Retirement of a power couple

After a lifetime in the game working with, and for, a slew of Hall of Famers, Larry and Jackie Drysdale have officially retired together from Winbak Canada, ending careers that also included a long stint at Armstrong Bros.

by Dave Briggs

More than a month after retiring as Winbak Canada’s farm manager, Larry Drysdale said he still hasn’t been able to sleep in. After nearly 50 years in the game, his internal alarm clock seems destined to ring early.

“I like the life. I never got sick of working all days a week. It never bothered me, waking up at 6:30 on Sunday morning and heading to the barn,” he said.

Claus Andersen | Larry Drysdale (left, with Winbak yearling manager Jimmy Ladwig) has retired as the farm manager of Winbak Canada.

Drysdale, one of the industry’s true good guys, joked he’s been around the industry so long he can remember showing yearlings to Hall of Famers Frank Ervin (born 1904) and Harry Pownall (born 1902).

“That’s when you know you’ve been around a while,” Drysdale said, laughing. “They were up there in age then, but they were still around.”

Before working for Joe and JoAnn Thomson at Winbak, Drysdale worked at the famed Armstrong Bros. farm.

“I worked for two great operations — the Armstrong family and Joe and JoAnn Thomson at Winbak,” he said. For most of the last 40 years, Drysdale’s wife, Jackie, has worked right by his side. They even retired the same day.

Their contributions did not go unnoticed by the Thomsons.

“Larry and Jackie were the face of Winbak Canada and I never once doubted their loyalty or efforts in doing what was right for Winbak or the standardbred Industry,” Joe said. “They are the kind of people you can count on.”

In turn, Larry said he has long appreciated the Thomsons’ faith in both himself and Jackie.

“I always thought it was really good that they had the trust in Jackie and I to run the operation because Joe was so busy (with his financial services company Pacer Financial),” Larry said. “He never got much time to come up and see the farm. He was up enough, but not as much as you might think.”

Larry took his first job in the horse industry in March of 1970 when, at age 18, he was hired to work at Armstrong Bros. farm.

“I grew up in Acton and there was a farm behind me that had horses,” he said. “I used to hang around there a bit, but didn’t have a lot of experience.”

That experience came quickly when he joined Armstrong Bros., first working with the farm’s famed broodmare band, then with yearlings.

The plan was just a short-term one at first. After the Harrisburg Sale, Larry left to go to California to work for Hall of Fame trainer Joe O’Brien.

Larry remained in California until 1974 when he returned home to California when his dad died of a sudden heart attack.

Around the same time, Larry met Jackie and the two of them took jobs working for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Kopas.

“I was there when all his good horses were there, Jate Lobell, Nat Lobell, Jade Prince and all them… and Super Clint,” Larry said. “(Kopas) was such a great horseman, he was amazing.”

Looking to escape the racetrack life and settle down, Larry went back to work at Armstrong Bros. in the fall of 1976.

Larry said Armbro founders, brothers Ted and J. Elgin Armstrong (a dual Hall of Famer), “were good guys to work for. Elgin was a businessman and farmer. You never got to see him that much, but he would sometimes come around. He loved his mares. His broodmares were his pride and joy.”
It wasn’t long before Jackie began working at the famed Brampton, ON farm, as well. The two have worked together at farms pretty much ever since.

In his second stint at Armbro, Larry worked with yearling manager Jim Hammond. When Hammond retired in the early 1980s, Drysdale took over as yearling manager. Under the farm leadership of Hall of Famer Dr. Glen Brown, Larry also began handling stallion promotion and, during the Mohawk Racetrack fall meet, he would also be at the track four nights a week trying to get clients to make appointments to go out to the farm to look at yearlings.

“That’s back when they used to come to the farms to look at yearlings,” Larry said, laughing. “We had appointments booked because we had the Canadian Classic (sale), plus the Kentucky Standardbred (sale) at Lexington and we were quite busy. We had appointments almost every day, somebody coming in looking at yearlings.”

Along the way, Larry developed a deep admiration for leading sires Speedy Crown and Abercrombie.

“We used to laugh sitting around the boardroom at Armstrongs when we were doing the matings. We’d talk about a mare and if she had a couple of individuals that weren’t the best, we used to always say, ‘Well, breed her to Abercrombie and if she doesn’t have a good individual, then it’s time to go,’” Larry said, laughing. “That’s about the way it was with Speedy Crown, too.”

Larry had an even deeper attachment to the horses he helped raise.

“At Armstrongs, I was involved with them from the time they foaled until the time they sold, so when the last yearling would step through the ring at Lexington, it was pretty emotional. It always felt like you raised them, you knew them. There was a time when I could go back and tell you who the fourth dam was, go all the way back… I always loved pedigrees and I still follow that,” Larry said.

Having helped raise thousands of horses, Larry said it’s difficult to pick out favorites, but he has fond memories of some champions.

“I still think Armbro Cadet (a winner of nearly $700,000) was one of the best-looking ones ever,” Larry said. “He was an Abercrombie and had that Abercrombie look to him. God, he was a great-looking colt and he was a nice colt to be around. He just had that presence. Every time you took him out to show a buyer, he just stood perfect every time. He was something else.

“Then there were others, like Armbro Goal. He was tough yearling, but he ended up winning the Hambletonian. He was a handful as a yearling — Phew, he was tough.”

Dr. Moira Gunn, who succeeded Dr. Brown as farm president, said Larry was instrumental to the economic success of the farm.

“With a premier farm like Armstrong Bros., our number one revenue source was the yearling sales crop every year,” Dr. Gunn said. “Larry oversaw the development of the finished product, from the weanling stage right through to the sales ring for every yearling we had, so Larry’s job was critical to the financial success of Armstrong Bros. and he did it extremely well.

“Most people won’t realize that Larry and his dedicated crew that worked with the yearlings, from the fall of the weanling year right through to the spring in the yearling barns, in very cold temperatures, were the ones responsible for not only training those yearlings through the winter to stand, cross-tied, pick up their feet, be amenable to the blacksmith and even loaded them onto the trailers until every yearling was easy to load. That would be before the yearlings ever came down for final prep in the yearling barns. So anybody who has had an Armstrong yearling and had it break to harness the very first time they had it on or load in the trailer without balking the very first time, they really had Larry to thank for that and, of course, his dedicated team.”

In the fall of 2004, Armstrong Bros. closed after selling its last weanlings, yearlings and trotting broodmares.

Winbak Canada opened on the same location in January of 2005 with Larry Drysdale at the helm. Jackie came along, too, to work in the office.

“Joe (Thomson) approached me at Harrisburg… I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do (after Armstrong Bros. closed) and then he flew me to the farm in Maryland and I had lunch with him and JoAnn. Then, I took the job,” Larry said.

Dr. Gunn said she was pleased to see Larry and Jackie get hired at Winbak.

“With the business decision to liquidate Armstrong Bros. for the owners, it was a wonderful opportunity for Larry to join Winbak Farms and become farm manager for the Canadian operation of Winbak,” Dr. Gunn said. “Throughout Larry’s career, Jackie has been right there beside him. To see two wonderful people, happily married, working on the same farm has been exceptional and a benefit to both Armstrong Bros and Winbak.”

Winbak keeps most of its mares at its main farm in Maryland, so Larry’s job at Winbak Canada was mostly one of overseeing stallions, though everyone pitched in on all facets of the operation.

“At Winbak, it was going from stallions right to yearlings. It wasn’t like with Armstrongs where you had a stallion crew, a broodmare crew, a yearling crew. At Winbak, we did it all,” Larry said. “At first, it was almost run like a stallion station. We didn’t have many mares or maybe just mares coming into breed or a handful of teaser mares. The next year we foaled out two mares and then next year it was four, until it got up to about 16 mares.”

Larry and Jackie made the decision last year that it was time to retire and informed Joe and JoAnn of their intentions at the Harrisburg sale, telling them the 2019 breeding season would be their last.

Their final day was officially July 20. Pat Woods is now the farm manager of Winbak Canada.

“It was strange,” Larry said of their last day. “You know what it feels like? The breeding season is over and I’m on holidays and then, after my holidays are over, we’ll be going back at it. That’s what it feels like right now.

“It was pretty emotional that last day, just walking out and knowing that it was the last day. But it still just felt like we were on a couple weeks holidays and we’d be going back.”

When yearling time comes around, Larry and Jackie will be on the other side of the world.

“We’re planning to go to Australia and New Zealand,” Larry said. “I’ve never been, but I’ve been in touch with a few of the people and I am looking forward to getting to Alabar Farm and seeing Shadow Play and Betterthancheddar and then going to New Zealand to see Bettors Delight.

“I would just like to see if there’s much difference between them and how we do it. I’m kind of curious. That’s the plan right now. We’ve got our VISAS and our flights booked.”

Other than that, Larry said he plans to play more golf and Jackie will get more time to visit her mother in Florida.

“Jackie’s mother is 97 and in Jacksonville, Florida. She’s still going and as good as ever, so Jackie plans on going down there after the New Year to spend some time with her. Hopefully, we’ll maybe buy an RV trailer and do some traveling,” Larry said.

Still after a lifetime in the game, Larry said he hopes he can be of service to someone for breeding advice. After all, he said the thing he will miss the most about the game is the people.

“I’ve made so many great friends in this business and that’s what I’ll miss the most,” Larry said, “sitting in that office and having somebody call up and say, ‘Who do you think I should breed my mare to?’

“I just love that part of it. I felt like I was knowledgeable and I could help people with that.”