1/25/14 - Kip Elser at at the Cape Premier Yearling Sale
Courtesy of the TDN

Kip Elser, the lone American buyer at the Cape Premier Yearling Sale, got his name on the buyers sheet early in the session yesterday when signing with Peter Doyle on lot 112, a colt by Silvano (Ger) out of Inspired (Ire) (Faslivey {Fr}) for R650,000 (US$58,610).

Elser noted that plans were up in the air for the bay from Maine Chance Farms. AWe both liked the colt very much, and with the new million-dollar race on the line, we may put a partnership together to try for that, or we may sell him next year as a 2-year-old. All to be decided.

"Elser explained that he first visited the Cape Premier Yearling Sale a few years ago with West Point Thoroughbreds' Terry Finley with the aim of putting together racing partnerships in South Africa.

"Terry Finley and I came over here several years ago thinking we would start a little racing group to come here instead of South Florida in the winter, and it never really got going," Elser noted. "So we sold the horses and had good success, so we'll just see what happens this year. I think Cape Town would be a really nice alternative to South Florida in the wintertime, so maybe we'll get something like that going."

Elser and Doyle also later signed for a Jay Peg (SAf) filly for R175,000 (US$15,782).

Click TWICE on the green PLAY arrow to listen to Kip Elser's interview on Thoroughbred Racing Radio Network - SIRIUS SPORTS, (Please be patient as Kip's chat starts about 1/4 through the program.)

Kip Elser raises a parade of stars from his base in Camden, S.C.
Courtesy of the Blood Horse - 12/1/07

In an ever-shrinking world, there are still plenty of places to raise a good horse. And for Christopher “Kip” Elser, that place is Camden, S.C. A former steeplechase rider, the 56-year-old Elser owns Kirkwood Stables, a successful, full-service Thoroughbred breaking and training operation that specializes in prepping young horses for 2-year-olds in training sales. Elser became familiar with Camden’s Springdale Race Course, where he is now based, during his steeplechasing days, and never quite left the horse-friendly area.
The facility, which has a long and rich history over the jumps, was donated to the state of South Carolina by Marion du Pont Scott upon her death.

“I started going down there to school steeplechase horses and was galloping and schooling down there in the winters,” Elser said. “Back then, the jumping game was much bigger, and there was more of a circuit. We started going down there and started staying longer and longer. It is just a wonderful place to train. You couldn’t duplicate it today. “Mrs. Scott had a wonderful policy that young guys starting out could always get a couple of stalls. She was just an amazing woman.” Elser currently has two barns at the facility as well as one at Evergreen Training Center. Within walking distance of Springdale is the Camden Training Center, which was sold by Scott’s estate after her death but is still a Thoroughbred training facility.

“Our main base is at Springdale,” Elser said. “I started there years ago. Back when we used to have harder winters, the ‘jumping’ side of the training center was much sandier and wouldn’t freeze as much as the clay-based training track on the other side, so we could keep going and not miss days getting horses ready to go to Hialeah. That hasn’t been as much of a factor in recent times, but I still love the training center.”

Deep Roots

The Kirkwood story inadvertently began on a ride from Delaware Park to Lexington for one of the yearling sales. “I had worked for Charlie Cushman, but it was no more than sharing a ride at that point,” Elser said. “He bought a few horses; I bought a few horses; and we ran across a filly that we both liked, so we split her. It was a great partnership for years after that.”

In the late 1970s, the two partners needed a name for their business, and they turned to a moniker that was already established in the Thoroughbred industry. Elser, who had grown up in Pennsylvania next to Roy Jackson’s mother and stepfather, Hardie and Almira Scott, looked to his old neighbors for help. “Their farm was Kirkwood Farm, and Charlie had trained for them and I had ridden for them, and we couldn’t think of a name,” Elser said. “Charlie and I both lived on Kirkwood Lane in Camden at the time, so we called Mr. and Mrs. Scott and asked them if they minded if we used the name Kirkwood. “They said, ‘We aren’t doing quite as much anymore. Please use the name and let us know how you do. Just don’t embarrass us.’

I can remember the conversation like it was yesterday. Not that it was surprising they acted that way; they were wonderful people.” Cushman left Kirkwood Stables about a decade after it was created.

Success Stories

During his almost 30 years as a sales agent, Elser has upheld his end of the bargain with the Scotts. Far from being an embarrassment to the Kirkwood name, graduates of the program include champion sprinter Smoke Glacken, Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Alphabet Soup, Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) winner Soaring Softly, Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner Gal in a Ruckus, Three Chimneys Spinster Stakes (gr. I) winner Keeper Hill, and Juddmonte International Stakes (Eng-I) winner Royal Anthem. But it is two particular grade I-winning fillies that have left the biggest mark on Elser. “We had Smoke Glacken and Alphabet Soup, and those are some exciting horses, but when it comes to stories, for whatever reason, I think of some of the fillies,” Elser said. The two fillies that had the most impact on Elser are Sharp Cat and Memories of Silver. Kirkwood consigned Sharp Cat, a daughter of Storm Cat—In Neon, by Ack Ack, to the 1996 Barretts March 2-yearolds in training sale, and she sold to The Thoroughbred Corp. for $900,000. “Sharp Cat just had a presence that was Kirkwood Stables specializes in prepping youngsters for 2-year-olds in training sales

“Sharp Cat just had a presence that wasall her own,” Elser said. “She wasn’t easy by any means, but she was very, very special. John Servis had bought her at Saratoga for Rick Porter, and they asked me to take her to Barretts and sell her. “I picked her up and took her out there. (Before the sale) Dr. (Robert) Copelan was there to look at her. It was just one of those crazy days, and all of a sudden there were bodies flying out the shedrow. She had seen three people she didn’t know who were going to come into her house, and she ran them all out of there. Doc and I went in by ourselves and we did get her to scope. But she was just a funny personality.”

Sharp Cat would go on to win 14 stakes races for The Thoroughbred Corp., including the Santa Anita Oaks and Ruffian Handicap as well as the Matron, Hollywood Starlet, Las Virgenes, Acorn, and Beldame Stakes (all gr. I). While Memories of Silver’s numbers on the track did not equal Sharp Cat’s, the Silver Hawk mare did more than hold her own, as she won eight stakes races, including the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup and Beverly D. Stakes (both gr. IT), for her co-breeders/owners, John and Joan Phillips. “She had come down for some stall rest because she had a tibia fracture,” Elser said. “For a horse getting stall rest, she was the brightest, most curious and alert, unbelievable personality. “She never did anything right the first time. Never. I was told she was going to be a grass filly and the pedigree said grass. There is a two-mile grass gallop around the outside of the steeplechase course. I just figured it would be a nice gallop and a nice easy way to ease into breezing again. She went out there, put her toes in the ground, and stopped. It was like she said, ‘All this wide open space? This isn’t the way we do it at Belmont. We don’t do it this way.’ She stayed there for quite a long time that day and we took her home. “I started sending her along with Triumph At Dawn, a wonderful older Alydar mare, and Triumph At Dawn taught her the way around there. Once she figured it out, she was fine and went on to win. She was a wonderful filly.”

At the Sales

One Kirkwood horse who made headlines at the sales but never quite put it together on the track was Fusaichi Samurai. Kirkwood Stables, agent, sold the handsome son of Fusaichi Pegasus for a thenworld- record $4.5 million at the 2004 Fasig- Tipton Calder 2-year-olds in training sale to Fusao Sekiguchi. The colt originally had been purchased for $270,000 as a yearling by Nick Zito for Robert LaPenta, who then pinhooked him. “He was a horse that was primed to march up the ladder, but it didn’t happen,” Elser said. “It very seldom happens. He is not by any means the only very talented horse that for various reasons didn’t make it. That’s the wonder of getting a good horse in this game: what you have to survive to get there.”

Although Elser has been successful at the highest levels in the United States, he is always looking for new and different things to try. In 1998, that meant becoming the first American consignor to sell at a European breeze-up sale. He took six 2- year-olds to the Tattersalls Breeze-Up sale at Newmarket, England, and has been going ever since. “It was an effort to do something different,” Elser said. “I have never been completely comfortable how fast we ask these 2-year-olds to go at the sale. I’ve gotten better at doing it, but I am never completely comfortable with it. Even though it was farther away, I was a little more comfortable with how they did it over there. “It’s funny because it used to be very, very obvious who should go there and who should stay here. But a good racehorse can go anywhere in the world, and a racehorse is international currency in and of itself right now. Now, the blend of who should stay here and who should go there is much more blurry.”

Obviously, with such a busy international sale season, Elser is away from home as often as not. While he is away, he depends on his three assistants, Casey Hamilton, Shona Outlaw, and Cort Marzullo, as well as office manager Sandy Parker to keep things running smoothly at home. “It is quite a bit of time on the road, but I have great crews both places,” Elser said. “For the last several years we are somewhere between 85-115 horses.

We have a great crew, and three top-notch assistants at home who can split it up. Obviously, it takes a lot of soldiers to win a war. We are very effective at that range; I don’t know how much bigger we would get and hopefully, no smaller.”

Hamilton, who has known Elser since their steeplechasing days, has worked for Kirkwood for about five years, and has 25-30 horses in his care. “A normal day starts at 4:30 when we feed the horses,” Hamilton said. “It gets them used to the normal racetrack routine, which is the main reason we try to do things early. It is a great place to be a horse. There is sandy soil and a mild climate. I think it is a combination of factors that have made this business successful. Like any business, if you get good people, that makes a big difference.”

Beyond the Sales

Although spare time is not something that Elser has in abundance, one thing he takes very seriously is his position as president of the South Carolina branch of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which has a farm at the Wateree River Correctional Institution near Rembert, S.C. “It is one of the most gratifying things I have ever done,” Elser said. “To be honest, it is probably time for me to rotate out and put someone else’s stamp on it, but regardless of whether I am president or not, it is something I believe in and I will continue to work hard for it. I have no intentions of giving up my involvement.”

Elser has given much of his life to the Thoroughbred industry, and it was the industry that was there for him when tragedy struck his family. In 2004, his son Christopher was murdered at his Johns Hopkins University fraternity’s apartment house. “I never would have gotten through it if it hadn’t been for all the people in this industry that tried to help,” Elser said. “No matter how bad I was doing, even the ones that would just come up and look at me, I knew they were trying for me. It was just a tremendous outpouring of energy and support that propped me up until I could get functioning again. “I am still not by any means over it. There are still a lot of bad days, but every time there is a bad day, there is someone that senses it and is there.” Elser’s daughter, Taylor, enjoys horse racing but is not a part of it. He is no longer married to their mother, Rhetta, and has since remarried. “I’m really lucky because I love what I do,” he said. “So, my vacation is to go to Saratoga and go to the races. I love it. I have no regrets about my career choice. This game will take you anywhere in the world if you let it, and I wouldn’t say no to anything.”