by Murray Brown
Rob Tribbett oversees a combined total of 210 broodmares — 140 thoroughbreds and 70 standardbreds. There is likely no one else in all of horsedom who has the volume of so many horses of both breeds under his control. When you factor in the yearlings, weanlings and sucklings and a few racehorses, that adds up to a grand total of approximately 500 under his immediate responsibility. As Tribbett is quick to point out, the ultimate boss is owner Fred Hertrich III who owns the standardbreds under the banner Allamerican Harnessbreds and who together with John Fielding owns the thoroughbreds. Hertrich is quite active in both pursuits and together with Tribbett makes all the important decisions.
The association with Hertrich is a long and familial one.
Tribbett’s dad Charles Tribbett was Fred’s standardbred trainer for 30 years. Rob grew up in effect under Hertrich’s umbrella. He began as a groom taking care of Fred’s horses under his dad’s control.
“I was a much better summer groom than I was of the winter variety,” Rob said. “I had the excuse of going to school at the University of Delaware in winter. Nevertheless, I far much preferred working with the horses in the warm weather than I did in the cold. I also worked a couple of summers in the race office at Ocean Downs.”
Rob’s background related almost entirely to the standardbred as did Hertrich’s.
Hertrich and Fielding became active in the thoroughbred sport through their friendship with the late Dr. Philip McCarthy, an equine vet and the former farm manager at Walnut Hall Farm who practiced with both breeds. Eventually, the thoroughbreds dominated. He convinced his friends Hertrich and Fielding to join him in a thoroughbred breeding partnership which they called Watercress Farm. Tragically, McCarthy was stricken with the cancer to which he succumbed at the age of 58.
By then, Hertrich and Fielding’s investment in the thoroughbred game had grown substantially and had been blessed with a great deal of success from the get go. McCarthy was the brains in terms of knowledge of the thoroughbred breed and marketplace behind the operation. Who to take his place? Nobody could. But Fred Hertrich had this young man administrating his trotters and pacers who he felt had more than enough smarts to learn on the job.
Learn on the job is what Rob Tribbett did. It is now 12 years later.
“Learn on the job is what I did and I’m still learning every day,” Tribbett said.
How did it feel to be thrust into such an important role without a great deal of experience in the industry Rob?
“It wasn’t near as ‘cold turkey’ an experience as it may sound. I had followed Fred’s and John’s thoroughbred holdings from the incept of their involvement and learned from Dr. McCarthy, who was one of the most astute judges of horses I have been around. I learned more in walking around one breeding stock sale with Phil then you could have learned in any book. There are differences between the two breeds and probably to a greater extent the business workings within them. Phil had built a great farm in Paris, KY. He had a terrific staff, so from a physical standpoint the place was able to go on without his direct oversight. It was in the managerial standpoint where his absence was most lacking.”
What is the main difference between the two breeds?
“Physically, standardbreds are more sturdy and a bit more relaxed overall than thoroughbreds. Their temperament can be vastly different. The thoroughbred business is significantly more specialized than we are. Most of our trainers do most of the work, like perusing the catalogs, assessing videos, deciding which yearlings that they look at, having a big voice in which yearlings are bid on and the prices paid for them, breaking the horses and training them until they are ready to race and then usually racing them until such time as they are retired or they combined with their owners decide that they need a new address.
“With the thoroughbred breed there are several more steps and people involved. Many is the time when the trainer won’t be involved with the horse until such time as it is ready to race. There are specialists who consult on matings (we have them too, but to a far lesser degree than them), those who strictly sell horses, those who represent owners at sales and buy for them, those who break yearlings and those who buy them strictly for resale.
“There are far more sales and sales opportunities for thoroughbreds. There are also far more buy backs because of the means to sell these same horses at a negotiated price at the sale or down the road at various in training sales.”
Rob, you were raised in Delaware and you and your young family have spent the bulk of your lives there. You now live in Lexington. Is there any particular reason why?
“As mentioned, the thoroughbred sale calendar is much more extensive than the standardbred business which still revolves around the two major yearling sales. Because of that, I was spending 80-100 days a year in Lexington between sales at Keeneland and Fasig Tipton, and inspecting horses on our farm. My daughter is three now, and it was difficult being away that much. Plus, Lexington is a terrific place to live, and horses are such a part of the culture.”
You said that you and Fred do most of the work and make most of the decisions related to the thoroughbreds. What part does John Fielding play in the makeup?
“Fred likes to say that John is in charge of entertainment. There is nobody better at it than him. Seriously though, he is a great partner and a great friend. John is very much a believer in letting everybody do what he or she is best at doing.”
How do you decide where and how you sell your yearling crop with each breed?
“We use different methods. With the thoroughbreds we prep them ourselves, but then we entrust them to Taylor Made Sales Agency to sell them for us as agent. We use only Taylor Made to sell out horses. There are some breeders who may use more than one agent. But we are happy with the Taylor family, and our account manager Stuart Angus, and feel comfortable in their hands. We sell our horses at a multitude of sales and try to have a presence at most of the major ones.
“With our standardbreds we raise them at Fred’s farm in Federalsburg, Maryland. We both prep and sell them ourselves. We sell pretty much our entire crop between Lexington and Harrisburg. We are market breeders and each of our yearlings goes to the sale to be sold.”
I recall John Fielding telling me that thoroughbred yearlings are meant to be sold. If you are going to race, you’ve got a much better chance with standardbreds. Would you agree with that?
“The purse structures in the standardbred business, especially accounting for how often our horse can race, are really hard to beat. Racing standardbreds is going to be the profitable route most of the time. However, the upside of a top end thoroughbred surpasses that of even the best harness horse. The standardbred business could do well to follow in the footsteps of the thoroughbreds by making going to the races, especially on our biggest days of the year, more of an event and more enjoyable for owners, so it is not solely profit focused.”
You are right now entering your busiest time of year.
“Yes. Right now after the Hambletonian, I’m off to Saratoga for a pair of yearling sales. After that it’s pretty much one sale after another, sometimes more than one at the same time for the rest of the year. Between sales and major racing events I’ll be keeping busy.”
We’ve concentrated mostly on selling. You guys are also buyers at a lot of sales.
“Yes. I think it is vital to always be bringing in new blood to the broodmare band, both in standardbreds and thoroughbreds, and we are always looking for ways to do that, from yearling sales, buying racehorses privately, or at the major mixed sales. The week of Harrisburg typically coincides with the largest thoroughbred mixed sale in the world at Keeneland, so that is a crazy week. I have often thought that commercial breeders could just walk around and inspect mares together at Harrisburg and save a lot of time — we are all typically interested in the same mares.”
Do you do much pre-sale scouting prior to the various sales?
“When we are buying, we try to come up with a list of mares that may make sense, but inspecting them at the sale is paramount, as their physical is the deciding trait for me. As a seller, more and more standardbred trainers are coming to the farm prior to the sales to see yearlings. I think it is one of the most important things a buyer can do. Obviously, the hectic race schedule makes it difficult, but there is a lot of knowledge that can be gained by viewing the horses in their natural environment and seeing them in the field.”
When deciding on your matings, do you have any particular people or venues as to which the subsequent foal will be best received?
“Maybe a little, but not too much. Our goal is to produce the best racehorse possible. We strive for a good-sized sound and athletic horse.”
Are you ready?
“Yes indeed. This is my favorite time of year. There is nothing I enjoy more than looking at horses, either on the racetrack or beneath a shedrow. After all of the effort we spend making mating decisions and raising the yearlings, it is rewarding to see our efforts pay off as they hopefully sell well and then go be what they are bred to do – be racehorses.”
ADDENDUM – In last week’s column on Tom Charters, I mentioned that I thought that Spitfire Hanover had brought less than $5,000 and certainly less than $10,000 as a yearling. His actual selling price was $3,500. What I didn’t realize is that Delvin Miller’s partners Arnold Palmer and Whitey Ford were not in from the beginning. Spitfire had raced a few times and showed stakes winning ability before Arnold and Whitey came aboard. As Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story. Miller instructed his long-time secretary Gloria Likar to add up all the expenses incurred on the colt plus his selling price. The total would be the price at which his two partners would come in. That was a pretty good deal. Buying a proven stakes-winning colt at a bargain price, who was worth many times the money spent on him, is unusual in any business, but not if your friend was Delvin Miller.
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