By: Keith McCalmont
Is Canada’s Derby Contender Peaking Just in Time?
On Saturday, the 11,360-strong population of Wellesley Township, near Waterloo, Ontario, will come to a stop to cheer on State of Honor in the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.
A victory by the strapping 17.1-hands tall State of Honor would see the Conrad Farms-owned horse knock hockey heroes, the Wellesley Applejacks and Elmira Sugar Kings, off the front of the local sports page.
Conrad Farms is the nom de course of Manfred and Penny Conrad.
Manfred is the president, CEO, and founder of the Cora Group Inc., one of Waterloo Region’s largest commercial real estate development companies.
Penny, who 10 years ago got the couple started with their life in racing, assists Manfred with a watchful eye at the office. But, for the time being, the focus of both halves of the happy couple is horses.
Specifically, the bay behemoth that is State of Honor.
“We had a neighbour, Patricia Martin, who has passed away now, but she had horses and she used to take me to the racetrack with her,” said Penny. “Years later, I thought I’d really love to have a couple broodmares. So, about 10 years ago we started out with a couple mares and State Cup was one of the early ones.”
State Cup, the dam of State of Honor, never raced, but she came from good stock as a daughter of the multiple graded stakes winning mare Avie’s Fancy. Four of State Cup’s six foals have made it to the races and won, but none have come close to the success of State of Honor who after graduating at Woodbine on October 19th has since hit the board in consecutive Kentucky Derby prep races in Florida.
“We liked her breeding and she’s had some nice foals. They’ve all raced, but this one has stood out,” admits Penny. “I love the breeding side of it, looking at the breeding matches and seeing them go from babies to the track. We’re lucky to be able to do it.”
State of Honor was sired by To Honor and Serve, a breeding match that came about through the advice of horseman Mike Carroll, bloodstock specialist Zach Webber, former Conrad Farms trainer Andrew Smith and, most importantly, with input and approval of Penny.
All five of the Conrad broodmares are brought back to Canada to foal at Mike Carroll’s Grandview Farms, a 100-acre farm that borders Wellington and Dufferin Counties. Grandview Farms was also the birthplace of We Miss Artie who finished tenth in the 2014 Kentucky Derby.
“State of Honor was born and raised in Grand Valley at Mike’s farm. We go there all the time to see our horses. It’s only 45 minutes down the road,” said Penny.
State of Honor needed five starts to finally break his maiden when sprinting seven furlongs over the Woodbine Tapeta. He came out of that victory to run second in the prestigious $250,000 Coronation Futurity.
He was, admittedly, a bit of a late developer.
“Sometimes it’s harder for those horses that are so big. It can take them a while to get going, get their feet under them and figure out how to run,” said Kathryn Sullivan, assistant to State of Honor’s trainer Mark Casse. “He’s not an easy going, laid back kind of horse. He’s a colt and he’s tough. Never mean, but he’s a colt and sometimes it takes them longer to settle and get down to business.”
Even with 80-100 horses making their way through Casse’s Toronto string each season, State of Honor found a way to separate himself from the pack.
“He is huge and he is beautiful. He’s one of my favourites. He’s just my type of horse,” said Sullivan. “He’s big and strong and the type of horse physically that I really appreciate. He’s a hard-running horse and tries every time out. He’s steadily improving. It’s a combination of all the things you like to see in a horse.”
Penny concurs with Sullivan’s assessment.
“We have pictures of him as a yearling at the farm and he was always so much bigger than everyone else,” said Penny. “Mike (Carroll) would tell you he’s the biggest horse ever born at his farm. He was a bully to the other horses, but nice to be around and handle.”
After a brief freshening following the Coronation Futurity, State of Honor resurfaced in Florida and has flourished racing on the dirt tracks at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs.
Although he hasn’t won in four sophomore starts, he piled up Kentucky Derby qualifying points with runner-up efforts in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby and Grade I Florida Derby.
“He had to grow into himself. He was like a puppy, but now he’s more like a horse. Since going to Florida on the dirt he’s really coming along,” said Penny.
On Saturday, State of Honor will leave from Post 6 in a field of 20 under jockey Jose Lezcano. He’s listed at 30-1 on the morning line.
“He’s very much a longshot, we know that, but he’s run with the best and he’s training well,” said Manfred.
Penny and Manfred are already in Louisville enjoying the Derby experience. It’s a once in a lifetime moment, and they know it.
“Previously, our biggest dream was to have a horse in the Queen’s Plate and that happened last year with Leavem in Malibu (who ran sixth) and now to go the Kentucky Derby is incredible. We thought that was something only other people could do,” said Manfred.
The couple credits their success to the relationships they’ve built in racing.
“We’ve had a lot of good advice from everyone. Mike Carroll told us to run this as a business and not as a hobby. Zach (Webber) has given us advice when we needed it,” said Penny. “And Mark (Casse) guiding us through all of it. They’ve all been very important.
“Mark and his team are awesome,” she continued. “From Kathryn and David (Adams) up here at Woodbine to Norm (Casse) and the rest of the trainers in the States, they’re all very personable and have time for us. You would think going to a big trainer that you wouldn’t get any attention, but with Mark we do.”
While some owners are absentee or only show up on big race days, the Conrad family is keenly committed to their equine athletes from foaling through to retirement.
“They come out to watch every time one of their horses runs and they’re just the nicest people,” said Sullivan. “They’re so genuine and they’re so great for racing because they do a little bit of everything. They buy, they breed and they sell horses and they’re just happy to be in the game. Most of all, they love the horses and look out for them.”
Penny and Manfred wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We figure we’re supporting the horses. The horses are doing this for us and we figure we have to do something for them,” said Penny.
“I think it’s good for the owners to show up when they race,” added Manfred. “It shows that you care. It’s awesome to go to Woodbine for racing. They have a great buffet and it’s a great place to watch the horses. It’s become our life. We go to Gulfstream and we go to Tampa because our horses are running all over. It’s a lot of fun.”
And when it’s time for one of their horses to retire from racing, Penny and Manfred are there to make it happen.
“There’s a riding school on our farm with about 20 horses and I have a couple of ex-racehorses there. I like to bring them home at the end of their career,” said Penny. “Mark is good to let us know if they’re going to need another career. We recently brought one home and one of the students bought him from us.”
It’s a matter of respect for the horse, really.
“We like to bring them home rather than see them somewhere we have no control over,” said Manfred.
And while State of Honor may not be getting much respect from the punters on Saturday, the horse is already a winner in the eyes of his owners.
“He may not win the race but I know for sure he is the best looking horse of the 20,” said Manfred. “That’s what we think. We may get him a trophy ourselves.”
Until Saturday then, Penny and Manfred will soak up the atmosphere and do their best to cheer home the hard-trying State of Honor.
“We’re hoping we won’t be too let down after Saturday if we lose, but I’m sure it will be a great time,” smiled Manfred. “We might have so much bourbon in us by the time the race is run it really won’t matter.