G. Bell is more than just an "ad man." He's a business adviser, confidant, and a friend to his customers.
Bell, who runs his business out of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., "views horses as products. Our slogan is 'we create magic.' We align ourselves with customers who have good product, and then we apply the LGB magic to help get them into the stratosphere." For the clients he represents--such as Taylor Made, Juddmonte, Stonerside, the McKathan brothers, Gary Tanaka, and WinStar--Bell's main purpose is to "create brand identity and awareness." With a staff of eight, Bell also has clients and projects outside the Thoroughbred realm.
While he creates advertisements that appear in the trade publications, Bell also works on other promotional materials, such as a visually stunning 168-page brochure that promotes Hill 'n' Dale, its employees, the stallions, and Sikura's vision. Although Bell also offers video and DVD services to clients, he prefers print media. "It is a totally visual business," Bell said of the Thoroughbred industry in general. "You can move people with images."
On average, Bell will confer with Sikura a couple of times a week and they'll meet monthly. Their conversations are "more than about placing an ad in a publication," Bell said. "We talk about business strategies. He's (Sikura) not a big promoter, so we complement each other.
"He's reliable in projecting what is going on," Bell said of his client. "He has the instincts, and the guts, to project out into the future."
"Veterinary work is just a small percentage of the work that goes on at these farms," said farm veterinarian Terry Blanchard. "The farm management staff caring for the horses, their attention to detail, and the quality of horses result in excellent farm output--not the veterinarian. I just do what they tell me, and have been blessed with fertile stallions and mares."
The modest Kansas State University graduate, who has focused on equine reproductive work since 1979, became Hill 'n' Dale's resident veterinarian Jan. 1. He previously was a professor of theriogenology (reproduction) at Texas A&M University.
Blanchard's day starts about 4:30 a.m., when he and assistant manager Madelein Basson begin planning the day's work, and it ends around 6:30 p.m. This time of year, much of his work revolves around palpating/ultrasounding mares for breeding soundness and estrous cycle timing, using that information to plan breedings, checking for pregnancies and problems, administering treatments, and monitoring stallion fertility. He also handles preventive care such as plasma administration for foals, deworming, vaccinations, and caring for sick animals.
On this chilly, breezy morning, he evaluated a mare roughly every five minutes from 5:30-7:30 a.m., with Basson reading from her tablet PC what work needed to be done, the mare's teasing responses, and the findings from the last physical exam. Blanchard found some mares ready to breed, some needing another day or two, some pregnant, and some not pregnant.
Blanchard's breeding shed duties (beginning with the first session at 7:30 a.m.) include signing off on breedings, confirming ejaculation occurred, evaluating sperm motility via dismount semen samples after every breeding, and evaluating sperm morphology (physical shape) periodically. "The main reason (to check dismount samples) is to monitor how the stallion is doing," he said.
Reinforcement breedings (taking the extended dismount sample and placing it in the mare) are also part of Blanchard's job; the more semen in the mare, the more likely she'll get pregnant.
All mares undergo uterine bacterial culturing prior to breeding season. This allows time to treat any infection present and avoids "wasted" breedings. Mares are also cultured if they don't get pregnant on the first cycle; the samples are evaluated at the farm, as are foals' immunoglobulin levels. Other tests go out to Hagyard Equine Medical Institute's lab for testing.
A recommendation from a professor has given Jared Burdine an ideal job in the Thoroughbred industry. As a senior at the University of Kentucky putting the finishing touches on an accounting degree, Burdine works 30 hours a week at Hill 'n' Dale as the assistant controller.
From his space on the second floor of the farm's office, Burdine is in charge of the payroll for all the employees, cutting 55 checks every two weeks; does the billing for the farm's boarders; handles the incoming checks; and works the accounts receivable and payable.
He grew up around Rocky Mountain horses in northern Kentucky and entered UK as an animal science major until he discovered he had a nose for numbers while taking accounting classes. Burdine has taken to the business end of the farm and sees beyond just what is on his computer screen. He "loves the office, especially when you can look out the window and see all the horses and yearlings out there." It's a bucolic view that offers better sight lines than his previous job, working for the UK police department as a security guard at the medical center.
After graduation, Burdine wants to attend law school, and after taking a long, hard look at the numbers, "I definitely want to own some horses."
Seven years ago, Utah native Lori Chappell and her husband, Allen, left their small breeding and racing operation in L.A. and headed east. What brought them to Kentucky, though, kept them here.
"We came for the Derby and fell in love with it. We ended up with a whole new lifestyle," she said.
Today the Chappells have their own small-scale nursery in the Bluegrass, one whose holdings include a youngster by Hill 'n' Dale stallion Buddha.
Chappell has been with Hill 'n' Dale for two years, and as the farm's stallion administrator, is responsible for booking the outside mares who ship in for pairings with the farm's stallions.
She also handles the booking contracts for those matings, and works with the farm's many stallion shares and partnership interests. And she is the ever-friendly voice on the phone as the farm's liaison to its shareholders, syndicate members, and breeding rights holders.
"One of the things we do differently at Hill 'n' Dale is book the mare on the day of the customer's request, rather than within a week's window. The mare comes in when she's most ready, and this helps our stallions' fertility."
Chappell has a broad understanding of her stallions' assets--from their conformation to their performance on the racetrack--and keeps a lock of newcomer Medaglia d'Oro's hair on the wall by her desk.
Chappell, whose husband is an attorney in nearby Versailles, has become versed in "legal-ESE, vet-ESE, and John-ESE," as she laughingly terms the mannerisms and personality of her boss.
"With John you always know were you stand," said Chappell. "He says something and then we go on, and I like that."
Certified Public Accountant
With tax deadlines looming, certified public accountant Louis Fister Jr. spends 65 to 70 hours a week in his office during late winter and early spring. Hill 'n' Dale Farms is one of the biggest clients for Lewis & Fister, the Lexington-based firm in which Fister is a partner.
"We work with Hill 'n' Dale primarily on a consulting basis," said Fister, a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University. "The controller is at the farm on a day-to-day basis, so he is exposed to more of the details of the business; we're looking more at the big financial picture. I think most of the larger farms in Kentucky have outside accountants who provide oversight in regard to financial statements and the controls surrounding the farms' accounting."
Fister, 44, and his colleagues contribute to the operation of Hill 'n' Dale in a variety of ways. Their services include tax planning and the filing of tax returns, overseeing the distribution of stallion income to syndicate members, and advice on financial decisions related to the farm.
"Equine accounting is somewhat complex, especially when you are involved in all facets of the business--from racehorse ownership to sales consignments to stallion ownership--like Hill 'n' Dale is," Fister said. "It also requires a great deal of accuracy because you are dealing with large sums of money on single transactions. Horses can sell anywhere from $1,000 up to $6 million. There often are multiple owners in a horse, and that complicates the accounting process."
But Fister enjoys dealing with matters relating to Hill 'n' Dale even though they can require more effort than those involving other clients.
"I've always loved horses," said Fister, who invests in some of the farm's weanling-to-yearling pinhooking ventures.
Farm Manager, Yarnallton Division
Jamie Frost doesn't call his position a job. "It's a lifestyle," stated the 29-year-old native of Australia, acknowledging that he's but a phone call away from rushing back to the farm at 3 a.m. to help with any problem that comes up.
Frost manages Hill 'n' Dale's newest parcel, just across Yarnallton Pike to the west of the main acreage. Although owner John Sikura envisions the Yarnallton division one day serving as home to horses exclusively being prepped for sale, today the number of broodmares is so strong many are housed under Frost's care on that land.
Frost is not overwhelmed by his enormous responsibility--his father trained horses and Frost rode as a child, entering the breeding industry at the tender age of 19. He worked with stallions at Ashford Stud when he first arrived stateside. "I don't have a specialty as to what kind of horses I work with," he said. "I like the variety of the breeding season with the mares and foals, and then yearlings."
During breeding season, Frost's day begins at 5:30 a.m., prepping mares that are scheduled to be bred. On this particular day, he had one mare going to the breeding shed at 6:30 and another at 7. At 8:30, farm veterinarian Terry Blanchard comes over and they begin palpating mares until lunchtime. After a quick bite, he is back prepping a mare who has a 1 p.m. breeding appointment. In between all this, he accompanies the blacksmith on his rounds. "My day is busy," understated Frost, "but we like it that way."
Frost, who has been at Hill 'n' Dale 2 1/2 years, has 10 people working under him. His other responsibilities during his rounds could be attending to a sick foal, feeding, helping in the breeding shed, and shipping mares on to and off of the farm. On this day he has 109 mares and 34 foals on the grounds.
"There are no fixed hours. I've worked on farms long enough to know every day is different and you have to take is as it comes."
When you're responsible for the "grass" in the "Bluegrass" you certainly have your work cut out for you. Just ask R.W. Hicks.
Hicks is the proprietor of Brookstone Farm near Versailles, Ky., home of his eponymous company in whom Hill 'n' Dale entrusts with laying the season's grass seed at the most opportune moment.
"It's really all about timing," said Hicks, a cattle farmer who has been in his current seeding business for a decade. "This has been a bad winter--it has been just too wet. All the pastures are chewed up."
Hicks' outfit seeds the pastures at Hill 'n' Dale twice a year. First in the spring, usually March or April, depending upon the conditions, and again in the fall (August or September).
"You only have a brief window," said Hicks. "If you seed too late in the spring, the summer sun will kill it, and the same goes for the fall. If you get caught going too late, it's just too young when the cold comes."
Hicks said the soil is excellent at Hill 'n' Dale, perfect for his mixture of bluegrass, orchard, and rye grasses. He and his two-man crew work closely with farm manager Joe Ramsey, who relies--as do many area farms--on the advice and counsel of The Farm Clinic's Roger Allman, who tests the soil and then makes his recommendations.
All good horsemen know that the grass a horse eats is as essential to its health as fresh air, and it's not something any serious farm would leave to chance.
"There's some good grass in this part of town," said Hicks, of his biannual Spurr Road hangout. "Everyone knows that."
There's a good reason why Hill 'n' Dale looks stunningly picturesque--projects coordinator Ron Jackson comes to work ready to tackle any task set forth by farm owner John Sikura.
"John gets a vision of what he wants, and I try to put it together," Jackson said. "He gives me an idea, whether it's constructing a building, stone work, or whatever. Right now, we're replacing all the windows in a cupola on barn one."
Jackson, who started with Hill 'n' Dale after the operation was moved from its previous location, has worked on the farm office and handles landscaping, fencing, and structural renovation and repair.
Jackson, who liked carpentry while growing up, came to enjoy masonry; he learned from one of the best. "Richard Tuffnell, a master stonemason from Scotland, came to Kentucky to teach classes," Jackson said. "We got together, and he liked what I did. Probably the biggest project I did on the farm, besides the work on the office, was to build a stone entrance on Yarnallton Road."
Jackson, who grew up on C.V. Whitney Farm where his father worked with the stallions, orders his own supplies and is not limited by budgetary constraints. "John trusts me, and I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize our relationship," he said. "He's knowledgeable about things."
Always on the lookout for a bargain, Jackson tries to find stone from fences that were torn down rather than buy new. The "old" stone is already cut into pieces. "If not, we'd have to buy stone and break it ourselves," Jackson said.
Perhaps the most impressive display of Jackson's workmanship is a freestanding arbor approaching the farm office. Jackson constructed it using large, rough-hewn logs.
As a landscape architect for Lexington-based Henkel Denmark, Tom Kehler was called to Hill 'n' Dale Farms in 2003 to turn ideas into reality while adding some beautification to the farm office and main residence.
Kehler, who arrives at the farm with several folders of plans, photos, and sketches under his arm, is one of four landscape architects representing Henkel Denmark, which does both commercial and residential planning. The company works with other area farms such as WinStar and Darley at Jonabell. Henkel Denmark uses craftsmen such as carpenters and stone masons to help complete the jobs.
"We talk to the owner, listen, and develop a vision of what it is they want at a particular location," Kehler said. "We build on that, the environment, and the client's wishes."
Kehler is the former director of campus park and planning at Michigan State University. He retired in 1995 and moved to Colorado, but later rejoined the workforce in a similar capacity at Colorado State University. He moved to Kentucky in 2001 to be closer to family and started working part-time for Henkel Denmark. He's on the job about four days a week.
Director of Bloodstock Services
For Donato Lanni, his job is all about the horses and the farm clients. "The more I know about what is happening and what has happened with the horses, the better help I can be to our clients," said Lanni.
As director of bloodstock services, being helpful to clients includes weanling, yearling, and breeding stock selection, bloodstock portfolio management, and buying and selling stallion seasons and shares.
Born in Canada, and raised in Italy and Canada where his father was involved in the horse business, Lanni said he decided he wanted to work with horses at age 10 while watching the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). "I remember looking at my mother and saying, 'that is what I want to do with my life,' " he noted. From there he spent many summers on the racetrack learning all aspects of horsemanship, when he wasn't honing his hockey skills.
During foaling season, Lanni begins each day with an inspection of the foals born in the overnight hours.
After looking at the new arrivals, he returns to his office to call each client with an update on how the mare and foal are doing. "Keeping the clients informed is very important in this business," he said. "It's important to know what goals the client wants to achieve--are they looking to race or sell? It helps us know what we should be doing to better serve them."
Afternoons are spent evaluating yearlings and making decisions, after speaking with clients, in which, if any, public auction the yearlings may best fit.
Lanni also reads industry publications to keep up-to-date on news while keeping a watchful eye on the racing progeny of stallions standing at Hill 'n' Dale, as well as the horses that were sold by the farm at public auction.
"It's all about the details," Lanni said. "It's the little things that make you successful."
The varied equine activities of Hill 'n' Dale Farms and its clients require an insurance broker that can provide a wide range of services, according to Michael Levy, a partner in Muirfield Insurance.
"We like to specialize in operations like Hill 'n' Dale," said Levy, who has handled the farm's horse insurance the last five years.
While the equine insurance business is competitive, Levy said rates and terms of coverage are pretty standard. What sets one company apart from another is how each deals with problems when they occur and their ability to handle special insurance needs such as stallion syndications, he said.
"We like to think we are the leaders at being able to handle a big stallion deal, say with fertility coverage in the $15- to $20-million range," Levy said. "There is no one lead underwriter that can handle all that (risk), so we have to have the ability to shop several (underwriting) markets. In the end, you have to have a lead underwriter, but with language in the policy that is favorable to the client."
To obtain coverage, the farm contacts Muirfield when a new horse has been acquired or a mare produces a foal. In the latter case, prospective foal insurance has been obtained in advance of a foaling. Additional coverage must be obtained once the foal stands and nurses after 24 hours with no abnormalities.
"When they need us, they call," Levy said. "John Sikura is constantly trading in the market, publicly and privately, so it can be any time of the year. We are on call 24 hours a day."
When she worked in Atlanta for Internet start-up Mindspring, Molly Lightner learned "how important it is to love what you're doing." The sales coordinator for Hill 'n' Dale Farms the past 14 months, Lightner said she understands the concept because she feels it every day.
"Driving in here each day is like coming to work at Disneyland," Lightner said. "It's amazing what he (owner John Sikura) has accomplished."
Lightner, 34, is a native of Lexington who grew up around horses on her family farm in nearby Winchester. Her father, Mike, worked for Bwamazon Farm. She received an English degree from Central Florida Community College in Ocala. Her mother, Sherrie, and a partner just recently opened a restaurant in Ocala named The Mason Jar, featuring Kentucky country dishes.
After stints with The Jockey Club in Lexington and GTech and Mindpsring in Atlanta, Lightner found herself back in Ocala when she began making calls seeking employment again in her hometown. Hill 'n' Dale needed a card girl for the Keeneland yearling sale in July 2002, and she eagerly accepted the assignment.
After a year with West Point Thoroughbreds, the sales coordinator job opened up at Hill 'n' Dale and Lightner was hired full time. She is responsible for entering the hundreds of horses each year in sales and then tracking them as they progress toward the sale ring. She constantly searches for updates both on the produce of the mares and stallions at the farm as well as the siblings of horses being sold.
"I'm like a big cheerleader for all the horses," she said, and while she doesn't like to have a favorite, she admitted, "I really like Stormy Atlantic; I like the big hip he puts on them."
Lightner likes that part of her time is in the office and part outside, both at sales and examining foals. "It's not a nine-to-five job," she said, echoing others on the farm. "It's a lifestyle."
Mike McDowell is like an air traffic controller, only his vehicles are on the ground and his cargo is expensive Thoroughbreds. He is one of three dispatchers in Lexington for Brook Ledge horse transportation company and the regular contact for Hill 'n' Dale Farms.
During the breeding season, McDowell, Keith Boyer, and Vickie Murray man the phones beginning at 6 a.m. seven days a week. Phones ring early, and then off the hook again late in the day after the vets have made their rounds and discovered mares ready to be bred.
McDowell, 55, and with a distinctive mustache, has been with Brook Ledge most of the past 20 years. The vanning company averages 20 runs a day during the breeding season to farms and vet clinics; Hill 'n' Dale is one of 50 Central Kentucky farms using its services year-round.
On this morning, bookings are being made for the next few days and are arranged on a large board by date and van number. Seventeen vans are used for "breed and return" trips.
"We tell them to go ahead and book early, and if they have to, cancel later," McDowell, normally sporting a University of Kentucky or Jeff Gordon hat, said.
The Versailles, Ky., native deals with the same people every day and feels like he knows them well, but said, "It's funny, I know all the clients by voice but I wouldn't know them by sight if I went out here and ran over them."
The dispatchers take the care of the mare while she's on the van very seriously. As Boyer said, "You can make a horseman a truck driver but you can't make a truck driver a horseman."
The amount of legal work done on behalf of Hill 'n' Dale varies, depending upon the time of year, according to Mike Meuser, a partner in the Lexington firm of Miller, Griffin and Marks.
"There is a lot more (work) during the summer because the number of sales picks up then and in the fall when the hunt for stallion acquisitions is on," said Meuser, who has represented Hill 'n' Dale for 10 years.
Meuser said John Sikura is "very demanding, but very appreciative of good work. I know to take his calls and get straight to work when he wants something done. I think he's one of the smartest people in the (horse) business."
The greatest challenge for Hill 'n' Dale's legal counsel comes when the farm is attempting to acquire or syndicate a stallion.
"The challenge is to overcome all sorts of legal and practical problems associated with getting the deal done," Meuser said.
While Sikura negotiates the different terms and conditions of a stallion acquisition, "my job is to make sure that I can legally get that on paper to accomplish what he wants. The deal needs to get done, and I have to find a way for that to happen."
Meuser also reviews and advises Hill 'n' Dale on the other contracts used by the farm, including the stallion-season contracts that were re-drafted in 2001 following changes in some laws pertaining to stallion nominations.
Meuser and others at the firm also handle Hill 'n' Dale's non-equine legal work, including areas such as employment, personnel, and taxes.
"Commercial breeding farms have become so sophisticated that you have to be able to answer lots of questions," Meuser said.
The first person you're likely to encounter at Hill 'n' Dale Farms is Melissa Mohr, who makes an excellent first impression. Mohr's desk sits directly inside the office's front door, at the vortex of the hectic surrounding activity. The native of Minnesota is in charge of client relations, but in fact her job encompasses plenty of other duties.
"I'm kind of like an air-traffic controller," said Mohr, who studied animal science at the University of Kentucky after beginning her higher education at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. "I'm the go-between for what happens on the farm, whether it's vanning horses in and out or telling clients about the status of their horses. I try and take some of the pressure off the farm managers, keep them off the phones when they're trying to concentrate on their other work."
Staying calm amid the constantly ringing phones and steady human traffic is no easy task, but Mohr seems to have the right disposition. She interned at the farm doing pedigree work while in college, so although she's in her initial year of full-time employment, Mohr has the poise of a veteran.
"The hardest thing is keeping track of what everybody needs," she noted. "Besides the phones, there is a lot of computer inputting so that everything is up-to-date. I enter information about all the horses' pedigrees, ages, vet records, and foaling status so that our farm managers can find that information on their own computers throughout the farm. Along with our vet, I also do the registration papers, health papers, shipping papers, and a little bit of everything else.
"I talk to all our regular clients frequently, and they're awesome, so I really enjoy dealing with them and love to see them when they visit. They're excited about their horses, and excited to hear good news from us. Dealing with them is one of the things I like the most."
Hay and Straw
Hill 'n' Dale horses depend on Dale Morris and his sons for a good meal and a warm bed. Morris Hay Sales has been delivering straw and hay to the farm for the past three years. This week, the crew made a delivery every day to keep up with the demands of the busy breeding season. Two to four deliveries a week are usually sufficient.
"This is the busiest time by far," said Morris, a railroad engineer who started Morris Hay Sales with his father in 1983, and now depends on his sons Justin and Coby and a few helpers to keep it going. "They do all the physical labor. If it weren't for them, I couldn't do this."
As Hill 'n' Dale has grown over the past few years, the demand for more hay and straw has kept the Morris family busy. Last year, they delivered 700 tons of straw and 300 tons of hay to the farm. In the past, a pickup truck and goose-neck trailer did the trick, but today the shipments require a full-size box trailer, which, if fully loaded, takes five workers an hour-and-a-half to unload and stack with the help of a motorized conveyor system.
To best serve their primary client, the sons and helpers make frequent trips to neighboring Indiana and Ohio in search of the finest product. The farm uses wheat straw and alfalfa orchard grass-mix hay. "We like our hay to be as close as it can be to our pasture," farm manager Joe Ramsey said. And Morris said the farm likes the straw "long and bright."
Delivering in a timely manner (usually in the afternoon) and not disrupting the farm's sensitive schedule is also important. But most of all, they strive for quality, knowing that the best hay equals the best horses.
For farrier Steve Norman, it's all about the shoes, or the lack thereof. "We try to keep everything out of shoes, if the foot will let us," he said while making the rounds from barn to barn to check out the newborn foals.
Working alongside Hill 'n' Dale Farms manager Joe Ramsey, Norman, who has been shoeing horses and trimming feet at the farm for the past 10 years, is responsible for everything from evaluating the walk and conformation of a foal beginning at two weeks of age to maintaining the feet of yearlings and broodmares.
"We stop trying to correct a foal's foot between three- and six-months old," he said. "Then we just start maintaining a solid foot."
Norman said for foals, the foot is trimmed when the youngster is around 30 days old. "The feet start to come to a point at that time," he said. "It's called a foal foot. It's very soft and we start knocking off the points. It's important to catch conformation flaws early so they can be corrected.
"For broodmares, we just maintain their feet and keep them sound and happy."
Norman doesn't tackle this type of work alone. He employs Jan Basson, husband of Hill 'n' Dale assistant manager Madelein Basson, and Sam Christian.
"These guys are really good help," Norman said. "We go through one barn and evaluate what needs to be done and the guys start the work while I move on to the next barn."
A native of Nebraska and a former jockey, Norman has clients in both Kentucky and Florida, where he does racetrack work as well as farm work.
"This is a good business," he said. "It keeps me plenty busy."
Joining Hill 'n' Dale in December 2004, Larry O'Byrne is still new to the farm, but he's not new to the bloodstock business. The son of noted Coolmore bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne has worked under the job description of bloodstock services the past four years and has kept his pulse on bloodstock trends on three continents in previous jobs with Ashford and Coolmore.
Most recently O'Byrne worked for a year with John T.L. Jones Jr., who owned Walmac near Lexington. O'Byrne then joined Hill 'n' Dale's bloodstock services department.
Part of his job is keeping up with the ever-changing roster of foals during breeding season. That's why his first stop of the day is the foaling barns to see which mares delivered overnight and to inspect the new additions. Once in the office, O'Byrne spends most of the morning fielding phone calls and booking seasons to the farm's 13 stallions and concentrates on sales and racing in the afternoon.
"While we're booking mares at the beginning of the season, we also have to be focused and know where to go to start recruiting yearlings," O'Byrne said. "We begin calling people to remind them that (sale) nominations are coming up soon and ask them when we can come look at their horses."
In his first sale with Hill 'n' Dale, the Keeneland January mixed sale, the 28-year-old Irishman assisted English breeders who purchased a Fusaichi Pegasus filly out of User Cat for $600,000.
"I love the sheer excitement about the chance to be a part of breeding and to be a part of the suggesting of the breeding, or helping someone at the sales pick a horse and seeing it blossom into a nice horse and being there when it happens."
He's a traffic cop at the most dangerous intersection in town. As the stallion manager for 13 high-strung Thoroughbreds, Irishman Aidan O'Meara must be on his toes all day, every day. As the workday begins before dawn, O'Meara has to get things organized and ready for a full day in the breeding shed, which at Hill 'n' Dale will see three or four sessions, starting at 7:30 a.m. and not ending until after 6 p.m.
O'Meara not only does the heavy lifting around the shed--assisting the stallion before and after the breeding--but also takes care of the paperwork and manages a staff of 10-12. All handlers in the crew have been "home schooled." At this time of year, there are about 20 breedings a day, but as the season gets deeper into spring, that number will shoot up to 30.
Between sessions, he checks up on the previously bred mares in the farm's computer system.
It's his job to know the idiosyncrasies of each stallion. Letting your guard down for one second during a breeding will have "a man flat on his back, which is the worst place to be," farm manager Joe Ramsey said.
O'Meara, 27, came to the U.S. from Tipperary, Ireland, in 1996 with a degree in equine science and the desire to work with stallions. He worked at Hill 'n' Dale at its previous location and followed when Sikura bought the current property. "I saw that he was a man with ambition," said O'Meara, "and I knew I wanted to work with stallions."
With the long work hours seven days a week during breeding season there is little recreation time for O'Meara, who lives in an apartment above the stallion barn which he calls the "tree house." He may get out for a meal on a Saturday night. He noted he hadn't been home to Ireland in three years. During the off season, he and his crew keep the stallions ready for stallion shows, work with the yearlings, and help with maintenance around the farm.
Joe Ramsey is Hill 'n' Dale Farms' jack-of-all trades. In addition to overseeing a staff of 30 and stock well into the hundreds, the farm manager can be found regularly foaling mares at night and attending breeding sessions in the morning. "The horses set our schedule," he said.
Ramsey has an office adjacent to the breeding shed, but spends much of his time navigating the farm in his big truck with his Australian Shepherd sidekick. He makes a point to always answer his mobile phone and keeps notes in a black binder by his side.
He also purchases farm equipment, interviews prospective employees, and does, or ensures someone else does, everything in between. On this particular day, he makes the rounds with the farm farrier and holds yearlings during the trimming process. Later, he views slide specimens after a breeding session to ensure a successful mating.
Ramsey said his day runs smoothly because of the reliable managers and staff. "They are overachievers," he said. "They have an appetite for work like I haven't seen before, which makes my job easier. We have a great team."
The Illinois native has lived in Kentucky for 15 years and previously worked as a stallion groom at Shadwell Farm for eight years. He graduated from Murray State University in 1985 with an animal science degree.
He and his wife, Shirley, a surgery nurse, live in a house about 200 yards from the breeding shed, but are currently building a log cabin on a 40-acre parcel adjacent to the farm's Yarnallton division. Ramsey oversaw the design and incorporation of the farm's 200-acre new division from the building of the barns and paddocks to laying out the water lines.
Ramsey said it is important for him to work on a farm where the owner is actively involved. "He's (John Sikura) always here and willing to roll up his sleeves and do what it takes," he said. "This is his business, not a hobby or a diversion."
So at the end of the day, what is Ramsey's favorite of all trades?
"Foaling," he said. "That's where there is the most horse and human contact. All other pressures and problems disappear in that interaction. Each one is a miracle."
It's a good thing Rita Riccelli has use of a computer, because dealing with the kinds of numbers she crunches can best be described as mind-boggling. A relative newcomer to the Hill 'n' Dale team, Riccelli handles the booking of all resident mares to farm stallions and outside stallions.
"We've got about 250 mares at the farm, but it feels like a million," she joked.
Riccelli works closely with managers Madelein Basson and Jamie Frost in scheduling the bookings. "They will check the mare and notify me when she needs to be bred, and I'll schedule it," Riccelli said. Hill 'n' Dale has at least three daily breeding sessions.
If the mare is going to a stallion standing at an outside farm, Riccelli will contact that farm and book a date. She then calls Brook Ledge vanning to arrange for the transportation of the mare. Riccelli also makes sure the proper paperwork, i.e., breeding shed and veterinary health forms, is in order.
Riccelli, who started with Hill 'n' Dale in the sales division last summer and has held her current job since December, also handles the booking of outside mares to eight of the 13 Hill 'n' Dale stallions.
Riccelli's job doesn't end once the bookings are decided. The New York state native is responsible for notifying the owners when a mare is bred, when she is checked to determine if she is in foal, and when she is pronounced in foal.
"Some owners I'll call, some I'll fax or e-mail. They're all different," she said.
Riccelli, whose parents owned horses while she was growing up outside Syracuse, continues to be amazed at how the whole breeding operation functions. "It's interesting because of the short time for all the mares to get in foal, it's amazing that it all works out."
Kenneth Rollins starts every day with a plan, but most of the time he ends up going in at least one different direction. As the maintenance supervisor at Hill 'n' Dale Farms, Rollins has a hand in everything from motors to mowing.
"Everybody on the farm is my boss," Rollins said. "If somebody has an electrical switch go out, or a problem with a sewer line or a commode, I've got to go look at it. If a horse runs through a fence, I've got to stop and fix the fence. I always have plans, but plans change."
On this day, Rollins was preparing to spread muck--compost--on paddocks, something done every spring and fall. The material is evened out with a chain-dragger that helps spread the straw and manure. Along with enriching soil, the process is an effective way to chase away parasites.
Rollins, a native of Richmond, Ky., begins his day at about 6 a.m. and usually wraps up by 5 p.m., though the nature of his job requires flexibility. His first order of business is to "make the rounds" and check the tractors before other maintenance staff report for duty.
The job also entails repairing doors and windows and doing some painting. When it snows heavily--something that hasn't happened in quite some time in Central Kentucky--Rollins oversees the two-hour job to remove the white stuff.
"In 1997, there was a big snow, so it took a while," Rollins said. "We couldn't move around here."
Rollins has to know a lot about a lot. For instance, maintenance work requires the use of different types of equipment, so staff members must have the knowledge beforehand or be trained.
When asked how he liked his job, Rollins didn't hesitate.
"I must like it, because I've been here 19 years," said Rollins, who rattled off his starting date of Feb. 8, 1986. "It's outside work, and I like being my own boss."
What makes a horse walk well when being shown to prospective buyers? There are many factors, but Jim Shannon is sure of one.
"A horse will not walk well unless his head is balanced," Shannon said. And, as an equine dentist, Shannon helps keep a horse's head balanced.
With her foal grabbing at a towel dangling from his pocket, Picabo Street had her teeth "floated" by Shannon. The old term for filing is still used because the equine dentist floats the instruments over the teeth.
Yearlings and 2-year-olds have their teeth worked on every three months, broodmares once a year, and stallions twice a year. Outside the stall, Shannon has a bucket of tools soaking in Nolvasan Solution. The two main files are made of carbide.
Shannon, 51, works alone, few horses giving him trouble as he performs his craft. He can do up to 14 horses each day. Horses, he explained, have 12 incisors and 24 molars, with two pre-molars, or "wolf" teeth extracted when they are yearlings. Males have four "male" teeth that come in at age four and out at age five.
Shannon has worked on his own since 1979, having learned from Dr. D.L. Proctor and T.C. Quisenberry.
"I love the horses but it is the people that make the job special," Shannon said. He has floated the teeth of Derby (gr. I) winners Gato Del Sol, Winning Colors, Sunday Silence, and Grindstone, "and I hope Sweet Catomine will be the fifth.
"When they sell well or run well, it's nice to know you played a small part in their success," the Pennsylvania native said. "I did Forego when he raced and you don't forget horses like that."
"You keeping banker's hours?" John Sikura greets an arriving visitor as he hurries from his office at 8 a.m. Moments later he's hopping into his truck to begin morning rounds. There is a quick check of the mailbox for the day's racing publications and then a slow tour of the main farm's 342 acres for reasons both practical and spiritual.
"I drive around the farm to experience the pleasure of it and realize why I'm here," said Sikura. But he also keeps an eye out for things that might be concerns--a nervous horse, a board down off a fence, a nurse mare that might not be bonding with a foal.
After touring the grounds, Sikura returns to his office. He pores over a fax listing race results of the farm's progeny; reviews status reports of the mares to see which ones are in foal and which are going to the breeding shed that day; and peruses activity sheets for the farm's 13 stallions.
The phones don't stop and the next deal seems always imminent. Sikura's high-energy approach is a factor of needing to play catch-up: His farm doesn't have the long pedigree of others he competes against for stallion prospects and prize horses to consign to sales. His personal approach seeks to close the gap.
In 2004, Hill 'n' Dale's sales agency sold more than $30 million worth of bloodstock at public auction. Sikura now owns 30 mares, several book one September-types, because he loves the breeding business. He has aggressively collected young stallions such as Vindication, Buddha, Medaglia d'Oro, El Corredor, Candy Ride, and Doneraile Court, hoping to come up with the next historically significant sire.
"The stallion business today is so highly competitive, and these are astronomical investments," he noted. "You have to go by personal feeling. When you find a horse you're sold on, you go early, you give too much, and you hold your breath."
Sikura calls the owner of a grade I-winning mare who is being retired, making the case to breed to Vindication. The owner is intent on breeding to a stallion on another farm whose book is full. Sikura goes the extra yard, making a call to a contact ("I want to give you some money, so don't say 'no.' "). He gets a season to the stallion, calls the owner back with the news, and makes a pitch to board the mare and get her bred.
There are high standards to maintain when it comes to landscaping Hill 'n' Dale. After the farm was developed by Franklin Groves as North Ridge back in the 1970s, it became an award-winning showplace of landscape design. Jeff Singer of Singer Gardens in Stamping Ground, Ky., did some work on the farm prior to it being purchased and renamed by John Sikura.
"We started working with John 15 years ago when he had his first farm on Winchester Road," said Singer. "Over the years, some of the original planting had deteriorated at Hill 'n' Dale--they lost some trees and part of the original planting patterns were breaking down, leaving gaps in the work. So, first we wanted to bring it back to what it was."
Many new trees were planted and existing trees moved to bring the grounds back to the original intent. When Sikura built his home on the farm, the surrounding area needed landscaping, and when the farm expanded across Yarnallton Pike, many trees needed to be planted on the empty parcel.
"John's view on landscaping is twofold," said Singer, the fifth generation of his family on the land where his nursery is located. "Aesthetic and utilitarian. He likes to plant hedgerows between paddocks to screen horses from one another. He likes something that looks good but is also functional. We've been using forsythia, which grows fast, is pretty in the spring when it blooms, and takes no maintenance. It gives a consistent, uniform look around the farm."
The guys at Woodford Spears & Sons love to make the rounds. Sure, it's part of the job, but they also get to see the Central Kentucky countryside on a regular basis.
Woodford Spears, located on Main Street in Paris, Ky., is a full-service farm store that is also a feed supplier for the region. Every Thursday, a Woodford Spears flatbed truck delivers feed to Hill 'n' Dale, one of the stops on the usual rounds.
"We try to set up (deliveries) on a regular schedule," said Ted Spears, who operates the business with his brother Steve, and father, Steve, who used to be more involved on a daily basis. "We're here on Thursdays, and do other farms on different days of the week. There is consistency to it, but some of the smaller farms aren't on a regular schedule. A lot of it is weather-sensitive."
Fortunately for Spears and company, snowy roads weren't much of a problem this past winter. Spears had just made a run through Scott County before his stop at Hill 'n' Dale, which is located in Fayette County. Given increases in traffic volume in Central Kentucky over the years, the drive from Bourbon County can take some time.
Woodford Spears opened in 1923 and for some time specialized in bluegrass seed. The business evolved over time and continues to do so as farming changes, Spears said. Now, horse feed is a major component.
"Tobacco is on the way out, but the horse business is continuing to grow," he said. "That's where I'd really like to concentrate."
Woodford Spears has had the Hill 'n' Dale account for about five years. Spears said it has proven to be a good relationship.
"It's a great account," Spears said. "I wish I had more like it."
His contributions to Hill 'n' Dale Farms are purely visual. Photographer Lee Thomas makes regular trips to the farm, and many other Thoroughbred farms throughout Central Kentucky, to photograph the stallions, the farm, and its employees.
Taking photographs of horses comes naturally to Thomas, who worked on a horse farm before taking up the camera full time. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Thomas got a degree in photojournalism from the University of Kentucky.
Taking his instructions from farm owner John Sikura and advertising agent Lance Bell, it's up to Thomas to come up with the artistic images that help with the advertising and promotional materials for the farm. Bell is "a very visual man," according to Thomas. "He's the kind of guy who can go 800 miles per hour in every which direction."
A commercial photographer with a studio in downtown Lexington, Thomas' other equine-related clients include Vinery, Three Chimneys, WinStar, Hopewell, Darby Dan, and Juddmonte farms.
While not in constant contact with the farm, Thomas is called into duty for the most part during the sales, when the stallions are ready for showing, and when the flowers are in bloom.
"John is very artistic," Thomas said of Hill 'n' Dale's owner. "He's more in tune with nature than most. He's in tune with the beauty of the thing, beyond the businessman, beyond the horseman. He's surprised me that he can really recognize, and appreciate, good photography."
Watching, waiting, and ready to usher in a new arrival, Miguel Torres is in charge of foaling at Hill 'n' Dale Farms. Walking up and down the aisle throughout his 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, checking mares that become restless, making notes on a clipboard about any signs of foaling, and keeping the "mamas" fed and watered are on his list of responsibilities.
Torres has a set schedule to keep the mares comfortable during his shift. Hay is doled out at 9 p.m., water at 10 p.m., and grain at 11 p.m. Lights out at 11:30 p.m. "The mamas need their rest," Torres said.
When a mare shows signs that her foaling is imminent, Torres initiates his own well-rehearsed plan of action. The mares are brought from their already roomy and bright stalls to a deluxe maternity suite. The suite is complete with heat lamps to warm up the new arrival, soft straw bedding, and completely smooth walls to make sure neither the mare nor foal can get injured during the foaling process.
"When the baby is born, I check it over to make sure it is healthy and not hurt," said Torres. "I let baby and mama rest, then when (the) baby gets up, I'll help it get milk." Torres then checks the mare and foal's temperature every three hours, makes sure the foal is doing well, and continues to check the other mares, waiting to help bring another Thoroughbred into the world.
"There are 21 mares in the barn. When one mare foals, she stays in the barn for a day or two, then goes to another barn with her foal." Torres then receives a new ward until her foaling. Over 100 foals will be born this year under Torres' watchful and caring eye.
Twenty-one-year-old Sean Tugel, a hale and hardy lad from Rochester, N.Y., and full-time student at the University of Kentucky, spends his evenings a little differently than his Wildcat buddies.
No, no all-night parties or cram sessions of late for Tugel, who for the last three months--six nights a week--has been the eyes and ears of the Hill 'n' Dale operation in the wee hours of the morning--as its night watchman.
Tugel's shift starts at 6 p.m. and ends at 6 a.m. He makes his way around the undulating grounds in a farm vehicle, barn-by-barn, checking for sick or troubled horses, providing hay and water, and spotting horses in their pastures and paddocks after dark with a floodlight.
"The best kind of night is when there is nothing going on," said Tugel. "The quieter the better."
Hill 'n' Dale has a stallion watchman, and its foaling attendants watch over their particular divisions, but Tugel is always awake to lend a hand with a birth or any other happening.
At 4 a.m. he feeds the entire farm, and in the morning helps assistant manager Madelein Basson aid the veterinarians. Tugel wants to learn all he can, and said that at Hill 'n' Dale there is someone willing to teach him at every turn.
Having grown up around horses and the racetrack, shadowing his father, Bob, a trainer and veterinarian at Finger Lakes in upstate New York, the agricultural-economics major is planning for a career in the Thoroughbred industry.
For Jaime Vaquera, a day at work means being around and caring for such stallions as Vindication, Theatrical, and El Corredor, just to name a few.
But Vaquera, a native of Mexico, doesn't let the star power of the Hill 'n' Dale stallion roster cloud his mind as he goes about doing his daily work as head groom at the farm.
Vaquera is known around the farm as "Theatrical's main man" because the two have a special bond and respond well to each other. His job as Theatrical's caretaker consists of hand-walking the son of Nureyev around his paddock daily between breeding sessions. "He is a good stallion, maybe my favorite because I am around him the most," said Vaquera, who has worked at Hill 'n' Dale for the past three years. "They are all really good stallions."
Vaquera begins his day at 6:30 a.m. by overseeing the other grooms and readying the stallions for the first morning breeding session, followed by working in the breeding shed and making sure the prized stallions are not injured.
After the first breeding session of the day, the stallions are all turned out in their paddocks. "The more time they spend outside, the better," he said.
After lunch it's time for the second breeding session of the day, and Vaquera again oversees the other grooms in preparing the stallions for their work before again heading to the breeding shed.
It's all in a day's work for Vaquera, whose day doesn't end until after all 13 stallions are safely in their stalls each night.
About the Author
The Blood-Horse is the leading weekly publication devoted to international Thoroughbred racing and breeding. Since 1916, the staff of The Blood-Horse has served the Thoroughbred community with the highest standards of journalistic excellence to provide comprehensive and timely editorial coverage and analysis.
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