by Terry Conway
(Updated as of 7:00 p.m., October 29, 2013.)
For many folks, it might have been enough to chase them out of the Thoroughbred industry altogether. Just six weeks after Gayle Gerth, a California businesswoman looking for her next challenge, bought a horse farm in Pennsylvania, the economy tanked.
That was in 2008.
But Gerth, an inveterate optimist who’d made her money with a company that produced electronic massage and relaxation components, merely shrugged off an event she described as “a shocker.”
Good thing, too, because later that year, Gerth closed a deal to bring the stallion Wiseman’s Ferry to her Dana Point Farm in tiny Lenhartsville, Pa (pop. 165). That took gumption — gumption which led to gold when Wiseman’s Ferry’s son, Wise Dan, hit the racetrack.
Breeders and stallions tend to follow the money, and with Pennsylvania suddenly awash in slots money, that the state a logical choice for Gerth and the former Kentucky stallion. Wiseman’s Ferry showed up in time for the 2009 breeding season, just as the post-slots boom in Pennsylvania hit its peak. His son Wise Dan turned two that year; his impact was still another year in the future — but what an impact it would be.
A brilliant turf horse, Wise Dan wrapped up his 2012 campaign with an astonishing turn of foot in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park in a course-record time of 1:31.78. It earned Wise Dan, now a six-year old gelding, Eclipse Awards as the Older Male, Male Turf Horse and the Horse of the Year. It was more of the same in 2013 up until the $750,000 Shadwell Stakes at Keeneland in early October, when, after a deluge, the race was taken off the turf and Wise Dan came up a length short to Silver Max. The loss snapped a nine-race win streak.
A newcomer to the racing industry, Gerth has struck breeders’ gold.
“I’m so happy for Gayle and to be part of this story is just so rewarding,” said Maria Vorhauer, the farm’s general manager. “We’re so proud of Wiseman’s Ferry and what he’s doing for the breeding industry in Pennsylvania. We’re over the moon.”
Beyond the gallops of Ballydole the Galtee mountains soar. From this training center in Tipperary County legendary Irish trainers named O’Brien — the unrelated Vincent and, more recently, Aidan — have sent out winners of ten Epsom Derbys, and virtually every other race in Europe worth winning. When Wiseman’s Ferry hit those gallops in 2001 he was joined by precocious juveniles by the names of Rock of Gibraltar, Landseer and Johannesburg. Another companion that spring was Galileo who would go on to establish himself as the best three-year old in Europe.
These days Galileo is recognized as the premiere stallion in the world. He sired champions, both male and female, like he was delivering the morning paper. His 2009 stud fee was $225,000 and in both 2012 and 2013, his fee was listed as “private” by Coolmore, an honor shared by his sire Sadler’s Wells.
For Wiseman’s Ferry it’s been a long and winding journey to redemption. Bred in Kentucky by Nursery Place and Robert T. Manfuso, Wiseman’s Ferry began his racing career for Coolmore in Ireland where the chestnut colt won his debut race over six furlongs at Cork in May 2001. Racing in the dark blue silks of Mrs. John Magnier, his best showing was runner-up to stablemate Johannesburg in the Group 3 Anglesey Stakes at the Curragh.
Since he clearly was not on par with Coolmore’s top juveniles, Coolmore elected to sell Wiseman’s Ferry to the partnership of Swifty Farms, Dell Ridge, and Morton Fink, who put the colt in training with Niall O’Callaghan. As a three-year old, Wiseman’s Ferry captured wire-to-wire victories in the $500,000 Lone Star Derby and the $600,000 West Virginia Derby, both Grade 3 events, and was beaten by only a neck in the Grade 2 $300,000 Ohio Derby.
Wiseman’s Ferry ran twice as a 4-year old in 2003 before injuring a fetlock in a morning work and being retired to stud at Empire Farm in New York. As a racer, he won four times in sixteen starts and collected career earnings of $825,266.
From New York he moved on to Kentucky for the 2006 season with little fanfare before relocating to Gerth’s Dana Point Farm. Deemed an unfashionable Pennsylvania-based stallion by most breeders, the stud fee for Wiseman’s Ferry was a modest $3,500 in 2012.
But as Wise Dan’s powerful stride rattled off victories in five of six races in 2012, Gerth’s smile grew brighter and brighter.
[pullquote]I’ve definitely found my passion. There is nothing I love more than being on the farm with the horses.” — Gayle Gerth[/pullquote]
Following a dream
Dana Point wasn’t in great shape when Garth visited, but she saw the potential. Grass and weeds obscured the run-in sheds, she said, and the barns flooded.
Soon enough, though, she found the sheds, the barns, the fields, and she found something else, too: her passion. “There is nothing I love more than being on the farm with the horses,” she said.
Like all breeders, Gerth has serious money invested in the property and in the business of breeding and racing. She needs breeders not just in Pennsylvania but around the mid-Atlantic region to support Wiseman’s Ferry and her other stallions.
“The fact that Wise Dan was sired by a stallion that is now standing at a farm in Pennsylvania demonstrates that breeders have terrific options for top-tier stallions outside of Kentucky,” said Jeb Hannum, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association.
The national emergence of Wiseman’s Ferry — who is named after a historic town and river crossing in New South Wales, Australia — was no surprise to Vorhauer. She says it was what Wiseman’s Ferry had been capable of all along — getting a top-class runner that can dominate on any surface.
“A lot of people dismissed the horse when he left Kentucky,” Vorhauer recalled. “But we always believed. I’ve loved him since he was in New York. He’s so well bred and produces such a beautiful foal that’s very correct, very good looking. He has a great mind.”
Since relocating from Castleton Lyons to Dana Point, Wiseman’s Ferry has been among Pennsylvania’s leading stallions each year. Gerth owns 51 percent of Wiseman’s Ferry, with the syndicate owning the rest. Fink, Wise Dan’s owner, is still among the shareholders.
Wiseman’s Ferry is lengthy and very strongly muscled with the power and reach typical of the Storm Cat line. He covered 32 mares in 2012. This year his fee jumped to $5,000 and he was booked to 51 mares.
“This is his best book of mares so we’re expecting good things. We’re so grateful for Castleton Lyons trusting in us and giving us the opportunity. Frankly, that’s why we’re here. And to all of the shareholders that stayed in and believed in this horse. We appreciate that.”
Vorhauer added, “Wiseman will have the same fee for 2014 for a foal that stands and nurses and there is special consideration for approved mares, plus we’re offering a 30 percent discount on mares foaled from Pennsylvania breeders.”
While that will remain the same, some other changes are afoot.
Multiple graded stakes winning stallions Sir Shackleton and Southern Success are returning to Dana Point for the 2014 breeding season after having stood at Indiana Stallion Station and Xanthus Farms in Pa.
And the property — the land and the buildings — has recently been put up for sale. However, Vorhauer hastens to make clear that the business will continue, ideally in a somewhat scaled-back fashion; the scaled-back business that she and Gerth operate, she says, will certainly include Wiseman’s Ferry.
In fact, Dana Point is supporting their star stallion not just in words. The farm has two Wiseman’s Ferry horses in training– filly Calligraphy and a colt named Wise Mac– with Murray Rojas, who has regularly been one of the leading trainers at Penn National.
Wiseman’s Ferry’s success goes beyond Wise Dan. The same 2007 crop produced Grade-2 winner Ride the River, a finalist for the 2012 Sovereign Award as Canada’s champion male turf horse. A three-time graded stakes winner in Britain, Ride the River has lifetime earnings of nearly $920,000.
Wiseman’s Ferry has sired 284 foals of racing age with 211 making it to the track. Of those 211 runners, 165 have won including six stakes winners and six stakes placers. Through 2012 Wiseman’s Ferry had progeny earnings of $16, 697,189 and career average earnings per starter of $79,134, thanks in large part to Wise Dan.
“This year has played out great. Wiseman’s Ferry colts and daughters are running well and putting up stats in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Vorhauer noted.
She is looking forward to Wise Dan ringing up another Breeders’ Cup victory in a couple of weeks.
“Despite what happened at Keeneland, Wise Dan is still the one to beat in the BC Mile,” Vorhauer said. “Then you have Princess of Sylmar (a Pennsylvania-bred), she’s had an amazing season and can win the Distaff at Santa Anita. It puts Pennsylvania front-and center two years running in the Breeders’ Cup. It shows how far we’ve come.”
(Featured image is of Dana Point Farm.)