This interview with Wes Lanter took place in January, 2011.
Wes Lanter is one of the best known stallion managers in Thoroughbred History. We appreciated his taking the time to discuss some of the mighty giants that he worked with throughout his long and celebrated career.
JT: Wes, breeding horses, particularly Thoroughbreds must be a grand adventure. Can you name a couple of your most notable adventures in breeding?
Wes: With the exception of a couple of years when I was first employed at the Horse Park, I was in breeding sheds from 1984 until 2009, so I saw many thousands of mares come through the door. Honestly, the vast majority of those breeding sessions were quite uneventful. Mare came in, mare was bred, mare went home. Over the years, I saw a few mare explosions, but a couple stood out. I remember a mare named Add Mint going to Dynaformer. She kept walking forward and I shortened my grip on the twitch to try and stop her from moving when she grabbed my index finger below the second knuckle. She held on until the cover was completed. I feel lucky to still have the digit. Atticus once received a kick to the worst possible place, but after a couple of weeks of recuperation he went back to work. I remember Fiji being completely unmanageable. Not mean, just hard to handle. For some reason mares from France were always tough. Really, it was such an honor to see some of the great mares come through the sheds.…Lady's Secret, Winning Colors, Serenas Song, Miesque…too many greats to name.JT: Looking at the history of Thoroughbred Horse Racing it has always been a rich man’s business, but today it seems to be more of a billionaire breeders business. How difficult is it for the average man or woman to get into horse breeding?
Wes: I know it is called the Sport of Kings, and there are many super wealthy folks involved, but really the backbone of the industry is the ham and egger. The men and women who work hard seven days a week, teasing mares at four in the morning, breaking ice out of buckets on Christmas morning, giving a foal an enema when it’s ten below zero…these are the folks I think that the industry as a whole has failed to put a face on. They are dreamers who hope that some day to have bred that elusive Grade One winner, but for now hope to make the payroll, and pay the blacksmith, and maybe get lucky to make tomorrow nights PTA meeting, unless they need to take a mare to the shed. As far as getting into it, anyone with the start-up money or a line of credit can, but go in knowing how hard it will be. I don’t want to paint a bleak picture, but I'm just being honest. I have had a wonderful time and met multitudes of wonderful people, but I don’t know anything that can get you so high and then drop you on your head so quickly. Just know that going in.
JT: Any favorite idiosyncrasies from some of the stallions you have worked with?
Wes: Golden Act and Slew O Gold would stick their tongues out when you snapped your fingers in front of their mouths. Slew O Gold preferred grey mares. When Capote ate he crossed his hind legs. Rahy was a noisy dreamer when he got in his stall. When it was hot out Wild Again would keep the tip of his nose dipped in his water bucket. Grindstone would NOT keep a halter on in his paddock. Tabasco Cat liked to fold his tongue over and hold it in his teeth…weird.JT: Being in a breeding shed is not exactly romantic, but any stories of horses loving other horses? Any intimate gestures between some of the horses?
Wes: The closest I think we would come to anything like that was with Raise A Native. Once he was finished he would lay his head up by the mares until he slipped off. The old timers at Spendthrift would joke “kiss her Red, give her a kiss.” Mostly though, pretty much just what it would seem like.
JT: You obviously must have a deep bond for the horses. Do you have an all-time favorite that you worked with?
Wes: I have been around so many, but a couple stand out. Chiefs Crown was such a wonderful race horse and gritty competitor. He had an air about him, and he didn’t just let everybody in his circle of friends. I took him to Australia in 1995 and it got to where he really looked for me to be there for him. When Wild Again came to Three Chimneys from Calumet, the grooms at TCF harbored some ill will…half heatedly… because of the controversial finish with TCF stallion Slew O Gold in the 1984 Breeders Cup Classic. None of the boys wanted him, so I took him to groom and he was a joy. Seattle Slew and Storm Cat have their own places for me, and they were both quite special to me as well.
Wes: Depends on where I was, and it depends on the individuals needs, but usually a sweet feed mix, 14% protein, and all the hay they want. They sleep off and on for several hours a day. I think mostly they are happy, as the stallions seem to always get a lot of attention. Good stallion grooms are very observant without being obtrusive, and there will be a relationship that develops over time. They truly become friends. I am a big believer in letting them be horses as much as possible. There would be times when they needed to be up and flashy, but I know they would usually prefer to be out with two inches of mud plastered to them...weather permitting.JT: What does a stud like to eat? How much does he sleep? What do they do for fun? Do they get bored? What do they do all day besides their two rounds in the breeding shed?
JT: Do they get to run, gallop, trot?
Wes: When they are turned out they can do what they want…usually that involves grazing, but you would see them sometimes stretch their legs and maybe have a race up a fenceline…but again, mostly grazing. At Three Chimneys, the stallions were ridden six days a week, weather permitting, and mostly they enjoyed it. It was a great program that gave you another option in their health management, and a way for them to blow off some steam. When Capote came over from Calumet , well, I’ll just say he had some issues, and mostly always did, but he loved being ridden at the farm. You had to be careful and not let him get too fit on you…best thing ever happened to him.
JT: Have you ridden one of the giants?
Wes: Hmm… one, maybe two.
JT: In Thoroughbred breeding their must be a real act unlike for other horse breeds? Why is that?Wes: Those are the rules of the Thoroughbred Jockey Club. Reproduction to produce a registerable thoroughbred must be achieved by natural cover. It goes towards maintaining the integrity of the breed and to have some control to hopefully prevent overproduction…I feel maybe the horse is out of the barn on the second part, though.JT: Do you think the champions know when they are retired from stud work? At that point, is there day just about lounging around in their pastures and stalls?
Wes: Sure they know. They get into that routine of going down to their favorite barn one, two maybe three times a day then it ends…forever. Yes, they know. The decision to retire Storm Cat was made in May 2008. He had bred most of the year with little success, and then it was over. Now he was a horse who loved his work and I worried how he would handle it. Like everything else he did, he was professional, never turned a hair. Maybe his age told him it was time, but he was never a problem. And yes, their days get pretty relaxing after that.JT: Who was the smartest horse you ever worked with?
Wes: That’s tough. “Smarts” in a horse are measured on a different scale to me I guess. Maybe it’s how perceptive or aware really, and many of the horses I have come across are very aware of their routine, and notice if it changes.They seem to notice everything. I think Storm Cat had a wristwatch, because he wanted to come inside in the winter at two o clock…don’t leave him out until three, he would get mad. I have no idea how he knew, but he did. They know when someone new is around and many will test the new person to see if they can handle it. There is one champion and fan favorite I had who really stands out to me who was kind of slow on the drop, but I shall let him go nameless so as not to disappoint his fans.JT: Did you ever have a chance to meet any of the stud and racing giants? Round Table, Bold Ruler, Mr. Prospector , Northern Dancer?
Wes: I saw Round Table and Mr. Prospector. One of the disappointments in my life is that I never got to see Northern Dancer.
JT: Tell us a bit about the mighty Storm Cat? Did Storm Cat really have a 24 hour armed guard?
Wes: Storm Cat is a dark bay son of Storm Bird out of the wonderful Secretariat mare Terlingua. He was a very talented Grade 1 winner who missed winning the Breeders Cup Juvenile, and thus champion two year old honors… by the slimmest of noses to Tasso. I first met him in January of 2000. He was already a star at the time, and I was just happy to walk in his light, you know? First time I ever put a shank on him he tried me to see if I knew anything, and when he saw I did, he stopped and we were okay from then on. Now that’s not to say we didn’t have our moments, but I think this reputation that Storm Cat has of being some savage beast is highly overstated. He is not a mean horse…he is a very energetic horse, and you just hoped he didn’t hurt himself from feeling so good. For a period of a few years he did have a 24 hour guard…never armed…that kept an eye on him. We…me and my grooms…always kept an eye on him and of course I lived on the farm and was always available to be there for him. He has been retired since 2008. Storm Cat is 28 years old now, and though his back is a bit swayed and his knees a bit arthritic, he feels well and looks very good. He will always be one my favorites.
JT: Northern Dancer was the paternal grandsire and Secretariat was the material grandsire of Storm Cat. Not bad genes.
Wes: Not bad at all. Secretariat has proven overtime to be a great broodmare sire of special stallions…AP Indy and of course Storm Cat leading the way there.
JT: I know you joined the Kentucky Horse Park after the death of John Henry. What an amazing horse? I was there a few years back and he was a bit ornery. Any thoughts on him?Wes: Actually, my first stint at the Horse Park started in August of 1986. I went to Santa Anita in October and the original intent was to spend a few days with John and learn about him then bring him back to the Park. When I got there, Mr McAnally informed me that plans had been made for John to be at The Meadowlands for their tenth anniversary celebration, and wanted to know if I could ride along and help Jose Mercado with the horse and to keep him informed of what was going on in New Jersey. The Horse Park was fine with that, so a five day trip became a three week adventure. John was obviously one of the greatest horses ever to look through a bridle and to be in his presence was an honor. If there is one common thread I have noticed in some of the great horses it is their presence… they just know they are special, and maybe it was that attitude that maybe helped them overcome any shortcomings they may have had say genetically, or conformationally, but that determination and drive to prove they were best helped make them so. John certainly had that. I was with him until the end of 1988, when I went back to Spendthrift Farm to get back to making more horses. I never lost touch with him and would come see him periodically throughout his life. He could be an ornery horse…he loved to step on toes when he was sneaky enough, and a bite or attempt at a bite was never out of the question, but you just wrote it off to John being John and went on with it.JT: Do you have favorite moments in thoroughbred racing’s history?
Wes: Well, I was always a huge Shoemaker fan, so him winning the Derby on Ferdinand at the age of 54 stands out. I was fortunate enough to be in the Turf Club at Hollywood Park when he nosed out Alysheba for the win in the Breeders Cup Classic in 1987. That is the greatest race I have personally witnessed. Personal Ensign defeating Winning Colors at Churchill in her final triumph, Sunday Silence and Easy Goers Preakness, Slew and Exceller in the Gold Cup, Slew O Gold and Wild Again in the Classic…so many great memories…JT: Who were the best race horses in your opinion?
Wes: Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Forego, John Henry, Cigar, Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, Slew O Gold, Ruffian, Personal Ensign, Waya, Bold n Determined, Genuine Risk, Chiefs Crown… I am realizing as I look at this I seem so old school, but in my heart, this group was so special… I just don’t get the same knocked on my heels feeling from whats about these days. Ok, Zenyatta, Curlin, Skip Away, Bernardini,Azeri…all pretty special…JT: You worked with Seattle Slew. Truly one of the giants in the history of the sport. Queen Elizabeth II even wanted to be in his presence. What was that experience like?Wes: I started with Slew when I was 19, in 1983. When I came on as a stallion groom at Spendthrift, my first job was as a swing groom…when a guy got his day off, I would cover their four horses so they could have a day off. Slew fell into my lot on Saturdays because that was Tom Wades day. To say I was awestruck would be a vast understatement. Slew was a giant to me…still is. In all honesty, he changed my life. He was very aware of who he was. His eyes had a depth, a knowing…unlike I have ever seen before or since. He left Spendthrift in 1985 because of some issues between Spendthrift and the Taylors and Hills…never thought I would see him again.
In March of 1990, Tom Wade gave me a call. I was back working as a stallion man at Spendthrift, and Tom and Slew were in their fifth year at Three Chimneys Farm. Tom was having a hard time getting a day off or a vacation because no one really wanted to deal with Slew when he was gone. I knew the horse, Spendthrift at the time, while not broke was certainly badly bent, so it seemed like an upward move. TCF was up and coming with aggressive management and a vision. Within a year and a half I was stallion manager and life changed forever. Slew loved the riding done at TCF. He would tuck that chin down on his chest and get into the bit and train. It extended his life and mad his life better.I will never forget the day of the twentieth anniversary of his Derby win when Angel Cordero came to gallop him. That was very special. Slew did have his mean moments too. Not every day, and he was usually kind enough to warn you off when he had a bad day. He got me good once, knocking a molar out, and he got others once or twice, but I have been around worse. Leaving Slew in 2000 was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I will never forget him.JT: Slew ended up needing emergency spinal fushion surgery near the end of his life. Why was that done?
Wes: He was having issues with I believe spinal alignment that was causing some neurological deficits that caused uncoordination and unsteadiness. This happened after I had left, so I didn’t really observe much of this part of his life.JT: Slew’s greatest son is A.P. Indy. Did you ever encounter him?
Wes: I have been around AP Indy many times. Eddie Delahoussaye came to the barn the week before the Derby and we asked him how the horse was…did he have a shot. Eddie D. replied “I’m just wondering what I am gonna do with all my Triple Crown money”. Unfortunately it was not to be. There was never a horse I coveted so, but you knew with the connections he would end up at Lanes End, and as always they have done a fantastic job with him.JT: Tell us about Affirmed and Alydar
JT: I love Cigar. I saw him race and it is still a fond memory. On July 13, 1996, he raced at Arlington Racetrack in the Chicago area and at the conclusion of the race fans stood and cheered for 20 minutes. It has to be one of the most memorable days in the history of racing. He seemed sad to me. Am I crazy for thinking that? I just remember looking at photos and thinking he looked sad.Wes: Affirmed and Alydar had the greatest rivalry in sports in the latter half of the 20th century. Two majestic chestnuts. Affirmed wasn’t a notable stud, but Alydar was. A rivalry none of us will never forget. Alydar certainly bested Affirmed in the shed, something he could rarely do on the track, but Affirmed quietly proved himself to be an important stallion as well. He sired over 80 stakes winners with 9 champions and earnings of over 44 million through 2004. They include Charlie Barley, the great Flawlessly, Canadian Triple Crown Winner Peteski, and The Tin Man. Oddly his greatest progeny saw success on the turf, a surface Affirmed never tried. Affirmed was a joy. He never had a bad day and was handsome to a fault. He was a professional stallion, but was never overbearing or any trouble. He was perfect.
Wes: He had every reason to be happy, because he won that day. I don't know what was on his mind that day. I remember there was a fantastic crowd at Arlington park that day.
JT: Cigar is the richest resident at the KHP, but he wasn’t successful at stud. Cigar became the first American racehorse in top-class competition to win 16 consecutive races since Triple Crown winner, Citation did so in 1948 and 1950. He retired as the leading money earner in Thoroughbred racing history and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Do you think he ever gets how special he is?
Wes: He never really got a chance at stud, as he never produced a live foal because he is sterile. Yes, I do believe he has a great sense of who he is and I think I may have mentioned before that I think all of the special horses, the great competitors…whether thoroughbred, standardbred, hunter-jumper…the ones who excel have a presence, an air that puts them above all others, and think that attitude contributes greatly to their success.JT: Cigar rarely broke a sweat and he often carried 130 pounds. Any comments on his abilities?
Wes: Certainly one of the greatest we have been honored to watch. 16 wins in a row is an amazing accomplishment and a lofty place few have seen. The switch back to the main track was certainly the right move. He didn’t have to carry his track with him…he traveled and won in most places he went. One of the best ever, and to carry 130 pounds any time in this day and age adds to the accomplishment.JT: Cigar was named Racehorse of the Decade of the 1990s and he was ranked #18 in the Blood Horse ranking of the top 100 U.S. Thoroughbred Champions of the 20th century. Give the giant a hug from all of us who love him.
Wes: I’ll give him a hearty pat…it’s safer.JT: Funny Cide resides at the KHP. His story is a genuine fairy tale. I’m glad he’s there. I was disappointed when they kept him running past his willingness to run.
Wes: Well, I am not sure about his willingness. I know the folks at Sackatoga and Mr Tagg and Robin Smullens always had the best in mind for their champion, and would never willingly do anything to compromise any part of him or his legacy. They knew him better than anyone, as they were there with him every day training him, so I will rely in my faith in their judgment.JT: Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2003 and was honored as U.S. Champion 3 Year Old Male in 2003. What is he like to be around?
Wes: He is a horse you never let your guard down on…actually a good practice with any of them. Funny Cide isn’t a mean horse but sometimes he will take what you give him, so you just don’t give him the chances. He is a handsome chestnut, he has a big personality and one of my favorites.JT: Any visits from Jose Santos?
Wes: Not since I have been here…since February 2010.
JT: Funny Cide’s time in the Kentucky Derby is the 10th fastest time in history at 2:01.19. Does he ever get to run around at KHP?
Wes: Well, weather permitting, he gets plenty of time out and he does get a run in when he feels so moved.JT: How is his health? I know he suffered from some respiratory and back problems at the ages of four and five, respectively? (I will put in his URL www.funnycide.com)
Wes: He is doing well. His weight is good, he feels good and we are happy with how he is doing.JT: At six, DA Hoss won the Breeder’s Cup Mile. He suffered from foot problems. How is it now?
Wes: Da Hoss is doing great. He still has a number of fans who visit regularly, and he is a pleasure to be around. Never a problem.Wes: His feet are great. He is currently barefoot and sound as a pound.JT: always remember Tom Durkin saying in the 1998 Breeder’s Cup (his second Breeder’s Cup win) “Oh my, this is the greatest comeback since Lazarus. He’s not raced in two years.” Many sportswriters still consider it to be the biggest comeback of all time. How is the champ doing?
JT: I assume they all enjoy their life in the pasture?
Wes: They are in a bit more now because of the season but they all get out every day, and they all enjoy their paddock time.JT: Any interesting visitors?
Wes: Well, we get thousands every year. Madeline Paulson Pickens and Michael Paulson have both been out with in the year to say hello to Cigar. Of course WEG brought in a number of interesting equines and their humans, so there is never a dull moment at the Horse Park in that respect.JT: The sport needs stars. Obviously, Zenyatta proved popular, but now she’s retired. Any comments about improving the sport?
Wes: Right now it is winter and cold out, so they spend the evenings in their stalls out of the wind and cold. They have their hay and water and a nice straw bed to keep them comfortable during the night, and they are clothed in a nice warm blanket. They go out during the days for sunshine and exercise, and this time of year we have one stallside presentation for patrons. As spring comes, the horses will get into their paddocks in the nights, unless there is a threat of storms, and they will enjoy the new grass and time out to just be horses. In the mornings they will be brought into their stalls where they will be groomed or maybe bathed if needed in preparation for the Hall of Champions presentations. In between presentations, their water will be freshened, piles removed and hay replenished as needed. At the end of the day they will get their dinner and go out into their individual paddocks for another round of grazing on Kentucky's famous bluegrass…not a bad life…Wes: Gosh that is a tough one that better minds than mine have been pondering on for some time. In the end the sport is driven by gambling, and with the current economic challenges we face, competition for the gaming dollar is fierce. You get hit with so many charges when you get to the track…parking, admission, program…you are twenty bucks in before you see a window. Be more fan friendly. Casinos don’t hit you with all that…that money ends up on a table somewhere being gamed on. Show the public they have some control, not just a roll of the dice. Lighten the facilities up…some of the tracks and betting facilities aren’t real friendly aesthetically. Make personalities out of the trainers and jockeys…they stay around longer than the horses. Merchandise the sport…sell silks jackets like NASCAR does with race teams so a fan can support their “team”.. .then pray for another Zenyatta or a great gelding to stay around a while.JT: Please tell us a bit about the day to day life of Be A Bono, Staying Together, Western Dreamer and Mr. Muscleman.
JT: What is your day to day at the Kentucky Horse Park ?
Wes: It varies depending on the season. Right now I come in about seven and feed the Hall of Champions and check on the guys. After they eat I turn them out into their paddocks. Right now they are on a winter schedule, so they are up nights and out days. As spring arrives they will go out nights…weather permitting…and come in days to be groomed and to be presented to their fans during the show season. After they go out, I will help clean a stall or two, then go out and confer with our blacksmith, John Veague, and discuss his upcoming day. I will also take a ride around to see if everyone is in and offer help where needed. There is a lot of time spent with visitors, answering questions and discussing the horses. I am also becoming more involved with the educational aspects here at the Park, and I hope I am able to pass on some of my experience to folks who wish to learn about horses. I love being here at the Park. I've learned that horses don’t just run around fast on sandy ovals…they are amazing athletes and performers, and I gain a new appreciation for them every day.Read On Read Now