Native Dancer: The Nearly Perfect Grey Ghost of Sagamore
Industry leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, professes a truly worldwide reach in his Thoroughbred racing and breeding operations. His Godolphin Stables campaigns some of the most successful racehorses in competition, many of them homebreds sired by his stallion band, which are dispersed in six countries. Although his breeding headquarters is in Dalham Hall Stud in Newmarket, England, many of his most successful racehorses in the U.S. trace their bloodlines to Sheikh Mohammed’s stallions at Jonabell Farm in Lexington.
Officially named Godolphin at Jonabell Farm, the bucolic farm is nestled in western Fayette County close to Blue Grass Airport and Keeneland. Currently, it houses 11 stallions, marketed as Darley stallions after the Darley Arabian, one of the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed. (Godolphin Stables is named after another foundation sire, the Godolphin Arabian; the operation’s breeding division was named Darley until Sheikh Mohammed merged his breeding and racing operations in 2016).
Jonabell was founded in 1946 by the late owner and breeder John A. Bell III, a pivotal figure in the Thoroughbred industry who died in 2007. Bell opened the farm at its current location in 1954, and it was purchased by Sheikh Mohammed in 2001.
Godolphin at Jonabell's staff is led by Jimmy Bell, son of John A. Bell III. Many of the younger team members, in Kentucky and around the world, started working for the operation as members of the Flying Start program, a two-year immersive educational and training course designed to produce the next generation of leaders in the horse business.
The Kentucky stallion roster is one of the best in the world, mixing established sires with promising newcomers. Medaglia d’Oro leads the group and ranked fourth on the 2017 general sire list for North America with runners such as Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winter book favorite Bolt d’Oro. Other veteran sires include 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini. Nyquist, the 2016 Kentucky Derby winner, and multiple Grade 1 winner Frosted, a Godolphin homebred, headline the younger stallions.
“Nyquist and Frosted are having their first foals right now, so they’ll be having their second year at stud this year,” said Brianne Sharp, market research coordinator at Godolphin. “Medaglia d’Oro probably had his best year ever, having seven Grade 1 winners last year, so he’s obviously very popular in 2018.”
While Bolt d’Oro was bred by WinStar Farm, two other high-profile Kentucky Derby contenders are Godolphin homebreds, which would bring Sheikh Mohammed to the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May as an owner-breeder should either make the starting gate. Those horses are recent Withers Stakes winner Avery Island (by Street Sense) and 2017 graded stakes winner Enticed (by Medaglia d’Oro).
Godolphin at Jonabell conducts a 90-minute tour as part of the Horse Country experience, which may include visits to stallions depending on their availability. Sharp said that Frosted, a striking gray Thoroughbred, is probably the most popular individual horse standing at Godolphin at Jonabell right now – “From a fan perspective, he has a lot of them.”
But most Horse Country tour visitors are looking to learn about the industry and how Thoroughbreds are developed into racehorses, and Godolphin is an ideal one-stop destination for a well-rounded education.
“We basically tell them how the industry works, how the stallion business works, and we’ll tell them about Godolphin and Sheikh Mohammed,” Sharp said. “We’ll go up to the stallion barn and see the stallions and then tell everybody about each of the stallions, and then we’ll go to the breeding shed and talk about the breeding process.”
One new feature for 2018 is Godolphin’s shuttle, which holds 18 and makes transport through the farm’s grounds much easier, adding to the experience. Sharp said that using the shuttle, she and the other tour guides will now be able to drive visitors over to the broodmare barns after the stallion portion to check out mares and new foals. “It just won’t be stallions now, you’ll be able to see mares and babies, and people will love that, being able to see the foals.”
Another highlight of the tour is a visit to the gravesite of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed, the legendary racehorse whose rivalry with Alydar captivated a nation and who lived at Jonabell Farm for the last ten years of his life.
This year, Horse Country tours at Godolphin at Jonabell Farm start on the first weekend of March and last through late October/early November, held on Thursdays and Fridays in the afternoon. The farm will be participating in the second annual “Meet the NEIGHbors” opening weekend of Horse Country tours, which are free for local residents with limited capacity. To learn more and reserve tickets, click here.