Mage. It’s not a word you come across too often, though its roots are obviously entwined with those of “magus”–as in the three magi, the wise men who followed the star from the east-and indeed “magician.” It denotes one of deep learning, sometimes to an occult degree. And if the horse bearing that name (a son of Good Magic, it hardly needs adding) should happen to win the GI Kentucky Derby, then perhaps we should view the man responsible for bringing him into the world as aptly honored. Because just as “mage” describes the person rather than his profession, and a status from which retirement would be impossible, so Robert Clay has never relinquished the sorcerer’s quest that animated his younger days.
His achievements then, and the standing that he retains in the Bluegrass today, are certified by the photographs and memorabilia adorning the walls of his Lexington office. Here’s Queen Elizabeth II visiting Three Chimneys Farm; here’s George H.W. Bush posing with Seattle Slew.
Here’s the unrepeatable Allaire du Pont, who sold him his first mare when he bought 100 acres of cattle pasture and renovated the farmhouse, reducing it from six chimneys to three. And here’s Peter Burrell, his first client, who became like a second father.
Clay had put 10 stalls into a tobacco barn but they stood empty until Joe Taylor at Gainesway passed across this Englishman, Burrell, who wanted the kind of land enriched by the longtime absence of horses. “We’ll bill him $7,” Taylor said. “And we’ll pay you six per day.” Suddenly they had 10 boarders.
Even in his mid-70s, however, these evocative images can now be supplemented by others that attest to Clay’s undiminished engagement with the challenges and opportunities presented by the Thoroughbred. Having recently pulled no less a horse than Olympiad (Speightstown) out of his hat, in Mage he has meanwhile bred one of the big wise guy fancies for the Derby itself.
After selling Three Chimneys to Goncalo Torrealba, a decade ago, Clay would have been entitled to ride off into the sunset. He had cashed out a brand that he had created, from scratch, by an exceptional acuity in the stallion market. Instead, he has adapted the same dexterity to a different corner of the marketplace: the same one, in effect, where he had previously found his clients.
“I didn’t have this in mind,” Clay acknowledges of the circumstances that have compelled TDN’s visit. “But the farm had been sold and, well, I had some time on my hands–and you can’t divorce yourself from this game! So, I put a little fund together, and we started investing in colts, in hopes that we might be able to develop a stallion. Sort of the flip of what I’d always done.”
He already had good relationships with his principal investors. Everett Dobson of Cheyenne Stable had become not just a partner but a friend at Three Chimneys, while the Roth family (LNJ Foxwoods) had kept mares there and Clay has an ongoing affiliation with their advisors Jason Litt and Alex Solis II. (To be clear, there are minor variations in the composition of the partnerships involved in various dimensions of the Grandview Equine portfolio.)
But while their priority was to roll the dice on some colts, there were one or two ancillary projects: some stallion shares, for instance, and a handful of mares to service them. That was how Grandview acquired a stakes-winning, Grade II-placed daughter of Big Brown named Puca–with a maiden cover by Gun Runner, then a rookie at Clay’s old farm–for $475,000 in November, 2018.
“She was trained by Billy Mott,” Clay says. “I only found out later that he really, really liked her, and thought she had a lot of ability. We haven’t been buying many mares. I mean, this year we bought three more. We try not to overpay, and just pick around if there’s some potential in there. She had stakes quality, and she’s a lovely physical.”
They deployed Puca on a Good Magic share, and she delivered a colt who was offered for sale through Runnymede Farm at the Keeneland September Sale of 2021.
“The night before the sale, he came up with a small issue,” Clay recalls. “There was only a superficial swelling, but we were concerned and thought we’d better lower the reserve. But in the end, he brought more than we were going ask anyway.”
The $235,000 paid by New Team (for whom he proved only a fairly modest pinhook, reaching $290,000 from OGMA Investments at the Mid-Atlantic Sale) had in any case been peripheral to the main agenda of developing colts. And sure enough, from only the second yearling crop prospected by Grandview–with around 15 purchases made from each–emerged the $700,000 Speightstown colt (acquired by Solis/Litt at Keeneland in September 2019) who would become Olympiad.
“So yes, it worked out,” Clay says with a smile. “Our idea was that if these colts weren’t showing graded stakes potential, we would move them on, get them off the payroll as quickly as possible. We were playing the numbers game a bit, but I had a great buying team. We invested for two years, and then sort of let it mature. And actually, we still have two other colts left out of that group, Gilded Age (Medaglia d’Oro) and Vindictive (Uncle Mo), and both are somewhat promising this year.” (The former did well enough last year to try his luck in the GI Travers S., while the latter was beaten only a head on his graded stakes debut in the GIII Pimlico Special.)
Olympiad, of course, blossomed into the least embarrassed pursuer of Flightline (Tapit) in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic, having won his Grade I in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Earlier in the campaign he had run up a sequence of four graded stakes, and Clay has no doubt that the vexation of having to sit out the Classics was redressed by the way he meanwhile matured.
“I have to say, he was in absolutely the right hands,” he says.
“Billy Mott knew he had a lot of talent, and was very patient with him. Flightline was a monster, but you’d have to say Olympiad was the best of the rest. He was a really genuine horse and people need to go out and see him at Gainesway, he’s a lovely type.”
Having each retained a stake, Clay and his partners have been breeding mares to Olympiad and actually tried him with Puca. It may prove a blessing in disguise that she didn’t catch, however, because she switched back to Good Magic–and their son, of course, has turned out to be none other than Mage.
“He won his first race at Gulfstream pretty easily, but you never know from that,” Clay says. “He didn’t gain much experience that day, didn’t get mud in his face, but they then moved him up pretty fast. For his third race, to finish like he did, that’s pretty remarkable. The move he made into the stretch, for a minute I thought he had it.”
In the event, he had burned up too much fuel, too quickly, in the GI Florida Derby to hold off Forte (Violence). But even to be in the champion’s vicinity, having only made his debut on January 28, entitles Clay and his partners to hope that Puca could put unexpected “gravy” on the menu they had put together.
“I hope he can be competitive in the Kentucky Derby,” Clay admits. “And yes, that would be a lot of gravy! Potentially Puca could become very valuable.”
Even as it stands, she has the 4-year-old Gun Runner filly she was carrying when purchased, who has won both her starts in allowances at Oaklawn this year.
One way or another, then, it looks as though Clay is going to have to keep adding to the photos on that office wall. It’s quite remarkable, at this stage of his career, to be elaborating a personal legacy that resonates whenever he opens a catalogue and sees some of the names seeding second and third generations: Seattle Slew, Dynaformer, Rahy. Yet putting Three Chimneys on the map had required real audacity.
“Everybody gets a big break in life, and mine was Slew o’ Gold,” he reflects. “I didn’t have any stallions at the time I wrote this letter to Mickey Taylor and Jim Hill. I told them I wanted to create a unique, boutique stallion operation. At the time, I think Gainesway had something like 45 stallions, Spendthrift maybe 42, Claiborne 23. Those were your G.M., Chrysler, Ford operations. And I said only wanted six, I wanted to compete with quality. Nobody else at the time was doing that.”
Clay was on a vacation with Bud Greeley in Spain, en route to the Arc, when Taylor rang from Washington State at 3 a.m. local time.
“We got your letter,” he said. “We’ve talked about it, we’ve checked you out. We want $14 million.”
Clay asked for a little time, knocked Greeley’s door, and they sat there turning over the numbers for a couple of hours. Clay didn’t even have a stallion barn, while his own net worth barely ran to six figures.
“But I was young,” he recalls. “So, I came home and, on the Monday, took a lawyer to New York, and we did this $14 million deal–for which I gave a down payment of $20! And I was able to syndicate him in about 48 hours. Yes, I took a big risk. But it worked out beautifully.”
Slew o’ Gold didn’t have a lasting impact at stud but had no fewer than five Grade I winners from his first crop, such was the quality of investment the young impresario had secured. So it was that the following summer, walking down the boxes at Saratoga, Clay was stopped by Taylor.
“Would you be interested in standing in Seattle Slew?”
“What do you mean?!” replied Clay. “I’d go home and bed down a stall tonight.”
Seattle Slew had been a notoriously difficult breeder, but they had worked out a modus operandi at Spendthrift–from where he was accompanied by his groom Tom Wade.
“He walked the horse onto the truck, and was told, ‘If you stay on that truck, you don’t have a job,’” says Clay. “So, the first thing he said to me when he put the horse in the stall was: ‘I’m looking for a job.’ And he was there with Seattle Slew until the day he died, really.”
Having seen Seattle Slew in action (for want of a better word) in the breeding shed, Clay put him in a stall adjacent to the teasing shed.
“So, he was able to listen to all of that,” Clay recalls. “And I promise you, when he walked out of his stall, from that point forward, he was never a shy breeder. I attribute it to a change of scenery, the new surroundings, and being able to hear, see and smell all that.”
A daring approach having reaped such dividends on Slew o’ Gold, Clay again gambled big when buying into Chief’s Crown after he won the GI Hopeful S. The horse was to be syndicated before the Breeders’ Cup and Clay found himself with 20 shares to process.
“The Juvenile was the very first race at the first Breeders’ Cup,” Clay recalls. “And I said to my wife, ‘We really need to win this race.’ I didn’t tell her I’d only sold 17 of the 20 shares! After he won, I sold those other three within an hour. So, we had Seattle Slew, Slew o’ Gold and a champion 2-year-old, and it had all happened in a 24-month period.”
But others soon began to emulate the Clay model. The industrial approach had taken the foal crop past 50,000 and that kind of market couldn’t absorb economic shocks. Moreover, while modestly at pains not to take credit for what should be standard, Clay acknowledges that “the market was just hungry for integrity.”
“I think we had a competitive advantage, being boutique,” Clay reflects. “That part of our pitch appealed to people. It’s like sending your kid to boarding school, you want to know who the headmaster is, what their philosophy is. So, 10 years later, everybody was boutique. Rather than having three competitors, I probably had eight.
“But everything about the market has changed. If you want to buy a horse today, you’ve really got to compete. And you don’t have 40-share syndicates any more, because there’s no exclusivity to these 200-mare books. Some horses, maybe Mr. Prospector, maybe Danzig, we probably wouldn’t have heard of in this environment. That’s sort of scary. Dynaformer, look at the impact he’s had on the breed. Rahy was a little horse, not very impressive. But the Maktoums sent him 20 to 25 mares a year. That’s a really big support system.
“But in the end these stallion farms are like sports franchises. If you’ve got Michael Jordan, your franchise is here.” He raises a hand high. “Michael Jordan retires, or Seattle Slew dies, your franchise is here.” The hand drops way down. “You’ve got to find another one. And there’s never any guarantee on that.”
The one and only guarantee was the fidelity of cherished clients: people like John Mabee, or Tim Rogers who bought his first commercial foal. Rogers, rather unexpectedly, then took up an invitation to stay during the Keeneland sales, and before he went home, they had partnered on a 200-acre farm. Clay partnered Rogers and then his widow Sonia for over 30 years with “never one cross word,” in the meantime taking on the King Ranch Farm together.
“So, we had these partnerships and friendships that have gone on for forever,” Clay reflects. “And you never have to worry about the trust factor.”
Much else has changed, however. Clay is dismayed by the loss of diversity in the gene pool; and the way that even the best stallions can’t lock in the quality assured when Seattle Slew, in his first year at Three Chimneys, covered 46 mares. He sympathizes, however, with the farms that have to pay for their stallions so quickly, with modern commercial breeders fleeing nervously from one freshman to the next. He’s also convinced of the physical corrosion invited by the shuttling of sires.
Yet Clay has adapted to the modern environment sufficiently to produce Olympiad, himself evidently covering a bumper first book; and now he has the dam of a Derby colt. So, his legacy, already considerable, continues to evolve.
“Listen, you don’t bank on anything, because I’ve seen so many of them go the wrong way,” he says. “But Olympiad, he’s got a license. As for Puca, that was pretty fortuitous. We bred her to Good Magic because we had the shares, and all of a sudden, she’s got a nice Derby prospect. So, while we had a great run at Three Chimneys, this is lots of fun too. We’ve got some dry powder, because of Olympiad, so we’re looking for new opportunities wherever they may come. It makes you wish you were 20 again.”
His features light up: no longer 20, perhaps, but full of enthusiasm.
“It was nearly February when that colt ran his first race,” he says with a smile. “We had no idea then. Now, who knows?”