Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My Visit to GoldMark Farm

Life has been way too busy for blogging since my last installment seventeen months ago. The Retired Racehorse Training Project has become to me like a growing child. My wife, my kids, and the farm are no less important, but all have sacrificed for this new kid on the block. So has this blog.

Our Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium at PImlico on the first weekend of October was a smashing success. Eight hundred people, 51 horses, 40 vendors, 38 sponsors, and tens of thousands of followers online were moved. RRTP is planning for 2014 and the opportunities are exciting. Is it all worth it? Is this the direction my life should be going?

Good ideas seem to attract good people. We met at Pimlico on the Monday after the Makeover with some of our board members and a handful of newcomers who each have major talents that fit into our vision. One of those people is Claire DeCamp. She had recently orchestrated a very successful introduction of RRTP to Penny Chenery and the Secretariat Foundation, and her new idea involved a man named Paul Bulmahn and his 2,600 acre GoldMark Farm in Ocala, Florida.

Claire had already talked to Paul about RRTP in the context of his plan to do a fundraiser at his farm
Cara, Claire, Paul, Kelly, Kim, Aimee
with the organizers of Ferdinand’s Ball, which benefits Old Friends (a fantastic organization that merits a blog of its own). Claire suggested that I fly to Ocala to meet with Paul and the Ferdinand’s Ball people, and that the event could involve and support both organizations.

Well, RRTP came out of the Makeover with no more money than it began with, and none of our 2014 plans can happen without funding, so I bought a plane ticket to Ocala. Planning high-end gala fundraisers is not really my thing, nor is pretending to be comfortable in really fancy places.

I read everything I could find online about the farm and about Mr. Bulmahn. The farm did seem to be an actual Thoroughbred training center as opposed to just a display of wealth, and while Mr. Bulmahn clearly made his fortune as a Texas oilman there were hints of humanity in the things I read that didn’t fit the stereotype. I was curious.

At the airport in Orlando I met Claire and her lovely teenage daughter Cara, who, as the result of a stroke, goes everywhere with her mom. The 90 minute drive gave us plenty time for briefing.

Getting in the gates of GoldMark took a little doing. We started at what looked like the main gate but turned out to be a side entrance. Claire reached her friend Kelly Moore who lives nearby and would later join us for our adventure and will eventually soon be a key player in organizing our event. Kelly redirected us to the front gate where some guys in a Gator managed to push the magic button and in we drove through a wooded area, past some pristine pastures and up to a fountain beyond which stood what appeared to be the house. Claire wasn’t sure at first because the new mare and foal barn off to the left looked about like the house and neither one looked much like a house or a barn to me. They just looked impressive, in a Spanish, Mediterranean, Florida kind of way.  

The house was definitely a house, however, and Paul met us at the door. He looked like his pictures: plain and a little nerdy if you didn’t know who he was. He spoke and moved like a perfectionist.

Aimee Boyle Wulfeck and Kim Boyle from Ferdinand’s Ball were there already and we all sat down in the living room for a glass of water. Aimee and Kim are sisters. They are young, beautiful, and very smart. They are not “horse people” but are “animal lovers” who grew up in Kentucky and love horse racing. They are much more polite and charming then I am.

I couldn’t decide how I felt. Part of me wanted to just get out of the house and go see some horses. On the other hand the entryway with the waterfall and the elephant sculptures and the view of the pool and the huge pastures beyond was not a bad place to be hanging out.

After an appropriate amount of time chatting we piled into the three-seated golf cart with the GoldMark logo on the side and began our tour of the farm. We saw the weanlings, the Texas Longhorns, the offices with the custom made wooden staircase spiraling around the glass multilayered trophy case, the 75-seat theater, the conference room with the table that came from a monastery, the upstairs deck from which all the farm can be viewed, the barns, the stall mattresses, Derby and Preakness contender Mylute, the cold saltwater spa, the equine vibration plates, the SafeTrack footing that is everywhere that the horses go, the toe ring, the arena, the round pens, the ¾ mile training track, the two-story trackside viewing structure with two bedrooms, garage, and a full kitchen and bar, and finally the most impressive feature of all, the world’s first fully enclosed manure-to-energy plant that puts as much electricity into the grid as the farm uses with no runoff and no fumes. Paul is an avid environmentalist and a passionate inventor. We ran out of light so saved the mare and foal barn with its upstairs four bedroom apartment and laboratory for the second day.

Throughout all of this, the conversation was about the farm, but the message to me was about Paul. In describing the way his horse Cross Traffic went down in the gate at the start of the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup this summer due to track surface issues he simply stated that he would rather it happen to him than somebody else. When asked why he built the theater, he said that it holds all of his 55 employees and that they take English classes there. Most of his staff are from Mexico, but unlike other seasonal training centers he keeps them employed year round. The only thing close to resentment he expressed all afternoon about anything was when he described how badly the local police treated his employee who was driving without his license. I got the impression that everything he did with his money was to give pleasure to people and to horses, and is all part of an effort to make the world a better place.
I was the lucky one to stay in the house that night. Aimee and Kim were in the rooms by the track and Claire was at her friend Kelly’s. Paul and I stopped in to the house before heading out to dinner and I checked my email. Glenye Oakford had sent me the first draft of her video about the Makeover. It was good, really good.

I hadn’t had any time to talk to Paul about RRTP and I was worried that getting his attention long enough to really tell the story of what we do would be difficult. After watching Glenye’s video I closed my laptop and carried it out to the kitchen where Paul was cleaning up.  “I just got a short video emailed to me that shows what we did at Pimlico. Would you like to see it?”

Of course he said yes, but he really meant it. He really did want to see what this Thoroughbred Makeover we had referred to was all about.  Remember Paul’s experience with horses was all fairly recent other than playing with the neighbor’s draft horses as a child. His passion for the animals is pure and heartfelt, and I knew that if he saw the depth and breadth of what a Thoroughbred can do he would be inspired. Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The color of his skin changed before my eyes and I could almost see his hair standing up as the video reached it’s crescendo. He got it. He loved it. He wanted more. I added a little explanation of the idea of increasing market demand for the horses and how their value goes up giving people an incentive to retire them sound. “This is what I want to do,” he exclaimed! I wished we had another hour to scheme together.

We then met the ladies at the local country club for dinner. Paul started the evening talking about the video and as we headed for our cars he invited them back to his house to watch it. I felt like I had made a new friend. I think he felt that way too.

The next morning we met at seven to watch horses train. There were eight sets going with I believe
eight horses in each set. The first two thirds were yearlings averaging eighteen to twenty months old. We missed the first sets. They were in the round pens being driven in long lines and experiencing their first rides. We watched three sets in the 100’ x 175’ arena and then one on the track.

Todd Quast watching yearlings enter the arena
The farm manager and head trainer is Todd Quast.  I found myself drawn to him like a magnet. Like most great horse trainers he had an easy going way about him, no need to impress, and loved talking about horses. He rattled off pedigrees, owner names, sale prices, and insights about conformation, movement, and attitude of each horse with special attention to the horses owned by GoldMark. Todd designed the farm with Paul. He said it was the third training center he had built and trained out of and hoped that it would be his last. His sister runs an eventing barn in Louisiana and he himself started out riding bulls when he wasn’t galloping on the track. Todd spent most of the morning on a big black horse in a western saddle supervising the riders.

The whole operation was very efficient and quiet, as all good training must be. The grooms would appear with a set of horses and walk them around the SafeTrack path between the barns as Todd and his Irish assistant trainer Karl Keegan checked all the legs and tack. Riders were each legged up and led into the arena by grooms. Todd and Karl stood in the center on their ponies ready to help if needed. After a couple of rounds at the walk, Todd asked each rider if their mounts felt ok, and when he got all yesses said quietly, “Let them go.” All eight grooms unclipped the horses at once and quietly left the arena to get the next set ready. Todd would tell them when to trot, when to canter, when to change direction, who should stay toward the middle and go slower, but mostly the riders knew exactly what to do. It was all about going forward and straight. They rode long and had feet out in front, but every one of them had a great seat, good hands, and knew how to stay in the middle of a horse.

These were quality Thoroughbreds. We saw some big movers and almost all were beautifully balanced at an age when horses are at their gawkiest. One in particular moved and looked less classy than the others and I asked Todd his opinion. He says he withholds judgement at the beginning because they change so fast and he’s been wrong too often. He did not, however, hold back an opinion on the ones he really liked. At one point he looked around in awe and said there was $10 million worth of yearlings in the arena. Their sires were a Who’s Who of North American racing.

Of all the horses we saw, only one was identified as difficult by Todd. We might never have noticed except that Karl ponied him throughout the session. He had one minor blow up just before his rider mounted and one early on in the ring when the horses trotted forward. “If we let him go he stops and rears,” says Todd. “We had another like that who spent most of the winter with the pony and then it finally clicked for him.” The quality of the work these yearlings were doing just a few weeks into their training amazed me. They went forward, forward, forward just like the Europeans insist with their young sport horses. While cantering around the arena the riders ask for and get flying changes when they are on the wrong lead. The horses learned as much from each other as from their riders and there was just very little of the bumper car scenario you would expect from eight yearlings trotting and cantering around a riding arena. “We expect them to be good and they are,” said Todd.

The last set we saw was the first heading out to the track. They varied in age from two upward. Some

were coming back from layup and others had not yet raced. Todd dismounted from his coffee-drinking steed and carefully checked each horse before the riders mounted. He gave each their instructions. It was a foreign language to me. Twelve and three where? Huh? “They understood all that?” I asked Todd on the way to the track. “Oh yeah,” he said. “These guys can go within a fifth of a second to the poles. This isn’t their first rodeo.”

These riders were good. The same guys riding yearlings with their legs out in front of them were now riding short and as still over the middle of their horses as a jockey should be. Some worked in pairs and others alone. The track surface did seem just right. Not too deep, not too firm. Only one rider let his filly go too fast. “He tends to go a little fast and she does too,” said Todd. “Let’s put him on one of the slow ones next time,” said Carl. “Not a bad idea,” said Todd.

One beautiful filly really caught my eye the way she cantered effortlessly past us on her way to the pole where her work began. She let herself get beat by a half-length in her work and Todd shook his head. “She’s got all the talent in the world but when she gets in the heat of the battle she backs off. We’ll work on that.”

Paul was as fascinated as I was by all that was going on, but did not badger his trainer with questions. Instead he waited for Todd to tell him what he should know, and Todd delivered. The respect and admiration that these two guys felt for each other was clear to see. Paul’s respect for the rest of his staff was also obvious not only from what he said about them but also in how he addressed them. Most he greeted by name but at one point he turned to me and said, “One of the things that I don’t like about being here so infrequently is that I don’t get to know the staff as well as I would like. I should know all of them by name and I don’t.”

I was not thrilled about going back to the house to plan the event when there were sets of horses still to work, but time was getting away from us and I had to leave by 1pm to catch my flight home.    Claire, Cara, Kelly, Aimee, Kim, Paul, and I gathered in the conference room, but only after spending an appropriate amount of time worshipping the Secretariat wall in his office.
Pool with Mare and Foal Barn in background.
Demos poolside during the party? Maybe. 

I was glad to have spent time getting to know GoldMark and Paul before sitting down to plan the event. All of us understood by the time we convened that something more than a party would need to take place. Paul’s passion for horses, RRTP’s mission of increasing demand for Thoroughbreds off the track, and Old Friends’ work bringing racing to the public in the form of retired champions are best served by an event that reaches into the local community. Thoroughbreds For All at GoldMark Farm to benefit Old Friends and Retired Racehorse Training Project will feature an affordable ticketed event showcasing what goes on at the farm as well as how Thoroughbreds move into second careers. An evening VIP reception at the house will raise money. The date in February will be announced soon.

Sitting at a conference table with Paul Bulmahn at the head was almost as moving as touring the farm. I found myself imagining what it would be like to be him, making hundred million dollar decisions affecting thousands of people’s livelihoods. I felt the wave of sorrow come over the table when he asked that we not hold the event on the day that he lost his wife in 2006. I kept thinking about the story I read of him buying Volvos for his employees, and then the tragedy of how the drilling moratorium after the BP oil spill came just as his company was about to start production on a huge project in the Gulf, leaving it no way to pay back the development costs and putting it into bankruptcy. Then there is his new venture bringing to market technology that detects corrosion in oil pipes with ultrasound, and his manure to energy system, and GoldMark Farm. How does he handle the pressure, and how does he find space in his heart to want to do this event?

Paul mentioned God a number of times while I was there. We held hands and he said grace at dinner. He speculated that things happen for a reason and said that we all have a reason to be here. He said it was his obligation to use whatever talents he was given and to use them well. I was moved.

I drove away from GoldMark Farm knowing where I am going and knowing why I am going there. Thank you Paul.

Link To GoldMark Farm