You might as well start at the beginning. A conversation about West Virginia-based stallions starts with Fiber Sonde.
The 16-year-old will stand his 13th season at John McKee and Cyndy O’Bannon’s Beau Ridge Farm in Kearneysville, and will no doubt be in demand again given that he led pretty much every statistical category in 2020 and held his own in the region and beyond with 53 individual winners from 96 starters. The half-brother to $90,000 Kentucky stallion Speightstown will stand for $1,000. McKee knows that’s a bargain, but also manages his stallion’s book carefully.
“I’ve had people who were sending mares to me ask me about raising his fee,” said McKee. “I don’t see a need as long as they’re going to run at Charles Town. We want people who are going to run at Charles Town and people who have been breeding with us over the years to be able to send their mares to him. It takes some pressure off him, gets mares in foal and it works.”
The locals-only plan ensures that Fiber Sonde’s offspring race in West Virginia, earn awards for their owners and breeders, and contribute stallion awards to Beau Ridge. The plan has worked thus far, as the gray stallion passed $14 million in lifetime earnings since becoming a stallion in 2008.
Scored by percentage of stakes winners from runners, he led the nation in 2020 at 8.3 percent. McKee and O’Bannon paid $8,000 for the unraced colt as a 2-year-old at Keeneland November in 2007. The stallion prospect stayed unraced, but has produced such standouts as Runnin’toluvya, Late Night Pow Wow, Moonlit Song, Hidden Canyon, Penguin Power, Dr. Feelgood and a host of others.
McKee marvels at the horse’s production.
“I only bred Fiber Sonde to a few mares the first year or two because I didn’t want to have a farm full of slow horses,” he said with a laugh. Fiber Sonde’s first crop, foaled in 2009, included six runners in 2011. Four won that year.
“From then on I’m a believer,” McKee said. “He got a lot more mares after that. I’ve had people tell me he’s the best stallion to ever stand in West Virginia. It’s not because it’s my horse, but you could breed him to a fence post and still come out with a horse that could run.”
Compared to a 60-foal crop seven years ago, Fiber Sonde’s book will be limited so the fence posts are out. He’s as fertile as ever, but his sperm aren’t as mobile. Veterinarians at Virginia’s Equine Reproductive Concepts and Rood and Riddle in Kentucky helped McKee craft a plan where Fiber Sonde will breed once a day with the selection based on which mare is closest to ovulation. McKee credited the veterinarians with prescribing a semen extender treatment as well.
“He got a reputation for being half-sterile or something, but that wasn’t it,” McKee said. “The first 12 we bred three years ago came up empty. That’s why we took him and started working on this with the clinics. It made a difference that year and every year since then. It turned him around, we just can’t breed but one mare a day.”
Second-season stallions Redirect and Spiritus Invictus also call Beau Ridge home. They’re not Fiber Sonde, not yet anyway, but they’ll get a chance. A son of Speightstown, Redirect never raced but his female family includes sires Alternation, Peaks and Valleys and Broken Vow. The $15,000 Keeneland November 2019 purchase is out of multiple stakes winner Alternate. Spiritus Invictus is by War Front, whose sons The Factor, Summer Front and others have made impacts as stallions. The $6,500 buy at Keeneland November in 2019 lost all three starts for breeder G. Watts Humphrey, but is out of Grade 1 winner Centre Court.
McKee loves the pedigrees and – like all stallion owners – has high hopes. “School’s still out on them whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “There are no guarantees in this business. They’re well-bred, out of nice mares. They will have foals this year. That’s the breeding business. They breed this year, you get a foal the next year if you’re lucky enough and then two years later you find out if they can run or not.”
Two years ago, Ronney and Nicole Brown brought Florida stallion Exclusive Quality to their newly purchased Pellinor Lane Farm in Charles Town in hopes of establishing a place in the state’s breeding industry.
And then everything went wrong. Exclusive Quality was injured in the breeding shed, recovered well enough to return to breeding but died of a hemorrhage from the original injury.
A dozen foals were born last year, but it could have been 25 or so.
Undaunted, the Browns added Bullsbay last year, and he bred 30 mares. The Grade 1 winner returns, and is joined by first-year stallion Vorticity, a son of Distorted Humor. Racing for Matt Schera and the Maryland-based Chuck Lawrence, Vorticity won four races and earned $347,040 while placing in three graded stakes. He is out of Tar Heel Mom (by Flatter), a winner of eight stakes, three graded, and earnings of $832,892.
Brown connected with Vorticity (who made three starts in 2020) via agent Chris Gracie, and will support the stallion with part of a 30-strong broodmare band.
“We just wanted to broaden what we do,” Brown said of adding stallions to his successful training operation. “The West Virginia breeding program is pretty decent, it’s where a lower-cost horse can do well. It’s a good program and we’re going to try to take advantage of it.”
Vorticity, whose stud fee will be $1,500 ($1,000 for West Virginia mares), settled right into life at Pellinor Lane – a 63-acre spot with 16 stalls, two foaling stalls, a shedrow-type barn and facilities for layups and working with young horses.
“He’s a real cool horse to be around,” Brown said. “He doesn’t bite or kick or try to jump on you. We do it all ourselves so that’s a plus. He’s got a lot of class.”
Brown enjoyed another solid year as a trainer at Charles Town, even if it was delayed and nearly upended by Covid-19 as the track suspended racing for two months.
“It was a trying year, being down two months,” he said, “It took my horses two months to get back to feel like running again. It seemed like it knocked us out for four months and everything seemed to take a little longer to get back into. We turned 21 horses out just to give them a rest. Then it was ‘We’re running next week.’ The horses didn’t lose much [fitness], it just set us back a little bit and then they started coming around. She Figures [who won the Roger Ramey Distaff on Breeders Classics night] was definitely the highlight.”
Brother Act, Part Two
Everybody knows the success of Speightstown’s brother Fiber Sonde, but a newer kid looks to join the act at O’Sullivan Farms in Charles Town. Aldrin, a half-brother to stallion superstar Tapit, packs loads of potential even if his career started slowly in 2018. He emerged from his first cover with an injury. It was minor, but he missed the breeding season while recovering. The next year, O’Sullivan quietly offered him as an option to clients. He got three early mares in foal, and ultimately bred enough to get a first crop of 20 or so yearlings of 2021. Last year, Aldrin bred 31 mares and O’Sullivan’s John Funkhouser is encouraged.
Bred by Barouche Stud, Aldrin sold for $1 million as a 2-year-old in 2014, and raced 14 times – winning once – while crossing through the barns of Chad Brown and Peter Miller. Eased in his final start at Santa Anita in 2017, the son of Malibu Moon is one of just three colts produced by Tap Your Heels. Tapit you know. The other, 5-year-old Kidtapit, is still in training. What’s more, Aldrin and Tapit are both by sons of A.P. Indy.
“It’s as good a family as there is in the Mid-Atlantic,” Funkhouser said of the pedigree. “It’s a sire-producing family because it’s not just Tapit. It’s Rubiano, Relaunch and some others. He wasn’t the best racehorse, but he showed some promise and there were some things that kept him from doing more.”
At Keeneland, where he topped the sale, Aldrin worked a furlong in 9 4/5 seconds. He raced three times as a juvenile, just twice as a 3-year-old and didn’t graduate the maiden ranks until March of his 4-year-old season. Since his racing career ended, Aldrin has done nothing but improve according to Funkhouser.
“He looks like a completely different horse now,” he said. “He’s very intelligent. He loves me, I don’t even have to put a chain around his nose to lead him. Other people, he’s not so sure about, but that’s just him. He’s an interesting horse and we’re excited about him.”
Eight deep, the O’Sullivan stud barn also includes relative newcomer Golden Years. Bred by the farm and sold for $120,000 as a yearling, the 9-year-old won three starts as a juvenile, two stakes, and had connections Ellen Charles and Rodney Jenkins thinking Kentucky Derby until he was injured in his only start the following season.
The son of Not For Love joined the stud barn at his birthplace in 2017, and promptly injured his hock after breeding 16 mares. His first crop included two starters – Mady Rose and Natural Attraction – who both won. Golden Years bred nearly 100 mares the next three years, a good sign to Funkhouser. “People love the way his offspring look,” he said. “I had the two in training and people wanted to breed to him because they liked my horses. He puts leg under his horses and has gotten mares even though he hasn’t had many runners.”
O’Sullivan will stay busy this season thanks to those two stallions, plus Limehouse, Capo Bastone, Gattopardo, Our Entourage and Declan’s Warrior (a sleeper as Funkhouser put it). The farm was home to 50 pregnant mares in early January, with another 25 to ship in for clients, even if it was early to get a line on the traffic to the stallions.
“It’s always hard to gauge how stallions are going to do coming into a new year until it’s about halfway through,” he said of breeding season. “When you’re dealing with regional stallions, most breeders don’t make up their minds until they see babies on the ground. They can take their time because none of our stallions in the region are fully booked. It’s not like Kentucky, where there’s real demand for horses and they can get fully booked.
“We had a good year [in 2020] all things considered. Our state’s breeding program is one of the best in the country and we’re always asking the same question – how do we improve it?”
West Virginia Notes
Though leading sire Windsor Castle died before the 2020 breeding season began, the Casey family’s Taylor Mountain Farm began the process of finding an heir apparent with newcomer Juba.
The son of Tapit had his first runners in 2020 and came up with five winners from just 10 starters. The small but mighty group included four stakes horses led by stakes winner and $52,570 earner Hopping Henry. The gray (going on white) Juba raced on the big stages of New York and Florida for Centennial Farms and trainer Jimmy Jerkens – winning three times. Juba’s dam Adoradancer (by Danzig Connection) is a half-sister to former Taylor Mountain stallion Luftikus.
In addition, the Taylor Mountain roster includes Candygram (whose first foals arrive this year) and veteran stallion Denis of Cork (whose progeny have earned more than $4.4 million).
Fiber Sonde and Hank – holy cow
There’s no doubting a Thoroughbred stallion’s importance, but behind all the mares and stud fees and nicking patterns there’s still a horse as owner John McKee proved with leading West Virginia stallion Fiber Sonde.
It started with a simple question. So what’s his life like around the farm?
“Let me tell you another story . . .” McKee said with a laugh, and away he went on what really ought to be a children’s book or a Disney movie.
“We have cattle around here too and we had a cow that had a calf. Well, the cow died and we raised the calf on the bottle for a while. When he got big enough, we put him in a real small paddock. Fiber Sonde, off breeding season, has the end stall of the foaling barn and a paddock and he just runs in and out all day. He does whatever he does. Well, I guess the calf got to liking Fiber Sonde and they would stand at the fence looking at each other. If that calf was out, that’s where Fiber Sonde was in his paddock. Then that calf got over with him in his paddock and they became great, big buddies. They ate out of the same feed trough. It’s absolutely crazy.”
The calf is named Hank, and nobody is sure whether he thinks he’s a horse or Fiber Sonde is pretending to be a gentle bull, but here they are.
“We had to move the calf eventually to keep him from being in there with Fiber Sonde. He never kicked that calf, never did anything, but it made you worry. Even today, I moved the calf in with another cow, they still come up to the fence together. They’re still buddies. He’s an amazing horse. He’s an unusual stallion, that’s for sure, not just his produce but his mannerisms. What a neat horse.”