Commentary: Full Court Press

By R. Alex Rankin

As always, Robert Courtney Sr. has perfect timing. His retirement from owning and running a Thoroughbred breeding farm has been the right thing for him and the right thing for an industry in need of reflection.

His decision has created a frenzy of media attention to a lifetime of raising horses. As much as Mr. Courtney is deserving of this publicity, this attention to his life’s work provides all of us with the ultimate “mentoring” lesson. He chose a career and way of life with inherent economic uncertainties and found success while always doing it right. His overriding goal was not to make money, but to raise good horses and manage his client’s equine assets for the optimum chances of success. With humility, decorum, and integrity, he focused his business on the basics of providing a superior product. 

I have been blessed to have sought his counsel for my entire career as a Thoroughbred breeder. We looked for mares that would be economically viable in the short run, but also have long-term potential for appreciation.

Today, the business seems more slanted to short-term profit. The long-term player faces investing in a short-term “resellers” market. The past few weeks, Mr. Courtney remarked that the game has “passed him by.” My feeling is that we have forgotten the value of his basic approach. As he has said, “I don’t look back; I focus on the future.” First-crop sires have become more prominent in the commercial market. Stallion books have exploded. The 2-year-old market has put more emphasis on speed-oriented pedigrees. There is a definite problem of over-production.

Our industry would be better served with fewer horses and more Courtneys. With all this continuum of change, Mr. Courtney kept bringing superior products to market because he never altered the underlying approach of attention to detail coupled with integrity. He wonders whether the small breeder and owner of the “factories” are falling so far down the food chain that they will cease to be viable.

The celebration of Mr. Courtney’s life work is more about his character than the statistics of accomplishment. He certainly has bred and raised a high percentage of important horses. Those who have had the luck and privilege to have known him and been attentive to his offering of wit and wisdom are better for the experience. As a horse salesman, he possessed honesty and humor that were indispensable.

He was selling a colt for me at Saratoga years ago. A buyer remarked, “I like this colt, Bob, but he looks like a sprinter and I am trying to find something to win the Kentucky Derby.”

“Sprint him a mile and a quarter and he will win the Derby!” Courtney replied with no hesitation.

The man’s son bought the colt.

Mr. Courtney has made a living in the horse business, but the ledger, in my mind, shows that he has given more than he has received. He has always been willing to help young people participate in breeding or racing. To my knowledge, he has never taken a commission to help someone buy a horse. It behooves us all to listen and learn from the teachings of his career. But we must embrace the concept that there are many measures of success.

His vision of a life in this business includes a measure that often is lost in the quest for financial rewards. That measure is the act of giving back by offering one-on-one mentoring, and by setting an example to which others should aspire.

One of my partners was suffering buyer’s remorse after we purchased a broodmare at the November sale. Mr. Courtney had assisted in the selection of the mare and tried to reassure my partner by explaining the long-term attributes of the investment. After seeing no change in my partner’s anxiety, Mr. Courtney offered to buy his share of the mare at a profit. Upon reflection, my partner apologized for his hesitation and remarked, “When Pope Courtney throws the holy water on it, I guess it will be all right.”

Mr. Courtney has offered a lot of “holy water” during his long tenure, and if we listen and learn, it will be all right.

R. Alex Rankin is the owner of Upson Downs Farm near Goshen, Ky.