His method wasn't madness
Big Brown's breeder did more than consider bloodlines. He turned to statistics.
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Everybody starts somewhere. This is where Big Brown started.
Monticule Farm has its owner's personality. No fence has straight lines; no pasture has a flat plain; no landscape is untouched by the dozens of varieties of transplanted trees that he grew in his own on-farm, 9,000-tree nursery. His barns are new and state-of-the-art. His operation is small; he sometimes answers his own phone.
A French chateau he is building on the property will allow his family a view of every horse and barn. His farm manager is French. His farm's name translates, from the French, into "little mountain" or "big hill," as if there is an obstacle here that needs to be climbed.
And yet Gary Knapp is originally from Minnesota, and got his doctorate from the University of Kentucky after falling for Secretariat, a woman from Texas, 18th-century French architecture, and statistics (and not necessarily in that order).
He is not a proverbial David and does not see the big hill, the Goliath, of other, more-well-known horse farms as anything but the shoulders of giants to stand on. His farm is young. His first consignment to the Keeneland sales came just eight years ago.
Just three years ago, he sold a promising yearling who may make history Saturday as the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 30 years.
To create this horse, he added an element to the time-honored practice of considering bloodlines.
Knapp likes to think that what he is doing is "taking the best practices of an established, mature industry and then doing one or two things differently." What he is doing differently is applying his education in economics and statistics.
"Big Brown," he says, "is the definition of applied statistics." Get a pencil, ladies and gentlemen. He is about to explain.
First, know that this is not something Knapp created. It's a system that was developed by a company called Equix and has been around since the early 1990s. Knapp used it and liked it so much that he bought the company in 2003.
The system involves applying sophisticated measurements of stallions and mares to develop a biomechanical efficiency score, or BME, for each horse. The BME is determined by assessments of the heart, stride, and 30 separate bones and muscle groups, as well as conformation.
It is easy, says the guy with the doctorate and the fancy computers.
So, sometime in 2004, Gary Knapp decides that Mien, a lovely mare he owns by Nureyev, needs a date. He enters her name in his database with a selection of more than a dozen potential stallions. A slew of detailed scores emerges.
The cross between Mien and Boundary, on paper, produces a foal with the most desirable phenotype, which means its collective characteristics or build.
What the breeder is optimally looking for, says Knapp, is "an even balance of power, stride and body weight." This one was "really nice, a potentially good racehorse."
The math is all explained in Equix's literature. Just know that when you do use the services, they are fee-based. Knapp also owns a similar service called Case The Race. (The Case The Race Web site,
» READ MORE: www.casetherace.com/technology
, contains all the information needed to understand the basics of the Equix system.)
Back to Big Brown. Equix's Most Likely Foal chart for a Mien-Boundary match projects the horse that will result at 30 and 48 months, which means that careful horse people might want to split the difference and see what their horse looks like at Kentucky Derby time.
It looked very promising.
But Knapp wasn't done figuring.
Knapp did what a lot of horse people do. He went back in Boundary's line and found the best runners to see how they would mix with Mien's line. There he found Northern Dancer, and, a few generations back, Damascus and Round Table. Mien shared both Damascus (1967's horse of the year) and Round Table (arguably the best turf horse ever) in her lineage.
"They might do OK together," Knapp thought.
Then he proceeded to step three. He looked at the five classic American races - the Kentucky Oaks, the three Triple Crown races, and the Coaching Club American Oaks - from 1914 to 2002, and looked for crosses with the significant female families.
Why do this? "Because 85 percent of winning horses have one or more crosses of significant female families in their first seven generations," Knapp says. (Moreover, Knapp did a study of all current stallions standing at stud for more than $25,000. He found that all except five have crosses to significant female families in the first seven generations.)
In the Mien-Boundary cross, he found what he was looking for. He found Selene, possibly the most influential broodmare of the 20th century.
He took Mien to see Boundary.
On the morning of the day the 2005 Blue Grass Stakes was run, a brown colt with all the right numbers was born on the beautiful farm out on Harp Innis Road.
"I was trying to make the best racehorse I could," Knapp says, "just like every other time I do this." He can not do it exactly this way again. Boundary has been retired because of fertility issues.
Mien will likely be in high demand, though. In her last breeding session, she stood on rose petals scattered by the Hill 'N' Dale Farm crew as the mother of a certain very fast son.
Still, Knapp says, if big-name studs come calling - and they have - but their numbers are run and come up lackadaisical, he's not taking her over just to meet the royalty.
He will stay with his system.
In the industry publication Blood Horse magazine, in a MarketWatch study done after last November's sales, a tracking of Monticule Farm's yearlings and 2-year-olds found that their performance was rated among the best of any farm, with 5.5 percent of its horses becoming Graded Stakes winners and 16.1 percent Stakes winners.
A thinking man might ask why Knapp is willing to share all this information.
"We ought to be breeding good racehorses," he says. "We are in the entertainment business. We should be putting the best racehorses we can out there."
Less than a decade ago, Knapp barely had 200 acres out on Paris Pike. Now, on a 630-acre farm where cattle recently roamed and tobacco grew, he has 21 broodmares, their foals, a crop of yearlings, some beloved polo ponies, and a nursery that holds the more than 10,000 trees he grows to plant on his land.
In Knapp's sixth year of offering a horse for sale at Keeneland, he sold Big Brown for $60,000. Hours before he won the Preakness, the horse's breeding rights were sold to Three Chimneys Farm in Midway for $50 million. Even that is looking like a bargain.
Knapp is not disappointed with his price. Big Brown was not the most impressive colt in Knapp's field at the time, the breeder says, being overshadowed by the Danzig and Deputy Minister foals.
Big Brown was worth "what Mr. Market said he was worth at the time," says Knapp, making it abundantly clear that he handed the big colt off to the right people who did the right thing and took care of him and trained him well.
Knapp has plans of his own beyond being in New York this weekend for the Belmont Stakes. He hopes to have his own stallion barn by next year. He also hopes to expand his Equix and Case The Race franchises to soon include Goose Creek Stables, an investment fund for potential thoroughbred owners.
He wants to plant more trees.
And he wants the math problem he started in 2004 to have a really good day Saturday.