Big-time breeder, small-time breeder, commercial farm expecting dozens of foals, private barn with a single pregnant mare . . . no matter where it happens, the science/art of bringing Thoroughbreds into the world each year remains the same.
And there’s always a little magic too.
“To see the next crop, to see if I like the babies, that’s the best part,” said Todd Wilkinson, who manages his family’s Hidden Acres 4-D Farm in New Jersey. “You check to see if their legs are straight, if everything looks good, that is why we do it. It’s always nice to look forward to what you’re going to have.”
“You wait all year long to see them,” said Cyndy McKee, who owns West Virginia’s Beau Ridge Farm with her husband John. “Once they get on the ground, it’s a waiting game again, but it’s nice and there’s nothing like sitting on a front porch in the summertime in the evening and they’re all turned out and you can sit and watch them play. It’s a lot of work, so it’s better when you can appreciate things like that.”
“To put it in one word, it’s hope, the pure definition of hope,” said Jim Bergen, who oversees the mares at Greg and Caroline Bentley’s Runnymede Farm in Pennsylvania. “Everybody thinks they foal, they get on the ground, bingo, bango, boingo . . . and the vast majority of the time it is like that. But then you have things go wrong because they can go wrong, and you deal with that as best you can. Where my office is, I can see them as foals, as weanlings, and you start seeing the gameness in them, the competitiveness and it’s very rewarding.”
Wilkinson, McKee, Bergen and all the other people tied up in the Mid-Atlantic breeding industry felt that and more as breeding sheds opened, early foals took their first steps and mares drew closer to delivery dates. Like always, the mares controlled the ultimate timetable, and captured all the attention.
In a semi-regular tradition, Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred checked in with some of the region’s notable – define it any way you want – broodmares.
Big Z is OK
Pennsylvania breeder Lizzie Merryman periodically writes in a journal, and went back to her entry from 2017 – “Little Z is the prettiest foal I’ve ever had.” Little Z lived up to that description, and then some, as she turned out to be Breeders’ Cup winner, $1.3 million earner and Eclipse Award finalist Caravel. Her dam, Zeezee Zoomzoom, followed up her first foal with winner Tipsy Chatter and stakes winner Witty to earn a 2023 date with Triple Crown winner Justify.
“The contract is signed,” said Merryman in early February. “She’s still sitting out in front of my house and will get checked soon to see how close to cycling she is and then she’ll go to Kentucky.”
After Caravel, a daughter of Mizzen Mast, Zeezee Zoomzoom produced four foals by regional stallions – Bourbon Courage, Great Notion, Holy Boss and Great Notion again – before going to Street Boss in 2021. She produced a filly last year, but was not bred for 2023.
Being a broodmare fits Zeezee Zoomzoom now, but that wasn’t always the case.
“When I got her she was 4, which is really young to be a broodmare, and she was kind of like really full of herself,” said Merryman. “She’s very much an alpha mare, very tough on other horses and she was that way for a few years.”
The free broodmare would race around the field while turned out, weave in the stall while in the barn and eat her daughter’s food. Still, Merryman liked what she saw from the Congrats mare who won once in 10 starts for trainer Amy Tarrant.
“She was such a pretty mover galloping around the field and I was thinking that if she could throw that she’d be OK,” Merryman said. “I’d never bred a mare that young, but it’s somewhat just her personality and her babies’ personalities. They have so much spunk and attitude. They’re smart and full of themselves.”
Caravel became a star. Tipsy Chatter (by Bourbon Courage) won, showed talent before being retired with a shoulder injury and will join Merryman’s broodmare squad this year with a booking to Daredevil. Four-year-old Great Notion gelding Witty has won four of nine, including three stakes, and was working toward a 2023 return after missing several months with an eye injury. Three-year-old Holy Boss gelding Mission Man lost all three starts last year, but was also prepping for 2023 after a short freshening. Two-year-old Enzo (by Great Notion), “really nice and also very opinionated,” and a yearling filly by Street Boss complete the lineup.
“She’s had six perfectly correct babies, that’s what I like about her,” said Merryman. “Every single one, you look at and you say, ‘Wow.’ You wouldn’t change a hind-leg angle, anything. I have other mares where I say, ‘I love this baby, but I wish this, or I wish that.’ That’s a pretty nice thing to have.”
Now 11, the gray “Big Z” is more white and more relaxed than those first few years – while still keeping some of her old traits.
“She’s the boss, but she’s mellow and easy to deal with now,” said Merryman, who got a black eye while trying to give Zeezee Zoomzoom a hug in 2020. “She wasn’t a particularly happy horse when she first got here. She was nervous and tentative about people. Now she’s very pleasant to people.
She’s a stress type of horse when you change things up on her, and she’s better about other horses too. Everybody respects her and keeps their distance, but she doesn’t go after them like she used to.”
Miss New Jersey
Nobody will call Nosubstituteforluv the boss, but that doesn’t matter much thanks to her production as a broodmare. Her 2017 foal by Bourbon Courage, Fortheluvofbourbon, won seven races in 2022 and had pushed his lifetime earnings to $573,120 when he died of colic a week after winning the Maryland Million Sprint in October.
“Fortheluvofbourbon is the best horse we’ve ever raised,” said Todd Wilkinson of New Jersey’s Hidden Acres 4-D Farm. “You only dream you can raise one like that. He was average as a foal, wasn’t the fastest one, but he tried to outrun the others.”
He got some of that from his dam, even if she keeps a low profile around the 220-acre farm (also home to two stallions, 30 beef cows and a hay and straw operation).
“She’s kind of Quarterhorsey-looking, very muscular, just not very tall,” said Wilkinson. “Sometimes she can be a little bit of a handful. She has the attitude and the spunk, but she’s not the queen of the pasture. She’s one of the lower mares on the totem pole.”
Bred by Hidden Acres, the 11-year-old daughter of Not For Love and the Deputed Testamony mare Substitute Witness raced just once before being retired. Fortheluvofbourbon was her first foal, followed by a 2018 Uncle Lino filly Gateway Love (winless in two starts) and a 2021 colt (now gelding) by Bourbon Courage. Named Jerseybourbonluver, he sold for $77,000 as a yearling. Nosubstituteforluv’s 2022 colt by Bold Thunder is growing up at Hidden Acres and could be headed to a sales ring too.
Nosubstituteforluv was carrying a Bourbon Courage foal, with a May due date, and Wilkinson was planning on another trip to the Maryland stallion.
“We’ve been in this business long enough to know – you can have a full-brother to a stakes horse and nothing will happen – but Bourbon Courage has done really well with a small group of horses. I love that he ran and stayed sound. We’ll try to breed her back to him, even if it’s going to be late.”
The Wilkinson family (Doris, David, Dana and David – who goes by Todd – are the four Ds) has been involved in New Jersey breeding and racing for decades after keeping its first runner as a broodmare in the 1970s. The band reached 12 at one point, with 50-60 horses on the farm, but has dipped to a more manageable four. The mares foal in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, depending on the sire involved, with foals headed to the sales ring or the racetrack.
A 'Giant' Role in Pennsylvania
In 2019, new broodmare Giant Shadow endured a difficult first delivery. Her foal spent time in intensive care at New Bolton, and she rejected him, then she developed colitis and almost died – dipping to 720 pounds. Four years later, the daughter of Giant’s Causeway occupies a unique niche at Greg and Caroline Bentley’s Runnymede Farm in Pennsylvania.
“Her major function now is she’s a companion for whoever needs a friend,” said broodmare manager Jim Bergen. “I use her as company when we only have one or two here waiting to foal. If I have barren mares, she’s with them. I put her with the later-foaling mares too. She’s a little bit lower down on the pecking order so she fits in with anybody.”
A three-time winner with six stakes starts on the racetrack, Giant Shadow imparted something to her only foal – the Divining Rod gelding Loose Ends – also a winner of three races who placed in a stakes last year and has finished worse than third once in 14 starts. The success might make the daughter of Giant’s Causeway a candidate for motherhood again but for now she’ll stick with her current job.
“Maybe now she’d be better [as a mother], but we don’t want to put her through something terrible again,” said Bergen. “We nursed her back to health then, and you remember that. The Bentleys are very compassionate and care about her. She’s still part of the farm.”
Runnymede will foal eight mares this year, but has a big group of mares headed mainly to Kentucky stallions. Judy In Disguise (GB), dam of the Bentleys’ first homebred stakes winner Undercover Kitty, was due at the end of February to Not This Time and was booked to Uncle Mo. Her first foal, Eleazar, won his debut in 2021, got claimed away but was back on the farm and starting some early schooling lessons for a potential steeplechase career.
Three-time stakes winner Cinnabunny was retired last year after earning $370,560 and winning eight races. The daughter of Golden Lad was booked to Speightstown along with Alwaysinmotion, a half-sister to the Bentleys’ Preakness Stakes-G1 starter Alwaysmining.
The Bentleys bought two mares from Sam-Son Farm’s dispersal at Keeneland January in 2021. The stakes-placed Smart Strike mare Chic Thrill hails from the family of Canadian champions Catch the Thrill and Catch the Ring plus graded stakes winner Messier. Her 2-year-old colt by Hard Spun was prepping in Florida and she was in foal to Gun Runner.
Theatric, a daughter of champions Bernardini and Ashado, also joined Runnymede via Sam-Son and Keeneland. Barren for 2023, she’s the dam of a Kitten’s Joy 2-year-old colt and a Medaglia d’Oro yearling. She left for Kentucky in February, booked to Gun Runner.
“They were both great opportunities to buy into families that don’t come on the market very often,” Bergen said of the Sam-Son mares.
Other Runnymede mares were headed to Good Magic, The Factor, Candy Ride (Arg), Munnings, Into Mischief and others in an expanding group of quality mares.
“If everybody gets in foal, we’ll have 19 foals next year, which will keep us busy.”
Giant Shadow will be ready.
West Virginia Royalty
Cyndy and John McKee don’t ponder stallion choices for their mare Holy Pow Wow. She goes to farm stallion Fiber Sonde – always. The combination works like peanut butter and jelly, with the seventh foal due this month. The first six include five-time winner Indian Sound, $700,400-earner and multiple graded stakes winner Late Night Pow Wow, $743,175-earner and 12-time winner Muad’dib and a 2-year-old filly (Overnight Pow Wow) flashing ability with Clovis Crane in Pennsylvania.
The McKees spent $8,000 on Fiber Sonde, an unraced half-brother to top stallion Speightstown, as a stallion prospect. He changed West Virginia’s Thoroughbred landscape with scores of winners while matching particularly well with mares by Indian Charlie. A loser in all four starts, Indian Charlie mare Holy Pow Wow cost $5,000 as a broodmare prospect in 2013.
“She’s a typical Indian Charlie mare,” said Cyndy. “She’s just kind of plain bay, a big old rawboned mare. She’s got some personality, doesn’t have a whole lot, but she likes peppermints and is easy to get along with. She doesn’t raise hell or tear up anything. Some mares are just bitchy, but she’s not that way.”
John McKee took it a step further.
“I could put her in a pack of however many you want, but you couldn’t pick her out,” he said. “Rawboned as hell, bigger than most. She’s easy to keep, easy to be around, but she will really fool you. She’s probably the last one you would pick – whether it’s five, 10 or 100 – you wouldn’t pick her.”
Not that it matters. Holy Pow Wow isn’t leaving the McKees’ Beau Ridge Farm. Typically sellers, the McKees hung on to that now 2-year-old filly – Cyndy literally paid John “cash money” for half so they own her together – and look forward to taking her to the races this year.
“People have wanted him to sell because he’s always sold,” Cyndy said. “We’re not in a position where we have to sell. I own half and he owns half. We’ll see how things go.”
Holy Pow Wow isn’t the only broodmare at Beau Ridge. The McKees expected to foal 30-35 mares (24 belong to Beau Ridge) while also standing six stallions and keeping a racing stable going. Indian Charlie daughter Ghost Canyon, whose foals include four six-figure earners, was due in April to Fiber Sonde. Stakes-winning Fiber Sonde mare Cat Thats Grey, dam of 11-time winner Command the Cat, was expecting a Master Rick foal. Her 2-year-old filly by Redirect, Direct the Cat, was prepping with Crane with a Redirect yearling colt coming along. Fiber Sonde daughter Aye a Song was in foal to Kentucky stallion Vekoma. Stakes-winning Jersey Town mare Brigintine Island was waiting on a Maximum Mischief foal.
Sweet Valor's Success
Racehorse? Hunter/jumper? Dam of a Maryland-bred Horse of the Year?
Somehow, Sweet Valor covers all three descriptions. She won twice at the track for breeders Jim and Gail Poulos, retired to a second career with Steuart Pittman which ended when she was diagnosed with a spinal issue and then became a broodmare. Her first foal, Fille d’Esprit, won five races last year, had earned $685,101 through Feb. 17 and will pick up three Renaissance Awards at the Maryland Horse Breeders Association’s awards ceremony in April.
Sweet Valor won twice at Delaware Park for the Pouloses and trainer Ken Furlong, the only real highlights in a 14-start career. The Maryland-bred daughter of No Armistice and the Waquoit mare Made From Scratch dealt with a kissing spine, a condition where vertebrae are too close together and result in the touching or overlapping of bony projections at the top of each vertebrae. Some horses show no signs. Others deal with fairly chronic pain that can affect athletic performance.
“We didn’t know it at the time and if she didn’t feel well she would just stop trying,” said Jim Poulos. “She won two races and finished third once, but otherwise ran terribly.”
Sent to Pittman for hunter/jumper training, Sweet Valor shined at first, but the back condition was discovered and off she went to a broodmare career. Bred to Great Notion in 2015, she produced Fille d’Esprit who – despite not racing until age 4 – has turned into one of the region’s top runners with six stakes wins and a third in the 2022 Barbara Fritchie-G3. Sweet Valor is also the dam of Sweet Asta (a 6-year-old Nicanor gelding with three wins), Sweet Syntax (an unraced Editorial 4-year-old gelding), Never More Valor (a No Never No More 2-year-old filly) and a yearling filly by Blofeld.
“They all seem to get late starts in this family, but that hasn’t slowed Fille d’Esprit,” said Jim Poulos. “Sweet Valor is the sweetest horse there is. She’s an uber mom, you can’t get between her and her foals.”
Boarded at Whitefield farm near Jarrettsville, Md., and temporarily leased to Michael Horvath, the 15-year-old mare was in foal to Blofeld again for 2023, and due in May, but lost the foal in late February.
From Maryland to Arizona
Chesapeake City, Md., and Phoenix, Ariz., are 2,336 miles apart but that hasn’t stopped La Castiglione from making people think about the trip. The 5-year-old Maryland-bred mare has won seven races (three stakes) out west in the last 13 months.
Her dam Perverse, a daughter of Distorted Humor, stayed home, and was carrying a Great Notion foal for 2023.
Bred in Canada, Perverse sold for $200,000 as a yearling in 2005, raced at Chicago’s Hawthorne Race Course and produced five Pennsylvania-bred foals for owner/breeder Larry Karp before joining the Bowman family’s broodmare lineup in Maryland. Tritap filly Belial came first in 2016, and won three times. La Castiglione (by Uncle Lino) followed in 2018 and had won 10 of 24 starts. A 2019 Divining Rod filly Dry Well has won three times and a 2021 Golden Lad colt Brother Lad has yet to start. A yearling filly by Great Notion is “a tough cookie” according to co-breeder (with her brother Brooke and parents Tom and Chris) Becky Davis, and destined for the fall sale at Timonium.
Davis said Perverse, 19, would have a home at Roland Farm forever – only partly due to her produce record. Her foal of 2017 died, but she took on a new assignment after a mare at nearby Northview Stallion Station died while delivering a foal right about the same time.
“She was pretty maternal, she had plenty of milk and we thought maybe she would work because Northview needed a nurse mare,” Davis said. “She took the baby right away. She nursed a foal at Northview, when we owned her, and raised the foal like it was her own. A lot of times when they’ve had their own foal, they know it’s not their foal. We’ve only had a few mares do that over the years and it’s an amazing thing. She will always have a home with us.”
Broodmare love in Chesapeake City
Vielsalm already had Brooke Bowman’s attention and relatively undying affection. That’s what seven wins, a dozen placings, $329,285 in earnings and a graded-stakes placing will do for the relationship between a horse and an owner.
Of course, Vielsalm (named for a town in Belgium where Bowman competed in a cycling race) keeps adding to the relationship. Her first foal, What Does It Take, has won three races. Her third, Post Time, sold for $85,000 and put together an undefeated three-start juvenile season in 2022 capped by the Maryland Juvenile Championship Stakes win and a Maryland-bred championship.
“She’s like my first horse true love, we had so much fun racing her, so she got me, we just get along,” said Bowman, a veterinarian whose patients include plenty of mares and foals at his family’s Roland Farm. “She likes me on the farm. She is not like that with everybody else so it kind of annoys everybody. I call out for her on the farm when I see her, and she comes to see me. She can be tough, and I think that’s why she was good racing. She’s easy repro-wise and is meant to be a broodmare and a racehorse.”
The 13-year-old Fairbanks mare nearly died after delivering a McKinzie filly last year, further cementing her status with Bowman.
“A few weeks after having the foal, she colicked and had a five-hour surgery at New Bolton,” Bowman said. “Never lost any weight, recovered from it fine, nursed the foal, she just carried on like normal. We got very lucky.”
So did Vielsalm, who wasn’t bred last year but was booked to Nyquist for 2023.
Future Flightline foal for Maryland
Sycamore Hall Farm mare Southampton Way should have been carrying a foal by Essential Quality this spring, but she didn’t catch to that champion and instead gets a much-sought-after date with 2022 Horse of the Year Flightline.
“They smiled on us and accepted her,” said David Wade, who manages Sycamore Hall for the Golden family. “You don’t know until they call you and when you read the list of mares he’s going to be breeding you feel pretty good about your mare. She belongs and we’re excited to be part of it.”
Standing at Lane’s End Farm for a fee of $200,000 (the highest of any new stallion this year), Flightline will breed 150 mares in his first season. The group includes Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s dam Littleprincessemma, Grade 1 winners Bell’s the One and Juju’s Map, champion Shamrock Rose, Essential Quality’s dam Delightful Quality and champion Forte’s dam the Virginia-bred Queen Caroline on a deep list.
Southampton Way made the cut thanks to a mix of racetrack performance, progeny performance, pedigree and timing. The Maryland-bred won for Sagamore Farm at Saratoga as a 2-year-old in 2017 and backed up that with a second in the Adirondack Stakes-G2. Sycamore Hall spent $300,000 on the daughter of Into Mischief as a broodmare prospect in 2018 and her first foal (Speightstown colt Easy Action) sold for $300,000 as a yearling and won his 3-year-old debut at Oaklawn Park Jan. 28. Southampton Way delivered a Constitution filly, now named Independence Way, in April 2021.
Wade loved the potential of the Essential Quality match last year, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“She was only bred once because it was late, and she didn’t catch,” Wade said. “Had she gotten in foal there, I don’t think she would have been accepted to Flightline so maybe it was a good thing. She can be bred early, she’s a young mare whose race record was pretty good and whose pedigree works too.”
Wade’s jobs with Sycamore Hall and Northview Stallion Station put him in contact with some of the region’s leading broodmares, so narrowing down a list takes discipline. His mare Undisputed Legend warrants a check-in however as her son Whereshetoldmetogo was retired in 2022 after winning 17 races and earning just shy of $1 million. The 17-year-old mare was carrying a Mendelssohn foal, due in late February, and had been booked to Maxfield.
“She’s a professional broodmare, a sweetheart,” Wade said. “Just before foaling she gets a little grumpy, but once that baby’s out she’s a great mother.”
The Mendelssohn foal will be the second for the daughter of Domestic Dispute, who produced a full-brother in 2021 that sold for $145,000 as a yearling at Timonium last fall.
“I loved him so that’s why I bred her back to Mendelssohn, hoping I could strike lightning again,” Wade said. “This foal will be in a sale when the other one is a 3-year-old so maybe something good will happen.”
Wade will breed a daughter of Undisputed Legend, the winning Uncle Lino mare Miss Chesapeake, to Violence this year.
Sycamore Hall’s mare Nasty, a $420,000 purchase in 2021, foaled a Gun Runner colt early in 2023 and was headed to Medaglia d’Oro. The daughter of Street Sense and the Grade 1-placed Valiant Passion won three times and placed in a Grade 3 stakes in California.
All in the family for Cooney
There it is in three repetitive lines on the Equibase page. The breeding game. The dreamer’s dream. Susan Cooney, the Virginia breeder/owner/trainer caught lightning in a bottle at least once when she bred the Virginia-bred In too Deep to Royal Academy. Embarr was born in 2008. The chestnut mare won nine races, five stakes, placed in a graded stakes and earned $358,247. That was lightning in a thimble. And like all dreamers, Cooney is still dreaming, sending Embarr to Kentucky-based Oscar Performance and her daughter, Fionnbharr, to Maryland-based True Valour (Ire) this year.
Based with Patricia Ramey at Blue Ridge Farm, the mares were being scheduled to be bred and return to foal Virginia-breds for Cooney.
“I’m a little light on mares, I ended up losing three over the last couple of years to colic, EPM and pneumonia so I don’t have any foals coming this year, but I’m excited about Embarr going to Oscar Performance and Fionnbharr going to True Valour,” Cooney said. “I like my maiden mares to foal at home, so we’ll go with Virginia-bred, Maryland-sired with Fionnbharr. And Embarr is a special case, so she stays at home as much as possible, she’s had a hard time foaling, she’s had problems, maintaining pregnancies, that’s why she has four foals at the age of 15.”
Dreams are never simple.
“It’s tough, it’s never easy with any of them but with one like Embarr it’s pins and needles the whole time,” Cooney said. “She does have a beautiful The Factor colt, a short yearling. He’s really nice.”
Back to Equibase, Cooney’s best performer of her 22-year career is Embarr. The fifth best is Fionnbharr, a multiple stakes-placed daughter of Exchange Rate. The seventh is In too Deep who started it all. Homebreds have pulled the cart all the way.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Cooney said. “There is no greater thrill than foaling a mare, raising the baby and having it go off to the races and win. Because you know how hard it is for it to happen. That’s why you do it. On the other side, it can be heartbreaking.” -Sean Clancy