Louisiana horsewoman Michele Rodriguez has a way with words. Her farm, Elite Thoroughbreds, aptly describes her place in the breeding industry. Involved in every aspect of equine care, Rodriguez speaks passionately about the sport that's been part of her life for 30 years.
Rodriguez entered the horse business in the 1980s when she was given one pregnant mare, then rescued an additional mare and foal. When the pregnant mare foaled, the resulting horse became her first starter. Her biggest winner was 1999 Claiming Crown Jewel Stakes winner One Brick Shy, who Rodriguez owned in partnership with Greg Sterck and Pete Wilson. Eventually, she placed her horses with trainer Al Stall, Jr. Although Stall no longer trains for Rodriguez, they maintain a close bond to this day. Said Rodriguez of Stall, "He's done great. We're so pleased with him." Currently, Elite Thoroughbreds, co-owned by Rodriguez and husband Lee D. Thomas, has about 40 horses in active training. About 20 reside at Folsom Training Center, while the rest are at Delta Downs.
The main division of the farm, which contains the horses in training and stallions, has a round pen where the youngsters are broken. "When the horse starts rockin' and rollin' and really needs a bigger track - 'cause my track is only four furlongs - then we move them to our barn at the Folsom Training Center and we get them rolling there a little stronger." After breezing, young horses are then sent to the operation's trainer, Lee M. Thomas, who's also Rodriguez's oldest son. Thomas runs his horses regularly at both Delta Downs and Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. "Honestly, we are completely dependent on Lee winning races," Rodriguez observed about the farm's finances.
Rodriguez eagerly awaits her son's first stakes win. "So hopefully we'll have that this year...I told him be patient. It just doesn't happen overnight." She added, "It's hard to work with your children because they always know so much more than you do, even though you might have 30 years on them. But I am pleased, very pleased, the way my oldest son has evolved in the business..." Rodriguez's younger son, Reece, recently graduated from Tulane University and is also finding a niche in the family business.
Breeding makes up a good portion of Rodriguez's operation. The current stallion roster includes stellar runners like Sun King and Tenpins, plus Salute the Sarge and Neko Bay, both of whom are new for 2014. Rodriguez regularly supports her stallions with her own mares.
"It's only if I'm really thinking about selling (the resulting foal) that I should go out of state because the Kentucky sires, those babies always sell for more at our sales than the Louisiana-sired babies." But not all of Elite's stallions are fashionable winners; instead, Rodriguez keeps them out of the goodness of her heart. She noted, "It's hard for me just to cut them loose and send them away because you don't know where they're going to end up...many of them are just there because I'm just going to take care of them until their time is over."
Elite also has a 600-acre facility for mares and foals. One standout is Rodriguez's 12-year-old stakes winner Raspberry Wine, who is in foal to Tizway. After one of the mare's promising foals died young, Rodriguez has high hopes for her future babies. Out of the 60 mares on the farm, Elite owns about 30, while the rest are boarders. Only 15-18 of Elite's mares are in foal for 2014, and Rodriguez plans to breed 21 this year. "I can't afford to have 40 babies a year. It's hard for me to sell them. And for a while the market was so bad, you have to give them away practically."
Rodriguez is a strong supporter of the Louisiana horse industry. She is on the board of the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the Louisiana Horse Rescue Association. "We have a wonderful breeders' program down here, and I don't take any credit for that," she said, citing the Louisiana's stellar breeders' rewards program as a highlight. Because the breeders incentive program is financed by slots revenue, rather than revenue from the tracks themselves, Louisiana racing has been able to remain stable, even in the face of disasters like Hurricane Katrina. "It's a great program and I'm pleased with that," Rodriguez said.
After 30 years, the horse business still intrigues Rodriguez. She finds the intoxicating win-or-lose dynamics mirrors her previous experience in energy sciences law; where the risk and rush of breeding the next stakes winner is as thrilling as prospecting for and finding a multi-billion barrel oil field.
"There's an air of excitement about the racing world and I like it," she said.
Congratulations to Michelle, TOBA's January member of the month!