by Terry Conway
As Wise Dan's powerful stride rattled off victories in five of six races in 2012, Gayle Gerth's smile grew brighter and brighter.
A businesswoman with plenty of smarts and skill, Gerth also has gumption. After selling her Southern California business, Gerth followed her dream of setting up a Thoroughbred operation in Pennsylvania in August 2008, where the burgeoning racing industry promised a good return on investment. Six weeks later the economy fell off a cliff.
“Having just bought the farm, it was a shocker,” recalled Gerth, a resident of Dana Point, Calif. “I wasn't sure how it would affect the business, but we kept moving forward. The glass is always half-full to me. No matter how bad it is, there are hidden blessings. Sometimes you need to dig deeper than other times, but they are always there.”
As the U. S. economy was reeling in November 2008, Gerth closed a deal to bring the stallion Wiseman's Ferry to her Dana Point Farm in tiny Lenhartsville, Pa. (pop. 165). More gumption.
Four years later, Wiseman's Ferry’s brilliant son Wise Dan wrapped up his 2012 campaign with a dazzling turn of foot by winning the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park in a course-record time of 1:31.78. It earned Wise Dan, now a 6-year old gelding, Eclipse Awards as the champion older male, turf male and Horse of the Year. It seriously elevated his sire's profile as well.
Booked to 32 mares last year, Wiseman Ferry's book this year has soared to nearly 100 mares at a stud fee of $5,000. Packs of racing fans have even made the trip to visit the stallion at the farm about 20 miles west of Allentown, Pa.
Gerth's story is also one of serendipity. Six years ago she was attending a family wedding in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where on a whim she turned up at the New York Breeders' Sales Co. fall mixed sale. She met Maria Vorhauer in the sales office. A lifelong horsewoman, Vorhauer was consigning a sharp-looking colt by Johannesburg at the sale.
“I thought she came to look at my colt,” Vorhauer said. “I remember Gayle was dressed in all white and was very impressionable, fascinated by the horses. Turns out she was very much a novice to the Thoroughbred world. I explained the sales process and the lucrative Pennsylvania breeding program. After a while I had to go back to my consignment, so I thought that would be the end of it.”
Two days later they bumped into each other again.
“We bought two mares in partnership and I took them back to November Hill Farm where I was working,” Vorhauer said. “Well, I didn't hear from Gayle for two months and one day she calls and says she wants to buy two more mares in foal. Then she says, 'we need a place to keep them.’ ”
When the two women drove onto a Berks County farm they didn't see the overgrown fields and dilapidated barns that had been shuttered 18 months earlier. Instead, they envisioned one of the finest Thoroughbred facilities in Pennsylvania.
“It wasn't in real good shape, but I saw the potential,” recalled Gerth, who spends half the year at Dana Point Farm. “Matter of fact, I didn't realize we had run-in sheds, the grass and weeds were so dense. The main barn was flooded all the time in a heavy rain, but we got it all under control and turned around.
“I've definitely found my passion. There is nothing I love more than being on the farm with the horses.”
In fall 2008, Vorhauer and the farm staff of four got busy reworking the infrastructure, painting, landscaping and handling countless other projects. Sitting at the highest point on the property is the main barn, which has 32 stalls and an indoor track around the perimeter for light workouts. There is a separate stallion barn with an indoor breeding shed and another barn for mares and foaling. Several of the stalls open out into a small, enclosed paddock.
Gerth has invested serious money in the property and in the business of breeding and racing. It is one of a number of Thoroughbred operations that have set up shop in the Keystone state, underscoring the substantial rebirth of its racing and breeding industry.
“The fact that Wise Dan was sired by a stallion that is now standing at a farm in Pennsylvania demonstrates that breeders have terrific options for top-tier stallions outside of Kentucky,” said Jeb Hannum, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association. “In addition, the Pennsylvania breeding program rewards stallion owners with ten percent of the purse [money] earned of the stallion's offspring for races in the state. Last year, the Breeding Fund paid over $1 million to stallion owners.”
Gerth has upped the quality of broodmares to breed to Wiseman's Ferry. She now has 35 mares at the farm. She is expecting foals this year from Afleet Alex, Lookin At Lucky, Limehouse, Dance With Ravens, Silver Train and Wiseman's Ferry. Kentucky clients will be foaling Big Brown, Street Sense and Ghostzapper babies. Dana Point and their clients expect 20 foals in 2013.
“Gayle dove in headfirst, and she has provided me with everything I needed and there were never any shortcuts,” Vorhauer said. “I think it's a lesson. Never give up, because you never know when the next opportunity comes. It's a great story for the industry.”
Dana Point has horses in training with Murray Rojas, who regularly has been one of the leading trainers at Penn National Race Course. Dana Point has high hopes for a pair of Wiseman's Ferry 3-year old fillies — Caligraphy and Wise Lou. Gerth gives her farm manager, Vorhauer, all of the credit.
VORHAUER AND GERTH (front)
A native of Dublin, Pa., Vorhauer caught the racing bug early in life from her father, who trained Quarter Horses and Appaloosas in Berks County, Pa.
“I consider myself a pretty good horseman,” Vorhauer said. “To be successful you need to know all of the horse industry — show horses, racing and breeding, racehorses. I spent a number of years giving lessons to kids with show horses. The kids win blue ribbons. I've always loved what I did but like most folks in the Thoroughbred business it was very difficult for many years to stay afloat.”
A newcomer to the racing industry Gerth and Dana Point have struck breeders' gold.
“I'm so happy for Gayle and to be part of this story is just so rewarding,” Vorhauer said. “We're so proud of Wiseman's Ferry and what he's doing for the breeding industry in Pennsylvania. We're over the moon.”