By Tracy Gantz
Family means everything to Clay Murdock. He and his wife, Dena, have raised five children—three now grown and two still at home—and they already have several grandchildren. But family to Murdock extends further, to the team at Rancho San Miguel, the California farm Murdock has managed for more than 30 years, and to the offspring of the farm’s stallions.
“Every day you’re following horses and seeing where the progeny of the stallions are racing,” said Murdock. “It’s fun for the whole farm.”
Murdock recalls when Slew’s Tiznow hit the exacta earlier this year in the El Camino Real Derby (G3) at Golden Gate Fields. Slew’s Tiznow, a multiple stakes winner who stands at Rancho San Miguel, is the sire of El Camino Real winner Zakaroff. The stallion also sired More Power to Him, who was elevated from third to second upon a disqualification. Murdock was almost as proud of that as of his children and grandchildren’s accomplishments.
Murdock isn’t used to the limelight, as he runs the California farm for owners Tom and Nancy Clark, raising horses that go off to sales or to the racetrack. Thus, 2017 turned into an unusual year for the farm manager.
First, the Clarks and the entire Rancho San Miguel team threw a huge party for Murdock in April to celebrate his 30 years on the property.
Then Tom Clark nominated him for the Godolphin Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards, and Murdock was short-listed as one of three finalists in the Leadership Award—Farm category.
“He’s incredibly dedicated to the farm, the clients, and the horses on the farm,” said Clark. “He’s loyal and a very knowledgeable horseman.”
By qualifying as a Godolphin finalist, Murdock traveled to Lexington in October for an interview process, the awards ceremony luncheon, and a day of racing at Keeneland. The awards launched in 2016 as a partnership of Godolphin, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and The Jockey Club. The idea is to honor those who work in the industry caring for the horses, from their conception and foaling on through their racing careers.
Larry McGinnis, the stallion manager of WinStar Farm, ultimately won in Murdock’s category, but as a runner-up, Murdock received $2,500, with that same amount going to Rancho San Miguel. More than the monetary award, however, Murdock appreciated the entire experience.
“I felt very honored, and Godolphin does everything first class,” said Murdock. “We had the opportunity to go out to Jonabell Farm (Darley, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s U.S. operations) and Calumet Farm, too. I’m going to encourage people out in California to nominate more to those awards.”
Murdock knows that, due to geography, the racing industry in California can be an island. But he sees the California-bred incentive program as a way to counteract any negatives involved with such an island state.
“We’re trying to use the Cal- bred program and get stallions in here that could give breeders opportunities,” said Murdock.
“We’re pretty diversified—we have grass stallions, dirt stallions, sprinters, and different types.”
Rancho San Miguel, which sits near the town of the same name, advertises nine stallions for a variety of clients and for the farm itself. Marino Marini, now 17, is the farm’s 10th stallion, but due to his age doesn’t breed as much as the younger whippersnappers.
Most recently Danzing Candy went to stud at Rancho San Miguel. The son of Twirling Candy—Talkin and Singing, by Songandaprayer, won this year’s San Carlos Stakes (G2) and Lone Star Park Handicap (G3) while trained by Bob Baffert. Ted Aroney’s Halo Farms bred Danzing Candy and raced the earner of $700,930 with Jim and Dianne Bashor.
“I think that’s a testament to Clay and the reputation that he’s built for our ranch,” said Clark about getting Danzing Candy at the farm as the property of a syndicate.
Richard’s Kid, whose first foals are 2-year-olds this year, moved to Rancho San Miguel for the 2018 breeding season. By Lemon Drop Kid—Tough Broad, by Broad Brush, Richard’s Kid won the Pacific Classic Stakes (G1) twice at Del Mar and earned a total of $2,482,259.
U S Ranger, also at San Miguel, ranks high on many California sire lists, and his runners include 2017 stakes winner U S Officer. U S Ranger is a multiple Irish highweight son of Danzig—My Annette, by Red Ransom.
Along with Slew’s Tiznow (Tiznow—Hepatica, by Slewpy), Rancho San Miguel stands multiple stakes winner Northern Causeway (Giant’s Causeway—Getaway Girl, by Silver Deputy) and Slew’s Tiznow’s half brother Typhoon Slew (by Stormy Atlantic). The first foals by Northern Causeway and Typhoon Slew are yearlings of 2017.
This year marked the arrival of the first foals by grade 1 winner Tom’s Tribute (Lion Heart—Halloween Fun, by El Prado), multiple stakes winner Rousing Sermon (Lucky Pulpit—Rousing Again, by Awesome Again), and unraced Curlin to Mischief (Curlin—Leslie’s Lady, by Tricky Creek), a half brother to multiple champion Beholder, top sire Into Mischief, and Mendelssohn, winner of the Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T).
Marino Marini raced in this country for the farm a few years after the Clarks had purchased the property from Dr. William Marano. A $1.8 million Keeneland yearling, Marino Marini (Storm Cat—Halo America, by Waquoit) won a stakes in Ireland. In the U.S., he placed in several graded stakes, including the 2003 Malibu Stakes (G1).
Marino Marini’s foals include $334,900-earner Starlight Magic and $411,668-earner Sweet Marini, who gave the stallion back-to-back winners of the Fleet Treat Stakes in 2012-13.
While Murdock as farm manager oversees 28 employees, he remains very involved in booking mares to the stallions, one of the many aspects of his job that he enjoys.
“I love closing the deal and booking mares to stallions,” said Murdock. “I like talking to people and helping them out.”
In many cases that begins a friendly business relationship, as Murdock sees the resultant foals and often sends photos to the clients as the young horses grow.
Murdock didn’t start out on the breeding side of the business, however. Now 57, he grew up in Rexburg, Idaho, where his father, Cal, trained horses part-time while holding down a full-time job. Murdock’s mother, Karen, was very supportive of both Cal’s training operation and Clay’s subsequent equine career. His father still lives in southeastern Idaho.
“It’s in a very beautiful part of the state,” said Murdock. “We’re right on the Wyoming border. I could see the Grand Tetons outside of our house. Yellowstone is about 70-80 miles from us. It’s very cold, with a lot of snow, but very beautiful.”
Cal usually times his visits to his son for the winter so that he can avoid some of the colder weather. He enjoys helping his son check on the horses.
Murdock’s grandparents were potato farmers—”I worked a lot of potato harvests,” Clay said—and his father was raised in Idaho. Clay’s grandparents and great- grandparents farmed with workhorses, and so Cal grew up with horses.
“My dad was instrumental to me as a young man,” said Murdock. “He taught me how to ride and break horses. My dad had a passion for horses. Then he developed a passion for racing.”
The Murdocks raced Quarter Horses, primarily on the bush tracks of Montana and Idaho.
“I was probably 10 or 11 years old when I was breaking my first horses,” said Clay. “I was galloping horses by age 12 and riding races at 12 or 13. We couldn’t ride at the recognized tracks ’til we were 16.”
Clay helped his dad with the horses during the summers. Once he turned 16, he rode in races for a few years and was beginning to segue into training. Clay decided he wanted a full-time career in the racing industry, something difficult to do in Idaho at the time. He decided to move to Northern California in the early 1980s, taking a couple of Quarter Horses to Bay Meadows.
“I was getting taller, so I knew I wasn’t going to be a jockey and was kind of set on training horses,” he said.
The Quarter Horse circuit moved from Bay Meadows in the winter and spring to Los Alamitos in Southern California for the rest of the year.
Murdock worked as an assistant to Quarter Horse trainer Glen Walker, and he also galloped horses for Quarter Horse jockey John Creager.
“Back then in the Quarter Horse world, a jockey would hire one or two exercise riders to help their trainers gallop horses,” said Murdock.
Creager rode for Russell Harris, a major Quarter Horse trainer whose charges included multiple champions Florentine and Prissy Fein. Harris eventually asked Murdock to head up his satellite training facility in Southern California near Lake Elsinore.
After about six years working for Harris, while in his late 20s, Murdock received the chance to work for Marano at Rancho San Miguel. The farm was then primarily a Thoroughbred training facility and about equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco just off the 101 freeway, in an area that was attracting horse farms and wineries. Fred Sahadi moved his Cardiff Stud Farm from the Santa Ynez Valley to nearby Creston in 1986, standing Flying Paster and Desert Wine there.
“With all the wine tasting now, Paso Robles, which is nearby, has become a destination,” said Murdock. “We’re very strategically located, and we have a great climate here. We’re close enough to the coast that in the summer we get the ocean breeze.”
When Murdock began at Rancho San Miguel, the training track was just being finished. He transitioned to Thoroughbreds, taking in lay-ups for trainers as well as breaking and starting young horses.
Brent Sumja trained horses at the Northern California tracks for Rancho San Miguel. Those runners included Sudden Hush, a California-bred son of Stop the Music who finished second in the 1992 Del Mar Futurity (G2) and competed in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Gulfstream Park.
“That was the first Breeders’ Cup I went to,” said Murdock. “He was a neat horse that I always really liked.”
Sumja also trained for Tom Clark, who had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania and began going to the races at a young age. Clark became an investment banker and was living in California when he bought his first racehorse in 1984.
“I developed a relationship with Rancho San Miguel soon after that because I used the ranch as a lay-up facility and a place to break my yearlings,” said Clark.
When Marano decided he wanted to sell Rancho San Miguel, the Clarks bought it in 2000.
“The Clarks wanted to focus on breeding,” said Murdock. “That’s when we built the stallion barn and the foaling barn, and it really took off.”
Murdock at this time of year oversees the care of about 300-350 horses on the 220-acre property. He said the population swells to more than 400 during the breeding season and they foal about 120-130 mares annually. With that many horses the Clarks and Murdock keep a veterinarian, Dr. Stacy Potter, on staff.
The farm’s location is also fortuitous for water supply, always a critical consideration for a California farm, especially with recent drought conditions.
“We’re in a pretty good aquifer, and we have four wells,” said Murdock. “We have several grass pastures. Maintaining and keeping the grass fields is very important to us here.”
Murdock concentrates on giving horses the best start that he can, something the Clarks and Rancho San Miguel clients appreciate.
“He’s the best partner I’ve ever had in any business venture I’ve been involved in,” said Clark. “I’d trust him with my last nickel, and I think of him as a friend and a colleague as well as someone who works for me.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 edition of BloodHorse Magazine. To purchase a copy, please visit Shop.BloodHorse.com