If you were among the millions who turned on their television May 5 to watch the Kentucky Derby, or were one of the thousands lucky enough to be at Churchill Downs racetrack the previous day for the Kentucky Oaks, you would have seen two horses in the field with ties to a farm probably not too far from you that has been breeding and turning out world-class thoroughbreds for nearly eight decades.
Prospective, a 3-year-old colt, finished 18th at the Kentucky Derby, and Eden's Moon, a 3-year-old filly, took 13th in the Kentucky Oaks. Both were well out of the money, but that they were competing on the sport's biggest stages is enough to keep their shared sire, the 15-year-old stallion Malibu Moon, and his partial owners, Josh and Mike Pons of Bel Air's Country Life Farm, alive and thriving in the rough and tumble horse racing business.
Country Life has been owned and operated by the Pons family since its founding in 1933 by Mike and Josh's grandfather, Adolphe A. Pons, who was a bloodstock manager for August Belmont Jr., the legendary thoroughbred owner and breeder, and builder of New York's Belmont Park, the last stop of the Triple Crown series. It was the $25,000 sale of Discovery, one of the most successful race horses of the 20th century, that allowed Adolphe Pons to establish a base in Bel Air on a former dairy farm that sits at the corner of Route 1 and Old Joppa road, just west of town.
"Our grandfather was in there with some of the big names," Mike Pons, 55, the farm's business manager said. "He was an equine advisor for Man o' War. It was his horse, Discovery, who he sold to Alfred Vanderbilt [II], that earned him the proceeds to build the farm back in '33. Breeding at Country Life, he had some terrific horses come out of each generation, made a very good living at it, and turned it over to my dad, Joe, and my uncle, John, around the end of World War II."
Mike and Josh's father, Joseph Pons, and his brother, John Pons, found success at the farm, like their predecessor, most notably in the stallion named Saggy, who sired a horse that went on to win a few big races.
"They had Saggy at the farm from about 1949 on, and he sired Carry Back, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1961," Mike Pons said. "Really, that's what you're always hoping for as a breeder. If you can sire a horse that wins the Derby, or Preakness or Belmont, that's the golden ticket. Then the phone starts ringing off the hook. Every year I'm hoping we can do it."
The two brothers, who have lived in Harford their entire lives, were exposed to life on the horse farm from the time they could walk.
"It's hard to say when it started for me, because I've been around it my entire life," Josh Pons, 57, manager of the farm, said. "It sort of starts out with you watching the farm hands as a small kid, then, when you're big enough to keep with up with some old, slow horse, somebody hands you a lead shank and it goes on from there. I've always loved being out on the farm."
Josh Pons and his wife, Ellen, have two sons, Joseph P. Pons III and August Pons, while Mike and his wife, Lisa, have three children, Elizabeth, Philip and David. Josh and Mike's mother is Mary Jo Pons.
Brothers take the reins
Josh and Mike Pons started to run Country Life Farm in the early 1980s, after both had completed undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia, and then wrapped up graduate studies.
"I guess it would be 1982," Josh Pons said. "I had just gotten my law degree, and Mike had finished up his MBA at Loyola. We were done our schooling, and both of us wanted to stay in the business."
Following some very lean years in the mid 1980s, the Ponses saw things begin to turn around with the arrival of Allen's Prospect, a stallion sent to stand at Country Life by owner Allen Paulson, the millionaire aviation entrepreneur.
"Allen['s Prospect] came to Country Life in 1986, and that was huge for us," Mike Pons said. "That horse put us back on the map when we were trying to get by here. He was one of the top sires in the country, and produced an awful lot of good runners."
Allen's Prospect, which was garnering a $15,000 stud fee by the early 2000s, stayed at Country Life for the next 17 years, until he was euthanized in 2003, along the way siring a record 14 Maryland Million race winners and 57 stakes winners with total earnings nearing $40 million.
"Like most good stallions, he was definitely an alpha horse," Mike Pons said.
Always on the lookout for talent to fill their stables in Bel Air, the Ponses came across the horse that would change their fortunes in 1999.
"Josh had gone to Kentucky for the funeral of his college mentor, Kent Hollingsworth, who had encouraged him to start writing about horses," Mike Pons said. "While he was down there he ran into an agent who had helped us with some other horses, and Josh asked him if there were any promising stallions out there. This guy said, "uh huh, and he's out in California right now.' Josh flew out there that very day, and the horse turned out to be Malibu Moon."
"Moon," as the Ponses refer to him, was then a 2-year old with one race win, and an injury that would keep him off the track for good. The horse was not short on bona fides, counting as its grand sire the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, and having been sired by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner, A.P. Indy, considered one of the top two or three active sires in the business.
"You're constantly looking for a talented horse that maybe somebody overlooked," Josh Pons said. "In Moon's case, I think it was that he was never really looked at. He was out running at Hollywood Park then, a beautiful horse with a lot of ability. He had run in two races, and won one of them in a way that said he had a very bright future, but he chipped a bone in his knee, and they had to retire him. I think because of the injury he was overlooked by a lot of the big operations in Kentucky, but he was just what we were looking for."
The horse's owner, B. Wayne Hughes, the billionaire founder of Public Storage, knew he had a promising horse on his hands, and worked out deal with the Ponses, selling them half ownership of the horse, and sending it across the country to stand at Country Life.
"Mr. Hughes, he's a sharp guy, you don't make that much money without being pretty smart," Mike Pons said. "His dream was to have a Bold Ruler [winner of the 1957 Preakness Stakes and father of the legendary Secretariat] type of horse, and he said to Josh, 'I think I have a young Bold Ruler on my hands.'"
Both brothers said they knew Malibu Moon was something special from early on.
"He has a lot of presence, as they say in the horse business," Josh Pons said. "He had a look to him like he knew he was special, and people respond to that. One thing I remember, one of the first times I saw him, is that he looks right through you. It was like looking at a pro athlete training, and they glance over your way. They're on another level."
"You get close to him, and you're awed by his presence," Mike Pons said. "We had Allen's Prospect here when Moon came; he was one of the leading sires in the country, but they were on the same level, both alpha horses, both completely in charge."
Retired from racing and residing at Country Life Farm, Malibu Moon adapted quickly to his new vocation, siring 62 foals his first breeding season, 44 of which went on to win races – a key measure of success for breeders and buyers alike.
"B. Wayne Hughes, our partner, supported Moon very well at the beginning, getting him good mares to get started," Josh Pons said. "And, it went from there. He never had any trouble."
"All these people wanted to breed with Moon right from the start," Mike Pons said. "It turned out, he was magnificent, turned out all these mares that first season, and sired a horse that went on to win the California Stakes. People who I didn't know had my number started calling around then. That was just the start, too, because every season after that Moon would pop his bubble, and give you more."
After four seasons at Country Life Farm, Hughes convinced the Ponses that their bread-winning stallion would be better off plying his trade in ancestral home of horse racing - Kentucky. The Ponses sold half their share in the horse to Castleton Lyons Farm in Lexington and sent Malibu Moon down south in fall of 2003.
"After a while, he got so good that he just had to go to Kentucky," Mike Pons said. "It's like the big leagues down there. Sooner or later, water seeks its level, and Moon is about as good as they come. The highest stud fee he could get in Maryland was $15,000. Mr. Hughes said that while Moon was down at Castleton Lyons, he was going to put a bid on or buy every farm that he liked, and then put the horse there."
Hughes eventually purchased Spendthrift Farms outside of Lexington, Ky., where Malibu Moon is standing, for a stud fee of $70,000. Top stallions like Malibu Moon are typically bred 100 to 125 times a year.
In his 14-year breeding career, Malibu Moon has so far produced 104 stakes horses and 59 stakes winners, and his progeny have pulled in more than $49 million in winnings. In 2011, he was the fourth-ranked sire in North American earnings and the fifth-ranked juvenile sire by worldwide earnings.
Arguably his best runner to date is a gelded son named Declan's Moon, which was voted the Eclipse Award winner as the nation's best 2-year-old colt after an undefeated season in 2004. The horse sustained a knee injury early in his 3-year-old season and was retired to the Pons brothers training center, Merryland Farm, in Hydes.
"He's a change-your-life kind of horse," Mike Pons said of Malibu Moon. "It's been a magical sleigh ride with Moon, or like a big tidal wave. I'm seeing it now with some of his daughters, who are really good broodmares. He has a chance to go with 100 mares this season, and all of his offspring get his running gene. Some of them are bound to be pretty darn good runners."
Surrounded by slots
The Ponses, along with the rest of the Maryland horse racing industry, have seen a downturn in business over the last few years as Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have legalized slot machines and table games, which draw gambling enthusiasts away from the race tracks, they said.
"Watching other states prosper because they got a head start with the slots has been somewhat frustrating," Josh Pons said. "We have a really great product here in Maryland, a proven product, in horse racing. A good way to put it is like this: You're a fine dining restaurant, and you know your food is great, but people pass you by because you don't have a liquor license. They're going to drive five miles up the road where they can get a pitcher of beer with their dinner. Unfortunately, you can't put a farm on wheels and move it over the border. But, we're adapting."
The Ponses assign most of the credit to Malibu Moon for keeping the Bel Air farm operating and for acquiring and reopening Merryland Farm.
"He's definitely the horse that's kept us going," Mike Pons said. "The last five years have been really tough, with the slots bonanza going on all around us, and race tracks closing down, but Moon has kept us in the game."
With the purchase of Merryland Farm, which is being used to train potential racers, and the arrival of stallion Friesan Fire, another son of A.P. Indy, at Country Life, the Ponses are looking forward to prosperity in Maryland horse racing. Friesan Fire is owned in partnership with Rick Porter, owner of 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, who said he brought to the horse to the Pons brothers in hopes they can produce "another Malibu Moon."
"We're seeing some green shoots coming out of this recession, and hopefully things are turning around for the horse industry," Mike Pons said. "With the big farm we bought in Baltimore County, we had so many mares we needed a place to put them, and now all of the sudden we're in the training business as well. We also have Friesan Fire, who was the 2009 Kentucky Derby favorite, standing at Country Life, and he's got a shot to go with a lot of mares this season, so it's a 'hope springs eternal' situation with us. We've got a lot going on."
Whether the horse business revs up, the brothers Pons agree that they'd rather be on the farm than anywhere.
"I don't know why anyone would go to Florida in the winter, when you could watch what's happening on the farm," Josh Pons said. "The rhythm of life here, being outdoors, watching the foals coming through, that's the most rewarding part of this pursuit. I just love walking around the farm after hours."
"It's funny, you've got a couple of good old boys from Harford County who find themselves rubbing elbows with billionaires," Mike Pons said. "But, we've got what you need to get by, which is expertise and sweat to fill the bucket. We've got both of those. This is a great sport to be a part of."