On a quiet winter morning in Lexington, Ky., snow carpets the bluegrass hills inside the gates of Candy Meadows Farm. At the sound of someone coming up the drive, pregnant mares saunter to the fence to inspect the disruption to their tranquil scene.
Candy Meadows is a thoroughbred farm, owned by Everett Dobson since 2006. Its 218 acres and 48 stalls are home to about 30 mares. The farm has produced horses like Opry, Madefromlucky, Mastery, Clothes Fall Off and more.
Matthew Lyons, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the farm, has an annual goal: to breed the next racehorse that will hold the famous blanket of 554 roses on its back.
“That’s the hope of every farm; to be able to raise a horse that is going to be able to win the Kentucky Derby,” Lyons said. And success breeds more business. “If you get a successful horse, your mares work a lot more in the future, and siblings to that baby work a lot more.”
Lyons oversees the farm’s daily operations and considers the farm a nursery for young horses. Cheyenne Stables is a significant arm of the business. Currently, they have ownership in about 10 stallions.
Candy Meadows also functions as a sanctuary for horses that need a bit of a respite. It takes in youthful horses exhausted after the demanding racing season.
“Sometimes they come home with injuries, and sometimes they just need time off,” Lyons said. “There’s a saying in the thoroughbred industry: Sometimes the best doctor they need is Dr. Green, which is green grass.”
He compares the horses’ needs to those of human athletes, who require both physical and mental breaks from their sport.
“Like any athlete, they’re doing the same thing every day, sometimes they just need a break to freshen up and come back,” Lyons said.
It is an expensive business. With vet bills, stud fees, employees’ pay and the horses’ daily care, running a farm of this size is daunting, and the pandemic has complicated the thoroughbred industry. While other sports came to a halt during COVID-19, horseracing continued with an altered schedule.
The Kentucky Derby ran its 146th “Run for the Roses” on a rescheduled date of Sept. 5, 2020, instead of running on the traditional first Saturday in May. Lyons counts his blessings for that.
“We’ve been lucky with these COVID times, a lot of staff are family and live on-site,” Lyons said. “For a while, it was the only game in town. Betting was up a lot because there was nothing left to do.”
Lyons graduated from the Equine Science and Business program at the University of Limerick in Ireland. Growing up on a farm in Galway, he discovered his love of raising young stock and started his journey in the thoroughbred industry. He came to Kentucky over 20 years ago, where he gained early experience at top Kentucky farms like Glennwood Farm (breeder of Triple Crown winner, Justify), Dromoland Farm and Taylor Made Farm.
When Lyons was young, his family farm only had sheep and cattle. Later, his family invested in ponies. Lyons remembers how his early introduction to livestock helped narrow down his career pursuit.
“When I was in secondary school, I started looking at my options, I said I would like to be in the thoroughbred industry,” he said.
The breeding process has typically been a very hands-on experience for all involved. COVID-19 forced changes in it, too.
“The way it used to be, you would take your mare over there, lead the reign. You would hold her while she was getting teased,” Lyons said. “They would clean her up and get her ready to breed, but now you drive your mare over, and they take your mare and handle her and take her back.”
Springtime on the farm is the turn of the new year. And hope springs eternal. While in the wild, mares are long-day breeders, to prepare them to breed at the farm, they are brought inside and placed in light conditions that trick them into thinking the days are longer than they are at this time of year. It is a falsification of nature. This process ensures the mares give birth in late winter before the racing season.
“Mares get bred back within 25 days of having their foal,” Lyons said. “But actually, in the wild, these mares will be back in heat within nine days of foaling.”
During foaling season, mares are monitored closely by staff who take night and day shifts to ensure mares’ safety. Refreshing, a bulging-bellied 10-year old, ambles in the watch paddock closest to the stables; she is the next mare expected to give birth, showing signs of “waxing,” which is when a pregnant mare’s teats produce a wax-like substance indicating she is due any day.
During foaling season, Lyons and his team prepare by stocking unusual equipment used for birthing. A whole chest of drawers sits stocked in the stable. One drawer is dedicated solely to enemas, which are used to help foals pass meconium, their first stool.
“You get a funny look when you go into a store and buy 20 at a time,” Lyons said.
Other drawers house a timer, lubricant, weighing scales, gloves, towels, paper cups and glass bottles topped with silicone nipples used to feed the newborns with a neonate paste filled with vitamins, which is stored in a separate refrigerator. An oxygen tank is on-hand to give a foal a burst of breath in the event of a problem during the birth. It is an odd collection, but it is a crucial kit. And while the death of a foal weighs heavily on the emotions of those at Candy Meadows, the financial impact is also substantial.
“We have livestock or deadstock. It’s not for the faint of heart,” Lyons said.
During foaling season, Lyons is on call. On route to a recent dinner date in Georgetown with his wife, he received a call: his presence was required at a delivery. He dropped his wife off at the restaurant and returned to the farm. The birth of the foal went smoothly and fast enough for Lyons to get back to his wife at the restaurant.
“Time is of the essence. You’ve got to get them out,” Lyons said.
The goal is to get the baby out within 30 minutes of the mare’s water breaking. Once the foal is born, the team promptly examines and weighs the placenta to see any indications of infection. If there are signs of infection, it might mean the health of the foal is compromised.
Once the foal is out of the mare, they pull it up to the face of the mare before she stands. It is an important step.
“She’ll start licking the foal and bonding with the foal,” Lyons said. “We like them to be standing within two hours of being born and nursing within another two hours.”
For several weeks, the foal and the mare share a stall with padded walls to keep the wobbly babies from hurting themselves when they try to stand. Cameras are installed in each stall. It is not until the foal is on its feet and moving that Lyons and his team get an idea of the caliber of the horse, the potential. Foals with long, easy strides are promising.
“You’re looking at this horse thinking, is the next Kentucky Derby winner? Is this the next Oaks winner? Is this a Breeders’ Cup horse?” Lyons said. “It doesn’t get old. It’s a special thing.”