Horse racing enjoyed a banner year in 1978. Affirmed and Alydar's rivalry catapulted them to the top of the sport; a talented juvenile, Spectacular Bid, topped his division; and, near Georgetown, Ky., Catherine Parke founded Valkyre Stud.
Looking back on her career in breeding, raising and consigning, Parke always knew that the equine life was for her. She rode horses as a child and entered the Thoroughbred business "as a way to be around horses all the time and make a living out of it." After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1972, she worked for well-known consignors Lee Eaton and Victor Heerman, renowned horseman Henry White, then three years as a bloodstock agent for Bloodstock Research and Statistical Bureau.
Parke purchased her farm one year after buying her first mare, fifteen-year-old Oldest Girl. Parke sold Oldest Girl's weanling at the Keeneland sales to finance her farm's down payment. At any given time, Valkyre houses a maximum of 35-40 mares. It is currently home to 28 weanlings of which half will be sold as yearlings, the remainder will be retained by their breeders to race.
Practicality guides Parke's decisions on keeping or selling horses. "I try not to be influenced either way, to spend too much money or to not buy a horse," she said. At the same time, she'd rather keep a mare. "I've got to try to make sense of the mares I buy, and I'm not a trader. I keep them."
From foaling through sales prepping the yearlings, Parke's focus is on her horses. The first major winners she raised were turf star Riskaverse and two-time Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner Milwaukee Brew . "The farm wasn't very old when I raised those two horses and it just helped tremendously…They helped me kind of get to that next level."
That "next level" has included selling five million-dollar yearlings. At the recent 2013 Keeneland September sale, Gainesway and Stonestreet Stables bought a $1.2-million son of Tapit . Parke consigned the colt, out of Oakbrook Farm's Cryptoclearance mare Ava Knowsthecode (who's in foal to Giant's Causeway for 2014). Ava Knowsthecode has also foaled Justin Phillip (by First Samurai ), winner of this year's Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. I), and several other graded winners. Though their dam stands about 15.3 hands, "all the colts out of Ava Knowsthecode…are four inches taller than she is and six inches longer. It's just amazing. It doesn't matter who you breed her to." Parke described the Tapit yearling as tall, long, and beautiful, like Justin Phillip.
Another of Parke's stable stars is Silk n' Sapphire. Parke purchased her for $40,000 at the 2008 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. "There was just something about her. I was absolutely determined to buy her...I would have paid twice that to have her," she said. The Smart Strike mare later produced Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) winner Shared Account. At the 2011 Keeneland September sale, a Bernardini —Silk n' Sapphire filly brought $1.2 million from Besilu Stables.
Newcomers like Besilu Stables are one of Parke's particular interests. She participates in Ownerview.com's advisor program, which introduces individuals interested in racing to prominent industry figures. She has hosted two TOBA seminars on breeding and pedigrees at Valkyre. "Some people just want to get involved in Thoroughbreds, but they don't know if they want to breed or race," she observed. She encourages them to meet other racing experts and find out what part of the sport is right for them, recommending starting with a partnership. "I want to see people [who] get in the industry, have a positive experience, and become long-term participants."
She hopes to turn newcomers into valued, long-term clients. "I like having a relationship with the people I work for, get to know them," she said. Parke began keeping horses for Mr. and Mrs. William Currin in 1980. While the couple usually have kept their homebreds, in 2012 they sold a promising yearling—their first at auction—due to Mr. Currin's health. At the 2012 Keeneland September sales, the son of Bernardini—Wilshewed, by Carson City (also dam of grade I winner Stormello), went under the hammer for $1.55 million.
Parke continues pushing her operation to new heights. For 2014 she will add grade I winner Teddy's Promise for her owner's Ted and Judy Nichols to the resident broodmare band at Valkyre.
"The last three years the farm foaled and raised and sold a million-dollar yearling. You never really expect that," she said. In the meantime, she remains grateful and very humble for her success. "I don't do anything fancy. It's very labor-intensive. I don't cut any corners, but you've got to have a lot of staff to do that. I do it the way some great horsemen taught me forty years ago, and I'm just very, very fortunate."