They had raised him-and now they were raising the roof. “I think he’s number 12,” Codee Guffey was saying. “I think that’s him?!” If he wasn’t sure, if in fact he was nearly incredulous, it was not because he had got the number or the silks wrong. Of course he knew the horse perfectly well, muddied as he was, with that white patch on his forehead. It was just that Raise Cain (Violence) was suddenly putting it all together in pretty unrecognizable fashion, relative to five previous starts that had made him 23-1 for the GIII Gotham S.
“He was on that rail, at the turn there, but then bounced outside and got to the center of the track,” Guffey recalls. “And from there, well, he just put on a show.”
Sure, the placed horses had also been way off the early pace. But Raise Cain left them for dead, too, checked in his run before bursting seven and a half lengths clear. And whatever he does from here, Guffey and the rest of his family are ecstatic to have produced a GI Kentucky Derby contender within a decade of founding Rock Ridge Farm as complete outsiders to the industry.
“We’re all over the moon,” Guffey confirms. “We can hardly believe that we raised a colt that’s currently sitting fifth on the Derby leaderboard. We’ve had others that we thought might bring us that recognition, but you get used to your hopes getting let down. At some point you kind of become numb to it, it’s just racing, you can’t assume or guarantee anything.
“Raise Cain hadn’t run a bad race yet: some better than others, but he’d shown the potential to run respectably. But to see him run a monster race like that was a total surprise, and had us all just extremely proud to even be associated with him. And we’re very, very hopeful he’ll go on from here.”
Raise Cain is out of Lemon Belle (Lemon Drop Kid), acquired for $285,000 as an 8-year-old at the 2018 Keeneland November Sale. She had won only a sprint maiden in a light career but was a half-sister to GI Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Unrivaled Belle (Unbridled’s Song), whose daughter Unique Bella (Tapit) had recently rounded off her career with a third Grade I win. And, crucially as things have turned out, Lemon Belle was carrying a foal by Violence.
When she delivered an outstanding colt, it was quickly decided that she should return to Hill ‘n’ Dale for a repeat cover. After all, Rock Ridge had already had a good experience with Violence, having bought a mare carrying a filly from his debut crop that made $235,000 as a yearling.
“Typically, we don’t keep colts,” Guffey says. “But Lemon Belle’s first Violence colt was such a super physical that we certainly tossed that idea around. We did end up selling him, at the Keeneland September Sale for $125,000. Unfortunately Violence didn’t really have a lot going for him at that time, but Kip Elser spun him around as a 2-year-old and Spendthrift bought him for $550,000. They named him Nasty Habit, Bob Baffert had him for a while, and I think he bounced around to a couple different trainers without making a start. But I did see he’s now back on the work tab [breezed at Payson Park Sunday].”
It would be a bonus if that colt can repay such perseverance, but the stakes have now been raised for the dam regardless.
“So then she had this second Violence colt,” Guffey says. “And he was just like his brother, a beautiful yearling-which Violence will get you. Though he follows the mare, too, in that she’s extremely classy and handles everything so well. He was the same, always a good-looking, classy horse, definitely a favorite in our crop that year.”
With Violence having meanwhile renewed commercial momentum, the colt we now know as Raise Cain made $180,000 from Andrew N. Warren, again at the Keeneland September Sale, but conversely proved no kind of pinhook-returning from OBS the following June as a $65,000 RNA.
“I was disappointed when I saw he was in the 2-year-old sale, and then didn’t even get sold,” Guffey admits. “I thought maybe he had regressed. But I’m glad they hung in with him and saw it out, because they’re being rewarded now.
“I was interested to read Ben Colebrook complimenting the horse on how well he handles things. He thought he’d navigate the larger field better than he would a small one, and that didn’t surprise me at all: he was just so laidback and easy-going from day one.”
Guffey and his family find themselves well placed to profit now, having since ponied up fees for Lemon Belle to visit Constitution-their son was safely delivered just a couple of weeks ago-and Justify next.
“I was just so positive that one of her Violence colts would hit, so we rolled the dice a bit,” Guffey explains. “So you could say Raise Cain is kind of hitting just at the right time for that mare. We loved her pedigree when we bought her. She’s quite a plain Jane, she’s Lemon Drop Kid, doesn’t have a lot of chrome on her-but she’s a pretty mare. And with the strength of her family, that’s probably what interests us more than anything at this stage: trying to buy into really deep families, and to keep some fillies to build off of that.”
Unfortunately they haven’t yet got a filly out of the mare, who has now given them four colts in a row. Otherwise, however, Lemon Belle is becoming a model for the evolving strategy: keep the quantity limited, gradually increase the quality.
“When we bought the farm, I had just graduated from U.K. and my uncle just pitched the idea on our way home from Keeneland one day,” Guffey recalls. “Living in central Kentucky, we’d always enjoyed going to the races there, but when he said how about finding some Thoroughbred mares, I thought he was crazy. But we’re all very tight-knit, I worked for his company, and so I thought, ‘Well, if that’s what he wants, I’ll make it happen.’”
The land had to be good, out there on Grassy Springs Road, if the neighbors included the likes of Pin Oak and Woodford Thoroughbreds. It had been lying idle for a while, having been part of the ill-fated ClassicStar venture, and needed some patching up.
“But we jumped in there and made repairs and improvements,” Guffey recalls. “A real labor of love, that’s for sure. And the following fall we went to the sale and started buying mares. It was a little intimidating. You’re a new buyer and everybody comes running, wanting to sell you something. But we still have a couple that we bought that first year.”
To be fair, they actually felt a degree of comfort with the whole environment, as longstanding breeders of pedigree cattle.
“This is on a much larger scale and, obviously, takes more money,” Guffey acknowledges. “But the purebred cattle, where you’re evaluating pedigrees and matings, made it easier to catch onto, I guess. Just doing your nightly research, you catch on pretty quick to what sells. And actually I’ve got registered Angus and Hereford cattle right here on the horse farm. Six months later, there may be yearlings in that same field. They coexist on our farm, and I think they complement each other.”
Guffey stresses his gratitude for the mentorship of Hunter Simms of Warrendale, who handles all their sales, and also to Dr. Jeremy Whitman of Equine Medical. But while he will always bounce ideas around with Simms, in reducing his shortlists of potential purchases or matings, ultimately Rock Ridge do everything on their own account.
“Everything takes place here on the farm,” Guffey says. “Our farm manager is Mike Bryant and since adding him to our operation, around 2016, he’s really helped move our program forward. But yes, we do everything ourselves. Hard work was bred into my family, and that’s how they raised me and my cousins as well. Work hard and put in the time, and you’ll be rewarded.”
The time, of course, itself being a type of work.
“That’s what I tell everybody,” Guffey emphasizes. “You’ve got to be patient. You buy these mares, and you’ve got to give them a couple foals to see how they’re going to produce. Well, you’re talking about eight years before you can begin to see what you’ve got. So that’s what feels good right now, to be approaching that timeline where we’re starting to see the fruits of our labor.”
In playing the long game, Rock Ridge always have a little ongoing action on the racetrack, too, sending Dallas Stewart and Helen Pitts either nicely-bred fillies bought as yearlings, or one or two homebreds that don’t get an adequate market response.
“Right now we have a nice filly named Alexa Lou, she’s by Speightstown out of a full sister to Rachel Alexandra (Medaglia d’Oro),” Guffey notes. “We bought her from Stonestreet as a yearling [$285,000 RNA] and she broke her maiden second time out at Churchill in the fall. She had to come home for a little while, had a screw put in a knee, but she’ll start back jogging [with Stewart] next couple of weeks and we’re real excited about her.”
Their biggest racetrack thrill to date was the GIII Peter Pan S. success of Promise Keeper (Constitution) a couple of years ago. He was bred on the farm but Rock Ridge were welcomed back into partnership by Woodford Thoroughbreds and WinStar. His mother Mira Alta (Curlin) now has an Essential Quality filly at foot and was only this week favored by an audience with Flightline himself.
“Now that we’ve gained a bit of confidence in what we’re doing, we’re starting to breed these mares to better stallions,” Guffey explains. “And also trying to buy better mares, which is easier said than done. Starting out, we wanted to cut our teeth a little. But we feel good about where we’re at, and confident about putting more in them.”
Casting his mind back, Guffey marvels at everything that has grown from that first, nearly throwaway remark by his uncle.
“He’s a risk-taker,” he says admiringly. “I mean, he started his construction company 40 years ago from nothing, so that was most definitely his style. He likes to throw you to the wolves and let you figure it out! So you’ve got to be willing to put in the work, and fight through the harder times and see it through. And we’ve definitely done that.”
Guffey was getting married right about the time the venture was getting underway. When he told his fiancée Hailey what his uncle was suggesting, she said: “Do you realize how hard that industry is? Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“No, I really don’t know what I’m getting into,” Guffey replied. “But we’re going to try it anyway.”
“Living our whole lives in the Lexington area, I guess you get somewhat educated in parts and pieces of it,” Guffey reflects now. “So she knew well enough that it was a very tough game. But we’ve had a lot of fun, we’ve met some great people and we love raising these foals. This is my favorite time of year, when you get to see the babies born and watch them grow. Our little girl is only three but loves when we all go to the barn together. And my uncle and aunt, and all my other family, come out on the weekends to look at the foals and it’s kind of an escape from the day job.
“So while I doubt I fully understood what my uncle was getting at, that day, I definitely don’t regret it. Like I said, it’s disappointing when horses don’t pan out quite the way that you hope. What we hope for, when we go to the sale, is that these horses will get in good hands so that they can do some of the work for us and improve the mare’s page. You can’t do it all yourself, the way those larger operations can. So when one comes along like Raise Cain, it’s surreal. When we got into it, raising horses of that quality was what we dreamed of. And knowing that they’re few and far between, we’re going to enjoy every second.”
Courtesy of The TDN