Elizabeth Caldwell has built Cane Run Farm into one of the sport’s elite nurseries
interview by Anne Doolin
Elizabeth Caldwell, a third-generation horsewoman, may not have known what career path she wanted to pursue as a youngster, but her bloodlines had a strong pull. Without even realizing it, she was in training from an early age for her future endeavors. The 42-year-old has morphed from a “horse-crazy kid” to an owner and the general manager of a top-shelf breeding and sales prep operation at Cane Run Farm, just north of Lexington, Ky. Her mother, Rikki Caldwell, and brother, Danny, aid Caldwell in running the farm. Caldwell’s grandmother was Frances Dodge Van Lennep, one of the most recognizable names in harness racing as well as in American Saddlebred circles. International sensation Propulsion is one of the many stakes winners that have been raised at Cane Run Farm, with the most legendary being Moni Maker.
HB: What is your first childhood memory involving a horse?
Caldwell: I remember watching my mom ride her show horse at the time. I remember taking riding lessons with Jimmy Robertson in a bull pen, trying to post on a Western saddle, while my mom was riding with Jim B. I remember when my parents told us they bought a farm and how excited I was. I remember going to Red Mile and the Junior League Horse Show for the races and show. Watching Nan’s Catch race left a big impression on me. And, I remember going to visit my grandfather and stepgrandmother at Castleton. I did not know my grandmother. She passed away before I was born. I knew my grandfather a little bit. He passed when I was 10. He was very formal. We were always instructed to be on our best behavior in preparation for visits. He’s the first person who shook my hand.
HB: Tell me about the family’s involvement with American Saddlebreds. Are you still involved with them?
Caldwell: My grandmother had Dodge Stables, a division of Castleton Farm. She bred and owned Wing Commander, a six-time world champion and considered one of the greatest Saddlebreds of all time, as well as a prolific and successful sire. My aunt, Judy Lavendar, showed, and so did my mother. My mother’s most famous show horse was the elegant, champion three-gaited mare Lover’s Sensation. I’ve shown Saddlebreds since I was 10 and competed in most of the divisions as an amateur. Currently, I’m not showing, but I keep my road horse, Aragorn, in training so I can enjoy riding him when I have free time. He’s a registered Standardbred—he competes under the show name Aragorn, but his registered name is One True Luv.
Winky’s Gill was named after my great aunt, Florence “Winky” Gill, my grandfather’s younger sister. Diana Dodge is a cousin who owns Nokomis Farm in Virginia and raises hunters and dressage horses. Isabel Dodge Sloane owned Brookmeade Stables and was my grandmother’s half-sister.
HB: Have you always been involved with the family’s operation?
Caldwell: Technically, no. We moved to the farm when I was 8 and I was always horse obsessed. Growing up, I spent time playing on the farm as a kid in the summers. My brother and I had a golf cart that we rode the wheels off of many a time, and our friends loved to come over to ride around the farm on it.
I wanted to help with the horses, but I think the employees thought of me as more of a nuisance or a liability—usually I was just in their way. So sometimes I just observed what was going on around the farm. I learned the most from my Saddlebred pleasure horse, Magical Memory Lane—“Magic.” Overall, the horses taught me so much of what I know.
I didn’t really have a mentor. I learned a lot about horsemanship from my Saddlebred trainer, Sam Brannon. And thankfully, I have a patient veterinarian, Dr. Steve Conboy, and patient farrier, Steve Stanley. I rely heavily on them and they field a lot of questions and concerns from me.
But, basically, when I went away to college, I didn’t plan on running our farm. I started running the farm on Aug. 1, 2000, because our manager at the time, Chip Muth, left to open his own farm, and it was time to start prepping the yearlings for the sales. [My family] said they were going to sell everything, the farm, and I was like “No!” I said I would give it a try and I’m still here.
Before I started at the farm, I would attend the races and the sales if I wasn’t in school, but I didn’t have any input into matings, raising the yearlings, purchasing yearlings and broodmares, etc. Once I started, all of that was turned over to me, and I run everything by Mom for her approval. We also own a lot of mares in partnership with Bluestone Farms and Mitchel [Skolnick], and I spend a lot of time discussing the plans for our horses.
HB: What was the biggest part of the learning curve?
Caldwell: It seemed like that first year, everything went wrong. My first breeding season was pretty tough. It was a lot—a lot—to learn. I’d never even foaled a mare by myself. I’d always read a lot and absorbed stuff on the farm and I have a pretty good instinct for horses—but I didn’t have someone to teach me how to do any of it. I asked a lot of questions. I kind of knew what the basic routine was, and just stuck to that, and had to figure it out from there.
I didn’t learn to speak Spanish in college, that was a big one. I’ve learned a few words here and there, but I’m not fluent by any means.
HB: Where did you go to school?
Caldwell: Sayre School in Lexington, and Emory University in Atlanta. I have a bachelor’s degree in English literature.
HB: Did you ever consider a career that didn’t involve horses, and if so, what was it?
Caldwell: Sort of, but not really. I’ve always been that horse-crazy girl, but my family didn’t really encourage it. Growing up and in school, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but math and science were not my strong suits. So, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after I figured that out. I thought about being a photographer for a while [taking photos of horses, of course]. And the other thing I thought of being was a teacher. I thought I could have my summers off to spend time with the horses. I loved riding and being around horses. But I never thought I would actually run our farm. I wanted to be involved in some way, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity. I think my family was hoping I would go to law school, but that didn’t appeal to me.
I was always interested in pedigrees growing up. I’d read The BloodHorse; I’d read the Horseman and Fair World, Hoof Beats, Trot, whatever was out there. And I’d read books to learn about conformation, just all kinds of stuff.
It was because I just loved horses. I had no idea it would lead to something that I’d actually be doing. I think it was Helen Duer that gave me these books that John Bradley wrote—Modern Trotting Sire Lines and Modern Pacing Sire Lines—so I read both of those and kind of absorbed them.
HB: I’m sure people in the industry knew you, but how did they react when you took over the farm at such a young age?
Caldwell: I’m not sure. It seems so long ago. If they had any reaction, they didn’t always tell me to my face. There were a few people who believed in me and told me to keep at it. I always appreciated their encouragement.
As recently as about 10 years ago, I remember being at the races with several of my peers and one of them made a comment that it is a man’s industry. There was always that push back.
People will say anything. Mostly I got lots of comments such as did I know anything about horses.
There was a salesman who came by the farm about two years ago looking for the manager. I told him that was me and asked how I could help him. He said that I couldn’t be the manager of the farm, because I am a woman. I asked him politely to leave. More than anything, that is what I’ve had to deal with.
I’ve met a lot of people over the years and still meet new people every year. Just because I grew up around horses doesn’t mean [my brother and I] were exposed to people in the industry. We were often at school and weren’t able to attend some of the races and sales, so we didn’t meet a lot of the players from the beginning.
So, I have gotten to know many people and have had to introduce myself, which hasn’t been easy since I have a tendency to be introverted or shy. It was also difficult, because people know our farm, but they don’t necessarily know me. If they do know my mom, they always ask about her if she isn’t present with me at the time.
HB: Have you actively been seeking new clients?
Caldwell: We haven’t actively been seeking new clients such as advertising, etc., but I try to keep up with the offspring we have sold and visit them or watch them race when I can. We have built relationships with many buyers this way over the years and often they become repeat customers.
Also a few clients fell in our lap this year, so to speak. It’s nice to have the extra boarding income. Often, I receive referrals and if we can take them on, I try to. We do have to turn away some horses [if one client sends a lot] or some potential clients. The reason is we like to maintain a certain level of care.
If we have too many horses, it becomes too difficult, and I feel like the proper care on the level we prefer is not able to be maintained. We also don’t want to overpopulate our land and we try to maintain the fields to a certain level. We treat our clients’ horses like we treat our own. It’s not that we don’t want the extra business, but lately it’s also been very difficult to find employees, and managing beyond 60 head with a couple of employees is extremely taxing.
HB: What traits do you like best about all three breeds? Which the least?
Caldwell: Saddlebreds are often considered flighty, but most of them are not. They are designed to have a flashy presence and usually they are on the bit. They are a regal breed. I think Thoroughbreds are actually more difficult attitude-wise than Saddlebreds, but we don’t raise Saddlebred youngsters here, so others might have another opinion. The stamina of the Saddlebreds is impressive and comparable with that of the Standardbreds.
Thoroughbreds are probably the most challenging—probably because I grew up with Standardbreds. Overall, breeding and selling Thoroughbreds is more challenging because it’s a different ballgame. But, we just do what we know, and focus on raising a good, quality horse. It took four sales to get one of our Thoroughbreds sold and that doesn’t happen with the Standardbreds.
Our best Thoroughbreds have been willing to learn and try to do what you ask of them—and that goes for all three breeds, in my experience. I find in general the Standardbreds to be the easier breed to raise, race and sell compared to Thoroughbreds. Standardbreds are all around a heartier breed, although they have become more refined over the last 20-30 years.
HB: How many horses do you have on the farm?
Caldwell: We currently have 22 broodmares on the farm. Not all of these belong to us. There are several clients’ horses here. We have 17 yearlings. Two shipped out that belong to a client that we raised. We have 11 foals here at the moment; five more will be arriving in the last load. We recently managed 17 mares for breeding season. We also have a field of retired horses, but I don’t usually count them.
HB: Do you make all the decisions yourself?
Caldwell: My mom and brother are here, too. I plan what I think might work, then include them. I plug in who I want to breed all the mares to.
HB: Tell me about your sales preparation for the yearlings.
Caldwell: We usually start [prepping] the beginning of August. It kind of depends on when the videos get scheduled. The last couple of years, that has been a bit earlier, so we’ve brought them in early. They have so much sunburned hair. We try to let them be out in the big fields and be a yearling for as long as possible. Sometimes we have to separate the colts because they beat each other up so much.
We try to turn them out every night and bring them up during the day to work on them. We try to get them out as much as possible and let them just be horses.
We have 11 yearlings prepping for Lexington [Selected Yearling Sale]. There are 17 here right now. I’m hoping to send the ones that aren’t going in the sale here onto their owners. And we have three Thoroughbreds to sell, so a total of 14 yearlings we’ll be prepping.
HB: Does your sales prep program differ between breeds?
Caldwell: A little, but not a lot. Unfortunately, since we’re so short on help, we had to scratch all three Thoroughbreds from the July sale. It’s pretty frustrating. We have like one person on the weekend, and me and my brother. For 60 head, we just weren’t getting it done.
We do handle the Thoroughbreds a little bit more. We hand-walk the Standardbreds also. It helps teach them how to stand and show. We give them crushed flax seed, mainly for the coat.
HB: Where do you imagine yourself in 10 to 20 years?
Caldwell: I still don’t have a good answer [for that question]. Maybe I just hope to be in a good place, content, and at peace. We have only one life and we have to make the most of it. Try not to worry about all the small things that won’t matter in 10 or 20 years. Those are daily goals too. HB
Sidebar – Cane Run Farm at a Glance
Original notable foundation mares:
Guiding Beam (1977-2003) p,3,1:53.4 ($205,854)
Heather’s Feather (1978-2003) p,2,1:56.1 ($90,981)
Nan Hanover (1977-1999) unraced
Charming Gesture (1980) unraced, exported, dam of Incredible Charm
Legacy Of Love (1984) p,3,1:56.2f ($206,384)
Notable horses raised at Cane Run Farm for clients:
E L Titan 4,1:51.2f ($702,473)
Ultimate Cameron 3,1:53.3s ($794,217)
Notable horses laid up for clients:
Always B Miki p,5,1:46 ($2,715,368) co-fastest Standardbred of all time
Notable trotting mares raised at Cane Run Farm:
In recent years, Cane Run Farm has focused on raising primarily trotters. Highlighting this list is the farm’s trio of Hambletonian Oaks winners: Moni Maker 1996
Nan’s Catch 1988
Even though Nan’s Catch’s victory was in 1988, her talent continues to flow through to future generations and these bloodlines are still current in the pedigrees of the farm’s yearlings.
Mares raced/owned in partnership with Bluestone:
All Star Hanover 3,1:55.3f ($333,328)
Baby I’m Bad News 2,1:57.2 ($33,430)
Bar Slide 3,1:52.4 ($647,971)
Oasis Dream 3,1:53.4 ($221,961)
Bright Baby Blues 3,1:54.2s ($492,203)
Deschanel 2,1:57 ($91,080)
Eowyn (Donato Hanover – Aunt Mel) 3-year-old in training with Bob Stewart
Other notable horses bred, raised and/or consigned by Cane Run Farm:
Magician 6,1:52.2 ($3,579,103)
Habitat 3,1:53f ($1,262,221)
David’s Pass p,3,1:50.4 ($1,652,500)
Music Director p,1:51.1 ($925,996)
Dream Together 4,1:51.3 ($703,567)
D’Orsay 4,1:51.4 ($445,732) HB
Anne Doolin is a freelance writer living in Kentucky. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.