Clay Addresses Club as Honor Guest of 2009

Clay Addresses Club as Honor Guest of 2009
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Catesby Clay

Catesby W. Clay, chairman of Runnymede Farm near Paris, Ky., is this year's Thoroughbred Club honor guest. The Lexington-based club has presented the award for 78 years.

Clay, whose family has operated Runnymede since the 1800s, was honored Nov. 15 at Keeneland. The following is the speech he gave to attendees on hand to celebrate with him.

I am indeed honored to be addressing you tonight, and this is an unexpected honor given the field of worthy candidates. I do sincerely thank the board and membership of the Thoroughbred Club for your generous compliment. I especially wish to tip my hat to Betty Flynn and Ed Bowen for their tenacity in spearheading this evening’s soiree.

Dark horses do win the big stakes, as did Mine That Bird in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. I have been called a “bird”—and am a self-acknowledged one. Perhaps the tea leaves are suggesting at this time to “MIND this Bird.” It is an exceptional privilege to join this most distinguished group as the Thoroughbred Club of America’s 78th honor guest in my 87th year.

This is also a sentimental occasion for me, as my esteemed stepfather, Sen. Johnson N. Camden, was the fifth honor guest of the Thoroughbred Club. For me and five siblings, dad filled over abundantly the role of a devoted father, and devoted husband for my early widowed mother, when I was three.

Mother, sometimes referenced as “Beautiful Agnes,” had the intrepid spirit that the Lord has specially planted in all mothers to care for their brood, to forbear in the so difficult days; she was twice widowed.

This evening, I wish to also salute my steadfast and patient wife Biz, nee Elizabeth Gerwin, from Yankee Cincinnati—mother of eight, the last twins, for whom I was able to witness the awesome miracle of birth, a memory to ever remain and respect.

As the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home” so eloquently proclaim, “by and by hard times come a-knocking at the door.” Here we are! We know from experience that what has happened before will transpire again.

Within Runnymede’s span of history there were dire occurrences. In 1910, horse racing was outlawed in New York. This markedly depressed the Thoroughbred business and prompted my grandfather, Col. Ezekiel Clay, to disperse the major portion of his successful Thoroughbred stud. The dispersal included the legendary stallion, imported Star Shoot—later sire of Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner—who went to John Madden of Hamburg Place. The leaner Runnymede operation was continued by the Colonel and his son, Woodford Clay.

Within a decade, both were gone to their reward, and into this breech stepped my father, Brutus J. Clay III, who left a blossoming law practice at King and Spaulding in Atlanta following graduation from the University of Virginia School of Law and Princeton to carry the Runnymede flag–only himself to abruptly depart this Earth in 1926 at age 51 due to a heart condition.

At the time of the Great Depression, in 1931, my stepfather was compelled to disperse Hartland Farm, some 1,500 acres of prime farm land near Versailles and over 150 Thoroughbreds, transferring his diminished stock and our residence back to Runnymede in 1932.

Within a decade, World War II engulfed us, and with no railroad to ship horses to Saratoga, the birth of the Keeneland sales took place in 1943 under a tent in the racetrack paddock. Consider for a moment that those sad days spurred the wonderful evolution of the nonprofit Keeneland Association and its glowing equine campus.

Now again we are certainly in troubled times. But just as Runnymede has endured over its 142 years, I have every confidence that our industry will regain its stride and re-emerge with resilience and strength.

We know we cannot lose what is the vital essence of Kentucky: the production of the world’s best horses on the world’s best land. Our industry has come to mean so much to this Commonwealth that statistics alone cannot define it.

Yet our recent past offers us a stern warning. In the 1980s, Kentucky was the center of the Standardbred industry before other states began adopting breeding and racing programs with enticing incentives. As Kentucky lawmakers took no action, Standardbred stallions left the state for greener pastures.

Currently, our Thoroughbred business has been losing ground as other states allow expanded gambling at racetracks—funding Thoroughbred breeding incentive programs with the revenue. What would happen if we go the way of the Standardbreds? Kentucky’s trademark worldwide and its leading cash crop is the Thoroughbred horse. Do you think tourists will be attracted by cattle grazing and corn growing in Central Kentucky’s pastures? Or worse, bulldozing of one of our greatest resources, our land?

But, having seen the past, I have confidence in the future–and I believe our best days lie ahead. Our governor, Steve Beshear; House Speaker Greg Stumbo; and KEEP have worked tirelessly to support racing and breeding, believing our industry must be reinforced and strengthened–and are determined to prevail.

Racing has all the components to be part of the ongoing technological revolution. Not so long ago, it was unimaginable that we could sit in our homes and punch up bets on racing around the world through our computers.

Yet now this is commonplace, and there is more that can and will be done to deliver racing to the public at large and to the next generations of fans. A related challenge will be ensuring that the providers of the show—racetracks and horsemen—are properly compensated and that account wagering companies do not skim more profits than should be their share.

Another challenge is capturing the imagination of the online social gaming community, an industry now estimated in the U.S. at $1 billion and considerably more worldwide. While the technology frontiers must be manifest destiny for the Thoroughbred industry, we must not overlook the need to be high touch as well as high tech. We cannot neglect filling the grandstands while attracting and educating new generations of Americans to the roar of the racetrack.

We are fortunate to have homegrown national Thoroughbred leadership here in Kentucky, which is trailblazing: the technology windows of opportunity with innovations ranging from Trakus to new approaches to account deposit wagering to innovative initiatives to develop the fan base.

Throughout nearly three-quarters of a century, Keeneland has been a veritable shrine to the Thoroughbred horse and has committed itself unlike any other organization in the world toward furthering the fortunes of the Thoroughbred. We should all be grateful for Keeneland and for the leadership offered from its first president, the visionary Hal Price Headley, through our contemporaries Ted Bassett and Nick Nicholson.

As a director of Churchill Downs for 45 years, I have seen the Kentucky Derby and Oaks soar from a collective 100,000 attendees in 1960 to 258,430 in 2009. Wagering has skyrocketed from $4.3 million on Derby day in 1953 when Dark Start upset Native Dancer to $155.96 million this year. These results were the work of many successive dedicated leaders at Churchill such as Stanley Hugenberg, Carl Pollard, Dick Duchossois and, currently, Bob Evans.

The opening of global markets also is a tremendous opportunity. The American Thoroughbred industry was global, by necessity, before it was fashionable, importing key bloodlines into America as the industry crystallized in the late 1880s. Leading sire Billet, Runnymede’s first stallion and later sire of the great Miss Woodford, was imported from England via Illinois in the 1870s.

Today, although Runnymede has a relatively modest number of broodmares, we breed and sell in Europe and Japan in addition to America. We all must continue to search out new markets and opportunities for our commercial products—the horses—to thrive, as well as being less insular with our bloodlines. We cannot be an international leader without global attractions at our sales.

It is increasingly clear, however, that the U.S. industry cannot compete domestically or globally against unshackled competitors while in a 30-plus state regulatory straitjacket with a jigsaw of rules and panoply of overseers. We will not win the competitive wars and seize the moment if we are not freed from this outmoded regulatory labyrinth through an anti-trust exemption from Congress to allow creation of national Thoroughbred league. This is the same paradigm in which the NBA, NFL, and PGA, have thrived and prospered–and it is incumbent upon us to unite toward this objective.

The character, determination and faith of the men, women and great athletes who dedicate their lives to this industry offer more grounds for optimism. They are our paramount assets.

I appreciate the example of so many of individuals in our business, such as gifted jockey Pat Day, who with a victory extended his hand to the heavens to thank the Lord of Creation for His benevolence. So many of us are inclined to say, “C’est moi.” We have much to be thankful for, even though the Lord’s Creation, magnificent around us all the time, often is taken for granted.

On a more personal level, Runnymede has been fortunate to have had as manager a passionate lover of horses—of course, an Irishman, Martin O’Dowd—for the last 24 years. Martin’s handsome bearing and professionalism well represents Runnymede—perhaps at times too well. When in rented top hat and cutaway, he outscored his boss in compliments from the ladies on the occasion of the Epsom Derby when a Runnymede-bred was running.

We have been blessed to have partners that have meant so much to Runnymede, including our dear friend, the “Manhattan Fox,” Peter Callahan, with whom we bred Agnes Digital, a Japanese champion who ranks as one of the world’s leading earners with more than $8 million, and Awesome Gem, who is approaching the $2-million mark.

It was another friend, trainer Kenny McPeek, who guided Tejano Run, who we sold for $20,000 as a yearling, to near victory in the Kentucky Derby and earnings of more than $1-million.

With Howard B. Noonan, we bred grade I winner Plankton, who earned us a trophy as the champion Kentucky-bred mare, and Angle Light, who defeated the mighty Secretariat in the Wood Memorial Stakes.

I also fondly recall Dorothy and Abe Hewitt. At Dorothy’s suggestion, Runnymede joined with the Hewitts and the Noonans to import 1977 Italian Horse of the Year Sirlad to the United States. It was the thrill of a lifetime to watch him fully extend Affirmed in the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup; I’ll never forget Abe’s remark–over libations--that he didn’t know how Runnymede always got so many stakes winners. It must have been the land, he told me.

What a gift as well we have in our Thoroughbred athletes. Saint Francis said, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

As multiple funerals crowd my schedule, I have become mindful of the “Final Exams.” Salvation history stresses that we must love and heed our God and be charitable to our fellow humans. We must be ever sensitive to the needs of the men and women responsible for our horses—caretakers, jockeys and trainers et. al. We hail those initiatives that support racetrack and farm workers with educational, rehabilitation, spiritual, and other programs.

We have dominion over animals and their care is entrusted to us. We must not abuse them. We should be vigilant about our breeding practices, not oversupplying the racetracks with horses. We must emphasize quality over quantity in breeding and moderate books. All told, a careful, sensitive balance in our priorities covering our multitude of responsibilities to humans and animals must be maintained.

In closing, my ardent hope and prayer to all is Godspeed, with optimism and hope for the future.

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