Featured ... Rise of a Sire: Spendthrift Farm's Authentic, Year One

On a crisp morning, Authentic, The Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic Champion, surveys the field last winter at Spendthrift Farm before 'Year One' as a sire. (Photo Credit: Autry Graham)
On a crisp morning, Authentic, The Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic Champion, surveys the field last winter at Spendthrift Farm before "Year One" as a sire. (Photo Credit: Autry Graham)

If you crane your neck, drawing your eyes upward towards the beech-colored plank ceiling, you can make out the names. Going back to the early 1940s, as conflict spread on a global scale, a legacy began. Printed on small gold plaques, the black letters start to come into form. As you begin to focus, you will notice that each wall segment is divided by year … building steadily, over time the lists grow. When the farm was running at peak efficiency, producing the next generation, the tally grew longer and longer, marking expansion and influence. Housing their breeding operations, this is the physical place where preparation and opportunity merged. Those names? They are all of the stakes winners, each and every one of them, that were bred there. They all tell a story that is marked with a bloodline. The plaques are an inscribed ichor, to use a term from Greek Mythology (meaning the blood of the gods), linking legends of the past to those that have yet to arrive. 

Pedigree investigations can be endlessly fascinating explorations of lineage and time. What you uncover is a labyrinth of twists and turns, plus a few dead ends. Pertaining to humans, studying family history was once a serious cottage industry; namely, the province of those that exercised patience at local libraries and historical societies. Flash to the present day, and it has become a big “Ancestry” business; though not one without its democratic opportunities … for a fee, mind you. Thank goodness for algorithms …

For horses, particularly those that are “thoroughly bred,” pedigree soundings reside somewhere near the realm of heraldry. Just as they did in the distant past, gumshoes of equine bloodlines continue to join with industry titans, to orchestrate which sire and dam can produce the very best heir. What morphed over time was a hash of cross-references before the Age of Information. If you could access what were called “Stud Books,” which filled bookcase-lined rooms, then you were unlocking a veritable gold mine of the possible.

When it comes to collating, if we merge a human’s family history with that of equine bloodstock, we find a woven past that brings people and horses together … a shared provenance with hundreds of branches. What we have learned over the years is that there is nothing routine about breeding Thoroughbreds. If you didn’t know, producing the next generation of this select animal is highly regulated, as complexity abounds. In other words, you cannot use artificial methods. The process is a mix of tried-and-true experiences handed down from one generation to the next. Over the course of the 20th century, science has also taken its place alongside a burgeoning arc of development; although debate continues to rage in equine operations as to whether that is even remotely a positive.

Ordering more gold plaques ... picture of Nashua above the wall for stakes winners. Listed are the Thoroughbreds that were bred at Spendthrift Farm dating back to the 1940s. (Photo Credit: David Coyle)
Ordering more gold plaques ... picture of Nashua above the wall for stakes winners. Listed are the Thoroughbreds that were bred at Spendthrift Farm dating back to the 1940s. (Photo Credit: David Coyle)

What we do know is that as a sire reaches the end of his 1st year in the breeding shed, it is a combination of known and unknowns that are realized. Stallion centers that are based in places like the Bluegrass region of Central Kentucky are similar to distilleries, those that make a brown liquid marveled the world over. They both measure their processes in patience and time-honored traditions. Equine farms always get asked … how is this horse or that one “doing” as a sire? This is even more significant at the beginning when a freshman sire is just setting out. This time period—Year One—simply can never be replicated. The early pace that is set, can instill confidence, provide depth, and is one of those litmus tests. Heading true north … or not … it depends.

Speaking of headings … If you go northbound on Russell Cave Road moving away from Lexington, Kentucky and Interstate 64, you travel along a road lined with limestone—a material native to the region. As much a part of the landscape as the horses, University of Kentucky historical geographer Karl Raitz wrote extensively about its creation. Limestone fences were dry laid, stacked by Irish immigrants looking for wages and life. Coming to a juncture that meets Iron Works Pike, a righthand turn takes you by a massive sign that marks the boundary—Spendthrift Farm. That is where you will find the lists of graded champions on display, but it is also where that poignant question of “doing,” is constantly being asked when it comes to their sires.

Of the many Thoroughbred progenitors that are out there in the great wide world, probably one that we would like our question answered the most, concerns the 2020 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Champion, and two-time Eclipse Award winner, Authentic. Partly-owned by Spendthrift, and also by the some 5,000 MyRaceHorse fanatics that wanted a piece of both history and the breeding rights, the 4-yr-old son of Into Mischief officially retired after doing something few have accomplished … winning 2 of the most-celebrated races in the history of the world. The decision was made by Spendthrift’s legendary owner, B. Wayne Hughes, in consultation with his incredible squad of experts, to summarily end Authentic’s racing career. This assemblage included an experienced team, led by Mark Toothmaker with Des Dempsey and Brian Lyle, who comprise Spendthrift’s Stallion Sales Team. They aren’t the types that make themselves scarce, and that is precisely why Hughes hired them … they are some of the best. In this instance, the time had come … the Champion’s destination? The Nashua Motel …

Turning down the tree-lined drive at Spendthrift, past the colorful flowers that sport the distinctive orange and purple of the stable, on your way to the Main Office you will pass the Tyvek-clad form of their new Visitor’s Center. You will notice it is named for their principal, who sadly passed away back in August. “Mr. Hughes” might have left this Earth, but his encyclopedic wit and wisdom have left a mark on this land and the people that call Spendthrift home. The Public Storage magnate, who famously bought the dilapidated place back in 2004, was a revolutionary. That’s not bragging because it’s true, to paraphrase humorist Will Rogers. Not to truncate it or to be a reductionist, he envisioned a business model that he knew Americans would need, and worked diligently to see it through. The orange and white corrugated sheds he left behind are everywhere, like beacons that call to people with stuff.

As the oft-told story goes, Hughes brought that same spirit of innovation to horse racing decades ago, and steadily he invested in the sport that could make his dream a reality. General Manager Ned Toffey is Spendthrift’s field general, and when we spoke inside the 1830s house that is a hub of activity he mused, “Wayne always found ways to get us to think differently about all sorts of problems, which even though it sounded wrong at first, proved to be correct after we thought about it.” That is what this operation thrives on—the art of the pivot. They take something unexpected, something that is headed one way, and move it in the total opposite direction. When Hughes bought Spendthrift (with its acreage down below a measly 400), it needed more than just a facelift.

Heart of the Stallion Complex ... the cupola-laden 'Nashua Motel' at Spendthrift Farm constructed with fireproof materials in the mid-1950s, so Lloyd's of London would insure its guests. (Photo Credit: David Coyle)
Heart of the Stallion Complex ... the cupola-laden "Nashua Motel" at Spendthrift Farm constructed with fireproof materials in the mid-1950s, so Lloyd's of London would insure its guests. (Photo Credit: David Coyle)

Over the next decade and a half, it required a massive Mr. Stevens-esque “revised staff plan,” ala Remains of the Day. Toffey describes a building program that saw Spendthrift add nearly 900 acres over the next 15 years, which brought the farm back to its heyday size. They hit gold with sires like Malibu Moon and Into Mischief, changing the landscape of horse racing. The campus houses historic buildings that have seen multiple refurbishments for utilitarian purposes, but it’s their Stallion Complex that received the polish. “Mr. Hughes liked to say that it needed a little “ta-da,” mused Toffey. The merging of the old and the new became a rule of thumb, as Spendthrift took shape once again.

Spendthrift was started in the late 1930s by Leslie Combs II, and dubbed for a famous racehorse of the late nineteenth century. By the 1950s, the first Stallion Barn took shape, but Lloyd’s of London wouldn’t write a policy for a structure that wasn’t fireproof, so a new one would have to be constructed. Nicknamed the “Nashua Motel,” the glistening U-plan sported 3 cupolas, one of the most distinctive vernacular symbols of architecture in the state of Kentucky. With a variety of materials, the building became the home to sires like Nashua (hence the name), the 1955 Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes winner, and much later to Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, who stood for 7 years before moving on to Three Chimneys. “Slew” became one of the most complete Thoroughbreds of all-time, in racing and in breeding. As for Nashua, he was cared for by one of the legends of racing, longtime groom Clem Brooks, who famously handed out horseshoes “supposedly” worn by Nashua during his Triple try. Back in the 21st century, under the new and improved Spendthrift, the Nashua Motel was refitted, along with the original barn in the Stallion Complex, all to accommodate Hughes’ new residents.

Close-up of Liza Todd's 'Nashua' (c.1984) that is centrally located in the Stallion Complex. The daughter of actress Elizabeth Taylor, she included Clem Brooks as an homage to his years of service. Nashua is buried just behind statue. (Photo Credit: David Coyle)
Close-up of Liza Todd's "Nashua" (c.1984) that is centrally located in the Stallion Complex. The daughter of actress Elizabeth Taylor, she included Clem Brooks as an homage to his years of service. Nashua is buried just behind statue. (Photo Credit: David Coyle)

When trainer Bob Baffert brought Authentic to the farm to begin the horse’s retirement right after his Classic win at Keeneland, it was the end of one career that would eventually see the colt garner both Horse of the Year and Top 3-Year-Old Male Eclipse Awards. That memorable day was also the start of another—his new job as a sire. Breeders, by their nature, are avowed optimists. So, “Year One” would be one of promise, but that was much different than the one that had started the colt’s career in racing. As is typically the case, consortiums of investors come together to defray costs, limiting risk. It is much like how movies are made today … no longer just the powerful monolith studios alone. Despite being the offspring of Spendthrift’s own Into Mischief, he was not “technically” regarded as a “top prospect.”  Thought by the pundits to be more of a sprinter than a horse that could get the Classic distance, most wrote him off as a runner that would not be able to make the great leap forward.

In the 10th crop of foals by this prolific sire, Authentic was bred in Kentucky by Peter E. Blum Thoroughbreds. They waited to sell him as a yearling, and the colt was consigned to the 2018 September Keeneland Sale. He was bought for $350k by SF Bloodstock and Starlight West, out of Hip 2616, which was a particularly late position in the “books,” despite the high price. A complicated shuffle ensued once he arrived at Baffert’s stable, which meandered until June 2020 when Hughes purchased a majority interest (Madaket Stables and Starlight Racing are the other holders). Along with Michael Behrens of MyRaceHorse, Spendthrift then offered 12,500 microshares at $206.00 to some 5,314 investors. It was part of Hughes dream … bring ownership and breeding rights to those that otherwise might not have the opportunity. The owner even went so far as to have jockey John Velazquez wear the MyRaceHorse silks in the September running of The Kentucky Derby, not Spendthrift’s signature orange and purple. It was a testament to his commitment. The black and white-clad connections did not disappoint, leading the precocious colt all the way to Churchill’s famed Winner’s Circle.

Even though the MyRaceHorse cadre was over the moon about Authentic’s racing success from the Haskell Invitational all the way through the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a few were hoping that they would be receiving a portion of those winnings. But lest we forget, in an age of “kickers,” there was money that was due, like a $9 million check, that not every shareholder would be able to muster. The real prize, especially if Authentic can continue to produce heirs, is a share in the breeding rights. His initial stud fee for a live foal in 2021 came in at $75,000. Speaking with Toffey, you get the immediate sense of how tenuous and just how challenging this business of breeding can be. When Spendthrift recently lost Lord Nelson, a fixture in their program, it was significant—a member of the family was gone. Fighting laminitis, he battled health problems for years, courageous to the end. In other words, there is a fine line to this process that is not at all certain, which is a theme again, and again. When it comes to Authentic’s current status, Toffey remains focused and ebullient. “I would say that everything has gone exactly to plan,” he said, “Authentic has a very good libido, his fertility is without question, and I think we made it through our 1st year with incredible success.” His attitude is both necessary and proper …

To delve deeper, what has driven Authentic’s ability to cover 229 mares in his 1st year? Is it ambition or aspiration that serves as the best guide? Toffey was contemplative when it came to this question, and in the end, he surmised that a healthy dose of each would probably be the best answer. It is a tough one … however, it probably hinges on that premise of optimism. The GM, quoting one of the age-old aphorisms in the business said, “If you advertise a horse as being $5000, that’s all they will ever be.” Not only does marketing play a role in the selling of a sire, but you also need an experienced brain trust around your operation to make it go.

Authentic, celebrating his 4th Birthday at Spendthrift this past May. (Photo Credit: Autry Graham)
Authentic, celebrating his 4th Birthday at Spendthrift this past May. (Photo Credit: Autry Graham)

Headed by Stallion Manager Wayne Howard, a 2021 nominee for the Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards in the category of “Dedication to Breeding,” his circle oversees Spendthrift’s ambitions and aspirations to be the best. The process of breeding horses requires a commitment to safety, and this is where the methods of the past merge with science. Authentic, like his father who resides right next to him in the Nashua Motel, as Toffey mentioned, is already a virile sire. That bodes well for the future, as Into Mischief has already established himself as a versatile producer of all sorts of runners (in 2020 he bred 248 mares, according to the Jockey Club). Recall, that those dogged stereotypes pegged him as only a dirt sprinter sire, but he proved them wrong when Authentic won the Derby, and followed that with a “just miss” in what was a thrilling Preakness against the filly, Swiss Skydiver. It was horse racing at its best … much needed in the wake of all that happened in 2020.

That is what it takes to increase the fee to “cover a mare.” If your offspring wins, especially in graded races or “black types,” then that only helps your sire’s cause. Even though we will not see Authentic’s colts and fillies on the track for a couple of years, you can be sure that the racing world will be watching. In the meantime, Toffey’s optimism remains steadfast. A student of history, particularly the Civil War, he understands the cyclical nature of things, and how events steadily unfold. Walking around the Stallion Complex with him is like surveying the high ground along Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg (one of his favorite battlefields to visit) … your senses are immediately under siege. In the place of soldiers, heads pop out of stalls in the front and in the back (which helps with airflow), making you realize that the residents of this Thoroughbred encampment are well-taken care of when it comes to their treatment. Original brass handles and beautifully lacquered woods adorn one of the barn structures. Inside you will find a wall of plaques commemorating the sires that have come before. An homage to the past …

'Fashion Week' at Spendthrift arrived in the Summer 2021, just as Authentic completed 'Year One' at stud. (Photo Credit: Autry Graham)
"Fashion Week" at Spendthrift arrived in the Summer 2021, just as Authentic completed "Year One" at stud. (Photo Credit: Autry Graham)

Back in the present, Authentic, like his motel mates, Into Mischief, Goldencents, Mitole, Cloud Computing, and all the rest, are handled by a crew that carefully manages their days. Watching one of only 6 horses who have won both the Derby and the Classic stand before you, conjures an image … a future star sire in your midst. He has that “Look of Eagles,” that is bestowed on runners like Seattle Slew. Authentic is well-balanced, and he possesses a withers, which is the standard place to measure the animal's height, of 16.2 (Into Mischief comes in at 16.05). He has a perfect symmetry about him when it comes to his build, and combines the very best traits of both his sire, and his dam, the rather unheralded, Flawless. This Derby Champion does not have “Slew’s” fickle nature when it comes to broodmares. Evidently, the Triple Crown winner particularly liked those that were “grey,” and gave the Stallion staff fits when it came to which ones he would “choose.” To put it another way, understanding horses, working with their traits, and even more so, their eccentricities, is all about pivoting and patience.

How will Authentic’s production levels at Spendthrift fare as “Year Two” approaches? Well, if this inaugural count of 229 was any indication, then the future does indeed look bright. But that kind of thinking can easily turn. The Spendthrift regiment would like to believe that’s not the case. “It’s a game filled with failure,” GM Ned Toffey said with a placid optimism, “I think though as long as you have a plan to backup your dreams, you’ll have a chance at success.” You never really know, as one of B. Wayne Hughes’ maxims comes into play one last time. That kind of solace can be a guide too, especially when explanations are in short supply—the countless “known unknowns.” After all, there is nothing easy about breeding racehorses, once “Year One” is in the books. Authentic’s rise as a sire can be viewed through a prism to the past and the future. With this kind of perspective in hand, maybe the moment will arrive to add more names to the breeding shed stakes wall at Spendthrift. Time to order more gold plaques …