Agony to ecstasy in a week at Three Chimneys Farm

May 12, 2012

Case Clay, left, and Robert Clay pose with the newest star sire at Three Chimneys Farm, Flower Alley, father of 2012 Kentucky Derby Winner I’ll Have Another. Photo by Tom Eblen


MIDWAY — Florists’ trucks have been entering and leaving the manicured grounds of Three Chimneys Farm a lot over the past two weeks.

First, they came with condolences. Dynaformer, the farm’s star sire at $150,000 a pop, was euthanized April 29 on what would have been the ninth birthday of his most famous son, the late Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Barbaro.

Dynaformer had suffered an aortic valve rupture two weeks earlier. The 27-year-old stallion’s foals, which included 130 stakes winners, earned more than $105 million on the track.

Last week, the flowers came in celebration. Only six days after Dynaformer’s death, I’ll Have Another, a son of the farm’s young sire Flower Alley, won the Kentucky Derby, impressively chasing down Bodemeister just lengths from the wire.

“When he started coming down the stretch, we started yelling and we haven’t recovered,” said Three Chimneys’ founder, Robert N. Clay, whose voice was still hoarse Thursday morning.

“That week is, in a way, a microcosm of the sport,” Clay said. “There are heartaches and then these incredible highs. That’s what keeps us all going.”

The landmark week was also a microcosm of Three Chimneys’ 40-year history, added Clay’s son, Case, 38, who in 2008 became the farm’s president and chief operating officer.

Robert Clay bought 100 acres along Old Frankfort Pike from a doctor in 1972 and put 10 stalls in an old tobacco barn. Over the years, he and former president Dan Rosenberg built Three Chimneys into one of the legendary breeding operations.

Three Chimneys has consigned about $500 million in horses at public auction, and its sires’ progeny have earned nearly $1 billion. The farm now has more than 1,800 acres, 100 employees and 400 horses — nine stallions, 225 mares and their foals and yearlings.

“We’ve been blessed with a lot of good ones,” Robert Clay said of the farm’s stallions. “We got a break with Seattle Slew, who was here 17 years.”

But the key to long-term success, his son added, was having great young stallions waiting in the wings.

“Seattle Slew died and Dynaformer and Rahy picked it up,” Case Clay said. “Dynaformer dies and Flower Alley gets a Derby winner six days later. It’s indicative of the strategy of Three Chimneys, which is to fill the stallion roster with who we think are going to be the next stars. We didn’t expect it to happen within six days, but it’s very encouraging.”

In addition to finding places to put flowers, Case Clay spent much of last week selling mating seasons to Flower Alley.

“We’ve been selling about eight a day, and it’s only Thursday,” he said. The Clays decided not to raise Flower Alley’s $7,500 stud fee for the rest of this season, but will decide in November how much to increase it based on how well his offspring do before then.

Flower Alley may not even be the biggest young star in the barn. Big Brown, which won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, sees his first crop of foals race this year. “We’re getting a lot of calls from trainers saying, ‘I like my Big Brown’,” Case Clay said.

Big Brown is now the farm’s priciest sire at $35,000. The Clays hope he and Flower Alley will help Three Chimneys continue to bounce back from 2009-2010, when their farm and the rest of the Thoroughbred business suffered a slump.

“We feel like the industry’s hit bottom and hopefully is on its way back up,” Robert Clay said. “We’re in an industry that’s driven by discretionary wealth, really. Nobody has to have a horse in a recession.”

Case Clay is proud of his management team, a mix of veterans and young talent, which has managed to increase auction sales each year despite the economy. Three Chimneys does about 20 percent of its business overseas, with an office in Tokyo and representatives in England and France.

“The production side of the industry may get smaller than it has been,” Robert Clay said. “But there’s still going to be a demand for the top-quality horses.”

Case Clay’s job now is to figure out how to meet that demand. “Does Flower Alley pick up Dynaformer’s shoes?” he wondered aloud. “Does Big Brown?”

Sitting in his office on a beautiful spring morning, leaning against a pillow embroidered with the motto “Nothing’s Easy,” Robert Clay said fate can be fickle in this business — and fortunes can change in an instant.

The day Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby, Clay had his binoculars trained on the runner-up, an incredible filly he bred. Just as she crossed the finish line, Eight Belles broke both front ankles and had to be euthanized minutes later.

“There are highs that are really, really high and there are lows that are really, really low,” he said. “You can go from agony to ecstasy in this sport in two minutes. But that’s what makes it exciting, fun and a life’s work.”

Three Chimneys Farm near Midway is celebrating its 40th year. Robert Clay started the farm in 1972. His son, Case, became president in 2008, succeeding Dan Rosenberg. Photo by Tom Eblen

Dynaformer was famously ill-tempered. Robert Clay, the owner of Three Chimneys Farm, said Dynaformer would become so irritated when one of his stablemates was shown to visitors that he would kick the steel bars on his stall door, bending several of them. Photo by Tom Eblen