The Taylor brothers of Kentucky have built a thoroughbred empire from the ground up. Now Taylor Made Sales and Stallions is returning to its roots thanks to a mega-deal to bring New Zealand’s champion pacer Lazarus to the United States.
by Dave Briggs
Duncan Taylor said there is a simple explanation for why he and his brothers — proprietors of a family-made thoroughbred empire — have cannonballed into the standardbred pool by purchasing New Zealand champion Lazarus and bringing the pacer to the United States.
It’s a return to the family’s roots, said Taylor, CEO of Taylor Made Sales and Stallions of Nicholasville, KY that he operates with his brothers Ben, Frank, Mark and partner Pat Payne.
“When I was 12 and younger, we were a lot more standardbred, than we were thoroughbred,” Duncan said. “We were just a bunch of farm kids. Dad managed a farm that wasn’t nearly as big as (thoroughbred) Gainesway Farm is now. So, we were middle-class Americans that liked horses and our granddad owned some. The standardbreds that he had weren’t world-class standardbreds. They were some horses that he made some money out of.”
Duncan said he has fond memories of jumping into the horse van with his grandfather on trips to Harrisburg, PA to sell yearlings at the Standardbred Horse Sales Company mega-auction, as well as helping his brothers care for some standardbred mares at a farm near where they grew up.
When Duncan became a teenager, his interests shifted almost entirely to thoroughbreds and by age 20 he founded Taylor Made with friend Mike Shannon.
Today, Taylor Made Sales, run by Mark Taylor, is one of the most successful thoroughbred sales agencies in the world. In 2017, Taylor Made Sales Agency was the leading consignor in North America by a wide margin, selling 780 thoroughbreds for a gross of more than $104 million, an average of $133,449 and a median of $50,000. Lane’s End, the next closet consignor, sold 340 thoroughbreds for just under $48 million.
Taylor Made Stallions, operated by Ben Taylor, stands six thoroughbred stallions — including Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome. The family’s 1,600-acre spread, overseen by Frank Taylor, is home to some 500 thoroughbreds.
“I’m the CEO and try to keep everybody going together because it is a family business,” Duncan said. “We have six of the next generation, so I’m kind of the driving force behind this crazy standardbred idea. I touch a little bit of everything. Right now, we’re doing some succession planning… Whenever you’ve got that many family members, it becomes a whole science and learning endeavor itself, trying to keep everyone pulling the same direction and trying to create the right culture and making sure everyone is on the same page.
“We got California Chrome and that was just a pie-in-the-sky, unbelievable blessing. From, at one time, not racing that many to owning one of the world’s highest-earning thoroughbreds… those things, you can’t plan them. You just work hard every day and keep your nose down and hopefully something good with happen.”
Now the family is hoping Lazarus will be its next great stallion after jumping back into the standardbred game in December of 2017 by purchasing trotting stallion What The Hill, syndicating the son of Muscle Hill—K T Cha Cha and deciding to stand him at Hickory Lane Farms in Ohio.
Both the What The Hill and Lazarus deals were brokered by Ernie Martinez.
“I’ve been in the horse business all my life so I’ve seen guys like Ernie,” Duncan said. “He’s a wild man and always trying to sell something. He got the What The Hill deal and we did that. Then, he came out here and I said, ‘If you see another one…’ and then he had another one. He showed me this picture of Lazarus and I said, ‘That’s the best looking standardbred that I ever saw.’ He was unbelievable. Looked like a damn thoroughbred.
“So we started looking into it and studied how many mares they thought they could breed to (Lazarus) in New Zealand, because I guess he’s like King Kong down there. What he can stand for up here is still to be determined because, if we get lucky up here and he comes to top form, then I think he could be one of those international sires going both ways.
“So, the upside intrigued us, if he did come up here and really raced well.”
Duncan is quick to point out that the suggestion that 5-year-old Lazarus would set a world record at Red Mile this fall is all Martinez talking.
“That was Ernie. He came out with all that about setting the world record. I said, ‘Don’t say he’s going to set the world record,’” Duncan said. “We’d be very blessed (if he did), but I’m not going to say that he’s going to set the world record. He can still be a hell of a horse and not set the world record. I know he’s getting faster, but anyone that’s ever beaten the record they were fortunate to do it. They had to have the right weather, everything was right that day. I’ve been around horses long enough to know that he could come up here and get stuffed. He’s five, but he’s five-going-on-six up here. At some point in time, horses aren’t as good as they were. He’s got his work cut out for him, but we’ll see what happens. He’s a great horse.”
A winner of 35 of his 45 lifetime starts at the variety of distances raced in Australia and New Zealand, Lazarus is the richest standardbred of all time from the southern hemisphere with earnings of more than $3.8 million. Under the tutelage and steering of Mark Purdon, Lazarus set seven track records at multiple distances and won a number of Group 1 events Down Under, including The Inter Dominion, the New Zealand Cup (twice) and The Hunter and Victoria Cups. The son of Bettors Delight—Bethany was named Pacer of the Year Down Under at ages three, four and five and Horse of the Year at age five.
“Something that was important to me in buying him was that he had good 2-year-old form,” Duncan said. “He went in 1:52.4 and paced in :25.2 for a quarter. It showed me he had speed and went six-of-eight as a 2-year-old. He’s been a good horse, sort of like California Chrome, all the way through from a 2-year-old to a 5-year-old.”
Lazarus arrived in the United States last week and is already under the care and tutelage of Jimmy Takter in New Jersey.
“They say (Takter) is the Bob Baffert or Todd Pletcher of standardbred racing, so we’re glad to be with him,” Duncan said.
Stewart family connection
Duncan said the family’s re-entry into standardbreds is being helped considerably by Steve Stewart of Hunterton Farms.
Stewart grew up friends of the Taylor family and credits the Taylors for his career as one of the standardbred game’s top breeders.
“The reason why the Stewart family is in the standardbred business is there was a man by the name of Joe Taylor,” Stewart said. “Joe Taylor was the farm manager of Gainesway Farms for something like 40 years.”
Joe was also Duncan, Ben, Frank and Mark Taylor’s father.
“My dad was a mentor to numerous people and the Stewart family was one of them,” Duncan said. “I lean on (Steve) for advice. He’s a great guy and smart in the business. I told him that it’s funny how my dad helped him get going and now he’s helping reacquaint me with the standardbreds. So, all good deeds do get paid, one day or another.”
Joe Taylor and Steve Stewart owned a number of prominent standardbreds together.
“Joe Taylor and I bred Run The Table and had some success, but Joe made the statement one time to me, ‘You know what would be a lot of fun would be to find some trotting fillies off the track and then we can breed them and have some fun that way.’ Higher class. We always had inexpensive horses. That always stuck in my mind,” Stewart said.
That approach led to Joe and Steve acquiring stellar trotting mare and 1994 Canadian Horse of the Year Emilie Cas El together, among others.
“We started breeding the mare and were having very good success. She’s got Impressive Kemp, who won the Breeders Crown and Joe Taylor is down as a breeder on that one,” Stewart said of Emilie Cas El, who later produced Trixton.
Duncan said the Taylor boys and the Stewart boys all went to Catholic school together.
“Steve is two years younger than me,” Duncan said. “I had a brother, Chris, that was Steve’s age, but Chris died when he was 21. He’s no longer with us. Steve has a twin brother, Mike. He’s a veterinarian. Bob is one year older than me and, of course, he’s been a driver and trainer. Their whole family stayed in the standardbreds.”
The appeal of standardbreds
Duncan said standardbreds provide an intriguing business opportunity for Taylor Made.
“It’s interesting that there is such a big market in New Zealand and Australia. Then, of course, there’s the trotters that I’ve always heard about from the Swedish and European side. There’s quite a bit of business there,” Duncan said. “Then, with AI (artificial insemination), which you can’t do in the thoroughbred business, it’s more interesting. So, there’s a lot of dynamics in (the standardbred) business. It isn’t quite as fashionable (as the thoroughbred business) in the United States, but they are great horses and I’ve always loved them and their durability; the tenacity and the strength of the horse. Heat racing, that always just amazed me because a thoroughbred runs once a month or maybe some trainers run them twice in a month. To have a horse race three times in the same day – and I know they don’t do this as much any more — but that still takes quite a strong horse.”
Duncan said playing in the top end of the standardbred game is also much less expensive than it is with the runners.
“What I see in the thoroughbred business… they are my friends and they are my customers, but they’ve got a hell of a lot more money than I do. So, if I’m trying to get a Justify or an American Pharoah or those kind or even a California Chrome – we were lucky enough to sneak in there at the right time and get him, but it’s hard to do,” Duncan said. “I’m competing with Kenny Troutt that started out Excel Communications, where he made all of his money. B. Wayne Hughes owns Public Storage. Sheikh Mohammed is the ruler of Dubai… Will Bernes owns Standard Oil. Hell, I don’t have oil money or communications companies. I’ve just got this land out here, trying to make it in the horse business.
“The stallion business is difficult in the thoroughbred business. It’s very competitive and these stallions are able to breed books of 225, so it’s not as easy to start out a lesser-quality horse because the good horses are taking so many mares. We find that competitive and when I found out how you could get in, and what the payoff was with the standardbreds… it’s not like it’s great and that you’re definitely going to get your money back, but it’s not quite as (difficult)… We just can’t get that many stallions in the thoroughbred business or pay seven or eight times for a stud, because I could lose half my money. If I make four or five wrong choices, I’m out of business.”
As for what his thoroughbred colleagues are saying about Taylor Made reportedly spending big bucks — though no figures have been released — on a pacer from New Zealand, Duncan said there hasn’t been much reaction, yet, but he figures those that do know are likely thinking, “What are they doing?”
That said, Duncan pointed out that Taylor Made was built from the ground up by thinking differently.
“We’re sort of known as innovators who do stuff outside the box in the thoroughbred business,” he said.
Acquiring top-notch standardbreds is just the latest example.
“By no means do I know a lot about the standardbred business compared to a lot of people,” Duncan said. “But we like horses of all types and we thought that these were a couple of exciting horses, What The Hill and Lazarus, so we decided to jump back in and feel excited to have the two horses and we are re-learning the standardbred business.”