Matt Dorman’s best day as a handicapper came at the 2015 Breeders’ Cup, when he hit the pick four. Found (Ire), 6-1 winner of the Turf-G1, helped fuel the big payout and Dorman remembered that day as he signed for a $300,000 yearling filly out of Found’s full-sister at Keeneland September last year.
Of course, Dorman’s trainer Phil Schoenthal didn’t hesitate to bring things back to reality.
“Congratulations,” Schoenthal said. “You’re now several hundred thousand dollars behind on the biggest handicapping win of your life.”
Dorman can give as well as he takes, telling Schoenthal that the pressure to deliver victories at the racetrack only increases with the quality of the horses on the roster.
“We move into our barn at Fair Hill Training Center March 1, so I figure by March 15 or so Phil ought to start winning races,” Dorman deadpanned while going over the goals for 2021.
So it goes for Dorman and Schoenthal, whose owner/trainer relationship feels more like two friends hashing over after-work plans in town. Don’t let the jokes fool you, they’re serious about Determined Stud – Dorman’s new Thoroughbred breeding/racing/sales venture based in Maryland and full of quality broodmares, 2-year-olds, yearlings and newborn foals. The 40 (and counting) horses represent more than $10 million in auction purchases since November, and a business model that rivals any in the region. Dorman recently sold his share of a technology start-up company he founded in 2000 and has taken a similar approach to Determined Stud, which will eventually be based at a 400-acre farm in Boyds, Md., northwest of Gaithersburg, and that barn at Fair Hill recently purchased from Glen Hill Farm.
Determined will breed and raise Maryland-breds by top stallions (Kentucky-based for now), sell most of the colts, keep and race most of the fillies, create a broodmare band and operate at the highest levels of the sport.
“It’s a business venture so at the end of the day it’s got to make sense,” Dorman said. “It’s fun, but we’re starting a business. Part of it is amazing and a dream come true, but this is kind of what I do. You lay out a plan and then you execute it. A lot of people wouldn’t have been as aggressive, but it’s like an integrated company; you’ve got the farm, the breeding side, the racing side, the sales side, the different people who are part of it all.”
And the horses.
Dorman grew up going to the races with his father Arthur, an eye doctor and former state senator and delegate in Maryland.
Owning horses seemed plausible after success in a career of some sort, and Dorman made good on it when he bought part of a horse with Schoenthal in 2010. You know how it goes. Dorman met a guy at the airport on the way home from the 2006 Breeders’ Cup. They were commiserating over waiting in a Southwest line while looking at Sheikh Mohammed’s private jet on the tarmac.
Dorman turned to a stranger and said, “I bet he’s not in line for a B seat.” The stranger, Matt Tietze, knew Schoenthal and made the introduction.
“With new people I advise them to buy 5 percent of a horse to get a feel for how it actually goes before they jump in, so I sold him 5 percent of a $5,000 claimer I owned,” said Schoenthal, based in Maryland since becoming a trainer in 2003. “He won three or four times, and from there on out Matt was a good owner in the barn. We would go to a sale and buy two, three, four horses focused on Maryland-breds and having local kinds of horses.”
They hit it, relatively, big with stakes winners Sonny Inspired and Elevated plus a few others with Dorman buying and racing as D Hatman Thoroughbreds. All the while, Dorman’s business Credible Behavioral Health grew into a giant in the healthcare industry. The company specifically created software for clinics, communities, residential facilities and mobile care providers in the behavioral health field. In 1996, Dorman’s sister was murdered by a man who was released from a psychiatric hospital a few months earlier and had no community-based care. In response to a tragedy, Dorman launched a business that might protect some other family from the pain and loss inflicted on his. That was the mission. The rest was work, and Credible spun up into a company that reached 38 states, employed 150 people and worked with 500 partner agencies. Goldman Sachs and others invested and last year Dorman sold while Credible merged with another company to create an even bigger industry leader.
“He had an idea, he built a company based on a purpose-driven idea and it ended up being worth tons of money,” Schoenthal said. “He’d been telling me for a couple years that he was going to get into racing at a bigger level and really invest in it, but people say that kind of stuff. People talk a big game. Horse training is a day-to-day business, so I didn’t think about it too much. The time came, he sold his company and said he was going to focus on building the farm and being a racehorse owner.”
Consider it done.
Schoenthal and Dorman bought 13 yearlings at the sales in September and October, spending more than $2 million while adding Kentuckian Scott Mallory to the team. They went after broodmares in November, adding 15 (well, 14.5 as they split one with Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm) for more than $5 million. Five more joined the squad in January, along with a broodmare prospect who will go racing, for $2.15 million. The future also includes three November weanling purchases at just above $1 million total, and all those foals being born at Sycamore Hall Farm in Maryland (mostly) and Kentucky.
The shopping spree was by design, and created an instant portfolio of horses at all tab stops on the spreadsheet, but also took advantage of a market that dipped because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The prices were good, maybe not as good as I thought, but it felt like timing was on my side a little bit,” Dorman said. “It seemed like the European market was down more than the American market. You had dispersals from Sam-Son Farm [in November] and Paul Pompa [in January], and that kind of kept the prices up, but we at least knew the horses were going to be sold.”"
Mares and foals, oh my
Though the long game involves mares on the in-the-works Determined Stud facility in Montgomery County, Chesapeake City’s Sycamore Hall Farm more than filled in as a home base for the 2021 season. Mares have already started delivering foals – whose sires Into Mischief, Justify, Uncle Mo, Nyquist and others draw instant reactions from visitors – under the watch of David Wade and assistant farm manager Emma Rakosky.
“It’s exciting for us to have mares like this, not just for Sycamore Hall but for the whole area,” said Rakosky. “I’m kind of honored to be able to care for these girls. David asked if we had room for a couple more mares this year. Then he said it might be more than a couple. Then he started talking about the mares. We have some nice mares of our own too, and I love them all, but this is a nice thing to be part of.”
Rakosky called Benvenutta, a full-sister to top stallion Constitution, a personal favorite. The gray 4-year-old filly was carrying her first foal (by Omaha Beach) and cost $400,000. In early February, she looked a picture – trotting around a small paddock and watching a week-old foal next door.
“She’s well-bred and that makes you pay attention but she’s just very sweet, so just chill,” Rakosky said. “She’s here for whatever it is we’re doing that day. We try to keep a close eye on the maidens like her. You aren’t really sure what you’re going to get with them. They can go early, they go unexpectedly. Sometimes when they foal it takes them a little while to realize what actually just happened. They can be like, ‘Oh, I have a responsibility now.’ She’ll be a great mom.”
Nobody would call Dorman hands on, but he shows up with pockets full of carrots, will grab a lead shank when necessary and isn’t fazed by muddy boots.
“He asks a lot of really good questions and is really interested in what’s going on with the mares and the foals,” Rakosky said. “He’s very understanding that things can happen, but he’s really excited about everything too. It’s great to have owners caring how their horses are doing. He’s really interested and it’s fun and a really neat opportunity to get somebody excited about something like this.”
On the other end of the spectrum from Benvenutta stands Tenacious Jewel, who may or may not go by “Jaws” around the barn. She’s got a big personality, plenty of opinions and a striking Into Mischief filly born Jan. 23. Tenacious Jewel lost all six of her starts on the racetrack, but her dam Bizzy Caroline won two Grade 3 stakes and is a half-sister to champion Lady Eli.
“It’s her first foal, and she’s a great mom who loves her baby a lot,” said Rakosky of the $335,000 purchase. “But she really speaks to her name, she’s tough, and she passed that tenaciousness on to her foal. In the long run, that helps them produce racehorses. That grit they pass on makes them good racehorses.”
Chestnut mare Invitation (Ire) won a single race for Coolmore and Aidan O’Brien in Ireland, but she packs a world-class pedigree led by sire Galileo (Ire) and backed by dam Night Lagoon (Ger) who won a Group 3 in her home country and produced 11 winners led by Novellist, who won Group 1 races in Germany, England, France and Italy. She cost $425,000 and her 10-day-old colt – who wouldn’t last a minute in a spot-Justify’s-son lineup – enjoyed some time in the Maryland mud and drew a laugh from Dorman with a skidding turn at the far end.
“It’s like watching my kids learn to ice skate,” said the owner, a 56-year-old father of two (Blake, 15, and Chase, 11).
Dorman spent just as much time saying hello to $37,000 purchase Danette, a daughter of Curlin, and her newborn Outwork foal as he did the six-figure purchases, so it’s not like he plays favorites.
“She’s a big, strapping mare that we really like,” Dorman said. “She’s beautiful and this foal is a big, good-looking foal too. People would say she’s got a decent page, but she’s got great conformation and has a couple decent horses on the ground. We were scratching our heads trying to find out why she was so cheap, but we’ll take it.”
Talk to horse trainers and they will almost always say that – at some point – they’re only as good as the horses in the barn.
Opportunities to upgrade only come along so often, and Schoenthal won’t let this one pass. He gives up familiarity of his barn at Laurel Park, and will probably lose some horses as owners choose to stay at the racetrack with other trainers, but gains the flexibility to race anywhere in the country and gets an influx of rare talent to the stable in a dozen or so 2-year-olds.
They averaged more than $168,000 in the sales ring, and that potential will go a long way toward minimizing any stress that comes with the move.
“I’m the only trainer in America right now that’s got a guy doing what he’s doing,” Schoenthal said. “It means a lot to me. It’s the first real major opportunity that I’ve had in my career. I’ve had some nice horses for nice owners, but to have somebody step up and spend the money that he is is rare. He’s loyal to me, I appreciate that and I’m going to get the opportunity to prove I belong with the big guys.”
Schoenthal did his homework, getting advice from trainer Mike Trombetta (who splits his stable between Laurel and Fair Hill) and others. Previously owned by Glen Hill Farm and before that Team Valor, the barn at Fair Hill has 40 stalls. Home to horses trained by Graham Motion, Michael Matz, Kelly Rubley, Arnaud Delacour and Shug McGaughey among others, the 300-acre facility has two tracks, dirt and Tapeta, plus access to the 5,600-acre state natural resources area and the Fair Hill Races turf course which was rebuilt in 2019-20.
Schoenthal, who bought a home near Fair Hill in Pennsylvania, and Dorman expect to have horses on the grounds this month. For all its benefits, Fair Hill comes with additional costs to owners and trainers as there is no housing for barn help, horses ship to race and track maintenance and other costs are offset by per-stall fees.
“We’re relocating the whole operation up there and will make a go of it,” Schoenthal said. “It’s a lot of stress, and some anxiety, but it’s an opportunity and you don’t say no to things like this. It’s going to cost more to be at Fair Hill, and I’m hoping that being there will also attract clients who would not come to Laurel.”
Beyond Fair Hill, Virginia trainer Jeff Murphy benefited from Dorman’s vision as the choice to prep the yearlings (now 2-year-olds) purchased in 2020. The former steeplechase jockey has stalls at Long Branch Farm in Boyce and expanded to rent additional space nearby from Amy Moore in Millwood.
Murphy credited the Virginia-certified program with helping him “to no end,” but also had a connection with Schoenthal.
“Morgan’s Ford Farm is my oldest and best client, and they send a lot of their horses to Phil, so it’s all through Phil,” Murphy said of the business relationship with Dorman. “They bought all those horses in September and had talked to me a year or so before and told me they were going to have a whole bunch coming and to make sure we had space.”
Murphy compared it to Christmas morning, as van loads of yearlings arrived in September.
“They were sending me the pedigrees and I love seeing pedigrees like that,” he said. “Then the trucks came with nice horses. One was nicer than the other.”
Murphy took his time, got all of the early work out of the way and was waiting for a break in the winter weather before finishing things off and targeting the first group to send to Fair Hill. They’ll probably get up to working three-eighths in Virginia, before shipping to Maryland.
“We haven’t been to the track yet, but I never do that this time of year,” he said in early February. “You could go to the track [at Middleburg Training Center], but we’ll just wait. They’ve been in my starting gate, they’ve learned their leads in the ring and they still get to be horses turned out in the fields too.”
When their price tags hit lofty heights and their sires include American Pharoah, Tapit, Medaglia d’Oro, Empire Maker and so on, it’s not easy picking favorites. Murphy raved about a Flatter filly out of the Maria’s Mon mare No Use Denying. Named Determined Truth, the $100,000 purchase is a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Perfect Alibi. An Honor Code filly named Determined Star is out of Often (Ire), a half-sister to Irish champion and leading sire Giant’s Causeway. Murphy can see her starring on the turf someday. Medaglia d’Oro filly Determined Gold is out of Starstruck (Ire), a Grade 3 winner and stakes producer.
“Literally every horse has done well, I’m pretty confident they’re going to go on and do things,” said Murphy. “They’re like getting on sports cars and they’ve gotten so personable. Horses from the sale . . . it takes them awhile to come into themselves. They’ve just had a few months where they didn’t get to be horses out in the fields like they did before. You start to figure out their personalities after awhile and it’s fun.
“I’ll be looking forward to September again. They’ve bought some nice horses and been smart about it. They know what they’re doing.”
One Determined Stud mare won’t come to Maryland as Dorman and John Sikura of Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm teamed up to buy Desert Isle for $1.1 million from the Sam-Son Farm dispersal at Fasig-Tipton November. Sikura met Dorman through Schoenthal and offered counsel on stallion choices, owning mares and the Thoroughbred business in general. When it came time for the sale, both men liked Desert Isle and joined forces.
“Sam-Son families are important, and we had talked about her,” said Sikura in February. “She was more expensive than she should have been, and we got to a million. We were bidding and I looked over at Matt.”
Sikura asked a simple question. “Should we go one more time?”
Dorman nodded, said “Go ahead,” and the daughter of Bernardini and the Smart Strike mare Eye of the Sphynx gained new owners. Of course, Sikura offered one more bit of advice when it came to the purchase.
“Matt, this is not a critique at all on your farm or Maryland but if I’m going to be partners in a mare like this I want the mare here,” Sikura said of Hill ‘n’ Dale’s new base at historic Xalapa Farm in Paris, Ky. The farm stands such luminary stallions as Curlin, Kitten’s Joy, Violence and others and plays at the absolute top of the Thoroughbred game. Again, Dorman followed Sikura’s lead.
“A lot of people would push back,” Sikura said. “To be open-minded like that, some people will insert their ego into it or say something about their farm to me.”
Desert Isle delivered an American Pharoah colt (bound for a sale) at Xalapa and will be bred to Speightstown. Dorman still can’t quite believe the progression.
“I can’t say enough about how John has helped Determined Stud with advice,” he said. “He’s the one who said that the stallion component was missing from our business plan. We were going to buy quality mares, and we were going to have a lot of money going out to stallions, so it made sense to buy shares in stallions, and be part of some syndicates whether it was new or proven stallions.”
Sikura likes Dorman’s approach, and sees him building a Thoroughbred business along the lines of his previous start-up.
“He’s buying quality, he’s getting input from very good horsemen, he’s capitalized to do it the right way,” Sikura said. “Like anybody first starting out he’ll do some things he might do a little differently the next time, but I think he’s created a great foundation and bought a lot of important, nice mares. He had Phil there when they were looking at mares to buy. That’s important.
“His approach doesn’t seem to be knee-jerk, it’s not like he bought three 2-year-olds at the sale [with eyes on a quick trip to the Kentucky Derby]. He bought mares, yearlings, he’s going to have foals this year, he bought a training barn at a place like Fair Hill. He’s building a farm. He’s trying to build a cohesive business.”
What it means for Maryland, region
Dorman’s quality mares probably won’t visit Maryland stallions – not yet anyway – but they’ll deliver foals in the state and put state-bred horses into the upper levels of the marketplace. The farm in Boyds will mean jobs, open space, economic activity, all the stuff industry leaders talk to politicians about. Same goes for the training barn at Fair Hill. Sycamore Hall made room for the Dorman mares and their foals. Crossing a border, Virginia’s certified residency program lured the Dorman 2-year-olds to Murphy this year and will remain part of the model.
“Where else can you increase what you earn by 25 percent?” Dorman asked about the state’s owner bonus for a certified horse winning a race in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. “That’s important to a business.”
Indirectly, a state’s Thoroughbred industry benefits from an investment such as Dorman’s. Better Maryland-breds on racetracks and in sales rings raise values of Maryland-breds everywhere.
“One of my sayings for a long time is that we’ve been breeding horses but not breeding any breeders,” said Sycamore Hall’s Wade, a member of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association board of directors. “We need new people like this. There aren’t a lot of new breeders, there aren’t a lot of new farms springing up. This isn’t just a new farm springing up, this is a farm springing up in a big way. It will have a big effect on the state. The rest of us will have to step up, for starters.”
Wade also hopes to lure a stallion or two to Northview Stallion Station that might keep some Dorman mares in Maryland.
Dorman graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up going to the races at Bowie, Laurel, Pimlico. His father, who died in 2012, served in the state legislature. Matt remembers meeting Frank De Francis. Dorman’s first racehorse ran in Maryland with Schoenthal. The state was always going to be where Dorman put his racing business, if he had one.
“I was born and raised in Maryland and the idea is to have horses by top-class sires and have Maryland-breds,” he said. “I think Maryland’s got a really good racing program. Kentucky gets a lot more attention for a good reason. But here, the land is good, the positioning is good. We have a barn at Fair Hill, and that’s as good a training center as you’ll find anywhere. Once the farm is finished, we’ll have it covered as far as breeding, training and being able to race them out of Fair Hill.”
Sikura sees the possibilities for Dorman, and the state.
“Maryland has such a rich history in the business,” he said. “I know it’s challenging times, but things are on the upswing. If there were three guys like Matt in the business there, it would be really rejuvenating for Maryland. They’re the kind of people that make the game move forward. Legends are of the past. It’s the new guys that push things.”
Maryland lost a major influence on its Thoroughbred program when Sagamore Farm closed its racing and breeding operation last year. Determined Stud is not Sagamore Farm – there’s no Native Dancer back there in the history pages for starters – and Dorman won’t mention his still fledgling operation in the same breath, but there are plenty of parallels. Under Armour founder Kevin Plank bought Sagamore in 2007, had enough capital to rebuild it into a showplace and won a Breeders’ Cup race with Shared Account three years later. The farm raised another Breeders’ Cup winner in Sharing, bred Maryland-bred star Harpers First Ride and went to racing’s highest levels with Miss Temple City and others.
Sagamore was named Maryland’s Breeder of the Year in 2019, but will no longer raise horses as Plank opted to use the farm to grow rye for his Sagamore Spirit distillery in Baltimore. The absence will be felt on Maryland-bred leaderboards, and elsewhere, and maybe Determined can help. Dorman, for one, welcomes the opportunity.
“I remember when Shared Account won the Breeders’ Cup,” he said. “In the interview Kevin Plank said he worked all day on the company, but took a few hours off to go to the Breeders’ Cup. I remember thinking that if I ever got lucky enough to have a Breeders’ Cup winner, I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want the company to get in the way of something like that.
“I love Shared Account because of that moment – we got outbid on her [at Fasig-Tipton November], but I love her. I’m happy to have the career behind me. Horses are the focus now.”