Yearling master Jimmy Ladwig on his 21 years at Winbak Farms

by Murray Brown

You are directly responsible for raising and prepping for sale somewhere around 300 standardbred yearlings each year.

In addition, you have direct supervision over six Clydesdales, a herd of some 60 Black Angus cattle, 30 goats and the odd thoroughbred.

If you ask Jimmy Ladwig how he does it, the answer you will likely get is, “When you are doing something you love, it isn’t work. Sure it takes up many hours, but just about every day is a learning experience.”

Ladwig and his devoted team, led by his right hand man Jose Canteron, has been in charge of raising and prepping the yearling crop at Winbak Farms for the last 21 years.

When he started at Winbak he had no experience with standardbreds.

He grew up in Mystic, CT where almost all of his experience was with quarter horses.

His dad was a horseman and it was only natural that Jimmy would follow in his footsteps.

When asked about his prowess, his response was, “I was pretty good with horses for as long as I can remember. I guess my claim to fame back then was that in 1983 I was the Youth Champion Reiner in the State of Connecticut.”

He lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1987 and 1988 where he was a wrangler at Trail Creek Ranch. His duties also included taking guests on trail rides and pack trips through the abundant trails there. He was also occasionally the breakfast cook.

After Jackson Hole, he moved to Lake Tahoe in 1988. There he was a lift operator, snow maker and a member of the ski patrol. In summer he’d work for pack outfits taking groups of people on horseback and mules through the beautiful area that surrounds Lake Tahoe and was also occasionally a roofer.

Regarding his experience with mules he says, “They come by their reputation for stubbornness quite honestly. It takes a trick or two to dissuade them from what they want to do, rather than what you want them to do. They are pretty smart, but they can also be quite cunning.”

He returned to his native Connecticut in 1999, where he sold roofs for a living.

Ladwig’s family were friends with a neighbor, Jane Ann Bell, who just happened to be Joe Thomson’s sister.

Through Bell, Ladwig met Joe Thomson.

Knowing of Ladwig’s excellent background with horses, Thomson offered him a job as yearling manager at Winbak Farms.

Ladwig was somewhat apprehensive, saying that he had never worked with standardbreds before. Thomson responded by echoing the famous TV talking horse, Mister Ed’s famous words “A horse is a horse.”

Ladwig packed up and moved to Maryland with his wife Deb and son Quinn, where he took up residence and became the farm’s yearling manager. He credits both Thomson and then farm manager Bill Gerwick for having faith in him and giving him this great opportunity.

Ladwig says it was basically a sink or swim situation. He felt that he could do the job, but he also knew that if he didn’t, there undoubtedly would be someone out there who could.

It’s now 21 years later and he is still there, so one would surmise he has probably done a pretty good job.

What is it you like most about your job?

:I would say that it’s twofold. Firstly, it’s going to the various sales with our yearlings. It’s the fruition of an entire year’s work. Most yearling consignors preach the mantra that this is our best crop yet. I suppose that I am no different from them. We all truly believe it to be so. After all, if you want to remain in this business, you’ve got to keep up with the competition. Our, and everybody else’s horses, go faster every year. By the nature of the sport and its equine athletes, if you just stand still, you will fall behind.

“Secondly and probably primarily, it’s the great crew and the sense of camaraderie we have here at the farm.

“Joe Thomson is of course the boss. He wants everything done just right. He spares no expense whatever in raising the best possible yearling for the sales. He loves horse sales more than any person I’ve ever known. He helps out as much as anyone at every sale. Garrett Bell our farm manager is a great guy and a great administrator. Jeff Fout, my main man Jose Canteron, Jack Burke and our entire crew do a great job.”

What is it you like least?

“Most people who sell yearlings would probably say doing the videos of yearlings is the most difficult. It might not be as difficult as we make it out to be, but it sure can be frustrating. There are times when you might be doing 20 yearlings and all is going well and then you come upon one, usually a pacing filly who will take you almost as long to do as all the previous ones combined.

“Probably the very worst thing though is when you get what you think is a top yearling injured or sick right before the sale and you have to withdraw it.

“Of course, all breeders will have some disappointment with the way some particular yearlings sell. But you’ve got to get over that and look at the entire picture. Unfortunately, when one that you particularly like fails to bring anywhere near what you anticipated, you sometimes take it personally, at least I do and question what could I have done to make it more attractive.”

Of all the yearlings you’ve prepped which is the one that you thought the most of?

“Without any doubt Muscle Hill turned out to be the greatest horse that we or probably anybody else has ever had the honor of breeding and raising. But when he first came in for yearling prep, he looked like anything but a champion. His hair wasn’t the best. He was lanky, toed out somewhat and was a little on the gaunt side. Worst of all, he had a real roach back. It was so bad that we brought in an equine chiropractor to work on it.

“By the time he got to the sale he looked pretty good, but not great. He brought $55,000. We thought that was a pretty fair price at the time.”

What is it that most people would not know about Jimmy Ladwig?

“I guess that I’m a Deadhead. I’m a great fan of the Grateful Dead. I’m guessing that I’ve probably been to around 35 of their concerts. That’s nowhere near as much as Bill Walton who has travelled all over the world to see them and has been to their concerts hundreds of times.”

Let’s talk about all the breeds of horses that you have been associated with.

Standardbreds – Of course they are my favorites. They are smart and adaptable.

Quarter Horses – I was raised with them. They are strong, sturdy, intelligent and extremely adaptable.

Thoroughbreds – They are beautiful, but often are high strung and can have a degree of fragility.

Clydesdales – I had never been around them until Joe bought his first pair. We now have six. They are big, strong and very willing. Thank goodness they have a wonderful temperament, because as big and strong as they are, they could do a lot of damage if they were not the gentle giants that they are. I’m especially proud when we bring our team of them to the Hambletonian each year.

Mules – Although not officially an equine, I consider them such. They are strong and quite smart. They can be obstinate. If you find a good one, it is very good.

Miniature Horses – I’m not involved with them, but we’ve got a bunch of them here at the farm. They are very cute and attract attention.”

What about the sales you go to?

“Lexington is my favorite, as it is with most people. The time of year, the ambience, the large number of people you meet and see. You are outdoors and the weather is usually very accommodating. Great people, great horses and a great atmosphere..

“Harrisburg is Harrisburg. It’s a hallmark on the calendar. It’s a year-end tradition. The best thing one can say is that its weatherproof. Regardless of how the weather is you are safe from it, being in an indoor facility. It will probably be strange not being there this year. But Timonium has an excellent complex. It’s a proven place to sell horses. I’m sure we will be fine selling there.

“Canada — I love selling in Canada mostly because I have so many friends up there and the people are so nice.

“Goshen — It’s the first sale of the year. Because it’s first, I’m inclined to looked upon it with some trepidation. It is here now. We will be selling there tomorrow (Sept. 14).

“We will also be selling 19 yearlings on Ongait this year. They are in my opinion as nice a group as those that we are selling elsewhere. There are some people who believe that online is the future of horse sales. It could very well be. As for me, I think I’ll wait and see.”

What do you do when you aren’t working with horses?

“My wife Debbie and I have a boat. We like to take it out on the water on Sundays and the occasional late afternoon. I find it both relaxing and fun.”

Who are your favorite people in harness racing?

“Our group here are a tremendous bunch. I owe so much to Joe and Joann Thomson and Bill Gerwick for having the faith in me that they did to give me the opportunity to work at this great farm. Our team of Garrett, Jeff, Jack, Jose, Pat Woods, Noel Dustpiva the now retired Larry Drysdale and the terrific group of caretakers we have are terrific.

“Maybe the one best known to our visitors is my dog, Bandit, my constant companion.

“Outside of the farm, I know yearling season is officially open when Perry Soderberg shows up. Others that we enjoy hosting include, among many, Erv Miller, John Butenschoen and just the other day, while Julie Miller was here at the farm looking at yearlings we watched her Winbak graduate Gotta Believe win its first race. Winning with one that you helped raise is to me what it’s all about.”

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