At Crawford Farms, the Goals are Growth, Excellence

By Bill Finley

DURHAMVILLE, NY – It’s hard to hear Michelle Crawford at times. It’s not that she talks softly, it’s that the din of hammers, Bobcats and power saws could drown out anyone. The noise is a constant and somewhat annoying backdrop at Crawford Farms, but a small price to pay when you have a vision, the resources to make it happen and a dream of being one of the top breeders in standardbred racing.

If you’ve come here to hear the constant drumbeat of negativity, pessimism and complacency that seems a part of the fabric of the sport of harness racing, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a place where they look toward the future with hope and optimism, a place that is committed to making the sport better and more visible, a place where the mantra is that determination is a powerful force.

“I love horses and I’ve fallen in love with this sport,” Crawford said, succinctly explaining why she is the way she is.

Which is why she has a vision.

“The vision is a boutique breeding operation,” Crawford said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be as big as Hanover or Blue Chip, but I can’t tell you we won’t have 100 broodmares down the road. And I want them to be fabulously bred broodmares. Then I want to sell the babies somewhere where they’ll be highly visible, like the first few nights of Lexington. The target would be something like 50 high-quality yearlings every year.”

It is a work in progress, but something that is well underway. No breeding farm in America can match Crawford when it comes to expansion, ambition, optimism and a determination to break away from the pack of mid-sized breeders that are overshadowed by the Goliaths like Hanover Shoe Farms.

Crawford Farms is not new. Located a few miles from Vernon Downs in Central New York, it has been around since the mid-sixties, when it was opened by Michelle Crawford’s late father-in-law, Jim Crawford. It was a steady presence in the New York harness breeding industry for five decades, but its owners were content with the size and scope of the operation.

That started to change the moment Michelle met her future husband, Al, some 10 years ago when the two had their first date at the Lexington yearling sale. Five years later, they were married. While Al Crawford had grown up in the business, Michelle was raised on a potato farm and had had no connection to harness racing. The closest she had come was owning an Appaloosa. But she says she loves horses–of all breeds–and was immediately smitten by the sport of harness racing.

She says she was the “driving force” behind the idea of building Crawford into a major farm. With her husband running the couple’s primary business, Bankers Healthcare Group, which provides financing for people in the healthcare industry, if a new, bigger and better Crawford Farms was going to spring from the ground, Michelle Crawford was going to have to be the one to make it happen.

“I’m the front person because I am the one here everyday working at it,” she said.

And she admits that her husband has allowed her to chase her dreams because “he knows this is what makes me happy.”

But Crawford is quick to point out that her husband is not at all on the sidelines when it comes to the horse business, that he brings years of experience and knowledge and that she discusses every move she makes with him.

“I am definitely the lead person but he is very much involved,” she said. “There is nothing that goes on in a day here that he doesn’t know about. Most of my actions are very much supported by him and discussed with him prior. I don’t make a move and I don’t buy a horse without talking to him. We’re a team.”

Crawford doesn’t yet have the numbers to make a huge splash at the sales this year. They plan to sell 17 yearlings at Lexington and a handful more at Morrisville. It’s a few years down the road that the impact of what’s happening here now will be felt. They are constantly acquiring new, high-quality broodmares and are breeding to the top stallions in the sport.

“Your goal as a breeder is to sell top horses at top dollars and that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said. “In two, three years that’s exactly where we’re going to be.”

To get there takes work, resources and planning. The existing Crawford Farms, which opened in 1966, is on a 100-acre property in Durhamville. It is currently undergoing renovation and improvement, but is unlikely to remain the nerve center of the operation. The Crawfords recently bought 200 acres in Verona, New York and another 700 in Manlius, New York. Part of the new land will be used to care for Crawfords retirees, a group Michelle protects at all costs.

The Crawfords know there are risks involved with their plan. It relies on harness racing at least maintaining the status quo, which the doom-and-gloomers say can’t happen forever. Considering the sport’s problems, it takes an unbridled optimist to plow ahead the way they are.

“In three years, can I tell you what sport is going to look like. No?,” she said. “Is it scary. Yes. But we’ll be here.”

A lot of people worry about the future of the industry, but not a whole lot do anything about it. That’s not the Crawford’s way. They are constantly promoting the sport, spreading goodwill and doing whatever they can to lure new fans and owners. They sponsor the Crawford Farms Trot at Vernon Downs and the Meadowlands Pace. They are constantly putting together functions, like a corporate outing for employees of Bankers Healthcare Group at Vernon and a Think Pink cancer awareness dinner at the Meadowlands. (Michelle Crawford was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer last year. She responded well to treatment and is now cancer free). In what undoubtedly brought harness racing priceless exposure, they paid for an electronic billboard that appeared in Times Square leading up to the Meadowlands Pace.

And while they genuinely want to help promote the sport they also want to promote the Crawford brand. Aggressive marketing is an idea the Crawfords brought over from their healthcare business and is, Michelle said, one of the primary reasons Bankers Healthcare Group has been so successful.

“Our whole motto at Bankers Healthcare Group is great marketing,” she said. “It’s how you market your product. I took things to the next step, including going to social media. We like to add color, flare, some great signs and personality when showing and selling your horses. It’s marketing. Marketing and branding Crawford Farms. That’s why we do the sponsorships. That Meadowlands Pace sponsorship is worth its weight in gold. I see my name everywhere because we are associated with that race. When you start putting your name on things, people start to know who you are. I like to be known and like to be seen. Obviously, you have to have that stock that comes with it. I think in two years you’re going to see exactly we have.”

Show up at the Crawford sales barn at Lexington and you’ll see what she means. You’ll be treated to all the good food, free drinks and good cheer you could ever want. The same goes for the Crawford open house, where they showcase their yearlings. This year it will be at the Durhamville location on August 21, the day of the Crawford Farms Trot.

They don’t like to do anything halfway or settle for the ordinary. They want to go places. Halfway and ordinary will never get you there.