Most historic of bluegrass studs is in the safest of hands
Chris McGrath talks to John Phillips, the latest custodian of Darby Dan farm
John Phillips is not your average horseman. Every now and then, some stray beam of literature or scripture breaks open the luminosity underpinning this obviously decent, civilised man. As, for instance, this observation borrowed from Theodore Roosevelt: “Far better it is to try great things, than that grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
There is nothing decorative about such flourishes. He happens to be talking about the latest American triumphs at Royal Ascot. In lesser men, however apt, this kind of thing tends to be ostentatious, fragile. In Phillips, concerned by wisdom rather than cleverness, the aphorism slides past in the same measured, unpretentious cadence as the rest of his conversation.
No, not your average horseman. Which is just as well, as his is no average responsibility: the custody - and that is how he sees it, rather than ownership - of Darby Dan, one of the most historic of all Bluegrass studs. In its days as Idle Hour Farm, Colonel ER Bradley raised four Kentucky Derby winners here; and John W Galbreath, who had started Darby Dan in Ohio and bought the core estate on Bradley’s death, produced two more in the 1960s - Chateaugay and Proud Clarion - before becoming the first man also to win the Epsom original, with Roberto in 1972. Galbreath imported two great European champions to stand here, Ribot and Sea-Bird; you can still see where Ribot would gnaw a wooden rim of his stall, dangling by his teeth.
Phillips is Galbreath’s grandson. The old man was still alive when, in 1986, Phillips took leave from his attorney partnership in Columbus, Ohio, to sketch out a new business model for the farm. The family had recently sold its longstanding stake in the Pittsburgh Pirates - whose Roberto Clemente had been immortalised by a Derby winner, just months before his death in a plane crash - and the giddy boom in bloodstock values was plunging into its inevitable correction. When Galbreath died in 1988, Phillips quit law for good; and soon after the death of his uncle, seven years later, he took over the farm.
Sitting in his office at Darby Dan, trim and engaged at 65, he reviews his first career with characteristic deprecation. “If I could have remembered law like I could remember every horse, or every race, or every pedigree I’d ever seen...” He pauses, and laughs. “Well, I would have been on the Supreme Court. As it was, I practised eight years, and it was fine. But it was not something I was ever going to be really good at. And I felt that I had an opportunity here, something very special, a chance - in as small of a niche as it is - to touch greatness.”
Yet the whole process of apprenticeship and accession had been almost inadvertent. “So often that seed is planted without you ever knowing it,” he reflects. “If you’d said to me, going through college: ‘John, you’re going to end up keeping Darby Dan alive...’ I’d have said: ‘No way.’ The reality is that things just pulled me there. It was not conscious, but I look back now and remember those moments: that time with my grandfather, in 1963, when I saw Graustark come into the paddock and thought him the most gorgeous creature ever seen, this shining liver chestnut. Or hiding down behind my grandfather’s seat in the car, because kids weren’t allowed on the racetrack in Florida. ‘Keep your head down, we’ll get in.’ And waved past security. I remember dozens of those little flicks of moments, seeds in my psyche that germinated unexpectedly - by no design at all, by fiat.”
Happily, the bloom of this latent obsession never stifled the breadth of perspective he could import from a wider world. Here is a man who spends a fortnight every year in the most remote and deprived backwaters of Honduras, as humble factotum for a surgical clinic organised by his local pastor, in conjunction with the Red Cross; and a man, moreover, who has seen the merit of exposing all three of his children to the same experience. Cue another aphorism, this time from St Luke: “To whom much is given, much is also expected.”
So a “tongue-tie”, to Phillips, means something radically different from the tack notice on Racing Post racecards. “It’s where the tongue does not liberate from the side of the mouth, giving the child a very difficult time eating or speaking,” he explains. “Yet it’s a very simple procedure, to release it. That kind of thing can be life-changing, really special. But what we see out there runs the gamut: advanced cancers, arthritic conditions. What you can do then is very limited, and very frustrating.
“But for what you can do, you’ll see what it means: a smile, or a mango, given because it’s all they have to offer. When your big issue of the day is where to get food, where to get water, it’s quite a dramatic shift from what we’re used to. It’s humbling, makes you acknowledge all the blessings we have.”
The ever-growing costs
As such, of course, it also reinforces the moral challenge of bloodstock values. Phillips shakes his head as he tries to square these experiences with those of a sales ring. “You watch people throwing in $100,000” - a snap of the fingers - “and then up it goes by $100,000” - another snap - “and you just start to think what that could buy, in terms of education or healthcare…”
On the other hand, he knows perfectly well that those headline figures have a context; one that can reduce even millions of dollars into narrow margins. And he finds himself able to reconcile the whole strange endeavour with the dignity he has learned in other walks of life.
“I have thought about this some,” he admits. “In the sense that we all of us, wherever we are, strive for a richness in life. Even the poorest person can appreciate artwork: it may just be an ear-ring, or a piece of cloth they’ve manufactured. We all inherently pursue that. And I look on this farm, and this sport, as living art. It has that richness and life. If it were purely pecuniary, it would not be very satisfactory to me. I couldn’t pursue it with the same passion. As it is, it is so much more than just a business: it’s a pursuit that is beautiful, that allows for a life and a contact with the environment and others of God’s creatures. And that allows me to participate without feeling guilty.”
He describes the horses as works of art; and, by extension, those precious Darby Dan families might be schools of art. “You’re both curator and creator,” he says. “There is a landscape design, a biologic design, an ecologic design; as well as trying to balance the economics, so that it’s sustainable. I’m a steward of this ground, a steward of these pedigrees. As was my grandfather before me, and ER Bradley before him - and as someone else will be, a century from now. This land will be here. In a cosmologic sense, we’re all just passing through. So I’m just trying to sustain the beauty, to see that it is all respectfully done, for those who preceded me and those who come after.”
Yet if he sketches the big picture in terms of soul as much as intellect, he must be pragmatic in the detail. Phillips often has to be fairly ruthless with himself, to adapt the heritage of Darby Dan to the unsparingly commercial environment of today.
“I break everything down into silos: the sales division, stallions, boarding, racing,” he says. “I look at them separately, analyse the strength of what we’re doing in that particular division. But they all interact. If you’ve done really well on the racetrack, that can energise the acquisition of pedigrees you like - not so much the acquisition of mares, as stallion seasons.
“That is a horrendously expensive part of the process; and that’s what fundamentally changed the industry in the 1980s, away from breeding-to-race to breeding-to-sell. Because when Northern Dancer was standing at a million dollars, or Danzig at a half-million, or Seattle Slew at $750,000, fellows like my grandfather just couldn’t hope to justify that on the racetrack.
'Our business model had to change'
“So if you look at Darby Dan’s history, while they were fortunate to have some useful stallions, the Graustark mares were all bred to Roberto; and the Roberto mares were all bred to Little Current. And you could see that beginning to compromise itself, because you weren’t really going after the best genetics. So as the world began to change, our business model had to change - or we’d be going the way of so many great old farms. We now have a much more balanced approach.”
To a degree, that has meant renouncing the Classic blood that trademarked the farm in the era of his grandfather’s manager Olin Gentry. The roster now comprises a series of punts on young, commercially viable stallions. None of the eight currently in residence stand for more than $15,000. And even that fee was earned by Dialed In - champion freshman of 2016 and, in the flesh, really a most beautiful animal - from an opening $7,500.
“To me, for him to come out and do that off a book of really modest mares was just remarkable,” Phillips says. “I think his future is exceedingly bright as he moves up, in terms of mare quality, because a) he throws an attractive horse and b) there’s precocity and speed, and yet also the ability to carry it two turns. I’m very happy for all the shareholders, and for all the guys who work so hard here - we have a great crew, and they’ve given these young stallions a great opportunity to prove themselves.
“We’ve been very fortunate. You just stay in the game. It’s hard to blend sustainability with that passion. Going back to the ‘70s and before, 90 per cent of the market was breed-to-race and the other ten per cent had some commercial purpose. That’s totally flip-flopped. So sometimes you don’t always get to do what you want.”
He points to a photo on the wall: La Cloche, a daughter of one dual Grade 1 winner in Memories Of Silver and a half-sister to another in Winter Memories. She stands on a dais with a digital display glowing behind her: $2,400,000. “We sold her in foal to Tapit a couple of years ago,” Phillips says. “I was loathe to do it, but in order to allow the next generation to happen - to breed to the kind of sires I wanted to go to - we had to do it. And because of that, I’ve got two gorgeous Tapit fillies that will one day be coming into the broodmare band.”
La Cloche was a Grade 3 winner, not as brilliant or glamorous as her half-sister - but desperately competitive. “They were stabled together and Winter Memories was so strikingly beautiful, I swear La Cloche was jealous,” Phillips laughs. “Everyone would always go straight to look at Winter Memories, and that made La Cloche ornery. So when I went into the stable every day I went to her first, and when I did that she was okay.”
These fillies trace to one of the farm’s great matriarchs: the presciently named Golden Trail. And such dynasties are the family silver, held in trust as a priceless counterweight to the short perspectives of commercialism.
“I think it’s much easier to breed a good racehorse than to buy one,” Phillips says. “Agents, remember, are dealing with the limited amount of information available to them: what’s on the catalogue page, and what they see. And those, honestly, are very superficial bits of information. It’s hard to detect other qualities, such as the mind; the immune system; soundness.
“And if your antennae are up, you’re also picking up what grooms say, what exercise riders say, about things like temperament or feet or movement. About their aggressiveness, or timidity, their pecking order. Things you pick up about the mare, and her reaction to the foal, and the foal’s interaction with the other weanlings as they develop.
“And in the final analysis, when you’ve pulled in all those tiny bits of information, there’s that synapse in your brain. You can’t articulate it, it’s gut feel, it’s intuition. It’s the kind of conversation that’s fun to have with Arthur Hancock: is being a good horseman more science or art? You see people come into the business saying: ‘I’m going to develop this algorithm, I’m going to use biomechanics, I’m going to use a heart score.’ And all those things are valuable, I don’t mean to dismiss any of it. But there is no one silver bullet.
“There are too many straws you’re putting on the scale to pull out any single one and say: ‘Well, this is why: this is why that is a great horse’. I often say my job is only to enhance the probability. Because I can do everything wrong and still be lucky - and I can do everything right, and things still won’t happen.”
By the same token, even an intimacy with particular families does not permit breeders to be prescriptive. Phillips notes how different branches suddenly thrive, even as others fade away. “Things jump up and you think: ‘Now where did that come from?’” he says. “Sometimes it’s not good, either, maybe a winded horse. And you search back and then you might find, okay, there’s that Swaps influence, gotta watch that, and then that might translate with Storm Cat or whatever, and you put things together. It can protect you as much as advance you, because you can avoid things.
“A farmer plants in the spring and harvests in the fall. We’re on a much longer cycle. When you look at the matings, you ask yourself: ‘If I get a female, would she be a good broodmare? What sire-line would I breed her to? What genetic components am I looking for? That takes me maybe six or seven years down the road. So in your mind you’re not just going backwards four or five generations, you’re also also going forward two or three.
“Olin Gentry was really good at that. That’s why I now think it takes a person to be old to be a really good horseman. You can see that timespan, the breadth of your data is so much greater. It allows you to balance.
“I can remember sitting here listening to him talking about pedigrees, going back to the fourth and fifth and sixth dam. And all I could think was: ‘My God this man is - old! He’s talking about all this stuff, it can’t make any difference.’ And now the staff at Darby Dan laugh at me because I do the exact same thing. So life is funny. It’s all good; as a matter of fact, it’s great.”