Q&A with Justify’s Breeder: John Gunther
Learn more about British Columbia’s John Gunther – the man who bred the supremely talented Kentucky Derby and Preakness winning colt, Justify.
By: Jennifer Morrison |
Alberta-born Vancouver resident John Gunther and his daughter Tanya are riding an amazing wave of success with their Glennwood Farm homebreds. As Kentucky Derby day 2018 approached, two of their homebreds, Justify and Vino Rosso, produced from their small band of broodmares in Kentucky were set to be major players in the biggest race of them all. And that has just been some of the excitement for the father and daughter team this year, who were interviewed before the Derby.
You and your daughter were in the news almost daily throughout the spring prep races for the Kentucky Derby as breeders of two big winners, Vino Rosso and Justify. The latter [who ended up winning the Derby] as one of the favourites. How amazing has the spring of 2018 been for you two?
“It’s amazing, quite unbelievable. We love those two colts and we really didn’t want to sell both of them as yearlings. We would be ecstatic if either of them won the Derby or a Triple Crown race.”
Were horses always part of your life and how did you get into thoroughbred racing?
“I was raised on a small farm in Carseland, Alberta and we always had horses (that harrowed fields). I fell in love with them. When I worked as a longshoreman in Vancouver I would visit Hastings Park and bet on the races. I had it in the back of my mind to buy a horse one day.”
The first horse you raised, Pallascheck, a foal of 1971 born in B.C., won four races for you and got you hooked. How did your thoroughbred racing and breeding operation grow from there?
“I studied to become a stockbroker and joined Jones, Gable and Company (now known as Leede, Jones, Gable). I studied pedigrees and raced some horses in Vancouver. In the early 1980s, I made my first trip to Kentucky to buy a yearling and in 1986 bought into Glennwood Farm in Versailles. One of my first clients to board horses at Glennwood was (Canadian) John Toffan who bred and raced many graded stakes winners. I owned a few of those in partnership with him.”
You have excelled at picking out mares for not a lot of money and developing them into dams of stakes horses. What is your process of selecting mares and who they will be bred to?
“I have always liked a big, scopey mare and she has to have that presence about her. I have to like the breeding so I look at the rest of her family and if there is black-type under at least the second or third dam I might go for one like that.”
You also have a great partner in the business, your daughter Tanya, who left investment banking in London to run Glennwood Farm. What role has Tanya played in the success of the farm?
“Tanya was born on our farm in Langley and has been a horseperson since she was young. She rode professionally at Madison Square Garden. Also, when she was eight or nine-years-old, she was drawing up pedigrees up to five generations and had a keen interest in that. She plans a lot of the matings and is very hands-on. She studied finance and was an investment banker in London but left that to manage the farm for a number of years. Now she is back in London, but she micro-manages the farm from there. She knows where every horse is, what paddocks they are in and is in constant communication with the farm.”
You do have a successful racing stable going as well as having bred and raced Last Gunfighter, a millionaire who is now at stud. Who are you racing this year?
“Tiger Moth (Street Sense—Saratoga Cat, by Sir Cat), a half sister to Last Gunfighter, is our good mare right now. She is a multiple graded stakes winner. She was to make her last start in the Grade 1 La Troienne on Derby day this year and then she will be bred to (Horse of the Year) Arrogate.
The excitement for you and Tanya is also growing in Europe where you do some breeding and racing, too. is it possible you own one of the best 3-year-olds in England as well?
“We own Without Parole, who is unbeaten and just won a race at Yarmouth in England in April. He is nominated to the 2000 Guineas (which is run on Kentucky Derby day). John Gosden trains him and he got Frankie Dettori to ride him in the Yarmouth race and they won by six lengths. He is by Frankel out of Without You Babe, a daughter of one of our foundation mares Marozia (by Storm Bird). It’s very exciting.”
And around the same time that Without Parole won, you sold a Quality Road filly that topped the April Ocala Two-Year-old sale.
“I had sold half of that filly before she was entered in the sale. I didn’t really want to sell her so I bid on her up to $775,000 but when she hit $800,000 I said, ‘that’s it.’”
You have never had many more than 20 mares at any one time. Mythical Bride, a Street Cry (Ire) mare, was bought for $42,000 in 2011 at Keeneland and she is the dam of Vino Rosso, a $410,000 yearling. Stage Magic, a Ghostzapper mare, was a homebred from another mare purchase and her 3-year-old of this year is Justify (sold for $500,000), who was a paddock mate of Vino Rosso. Now both colts are on the Triple Crown trail. You breed to sell but was it hard to sell those two?
“We didn’t want to sell either of them, they were our best yearlings in 2016. Tanya even cried when we sold Vino Rosso (a son of Curlin). You need the cash flow to keep operating and you just have to sell your yearlings to keep the farm profitable and the breeding going. You just can’t race them all.”
You have also raced horses at Woodbine over the years, the most recent being Mama Tembu in 2016. Will you be racing horses there again?
“Oh, if I have a horse that fits there I will run one there. I am not a big fan of (synthetic) tracks. I still like dirt tracks and I think if a dirt track is properly maintained you have a good track.”
You live on your farm in Langley, are there any animals there?
“I used to breed a few mares here a long time ago. But now I have a quarter horse that I ride and some cows.”
How does it feel to have so many horses racing at the highest level that came from breedings that you and your daughter planned?
“To have bred Vino Rosso and Justify in the same year and have them win two of the most important Derby prep races is really unbelievable. It gives us great satisfaction to know our program is working. I don’t know how this has happened but touch wood it seems to be happening all at the same time for us.”