Early in 1990, as a sophomore at Colorado State University studying to get my BS in Equine Science, I decided I was not going to come back to Evergreen for another summer. Leafing through the pages of my Blood Horse Magazine, I picked out ten big farms to send internship request letters. I am not sure what originally drew me to Thoroughbreds, except that I knew it was an enormous industry with tradition, palatial farms, famous horses and connections all over the world. I was fascinated by yearlings selling at the Keeneland Summer Select Sale in the mid-80’s for numbers like $17 million! Surely they would have a job opening.
Gainesborough Farm in Versailles, Kentucky was my only response and invited me to take a Groom position from May-August. Gainesborough was owned at the time by Sheik Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates. His brother Sheik Mohammad did not have a farm in Kentucky at the time, so he kept many of his horses there as well. The farm did not disappoint. It was everything I would have imagined and more. It was 600+ acres of meticulously groomed horse heaven. Huge double wood fenced pastures, four lovely homes, sections for stallions, mares & foals, barren mares and yearlings. There was the stately main house where many of the Sheiks entourage stayed when they visited, although the Sheik stayed off site. The Manager, Assistant Manager and Personal Manager occupied the other three homes.
There was also a Maintenance Manager, Stallion Manager, Mare & Foal Manager and Yearling Manager. Each barn had a Barn Foreman and then 2-4 Grooms. The stallion complex was complete with the latest footing, excessive padding and exotic trees imported from all over the world. Much to the embarrassment of the Stallion Manager, Jimmy from Ireland, he had to feed all of the exotic foul that adorned the lovely lake. When I went to the stud (aka farm) he was from in Ireland a couple years later, he asked me to please not tell people back home that he had to feed the ducks!
Mares & Foals had four 20 stall barns, one being the foaling barn; yearlings had three 20 stall barns, there was a 10 stall quarantine barn, a 20 stall Barren Mare barn and the Stallion Barn had 6 stalls. Each section was architecturally unique from the octagon stallion barns to the circular yearling barns with meticulously groomed gardens in the middle courtyards. Every barn had brick floors, pristine oak lined stalls and walls with brass hardware everywhere. That was another thing that Jimmy asked me to keep quiet on, how many hours we spent cleaning brass… Door knobs & handles, halter hangers, halters, and feed tub and water clips, yes the snaps on the feed tubs!
Our work days started at 7 am, bringing all of the horses out of the pasture every morning to give them grain, groom them, palpate mares, treat any cuts and scrapes, etc. Mondays were bath day. Mares with appointments with stallions were vanned with a groom to farms while their foals stayed home in their stalls. As you may know, to be registered with the Jockey Club, Thoroughbreds have to be bred by live cover, meaning mare and stallion are both present and you can fill in the rest. Of course with the value of the horse flesh, experienced handlers keep it all safe and orderly. Mid-afternoon, all of the horses would be turned back out and the night crew would take over, touching every horse on the farm at least once every two hours.
The Sheik arrived in July to attend the famed Keeneland Summer Select Sale at Keeneland Race Track. As expected, he came with mass amounts of family members and staff. They landed their too large plane at the Blue Grass Airport, paid the $30,000 dollar fine to the FFA and left the plane running at the end of the runway in case he had to go at a moment’s notice. One summer they had to send the plane back to London to retrieve the suitcase of cash they left in the hotel. His entourage included a food taster who took a shine to me and would bring me food to my barn every afternoon including fruits, breads and meats. All of the other farm employees would come by my barn on their way home to stock up for dinner!
While Sheik Maktoum and Mohammad were looking at the Keeneland sale horses, he would also come through the barns and look at his own. Prior to their visit, we would practice taking the horses out to the presentation areas at each barn while we paraded around in sheets to look like robes, getting the foals and yearlings used to standing nicely while robes flapped and walked around them. While they were in Kentucky, we worked every day for over 20 days just in case they stopped by. When they did arrive at the farm, we snuck in and out of the back stall doors, being unseen, but sending out gleaming coats from each stall to be presented. After they left we all received cash bonuses. $2,500 for grooms, $5,000 for foreman, $10,000 for division managers and who knows how much for upper management. I heard $50,000 for the General Manager. Pretty nice little bonus! Speaking of money, the farm budget was $8 million a year, the Sheiks income for one day. That puts it in perspective.
The following summer I returned to work at Fares Farm in Lexington, just over the fence from Calumet Farm (home of Affirmed, 1978 Triple Crown winner) and down the road from the back gate of Keeneland. Fares Farm specialized in fitting yearlings for sale at the Keeneland Summer Select Sale as well as lay ups off of the track. We spent a good amount of time hand walking yearlings and lay ups, as well as wrapping legs and grooming.
When sale time arrived we had one particularly smart and feisty filly, Skillful Joy by Nureyev. The Farm Manager handed me a box of sugar cubes and said, “I think she likes you best, just try to keep her happy.” Thoroughbreds are usually named later as two year olds, so they are typically identified by the mares name and their birth year. Skillful Joy the mare won over $1 million on the track and I believe Nureyev’s stud fee at the time was around $250,000. Skillful Joy would demand some attention.
At the sale, many of the top trainers, owners and bloodstock agents came by to see Skillful Joy. Trainers D. Wayne Lucas and Nick Zito were among them. Each groom had specific yearlings that they presented to interested parties and Skillful Joy was mine. Showing the yearlings entailed bringing them out to the ring from their stalls, standing them correctly for prospective buyers to evaluate their conformation and then walking them around the ring. She really only did two ornery things while there. While she was tied to the back wall of her stall as I groomed her, I left to get something and she double barrel kicked the heavy mesh door closed behind me. Then once while I was showing her she intentionally stepped on my foot in perfect stride, never missing a beat. Of course I had to act like nothing happened.
That same summer I worked on Saturdays in the breeding shed at Gainesway Farm for Dr. Umphenour which scored me the shoes of Thirty Six Red and Cahill Road (same shoes he won the Wood Memorial in) as they retired to the breeding barn from the track.
In 1992, when I graduated from CSU, I headed back out to Kentucky to work at Gainesborough Farm again and for the third summer live above Wilson’s Pool Hall in Versailles. This time, at the end of the summer the plan was for me to fly to Ireland with 41 horses that the Sheiks had bought at the Keeneland Sale. Once in Ireland, I would join a crew of hired help from all over the world at Sheik Mohammad’s Kildangan Stud to start training the long yearlings for flat racing. Ireland in the Fall to follow later this year! More pictures on my blog at MtnHomes4Horses.com. Heather McWilliams © 2015