By Jill Williams
Don’t be fooled by the dazzling smile. There’s a fiercely competitive nature lurking just beneath the surface. Don’t be misled by the flowing blonde locks either. An extremely sharp business mind is working overtime behind them. And, whatever you do, don’t be duped by the lack of years in the Thoroughbred industry. This is no neophyte. At 28, Kate Barton may be young, she may be beautiful, and she may be relatively new to the business, but she has jumped in with both feet and is light years ahead of where, by all rights, she should be.
She’s also ambitious.
“I can’t see the future, but what we’re doing right now is not the end goal at all,” Barton said on a gloriously sunny winter day in California. “This is not good enough.”
Exactly what Barton is doing right now is impressive by any standard. On July 31, 2017, her family closed on the 200-acre former Magali Farms and they have hit the ground running. Nestled in the bucolic valley of Santa Ynez, far from the bright lights of Los Angeles, and rechristened Barton Thoroughbreds, the farm is surrounded by wineries and vineyards at every turn. The picturesque, rolling hills are also dotted with horse farms – sport horses, Icelandic horses, Arabians, miniature horses, and, yes, Thoroughbreds. Located about 15 miles inland and just northwest of Santa Barbara, the sophisticated but laid-back area was most aptly described by President Ronald Reagan when he said, “If it’s not heaven, it’s at least in the same zip code.” His beloved ranch was famously not far from here.
“It’s God’s country; it’s beautiful,” said farm manager Kevin Dickson, who was formerly with Vessels Stallion Farm and managed the career of leading California stallion In Excess in addition to the all-time leading Quarter Horse stallion First Down Dash. “Stunning. We’re so blessed. To be honest, there’s not many other places I think I’d want to go.”
While Barton did not disclose the farm’s purchase price, rest assured there were a number of zeros in the transaction. While viticulture and tourism are the primary drivers of the economy in the immediate area, with over 70 wineries and tasting rooms in the vicinity, there are plenty of horses, too, as evidenced by the world-renowned and long-established Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center literally five minutes away from Barton Thoroughbreds.
If horses have been entrenched in Santa Ynez for decades, the Bartons are admittedly newcomers.
“I didn’t grow up really around [horses], except for my dad always dabbled,” recalled Barton, who said her father, Richard, has owned a few horses for decades. “I would occasionally go to Del Mar in the summer if I could with my dad for a race, but I didn’t know anything about it.”
Barton knows more than she lets on, but first she got a marketing degree, then went on to get her MBA. She began working for her father’s company, California Packaging, in Southern California. Richard Barton’s clever slogan for the highly successful company? “Thinking inside the box.”
“We actually just celebrated our 40th year of being incorporated,” said Barton. “My dad started it in 1978. We manufacture corrugated packaging and sell it, so we have a branch in Ontario, Calif.; we have a warehouse in Mira Loma, Calif.; and then we have a factory in Salt Lake City, Utah, where we’re actually converting paper into corrugated packaging.”
Barton’s family has a passion for the packaging business, but Barton felt there might be something more out there for her.
“It was great, but I still had a little bit of aspiration to do something else,” said Barton. “I was involved in legal things that were going on in our company and thought I wanted to go to law school, so I took the LSAT. I didn’t really study; it was just kind of on a whim.”
Barton did “fairly decent” on the test and got a few offers from law schools. As she was touring campuses, she had an epiphany.
“I went to a Barrett’s sale with [my dad] at Pomona and he was looking at yearlings,” remembered Barton. “I came in and I made a spreadsheet for him to organize and go look at the barns. I asked him why he was dog-earring [catalogue pages]. ‘You’re going to go back and forth too many times. Let’s make a list and figure out what horses you want to look at in each barn, what the stud fee of the sire is, let’s get some information so we know when we go over there.’ I remember I made that list and my mind was blown.”
That was the driver that got her into the horse business and kept her from law school.
“How can I go to the races at 2 p.m. on a Thursday to go see our horse run if I’m in law school? How can I go to Keeneland for two weeks to go to the broodmare sale when I’m studying for finals? It’s not going to work. So, I made a decision. I’m going to focus on this and see where it takes me.”
It has taken Barton to heights she had yet to imagine when she decided to pursue horses full time.
“I think it all changed once we got Champ Pegasus.”
Champ Pegasus, winner of the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship Stakes in 2010, was bought outright by the Bartons before he entered stud in 2014 at Legacy Ranch near Clements, Calif.
“We went to visit him and figure it out,” said Barton. “OK, so now we need to advertise [him]. Now we need to get mares. The game completely changed at that point.
“It’s crazy that it’s evolved from that, but I really think that was the turning point because in order to try and make a stallion, you need mares. It’s not like Kentucky where people are banging down the door to breed to your stud, so you kind of have to help a lot with it in California.”
And so Barton Thoroughbreds was born. The family consolidated their holdings at the farm, which, in only 18 months, now houses roughly 200 mares and 140 newly minted yearlings. It also employs 26 people. Champ Pegasus is one of six stallions gracing the stallion roster, joining fellow Grade 1 winners Misremembered, Dads Caps, and Atticus, as well as Grade 3 winner Tiz a Minister and stakes winner Cat Burglar.
Yes, the Bartons have jumped in with both feet. But they’ve only just begun.
“We also have a ranch in [Duchesne], Utah,” said Barton. “We’ll send mares that are in foal without babies by their side after they’re about 30-45 days [in foal]. We’ll send some up there so we can rotate pasture. We have about 500 acres there.
“There’s a lot of enjoyment for us in the breeding and foaling and raising babies. You never know which ones are going to come up and hit it big. Individual successes keep you going back for more. How do I do that again?”
But Barton is not one to get sentimental about the babies.
“I have to keep it a lot less emotional with horses,” said Barton. “I’m a little more Type A, so it’s easier for me to know this is business. I love them and I think they’re the most beautiful creatures ever, but it’s a number game and you have to make business decisions.”
Her family, under her father’s name, was honored as California Breeder of the Year by Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) in September at their annual dinner in Lexington. Where do you go when you’ve already been named TOBA’s California Breeder of the Year and you’ve yet to breed (or own) a stakes winner?
“That’s the one thing. We haven’t had the big horse yet. Obviously, there’s a lot of luck and a lot of factors that come into play. Goodness, even just to win a stakes and then a Grade 1 or whatever it is, I think it’s just little things to look forward to that keep you reaching for the stars.”
Barton, who is also still involved in her father’s packaging company, and her father aren’t the only family members now immersed in the horse business. Richard’s wife and Kate’s mother, Beth, is part of it, too.
“We’re all in this together, the three of us,” said Beth Barton. “Just the fact that we all love the horses, all love the business, and we all have a common goal. Sometimes working together all the time can get a little bit dicey, but overall it’s really good because I think we all have the same vision, the same love and interest for the horses.”
Although her husband had always owned horses, Beth was too busy raising their six children to spend much time thinking about them. As her kids grew – Kate is her youngest – and she saw their interest in the sport soar, she had an epiphany of her own: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
“I realized my husband was going to have dealings with horses for the rest of our lives,” said Beth with a laugh, “so it was either jump in and enjoy it or have him do it by himself, so I’ve jumped in and been enjoying it.
“It’s kind of our life now. Everything revolves around this.”
In addition to the breeding side of the farm, the Bartons are designing a layup facility with a Eurocizer, an entire stall equipped with an EquiVibe vibrating plate, sand pens, and turnout paddocks.
“I’ve been to so many Kentucky farms where you walk in the door and from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, you feel like this is the place your horses are meant to be,” said Kate. “I want outside clients to step in here, step into the office, be treated well, see what their horses are getting, and know this is where they want to keep their horses, or breed, or send their layups, to have it be the full experience.”
With the facility humming along and so many irons in the fire, Barton reveals which part of the horse business is her favorite.
“I actually love to sell horses. I get a kick out of it,” she said. “That’s my favorite thing. It’s so neat to see something you’ve bred and foaled out and raised do well. I love the whole process about it.”
Their biggest sales score so far has been a Strong Mandate colt out of the Henny Hughes mare Diva’s Tribute, who sold for $250,000 at the 2018 OBS April 2-year-olds in training sale. That colt, now named Policy, has since broken his maiden at Del Mar and finished second in a statebred stakes at the same track. The mare is also the dam of Spectator, a Grade 2 winner at 2 who finished second in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks in 2018 behind Midnight Bisou.
“That was the most by far that we’d ever gotten for a horse and it was really exciting,” said Barton, who bought the mare with Policy in utero for $4,700 at the 2015 Keeneland November sale. She has since produced consecutive foals by Champ Pegasus and is carrying a full sibling to Spectator for 2019.
While the resulting foal Diva’s Tribute is currently carrying promises to be commercial anywhere in the country, that isn’t always the case with California-breds. Of course, the elephant in the room is that California is an historically tough market to find fiscal success in Thoroughbred breeding. Is it even possible to sell for a profit in California?
“It’s very, very tough,” said Barton. “In terms of selecting the right sale and the right time, it’s difficult right now and I think this past year has been especially difficult for California with the uncertainty of Barrett’s. I’m hopeful for the future though. I think this next year is probably going to be a growing year with the first time that they’re doing the Fasig sale and the first time at Santa Anita, but I can’t think of a better location than to put these horses under the trainers’ noses.”
Barton and her family have been investing in mares, primarily at Keeneland’s November sale, who are in foal to Kentucky stallions. They bring the mares west to foal in California and then breed back to a California sire to take advantage of the Cal-bred incentives. Some of the mares they do eventually ship back to Kentucky to draw from the deep pool of top stallions there. They currently have plans to breed about 10 in Kentucky this year while keeping the mares with Matt Koch at his Shawhan Place. Most of the more commercial offspring they will sell, but they’re not afraid to race them if they don’t bring a fair price.
“We plan to race every year,” said Barton. “We want to race. We love racing. I think that’s one of my dad’s favorite parts.”
And while Barton admits 2018 wasn’t their best racing year, she’s seen enough in her few years in the industry to appreciate that it’s all cyclical.
“Every year it starts all over,” she said. “So, if you kind of have a slump in a year, you know you have new ones coming in. Reload and see what you have. I get as much joy to watch horses we bred and sold win as I do when we own them. If you sold a horse for decent money and they’re out winning races and you have the factory – the mare – still, I think everyone wins.”