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."