Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
It is indeed an extraordinary path that leads from a childhood home in Artemis, Ky., that lacked indoor plumbing to being hosted by the Queen of England for high tea. And yet that is the uncommon road traveled by award-winning owner and breeder Ken Ramsey.
“That just don’t happen except through horses,” said Ramsey, with an accent that speaks to his roots. “It kind of levels the playing field is what I’m trying to say.”
Ramsey and his wife, Sarah Kathern, also from Artemis and the daughter of a coal miner, have possessed a golden touch for decades. They formed a nearly unbeatable tandem as Ramsey succeeded in trucking, real estate and the cellular telephone business before the couple ultimately emerged as the winningest owners in Kentucky history.
The Ramseys are four-time winners of the Eclipse Award as the leading owners in North America (2004, 2011, 2013, 2014) and two-time Eclipse honorees as leading breeders (2013, 2014).
“I’ve got what I call a winning culture,” said Ramsey, 85. “I’m used to winning and if I don’t win or come out pretty close to the top, I sit down and try to figure out why I failed and if there were any mistakes I made that I can learn from.”
Jeff Ramsey describes his father as a driven man.
“Whether he was selling greeting cards in Artemis, Ky., a newspaper route, or serving in the Navy, he always wanted to succeed,” his son said.
Ramsey’s start in the game was inauspicious, to say the least. He claimed Red Redeemer for $1,500 in 1969 only to have his excitement vanish when they got the horse back to the barn. Turns out Red Redeemer was blind in one eye. He never won again.
The Ramseys worked all the harder. They built his cellular business to great heights before selling it for an estimated $39 million in 1994. That allowed them to purchase historic Almahurst Farm the same year. They put their own stamp on it by renaming it Ramsey Farm.
Unlike many sportsmen who specialize in a particular element of the game, Ramsey delights in every aspect. He breeds horses, buys and sells at auction, claims them and gambles on them.
“You won’t find anybody with a stronger love of the game. His desire to win is unparalleled,” said Mark Partridge, Ramsey’s farm manager for the last 25 years. “I think what makes it such a success is that we both like to win and we get along so well.”
Ramsey is a man of conviction. When Kitten’s First broke her hip and a veterinarian thought it best to euthanize her, Ramsey was convinced she could be saved and he was right. That decision proved to be monumental when Kitten’s First delivered Kitten’s Joy, who developed into a turf star with great stamina.
Other breeders turned their backs on Kitten’s Joy, believing there was not much of a market for grass horses that wanted to run longer distances. Ramsey decided to stand the horse himself, even if that meant painstakingly building his own broodmare band with many of them coming from the claiming ranks. Now, as Ramsey likes to say, there are kittens everywhere.
Stephanie’s Kitten gave the Ramseys two Breeders’ Cup victories, in the Juvenile Fillies Turf (2011) and the Filly and Mare Turf (2015). Bobby’s Kitten dashed home first in the Turf Sprint (2014). Furthest Land, a former claimer, got them on the board in the Dirt Mile in 2009. They consider their greatest triumph to be with Roses in May in the Dubai World Cup in 2005.
Ramsey is far from content, and despite downsizing his operation in recent years, remains headlong pursuit of victories in the Kentucky Derby and at Royal Ascot in England.
“If I could get a Derby winner,” he said in 2016, “I would probably put that on my tombstone.”
- Ramsey graduated from the University of Kentucky with the help of the GI Bill.
- The Ramseys swept three prestigious races – the Arlington Million and Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park and the Sword Dancer at Saratoga – in the span of approximately one hour on Aug. 17, 2013.
- The Ramseys were leading owners at Churchill Downs for nine consecutive meets from the spring of 2000 until the spring of 2004.
- Their grandson, Nolan, works as assistant to well-regarded trainer Mike Maker.
- Ken served on the Board of Trustees at Union College in Barboursville, Ky.