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