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Friday, December 9, 2011

Modest Pastures for the Sport of Kings: Indian Ridge Exemplifies Resilience of Small Family Thoroughbred Farms

by Tim Thornberry, reprinted courtesy Business Lexington, this article originally ran in that publication's November 25, 2011 issue.

Lexington, KY - Kentucky’s horse land: acre after acre of rolling green pastures with white planked fences, majestic horse barns and, of course, beautiful Thoroughbreds.

That is the image most get when it comes to horse farms here, and while these massive estates establish a beautiful picture of the industry, a broad network of smaller farms scattered throughout the state make up the backbone of the business.

Indian Ridge Farm is one of those, located in Franklin County an hour or less from the state’s biggest racing venues, Keeneland and Churchill Downs. It is also just a few minutes from a major interstate, so logistically it couldn’t be in a better spot to get horses to and from the places race horses go in Kentucky.

William “Buff” Bradley grew up on the 300-acre farm and is raising his family there as well. His father, Fred, moved there in 1972 and began to raise tobacco and corn, along with a cattle operation and a few Thoroughbred horses.

“My brother and two sisters all worked on the farm, growing up. We kind of did everything, and now it’s strictly a Thoroughbred horse farm,” he said.

The tobacco buyout signaled the end of crops on the farm, although Bradley said they still grow their own hay. But for the most part, the main crop on the farm is the horses that are bred and raised there. At any one time, he keeps nearly 50 horses on the farm and another 20 to 25 at Kentucky-based race tracks.

Indian Ridge is a true working farm and family farm. Bradley said his youngest sister takes care of the bookkeeping duties while his father, who is 80, still serves as the “night watchman” for the 10 to 14 broodmares kept on the farm. And, as he and his siblings did, Bradley’s children take part in the chores, along with his wife.

‘They are all involved in that part of the farm — in feeding and taking care of the horses,” he said. “I don’t expect them to take over or try to make a living that way, but we do want them to learn that. I think it is good responsibility for them, as well as learning how to take care of the animals, knowing how important it is. When you are committed to it, you’re committed to it.”

Bradley said he thinks many of the horse farms in the state are like his, noting you won’t see the white boarded fences when you come there.

“It’s not a big showplace. It’s a working horse farm and serves its purpose in what we do and how we do it,” he said.

What they do and how they do it has proven to be successful for the Bradleys. One of their most successful horses, Brass Hat, still resides at the farm. The Thoroughbred raced for seven seasons, winning 10 times, breaking two track records and winning more than $2 million.

“He was foaled and raised right here on this farm, and he is retired there now. He was a very popular horse in this state. It’s neat to have a horse like that, that everybody knows,” Bradley said.

He emphasized that the operation is not really a commercial business. They breed to race and have been successful at that, he said, and currently the farm has one of the top fillies in the country.

But the horse industry — particularly the Thoroughbred industry — has stumbled a bit over the last few years, something that concerns Bradley and others like him. Once the undisputed champion of the equine world, Kentucky has seen many of its owners and trainers take their operations to other states where incentives and purse money are better.

“I’m 48 years old, and I’ve been working with horses since I was eight years old. I’ve seen [the industry] go up and down a few times, but this is the lowest I’ve seen it,” he said. “I think a lot of Thoroughbred owners and breeders have left this state. Some have gotten out, but I’ve seen a lot that have picked up and looked for a better place to go, as far as breeding incentives and purse levels.”

Bradley added that in the past, with all the horse farms in Kentucky, one could see a lot of horses occupying those farm fields at any given time, a sight that has diminished of late.

“It’s kind of depressing. You don’t see as many anymore. A lot of our good stallions are going to different states where they have breed programs that are better than Kentucky’s,” he said. “It’s really sad to know that our state has gotten in that shape. We don’t have what we did, at all. We’re not even close, and I’m not sure what’s going to bail us out. That’s the scary part. I have a family here and a very good geographic location to the race tracks and the breeding farms and thought I was pretty well set.”

Bradley has been forced to leave one of the winter venues here to go south for the winter racing season in search of better purse money. South usually means Florida, where the Thoroughbred industry is big. Ironically, a sign on Interstate 75 through Ocala, Fla., welcomes visitors to the “Horse Capital of the World.” About 750 miles north, along the same interstate, a similar sign welcomes visitors to Lexington, Ky.

While that debate is likely to continue, the bottom line here is the bottom line, and incentives that breeders get from a horse’s winnings are less in Kentucky then before and less than in many other states. In fact, Bradley said he could give away a foal in Indiana, for instance and still be OK, due to the larger breeder incentives there and the fact that it takes up to $20,000 to get a foal ready for the track.

Kentucky has also not recognized horses as being livestock, but instead considers them companion animals. Horses are therefore ineligible for tax breaks like the ones that cattle producers receive. Some attempts have been made by the state’s General Assembly to remedy that, but to no avail so far.

Thus far, the biggest push to raise revenue for the horse industry in this state has been through the idea of getting expanded gambling passed through legislation, an idea that has fallen short each time it has come before lawmakers.

Bradley said he doesn’t know if that route is the complete answer to all the horse industry woes, but it certainly could help to have expanded gambling venues at Kentucky tracks.

“I don’t think that’s a cure-all for it but my thoughts are, we have to get our purses back up, number one, and that would also help the breeders’ money, because that’s based on what you win as a purse percentage,” he said. “To get the purses up — and I hate to say slots and gaming devices are going to be what’s got to get us there, because I think that’s only temporary — but I think we are so far behind now, because we didn’t get that here early on … like all the surrounding states.”

Bradley said the industry is risky for someone looking to get in right now, which is one reason he has “partnered” more lately, with several people having an interest in a horse as opposed to one person baring the full brunt of paying the entire bill for training a racehorse.

“We’ve tried to keep our costs down by doing our own work, like raising our own hay, doing our own fencing and doing our own foaling. I think people struggle because it does cost so much to be in this,” he said. “I try to do more partnerships now, instead of having the one single owner, because the single owner can’t make it or they’re not in it for very long.”

Bradley added that it is the excitement and the “want-to” that plays a big part in being in the horse business, and partnering with other people is something he likes doing because it gets more people involved.

And getting more people involved may be the very thing that keeps Kentucky the Horse Capital of the World. For more information about Bradley and his racing stables, go to the website at www.buff racing.com. For more information about Brass Hat, go to www.brasshat.us.

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