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By Stephen Burnett
At Three Chimneys Farm, the team — including farm president Case Clay — are proud of 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, who lives there. Acquiring that racehorse is a great success of the farm, but according to Clay, another unique achievement also echoes the farm’s status.
In 2008, the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book’s fantasy gifts, offering such luxury items as a party with Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders or a backyard golf course, listed Three Chimneys Farm. The catalog’s offer was for a personal stable full of thoroughbred horses, trained and managed by the farm.
“Three Chimneys buys your horses for you,” Clay said with a laugh. “You just show up, pick the silks and collect the trophies.” Oddly enough, no one bought the fantasy gift, maybe because its price was $10 million. But that shows the name recognition the farm has, he said.
Ten years ago, Clay, the son of Three Chimneys Farm founder and owner Robert Clay, came back to Kentucky to join the family business. Now he is president of the Woodford County-based operation, renowned for its racing stallions for four decades, since its founding in 1972.
Helping to recruit a racehorse like Big Brown felt like being a University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach recruiting a new player, Clay said. In Big Brown’s case, the racehorse had already won the Derby, and Three Chimneys signed for him at noon on the day of the Preakness Stakes. “Three Chimneys and all the other stallion farms are going into the owners’ living rooms and telling them why their farms are the best place for the horse,” he added. “It’s like a sports franchise. … You have to have good players on the team. Our players are our stallions.”
Three Chimneys’s human recruiters got their start with Robert Clay, whose own father was in the tobacco business. Robert and his father later started their own fertilizer company, Case said. “[Robert] would go around Kentucky and lean up against the truck and sell fertilizer to the horse farmers, and talk about horses,” he explained. “It was always interesting to him.”
That interest led to Robert selling the fertilizer company in 1972. Robert then bought the first 100 acres of Three Chimneys Farm, off Old Frankfort Pike in Midway.
The farm began with one barn and one employee, farm manager Dan Rosenberg, Case said.
At first the farm was only a boarding business. But Robert told Rosenberg he wanted to build a world-class thoroughbred operation. “A lot of the credit goes to Dan, and Dad, for building it,” Case said. “It’s been built on honesty and integrity. That’s the cornerstone of the farm.”
On that cornerstone, staffers quickly added more of Three Chimneys’s foundation. Due to the growth in the farm’s population and the desire of some owners to have foals sold, in the late 1970s, the farm started an agency to auction horses on the owners’ behalf. Then in 1984, Three Chimneys began what was a novel concept at the time: a leaner, specialized stallion operation.
“At the time, there were some stallion factories,” Case said. Those included Spendthrift Farm and Gainesway Farm. “[But] my father started a stallion boutique, which has fewer stallions, and more attention to the horse and more attention to the owners.”
Three Chimneys first syndicated Slew O’Gold, and two years later that stallion’s former owner, Spendthrift Farm, ceased its operations, transferring ownership of Seattle Slew. That stallion had won the Triple Crown in 1977, and remains the only undefeated racehorse with that title. Gaining him was a stroke of luck, Case said. “That’s what really put the farm on the map,” he continued. “Since that point, the way a farm continues to do well is to get good stallions. … And we’ve been fortunate, since 1986, to have some very good stallions.”
Those include Rahy, Exchange Rate and Dynaformer, who are world-class sires.
This year, multiple two-year-olds sired by Big Brown himself are also taking to the races. During the past three years, the farm’s racing syndicate, Three Chimneys Racing, has also had two Grade 1 winners, Ave and Miss Keller, three Grade 2 winners, and five Grade 3 winners.
Farm of forty
With all that success, Three Chimneys has expanded over 40 years from 100 acres to more than 2,000. About 120 people work on the farm among about 400 horses, including ten stallions, 300 mares and 100 yearlings. Foaling season began on Jan. 1, and the breeding season is also ongoing. “We had a foal last night, so it’s an exciting time; it’s a very busy time,” Case Clay said.
Over 40 years, Three Chimneys has consigned about $40 million worth of horses at auctions, and the farms’ sires’ progeny have earned nearly $1 billion in 1,000 stakes.
The farm is also open for tours, for $10 per person, with proceeds going to multiple local and national charities, Clay said. “We do tours every day, except Sunday,” he explained. “We donate to a myriad of charities; we have a charitable giving committee. One of the handiest ways that we’ve been able to contribute to horse charities is through the Thoroughbred Charities of America. … You give them the money, and you can earmark it for certain charities.”
More information about the farm’s tours can be found at Three Chimneys’s website.
As for Clay, he gets to tour the farm every day, and feels fortunate to be a part of his family’s business. Though he grew up on the farm, he attended college elsewhere and spent six years in Chicago, following other interests. But in 2002 he returned, and gained more experience in the equestrian world, by working at Irish National Stud in Ireland and Arrowfield Stud in Australia.
“I have a great team of managers, great sales team, great admin team, great marketing team,” he said. “Every day is different, without a doubt.” Foals continue to be born, breeding goes on, and staffers update customers about their animals’ progress or any problems.
“Knock on wood — nothing this week,” Clay said. “Sometimes we’re a hospital, sometimes we’re a boarding school. Horses get hurt. Horses get sick. That’s just something that comes with the territory.
“Over and above, we hope that the thoroughbred market continues to improve,” he said. “2011 was better than 2010, which was positive, and we hope that that happens again, that there’s further increase in 2012. We have three stallions whose two-year-olds are running this year.”
Once the breeding and foaling seasons are over, Clay added, the farm may have some form of event to celebrate its anniversary, and to look and plan ahead for its next 40 years.
Photos from Three Chimneys Farm