Running the Family Farm
By Paige Parvin 96G
Photo by Joe Kyle
Horses—especially the sort that are bred to race—are well known for their extreme sensitivity to the emotions of humans around them. They can pick up on anxiety, excitement, fear, or joy, and often mirror these feelings with their own behavior.
That’s one reason why Elizabeth Caldwell 99C generally stays away from the track on days when her horses are racing. In 2010, when Bar Slide, the filly she owns in partnership with Mitchel Skolnick 76C, won the $750,000 Hambletonian Oaks—a race equivalent to the female-horse version of the Kentucky Derby—she says she was so nervous she couldn’t eat. She was at the track, of course, but kept her distance from Bar Slide, letting the experienced trainer send the prizewinning filly calm vibes.
That was a triumphant day for Caldwell and Skolnick, who bought Bar Slide together as a yearling. She is now a brood mare at Cane Run Farm, Caldwell’s family farm in Georgetown, Kentucky, where Caldwell has bred and raised three other Hambletonian Oaks winners.
It seems that Caldwell was born for horse farming just as much as the horses she raises are bred for strength and swiftness. Perhaps it is not surprising that many of the farm’s most successful horses have been females, as the gene comes from her maternal side: Caldwell’s grandmother began raising horses in the 1940s, first show horses and then racehorses. Caldwell’s mother grew up on that farm, and later, in 1982, she and her husband bought an old cattle farm and converted it for horses.
Like her mom, Caldwell grew up around horses and began riding competitively at around age ten. “We are obsessed. It runs in the blood,” she said, speaking from the farm on the day before the 2012 Kentucky Derby. “I just wanted to be like my mom. It was so fun to watch her ride.”
At Emory, Caldwell majored in English and took every opportunity to continue riding competitively; her trainer would bring the horse from Kentucky to shows in the area. While she says she treasures her time at the university, “There wasn’t really a stable close by, but I took some lessons my senior year, just to be around horses. I think at that point I knew the horses were my true passion.”
Caldwell and her brother have houses in Lexington, but they still have their old childhood rooms at Cane Run Farm, where their mother lives and where they help run the family business—raising Thoroughbred and Standardbred racehorses. Caldwell also continues to compete with American Saddlebreds.
Horse breeding demands a delicate mix of business sense, patience, a sharp eye, and a gambler’s nerve. Caldwell has shown a talent for spotting potential, as in the case of Bar Slide, whose offspring she is now raising. “That was the goal,” she says. “When I go and pick out horses, I am looking for a horse that looks pretty, has straight legs, a good pedigree and bloodline. All these add to its value.”
The farm sells an average of ten yearlings every fall, generally for about $100,000 each. Caldwell reinvests some of that profit in promising new adult pairings, contacting other breeders, negotiating stud fees, and spending hours researching pedigrees on the Internet through programs that trace horses back many generations. She jokingly notes that breeding takes place around Valentine’s Day, and the babies are born early the following year.
That’s her favorite part. “It’s the best, seeing the newborn baby, watching them stand up and nurse,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun watching them grow up.”
Still, Caldwell says that while she loves the horses, she knows better than to get too attached. “It’s a business. I’ve known that ever since I was little,” she says. “You breed mares, raise the babies, and hopefully they will go on to race and win some money. But it can take a few years to know what you’ve got.”
Caldwell’s horses have enjoyed considerable success in the past decade, including several owned in partnership with Skolnick, who runs his own Bluestone Farms in New Jersey.
“Elizabeth possesses an extraordinary knowledge of pedigree and conformation,” Skolnick says, “and an innate sense of what it takes to raise a good horse.”
Horse racing has changed since Caldwell’s grandmother started raising her own horses—from new track surfaces to sophisticated sponsorship agreements and high-tech systems for betting and payout. There also are increasing opportunities to buy shares in horses and stables, like investing in a company’s stock rather than owning the company. The industry needs to continue to attract new, younger enthusiasts, says Caldwell—and to fight the perception that only the rich make it to the winners’ circle.
“I mean, before cars,” Caldwell muses, “everybody in America used to own a horse.”