Owner Ken Ramsey will be a prominent presence at the Breeders’ Cup on Friday and Saturday, with seven starters in turf races, six of them offspring of his stallion Kitten’s Joy. This will be no surprise to racing fans because Ramsey has seemed ubiquitous all year.
He and his wife, Sarah (known as “Kitten”), were the leading owners at the recent Keeneland meeting, and almost every day Ken Ramsey was leading a horse — whether a cheap claimer or a high-class stakes horse — into the winner’s circle. They set a record this summer for wins by an owner at Saratoga. They were the leading owner at Gulfstream Park. The 77-year-old Ramsey frequently gives enthusiastic interviews after his victories, so he’s highly visible and clearly a man who enjoys the spotlight.
But Ramsey isn’t the typical owner who simply bought his way into prominence; he deserves much of the credit for his success. He is responsible for a phenomenon that defies most of the precepts of the horse breeding business: the success of Kitten’s Joy. The stallion’s progeny are as ubiquitous as Ramsey himself, and even fans oblivious to pedigrees can hardly fail to notice what Breeders’ Cup entrants such as Bobby’s Kitten, Big Blue Kitten, Granny Mc’s Kitten, Kitten’s Dumplings and Kitten Kaboodle have in common.
Ramsey is a lifelong Kentuckian who always enjoyed racing — he briefly held a trainer’s license in his youth — but he was always busy with work. He said he “made over a million dollars in five different businesses,” most recently a cellular telephone network. After selling that last enterprise in 1994 for more than $30 million, he said, “I could have sat under a palm tree, but I wanted to buy a horse farm.” He acquired a historic farm near Lexington, plunged into a study of the business and was obsessed by it. “I worked on horses all day and dreamed about them at night,” he said.
He employs several top trainers — the current roster includes Chad Brown, Michael Maker and Dale Romans (who trained Kitten’s Joy) — but he takes an active involvement in decisions about his horses.
“Outsiders see how passionate he is, and they might think he’s barking orders all day,” Brown said. “But he’s only involved when he needs to be. If we have 10 decisions to make, he’ll put his stamp on eight of them, and the others we’ll work it out.”
After a decade, the Ramseys reached the zenith of the business. They were honored with the Eclipse Award as the nation’s leading owners in 2004, largely because Kitten’s Joy had been the country’s champion turf runner and Roses in May the second-best dirt runner. Ramsey sold Roses in May to Japan and kept Kitten’s Joy, planning to manage his career as a stallion. People who understand the breeding industry had reason to think he was making a naïve and expensive mistake.
Kitten’s Joy was an outstanding racehorse, to be sure; in 12 starts on grass he scored nine wins and finished second in the other three. He was at his best in races at 11 / 4 and 11 / 2 miles. But Ramsey learned quickly: “Nobody wanted to breed to a mile-and-a-half turf horse.”
Such credentials are anathema in the U.S. thoroughbred business; the list of U.S. grass champions is filled with ones who were abject failures at stud. Breeders and buyers want pedigrees that will give them precocious, quick young horses to run on dirt. Understanding that most breeders wouldn’t mate their mares to Kitten’s Joy, Ramsey knew he would have to supply most of the mares — a daunting prospect. He may be a wealthy man by the standards of the real world, but the breeding industry is dominated by Arab sheikhs and international tycoons who can spend millions for a single regally bred female. Ramsey wasn’t in this league.
So he decided to build a large breeding operation on the cheap. He studied the form of fillies in claiming races and tried to identify ones who — though they may have been mediocre runners — had ancestors who would mesh with the pedigree of Kitten’s Joy.
“I claimed everything I could lay my hands on,” he said, and proceeded to build up a band of more than 100 mares.
His plan seemed fanciful — until the progeny of Kitten’s Joys started winning everywhere. This year the stallion’s offspring have won 22 stakes and earned in the vicinity of $10 million. On Aug. 17, Ramsey won the Arlington Million with Real Solution (a son of Kitten’s Joy and a mare who had been claimed for $25,000); the $500,000 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington; and, within the same hour, the $600,000 Sword Dancer Handicap at Saratoga.
Such success seems like a mystery, even to pedigree experts. Why has Kitten’s Joy sired so many good runners? Brown, who has trained a number of them, made this observation: “To be a top racehorse, you have to be physically gifted, but it also takes an incredible mental constitution. You have to be focused to train every day. One after another, the Kitten’s Joys carry that trait. They’re tough-minded horses. They never get sour. They can’t wait to train, and they drag their riders to get to the track.”
Whatever the explanation, once-skeptical people in the breeding industry can no longer be dismissive of Kitten’s Joy. Even with his stud fee likely to rise to $100,000 next year, breeders will be mating high-class mares to him, which will almost insure the stallion of even greater success. The demand will be further proof that Ramsey was right about Kitten’s Joy and the conventional wisdom was wrong.
For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.